The most exciting and enjoyable gambling is for stakes one cannot afford. The whole essence of poker is lost when a player can call a hand, stupidly or otherwise, for a large sum and feel no great sense of reward or penalty, simply because he has so much money. It is quite stimulating, by contrast, to know that the game will determine whether one pays a grocery bill or has to shuffle his accounts in general in order to buy his way out at the end of the game. My own peak at poker came at about age eighteen, in a game with stock hands and dudes at Valley Ranch in Wyoming: I was around $1200 ahead at midnight; at 7:30 A.M. I was some $200 under water, which I settled for $75 in cash and by throwing in two packhorses, saddles and fine canvas panniers with leather bottoms and ends, two rifles and a beautiful .45 caliber single-action walnut-handled Colt, in a marbled finish, that I had bought as a boy — and no questions asked — at an Omaha pawnshop for $7.50. The revolver would fetch a huge price nowadays, but it all went for about what it had cost me, the horses at exactly what I had paid for them in Cody: $15 for one and $20 for the other.
When I lived in Omaha, the heart games at the Omaha Club were a noonday diversion, the players lunching as the game went on. The small game was for five cents a heart, the medium game for a quarter, and the big game for a dollar a heart. The rules were simple and, I still feel strongly, represent the only version of hearts worth playing: Queen of Spades counted thirteen, making a total of twenty-six points for each hand; three cards discarded to the player on the left before the opening lead; and no lead of hearts permitted until the third lead or later. If a player took all the hearts, twenty-six, instead of being rewarded, as some games have it, he simply put twenty-six chips in the center of the table, and these became part of the next pot — a double pot for which all four played on equal terms. All the heart games were played at a fast pace, and the player in trouble felt that there must be two or three times as many as twenty-six points to a hand when his opponents began showering down on him. Chips, incidentally, are by far the simplest and quickest way of keeping score at hearts.
Poker we played in a small private cardroom upstairs, usually from 4 to 6 P.M., a three-handed game consisting of a young grain speculator, Dean Smith, the airmail pilot (whose book By the Seat of My Pants, about early cross-country flying, AtlanticLittle, Brown published some forty years later), and myself. It was dealer’s choice, table stakes, the choice being straight draw poker, five-card stud, or seven-card stud, and none of the cuckoo variations which seem to dominate the game today. To put more representative hands into circulation, cards below the six were taken out of the deck and one joker was included. Two hours of this game, played with fierce concentration and scarcely a word spoken, were all that any of us could stand. I fared comfortably in the game for some years, but I was never able to set aside my winnings for further play, and three big days, all bad, left me without a gaming stake, and I gave it up.
For mere prudence, I have always been afraid of craps and roulette, and I set a low and firm limit on any investment in either game. One can easily get the illusion in each that he has somehow become in tune with the immediate play, a heady feeling as long as it works that way, and a great expense if it doesn’t. I recall an interval of craps years ago at the lovely al fresco nightclub outside Havana, Sans Souci, where I dribbled away $20 in small bets without taking in a cent. At that point I decided that the tune of Sans Souci’s game was being played by someone’s foot under the table: it was simply a matter of getting as quickly as possible whatever the stranger would risk, and no need to string him along meanwhile. I bowed out, perhaps $20 earlier than the house had expected me to. On the contrary, the prettiest, biggest, and most spectacular roulette game I have ever seen was in a lovely establishment near Monterey, California, a blacktie affair, where I innocently asked what the size of the game might be. “Twenty-five-cent minimum,” was the answer, “and no maximum.” In this game each player had his own color for his chips, and fixed their value privately with the bank. I recall a man playing with red chips — denomination unknown to me, but he did not look like a trifler — who had worked up a long string of credits on the bank’s tally sheet. The climax of the evening came when a prosperous-looking punter, who had been vainly wooing number 8, said to his companion that he was getting bored, pushed out two tall remaining stacks to be played straight on number 8, as he told the banker, and was rewarded by number 8 itself, a tremendous coup. He accepted a drink and left.