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A Guy Named Charlie Graced our Table

This blog is from my book “Poker, Life and Other Confusing Things.” It’s about Charlie, whom I think you’ll like.

Let me tell you about a remarkable couple of hours I spent with a guy named Charlie. The floorman who brought him over to our $15 - $30 limit hold’em table spoke to him loudly, with exaggerated hand gestures. My first thought was that we’ve got a deaf player joining our table. One of the cool things about poker is that it is a truly level playing field. Poker players can be difficult characters but in all my years at the tables I have never seen anyone give a damn about race, gender, age, sexual orientation or disabilities. I’ve played with guys with tattoos over every inch of their bodies, with dwarves, transvestites, drunks, hallelujah Christians, junkies and neo-Nazis. One of my favorite players is a victim of thalidomide. He has only a single limb, a slightly deformed but usable leg. He sits in a motorized wheelchair. He picks his cards up with the prehensile toes on his one foot. He bets with the same toes and pulls in his pots with his foot. He is funny, smart and dangerously aggressive. I’ve played with him for years now and never seen anyone treat him any differently than anyone else. We’ll take his money when we can and be grateful for those moments.

In poker all are welcome. The playing field here is as level as it’s ever going to get and for one dead simple reason: it’s a competition over money. If you understand the game and make the right decisions you’re gonna win. If you don’t you’re gonna lose. We’ll grudgingly watch you walk away with our cash if you’re good and we’ll cut your liver out and eat it if you’re not. So Charlie sat down and no one took much notice.

After a few seconds I realized that he wasn’t deaf. He could hear fine. But Charlie, who looked to be in his early forties, couldn’t speak, and he carried a small vibraphone used by people who have had their larynx removed, almost always because of cancer. The gizmo he carried amplified the vibrations in the throat and by holding it against his neck and mouthing words while exhaling he could speak after a fashion. But Charlie’s vibraphone didn’t work all that well and it was tough making out what he said. He knew this, but as I was soon to discover, it didn’t stop him from being a fascinating guy to have a ‘conversation’ with.

Charlie also sported another natty give-away to his condition, a classic French cravat made from fine silk tied to cover what I was sure were the ravages of throat surgery. When he sat down on my right I realized that he was stiff and could hardly turn his head. He clearly had had several additional surgical procedures and there were two other spots on his neck that looked like old scars that the cravat didn’t cover. “This,” I thought, “is a guy who has gone through hell.” He pulled a large sheaf of notepaper out of a pocket along with a couple of pens and wrote me a quick note.

“Watching poker on TV,” he wrote, “Want to make final table.”

“Me too,” I replied. “Stay right here with me; let’s see if we can work this out together.”

He laughed. It was a distinctly odd sound that sounded like the wind blowing through trees, but his eyes shone.

It didn’t take long for me, as well as the assembled vultures at the table, to realize that our friend had never played poker before, certainly not in an organized card room and certainly not for these stakes. I explained the nuances of posting the two blinds and, with all the patience I could muster, tried to let him know that he didn’t have to put up $15 every time the dealer said, “Fifteen to you sir.”

Well, as luck would have it, he hit a couple of hands early on and after a half hour or so was up a couple of hundred zucchinis. And, as luck would have it, he began slipping me notes. Slowly I began to realize that someone very unusual was sitting at our end of the table.

“You’re doing okay so far, Charlie,” I said, breaking every serious poker player’s vow to never tell a fish how to play the game. “But you really don’t want to call a raise, let alone a single bet with 5, 2 off.”

“I see that,” he scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, “but I REALLY want to see those 3 cards. I could flop 5, 2 and have two pair.” (Quick learner, he was talking the talk already, or at least writing the talk.)

“Yeah, true enough,” I whispered to him, “but you’re not likely to and it’ll start getting real expensive.”

“It’s only money,” he wrote and laughed that hissing laugh again. “I’m here to have fun. I want to see those 3 cards.”

“Fine,” I replied sotto voce, “but don’t let these guys know that,” as I scanned the table for his benefit. More laughter. This time he used the vibraphone and began explaining to me that he was in town for a couple of days because he really needed to get away from it all.

By now I felt like we had become friends. He was starting to listen to my advice and had at least dropped a hint about his condition. “So,” I asked, gesturing toward his neck while we waited for the house to go through the ritual of bringing in a new set-up, “what happened?” I wasn’t really sure I expected an answer. Half of me felt like I was invading his privacy; the other half was pretty sure this guy wanted to talk, at least a little.

Out came the note pad while they dealt the new cards. “3 ops in 4 yrs,” he wrote and cold-called two bets with what turned out to be J, 4 off.

“Laryngectomy?” I asked.

“Yup,” he said with the vibraphone. “That was the first. Then ‘it’ spread and they had to go back two more times; two bouts of chemo and one of radiation. There isn’t much left around here,” he said, pointing to his neck and betting out when the board came down J, T, 4 rainbow!

“Charlie,” I asked, “would you like to join me for dinner later? I’ve got enough comps for both of us.”

“Might be fun, can’t eat,” he wrote. “No real food 3 yrs. Die for a greasy ch’burger. Juices and chalky chocolate liquids all,” he scribbled and bet out again when a 9 came on the turn.

“BORING !” he put down in block letters, and bet out again (don’t do it Charlie!) when a K hit on the river. “God, for visit to McD’s!”

Bang, the guy in the cut-off raises and, sigh, Charlie calls. He saw my dirty look and pulled out the note pad. “I wanted to see if he really had the straight,” he penned in the now familiar blue ink.

“Why’d you bet?” I asked.

“Don’t know. Wasn’t thinking,” came back the note.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Maybe he’s learning.” And I can feel the heat coming my way from the guys at the far end of the table who don’t really understand who has graced us and don’t like my giving him advice.

“Why poker?” I asked. “Why now?”

“Why not.” He scrawled hastily. “Found another tumor yesterday.”

We played another hand and Charlie actually discovered that he can push his cards toward the dealer rather than call.

“You know,” out came the pen again. “I died last year in the OR. Revived me. That was good, don’t you think. Maybe enough time to learn this game. Yes?”

Before I could answer, he grabbed my wrist and pulled out another broad tipped felt pen. “HEY!” he wrote, all caps, “I’M NOT TALKING TOO MUCH, AM I?”

“No, Charlie,” I said. “Not at all.”

“When my wife wants me to shut up, she steals my pens,” he wrote. This time his hissing laughter was part of a chorus from the four of us at our end of the table who were now all reading Charlie’s notes and basking in his presence.

“See the Carib Stud JP?” he scrawled.

“Yeah,” the guy to my left said. “I heard it’s up to a quarter of a million.”

“Higher,” came the blue-inked response. “Over $400,000! I don’t think I’ve got the time to learn this game. Gonna go hit it. Gotta leave something for my family.”

With this he got up and shook all our hands. The smile never left his face. He didn’t have much of his original stake left but off he went to invest it on a jackpot. My buddy Anthony watched Charlie’s back as he left and looked over at me with moisture in his eyes. “I think my priorities just shifted a bit,” he said as a warm smile spread across his face.

I picked up the last piece of notepaper Charlie left behind and wrote on it. “Yeah, I think they did for a lot of us.”

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