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Blotzsky and Witherspoon: Ordinary Poker in the '40s and '50s

by James McManus |  Published: Apr 29, 2008


Now, everyone has his own opinion of how Joe Blow plays …

- Daniel Negreanu

In the middle decades of the 20th century, while presidents, generals, and scientific geniuses were playing poker to unwind after earthshaking workdays, reporter Allen Dowling and his newspaper cronies were doing much the same thing. The stakes of their jobs may not have involved the survival of civilization, but the dollars and bragging rights they competed for were just as important to them, as they were to the millions of other folks playing in kitchens and basements, fire stations, and VFW cardrooms.

In the press room of Baltimore City Hall, the action among Dowling's colleagues usually got under way around noon, though on slow news days the cards could be in the air as early as 9 a.m. During the all-night sessions that often took place, journalists ordered in food and drink, caught catnaps on the wicker couch, and called home only occasionally. When covering a legislative session in the capital, they'd put up at a hotel or hunting lodge and bring out the cards as soon as they'd called in their stories.

As Dowling wrote in The Great American Pastime, the spirit of these games was "ask no quarter and give none." No one was interested in what he calls "brother-in-law poker," which would have meant occasionally checking a cinch hand to a crony who was losing, showing him a strong hand after he folded, or not turning over a bluff. "Poker's too deadly an exercise to permit of Pollyannaism," he says, while making the case that poker's manly camaraderie gives players a chance to get a few repressed gripes off their chests with aggressive raising, and to sling witty insults that might amount to fighting words away from the table.

Nor should we overlook the game's ancillary benefits, such as poker buddies helping each other away from the table. While Dowling was covering a case of unrequited love that had led to a murder-suicide, it turned out that one of his tablemates was friendly with both bereaved families. He not only supplied Dowling with background information on the one-way romance, but helped him secure family pictures to illustrate his article.

Then there was the game in a boarding house in the prison town where a sextuple execution by hanging was set to take place. Because rumors of a jailbreak had been circulating, the prison was under guard by the military. Attorneys for the condemned kept access to their clients tightly controlled while exhausting every appeal to get the sentences commuted. Meanwhile, only those with a special pass were allowed in the prison courtyard. Having no pass, Dowling proposed that a poker game would not only relieve the reporters' collective boredom while they waited for the appeals to be heard, it would let each of them keep a close eye on his scoop-hungry competition. While everyone agreed to this plan, one reporter, pretending to be too drunk to either play cards or conduct an interview, somehow made his way onto death row and "beat the whole crew with one hell of a story." Dowling's luck held, though, because the sneakily intrepid reporter happened to work for the same paper as he did, and Dowling, no less intrepid or sneaky, gave their boss to believe that "my efforts to assist in organizing the poker game were part of a subtle plot to keep the others occupied while my confrere scored his coup." He had proved, if nothing else, that there was more than one way to run a bluff or get credit for a scoop.

After landing a seat in a threehanded game in a barbershop, Dowling began to suspect that the barber and the hulking attendant from the gas station next door were colluding against him. Observing the pair more closely, he sensed they were engaged in "knee action," bumping each other to indicate the strength of their hands, then raising and reraising in tandem to force Dowling out of big pots. But instead of confronting them or quitting the game, he came up with a better idea: He told each player in private that the other was "setting him up for a trimming." This got them to "quit worrying about my hole card and begin a feud of their own," and to play their own hands incorrectly. When Dowling "had recovered what I'd lost previously, due to their collusion, I shook loose from them."

His experience with lobbyists was that, although honest, they were seldom the loose free-spenders one might expect. He found most of them "reluctant to put greenbacks into circulation unless they have what they consider to be an irrevocable understanding for requital in a form that is entirely satisfactory. I've made a mental note of their niggardliness," a trait that extended to the poker table, where they were "tough and unyielding," willing to put money in the pot only when they had a cinch or close to it. He adjusted his tactics against them accordingly.

As for his fellow ink-stained wretches, Dowling was forced to conclude they were "not the world's best players," mainly because of their "very indifference," even when nearly every pot in the press room was subject to a flurry of raises. Somehow their professional skepticism had caused them to pay "little or no attention to strong representations or to pairs in sight." Dowling therefore played much more conservatively against them, raising and reraising with strong hands and folding close calls. "Thus, while the pots I won averaged as big as the pots won by any other player, I was saving three or four times more money."

After a run of losing sessions, however, Dowling was determined to improve his results – not with marked cards or knee action, but by improving his tactics and strategy. He essentially grabbed himself by the collar, shoved himself against the wall, and wagged a finger in his very own face. Stop drawing to long shots, he told himself sternly. Give more weight to position, since the later you act, the more hands you can profitably play because of the diminished possibility of being raised. Shun straight and flush draws in favor of pairs above nines. Don't guess or hope; rely instead on the immutable law of averages. He "resolved that when my judgment told me I was defeated to throw my hand away. It's really surprising the amount of money that may be saved in that fashion." He also stopped sandbagging in draw by passing with strong hands, hoping to reraise the opening bet – stopped pretending to be, as he called it, an alligator basking on a log, to avoid being stranded with a powerful hand. "I resolved never to pass if my hand warranted opening; but I never opened unless I could stand a raise."

Bankroll management was just as important, he said. Playing with short money made him too likely to fold the winning hand to a bluff, and too scared of being called to run bluffs himself. He also woke up to the fact that each opponent must be played as a distinct personality, with much different tendencies than the players beside him; and to how crucial it was to read how each opponent had appraised your own tendencies. "Witherspoon may have you classed as a tough hombre while you're just a soft touch to Blotzsky," he wrote.

On a more practical note, he offers advice on starting a home game. The key is to simply start playing, even heads up or threehanded, because once a game gets under way, other players will eventually arrive. When the table fills up and a waiting list forms, the host can begin to shape the ideal roster, balancing such factors as friendliness, financial stability, and a willingness to gamble with speculative hands – what we would call giving action. Inviting a garrulous bore, of course, threatens the game's long-term viability. Less obvious is how to deal with the legions of men who are reliable at home and in the office, but who "fail to keep a poker appointment with calm indifference and never even think of sending notification." Almost as vexing are those with a "pretty definite idea" they won't be able to play, yet ask to be counted in on the off chance their conflicting engagements will miraculously disappear by that evening.

The game he holds up as a model has been running twice a week in the home of a retired merchant for 25 years, even though several charter members, as well as some of their replacements, have either died or drifted away. The action takes place on a circular table in the corner of a basement kept cool by a ceiling fan in summer and warm by the furnace during the winter. Each session begins at around 7 p.m. and concludes when an alarm clock rings five hours later. For the first four hours, the ante is 10 cents, bets 25. Although the stakes jump to 25 and 50 cents at the end of the evening, everyone at the table can comfortably afford them. Five-card draw, jacks or better to open, remains the merchant's game of choice a century after it developed. Tigers and skipping straights are part of the hand hierarchy, not surprising in a home south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The host doesn't rake any pots but charges a small fee for a cold supper and soft drinks, cigarettes and cigars. Since the players pay for these things whether or not they consume them, "they figured it was their duty to get their money's worth," Dowling reports. "It always tickled me to watch them stuff themselves then bellow for bicarbonate of soda."

As a typical male of this era, Dowling isn't fond of playing with women. Though not as misogynistic as Stanley Kowalski, he still looks askance on "boys and girls who combine penny ante poker and social entertainment under the dubious heading of a 'poker party.' Such functions generally resemble each other, but there are varying degrees of punishment." Downsides include "silly" games in which one-eyed jacks are wild, or "if you draw a nine, the hand is nullified, but if you draw a four, your hole cards become wild, and so on, ad infinitum," all this on top of the fancy highballs, greasy food, and "endless chatter, feminine squeals of delight or dismay, and the general disorderliness of the procedure, such as players paying no attention to sequence of action, to complete your mental pandemonium."

Dowling feels much the same way about low-stakes men-only games that exist mainly as "an excuse to exchange gossip or the latest pornographic stories." Such mindless frivolity is not to be confused, however, with "poverty" or "Depression" poker, egalitarian variants created in the spirit of Roosevelt's New Deal. Still played in basement corners and presidential studies, poverty poker gave players who'd lost all their chips a chance to compete for credit points and eventually, via complex formulas that varied from house to house, earn back some chips from a pool fed by regular pots. It wasn't uncommon for a player to be busted in the first 40 minutes, go "on relief," and wind up as the night's biggest money winner. For this reason and others, Dowling believed even micro-stakes games could be highly compelling as long as everyone – women included – took the game seriously, and the dealer's choices were limited to straight stud or draw, with no wild cards. The best poker action, he said, was "disciplined sternly and woe to the player who passed or even put up his ante out of turn."

Another crucial thing to decide was how long the game should last. Five hours must have struck many of his readers as too brief a session, especially given that the fewer hands played, the less likely it was that skill would prevail. Yet how much poker was too much? Despite the addictive appeal of marathon games, Dowling understood how easily they could spiral down into Dostoevskian misery. "I don't believe there is anything equal to the rattle and clatter of early morning garbage cans," he writes, "especially in bleak or cold weather, when you're leaving an all-night poker game after taking a sound drubbing." Empty pockets, the afterburn of whiskey and innumerable cigarettes, a boss impolitely demanding your clear-eyed attention – and these might be the least of your problems; because even when your poker wad is thick, if "there are any domestic responsibilities whatsoever, your failure to come home is a problem that demands consideration and possibly some nimble thinking." Indeed.

Dowling also tells of a Maryland state senator, standing in tears before a window as dawn rises over yet another all-night session, eloquently challenging himself and his tablemates to contemplate the folly of playing too much. Spurring himself to impressive rhetorical heights, he bemoans missing the finer things in life, the effects of sleep deprivation on soul and body, the moral decrepitude of giving in to a gambling "infatuation." (In those days it wasn't understood as addiction.) The only hitch to the senator's hand-wringing sermon was that he and the others all returned to the felt that same evening.


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