THE RULES OF THE GAME • by Peter Wood

Mike wished Dad and Robert would stop jabbering. He laid down his cards. “Straight flush.”

Robert tossed his hand in with the discards. “You got me, Chief.”

“Come down to Tampa and I’ll show you a professional game,” Dad said. “Senior citizens play for real stakes.”

Dad had flown up for a three day weekend. This was the first time he’d joined Mike’s weekly game. Already Dad and Robert, Mike’s neighbor, acted like old friends.

Mike scooped up the pile of coins. He heard Mom cackling with his wife in the kitchen. Mike liked it in his garage. With the space heaters going full throttle, it wasn’t too bad.

He dealt another hand. “Okay, the game’s called Baseball with a Follow the Queen twist.”

“Do you ever go to Spring Training?” Robert asked Dad.

Dad took a sip of beer. “Every year.” He leaned forward. “I’m leaving a Red Sox game in the eighties when I just vacationed down there. Carl Yastrzemski is going to the team bus. He’s pissed. The Sox just lost by ten — ”

Robert arched an eyebrow. “He was mad about Spring Training?”

Dad nodded. “Yep.”

Mike smiled and rapped the card table. “Are you guys here to play or what?”

Dad put down his beer. “Sure, son.”

Robert laughed. “What the hell’s Follow the Queen?”

Mike sighed. “Threes and nines are wild. Any face-up card that follows a queen is wild. If you get a four face-up, you get another card face-down. Understand?”

Robert swigged his beer. “Nope, but I’m just here for the drinks.”

Mike dealt himself two wild cards face down and another wild card face-up.

Dad didn’t look at the cards. Instead, he told Robert about playing poker in the army. “Military service is just standing around. And smoking. And card games. My C.O. at Fort Jackson said he’d have my stripes after I once won a hundred bucks from him. Son of a bitch couldn’t stand any game without wild cards. Not much of a poker player.”

Mike didn’t take the bait. Dad wasn’t above making his son the butt of a joke to pal around with a new friend. He tossed down a buck.

Dad folded without a word.

Robert downed the rest of his beer. He poked up the corners of his cards. “Chief, the way I figure it, I have the only cards in the whole blessed deck that aren’t wild and you’re probably looking at seven of a kind.” He flipped his cards over. “I’m out.”

Dad handed his cards to Mike. “Nice hand.”

Robert drummed his fingers on the card table. “So, what’d you have?”

Mike scooped up the cards and did a half-shuffle. “You have to pay to see my cards.”

Robert laughed. “Always the serious poker player. I’ve been hearing about this weekly game of yours for months. Nice to finally make it.” He turned to Dad. “So, what happened with Yastrzemski?”

Dad leaned forward.  “I left that old boy alone.”

“Let me finish it,” Mike said. “This drunk fan gets on the team bus and hands Yaz a baseball card. Yaz tears it up and throws it out the window. The guy yelled at Yaz for five or ten minutes until the bus finally left.”

“You were at the game?” Robert asked.

Mike shook his head. “Dad didn’t take me to many spring training games. That was for his friends.”

“You were in school,” Dad said.

“Sure. That was it.” Mike coughed. “Anyhow, Dad only has so many stories.”

Robert broke the silence. “After he left the Sox, you know that Yaz became a meat salesman.”

“Yeah. He’s got great people skills,” Dad said.

Robert picked up his coat from the back of the cracked plastic chair. He shook both of their hands. “Well, thanks for a great night.” He nodded at Dad. “Nice meeting you, sir.”

After Robert left, Dad pushed his winnings across the table to Mike. “Good game.”

“It’s your money, Dad. You won it.”

Dad shrugged. “I don’t need twenty bucks in change. It’ll just set off the airport metal detectors.”

“I don’t get those guys,” Mike said. “Some of them still don’t know how to play.”

Dad shrugged. “They might not care about winning.” He eyed the cards in front of him. “You want to call yourself a poker player, get together with some serious players for some serious stakes. But don’t pretend you’re some sort of card shark for winning some spare change. Poker in your garage isn’t about the game anyway.”

Mike glared at Dad. “Then what is it about?”

Dad laughed. “Do you really have to ask? It’s about telling stories and drinking beer. Pay attention to your friends.”

Mike suppressed a sarcastic comment. Dad was a fine one to lecture about paying attention. “I can’t just let them win.”

Dad laughed. “Let me show you something. One more quick game. Five card draw.”

“Sure. Why not?” Mike was in no hurry to listen to one of Mom’s long drawn-out stories about neighbors he had never met.

Dad dealt Mike a five, six, seven and eight of clubs with the Ace of Spades. Mike discarded the Ace. Dad discarded two cards.

Dad gave Mike the Jack of Clubs. Mike had a Flush.

“If we were playing for cash, no limit, what would you bet on that hand?” Dad asked.

“A lot.”

“Okay. So, what do you have?”

Mike turned over his cards. “Flush.”

“Full house.” Dad flipped over his cards. He had three kings and two aces. One of the aces was the Ace of Spades.

“You couldn’t have that hand.”

“Why not?”

“I got rid of the Ace of Spades.”

“Look, Mike, you’re a pretty good player, but you’d get eaten alive in a real game. Don’t confuse beating a bunch of drunk guys in your garage with being a professional.” Dad stood up, pushed his chair against the table and walked into the house.

Mike heard peals of laughter as Dad joined the women.


Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his surly cat and patient wife. He has had stories published in Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories and Every Day Fiction. He had a weekly poker game in his bachelor pad in the mid nineties and the father of one of the regular players showed up a couple of times and schooled everybody. There are a lot of poker players out there who aren’t as good as they think they are — “That probably applies to me too,” Pete says.


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