Ever so often we need to take a chance.

As long as it doesn't get too far out of hand - or too far out of pocketpook - a friendly game of cards gives us the opportunity. We can shuffle up to Lady Luck and bluff our way into a chance to dance. If the odds are stacked against us we may have to hit the deck.

I was reminded of the allure of poker the other day when my parents told me on the phone they had visited a casino for a few rounds of video poker.

"How did you do?" I asked.

"What was that?" Dad replied.

"He's suddenly pretending he can't hear you," Mom said, chuckling. "But I did well."

Most people don't think of me as a gambling man, I'll wager. But that conversation reminded me that I'm overdue for a little card throwing with my pals. In fact, I'm itching to play.

I prefer our occasional live games to the video version, even though I'm the first to admit I'm not very good. Instead of a card shark, I'm more of a card tuna (and even that depends on how well I draw).

But the circle in which I've had the fortune to play prefers informal games with friendly house rules and low stakes. The other players exude patience with my ineptitude whenever I deal, throwing the cards in slow motion, so I try to ease the painful passage of time by making sound effects as the cards hit the table.

Even more remarkable is their tolerance of my abilities (or lack thereof) as a player. Admittedly, I've improved in recognizing the best way to play my hand. But as with so much in life, I seldom initially see the true value of what is right in front of me.

"Rats. I don't know why I stayed in. All I have are these two pairs."

"Brad, you have two pairs of the same card. Four of a kind. You win."

"Sure," I say, with my best poker face. "Just testing you."

Although we enjoy standard poker, we have an open-mindedness to the craziest game variations this side of Las Vegas. Poker purists would spit out their cigars in dismay at the degree to which we've strayed from standard rules just for the sake of variety, or stupidity.

Most poker players are familiar with a game called "Baseball," in which threes and nines are wild, a black three dealt face-up requires you to match the pot or fold, and a four allows you to draw an extra card. Some may also have heard of "Canadian Baseball," which allows a player to "buy" an extra card from the dealer upon receiving a spade.

In our games, the standard price is 50 cents. But whenever I deal Canadian Baseball, it's a given that we'll have "Brad's Bargain Basement Prices," which allows anyone dealt a spade card to buy another for only a quarter.

And that's just the top of the deck, as it were.

In our versions of some of these games, players end up competing to see who can win with ridiculously high hinds, such as five or six of a kind. I remember my "good ol' days" when we began this sort of playing, and I managed five aces so often it became known as "Brad's Hand."

Those were the days when Lady Luck smiled brightly, like a newly minted quarter. But my luck would change. The writing was on the wall.

We played at a friend's bachelor pad, a place where we literally wrote on the wall to remind us the order of winning hands. The wall also came in handy for setting down our ever more complex rule variations.

When you start playing bizarre twists on Low Ball, Oklahoma, Two-22, No Peek and Follow the Queen (not to mention others), such a wall can be particularly helpful. Consider the time a friend dealing called "Australian," in which the cards and play suddenly flowed backwards (like whirlpools do south of the equator).

I recall legendary showdowns in which some players would wager without even looking at their cards. In the best games, the circle dwindles one by one until two players see each other, bet and raise in turn, dramatic pauses ensue as they approach the final call. Sometimes the win would seem to reward the chanciest play.

To me, the camaraderie that surrounds such gatherings has always meant more than the game itself.

Maybe I say that because I have not fared well the last few times I've played. My friends have taken to teasing me again about how I need to save some of my quarters to do laundry and feed the cat.

Yes, it's been awhile and I've been itching to play that next match, but I should be willing to lose a little scratch. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Still, ever so often we need to take a chance - and that's no bluff.

If Brad Bolchunos acts like a chip off the ol' block the next time you ask him how well he did playing cards, and he pretends to not hear, chances are the chips were down. In fact, you can probably bet on it.


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