By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

According to some of his longtime co-workers whom I met for the first time at his funeral, my father was a loyal puppy dog of a man – funny, friendly, eager to please.

I never met that guy.

The father I knew – the only father I ever knew – was a wounded bear who "communicated" strictly by yelling or grunting, and seemed, to his three anxious sons, dangerous under any circumstances ...

... but especially over a card table.

This was the man who first introduced me to card playing – mostly pinochle and cribbage, and a little casino, games whose rules I cannot even remember today. What I do remember is the thought that always ran through my head whenever I couldn't figure out how to get out of playing with him:

Nothing good can come of this.

If I beat my father – which wasn't easy, since he was a very good player – he'd get so angry that I'd want to run upstairs and hide under a bed. If I lost ... well, that was even worse, because then he'd yell at me about my "stupid" play.

I'll say this for my father, though: When it came to abusing his card-playing opponents, he didn't discriminate, at least not that I ever saw.

Once during Passover, in a fit of anger over a bad result, he stormed up to his bedroom and refused to come downstairs to move our car, which was blocking the car of a visitor who had the misfortune of beating my father in a game of four-handed pinochle. My mother, mortified, went upstairs to plead with him. No luck. Not only would he not come down, he wouldn't even give my mother the keys to the car. Finally, he fell asleep, which allowed my mother to snake the keys out of his pocket and release our visitors from detention so that they could go home.

As the sages have written, "Happy Passover, people!"

The signs were there from the beginning of my parents' relationship. But it was 1941, there was a war going on, psychotherapy (or even the language of psychotherapy) was inaccessible to the lower middle class, and my mother was only 18 with an abusive father of her own from whom to escape. Somehow, she and my father wound up getting married, even though he once arrived four hours late for a date because he was playing poker with his friends back in the Bronx.

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"And he couldn't figure out why I was so mad," my mother told me the other day, still shaking her head in wonder, 25 years after my father's death.

Though he had originally been classified 4F ("Registrant not qualified for any military service") because he had terrible eyesight, which he passed on to me, he was drafted into the Army in 1942 after inexplicably being re-classified so he could serve stateside though he would not be allowed to fight overseas in Europe or Asia.

Some might have focused on the benefits of not seeing combat overseas, like, for example, a longer life expectancy. Not my father. What he felt was sheer, unadulterated frustration and disappointment. "He always felt it was unfair, because he couldn't play in the great troop-ship crap games his friends told him about," my mother said. "Years later, he used to talk about how he could have made a fortune if he had ever gotten on those ships."

On several occasions at various ports of embarkation, thanks to the usual assortment of Army snafus, he came close. But he was always turned away when someone in authority discovered his status.

So he had to settle for being the unofficial casino champ of his Army base in Long Branch, N.J., a distinction that allowed him to send my mother, who was pregnant with me, frequent money orders of $100. In many ways, this period was the high point of his life – he would never again make that much money, and he would never again be so blessedly free of responsibilities.

He was discharged in 1945 after the war ended in Europe; and for a few years, his card-playing career lay dormant. We moved from my maternal grandparents' apartment in the Bronx to a corrugated tin Quonset hut in Brooklyn, temporary housing for returning war vets and their families. Then, a couple of years later, we moved into a new public housing project – the Jacob Riis development on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

This was the beginning of the mystery phase of my father's life – at least, it was a mystery to me. Under the best of circumstances, my father was not exactly touchy-feely about what was going on inside his forbidding and off-putting exterior. After we almost came to blows over my using too much hot water for a bath when I was 12, we rarely spoke again – other than an occasional "pass the potatoes" – for the rest of his life.

Apparently, he got himself into a regular poker game when we moved to the Lower East Side in the late '40s. One of the other players was my godfather, Harold "Hesh" Kocin, who worked for various unions – first for Jimmy Hoffa, later for a show biz union. In sharp contrast to my father, Hesh was the ultimate in cool, at least to me. He spoke in a gravelly half-cough/half-whisper – probably because, if he was awake, he was smoking – and he gave off a strong I-don't-give-a-crap-what-you-think vibe.

In fact, one of the highlights of my teenage years was the spring afternoon that Hesh visited us after we had moved to upstate New York, and he kicked my butt in one-on-one hoops without ever once removing the lit cigarette from his mouth. If I had known that my father actually played poker with such a dude, it would have conferred upon my old man, at least by osmosis, a certain amount of suavity that might have helped when things got really bad between us. But I didn't find out about this until well after my father's death.

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After 1955, when we moved to an unincorporated hamlet in upstate New York called Kerhonkson (a town with a population smaller than that of our building in the projects), my education as a card player actually got underway.

When my youngest brother, Marty, was "old enough," the four Lovinger "men" – me, my brothers and my father – began playing four-handed pinochle, though perhaps "playing" is not really the operative word. Pinochle with my father was like poker with John Bonetti – a non-stop sideshow of verbal abuse and dismissive chills. Since I was the best player of the three boys by quite a bit – mostly by virtue of my superior "life" experience (after all, I was 12, while my brothers were only 9 and 6) – I could affect a detached, almost French attitude about the game. Toby, the middle son, had adapted as his own special emotion camouflage a kind of angry but vulnerable young man thing – think James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause." Marty, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck, afraid to do anything, good or bad, for fear of calling down my father's wrath. In fact, from day one, it was pretty obvious that Marty was already living for the moment he could stop playing cards with my father ... forever.

But ... surprise! My father's tough love technique had an inadvertent advantage for Marty.

"As a matter of survival, I actually became a pretty good pinochle player before I was eight," he wrote to me from his home in Washington state, where he is a legal advisor for the state legislature. "This was necessary because, as the youngest child, I was always teamed with my father who was presumed to be the best player, while I was presumed to be the worst, thereby providing something of an even match for Jay and Toby, who were presumed to be the second and third best players in this particular foursome. Of course, even though it was acknowledged by everybody that I was teamed with my father because I was the worst player, my mistakes were unforgivable in his eyes. Amazingly, I became – and, 50 years later, am still – a very good player, mainly because I can remember every card played and who played them, a skill I learned at eight. It's interesting how fear can cause your mind to focus."

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However traumatic these family games were to me and my brothers, to my father they were just minor annoyances. Although he found himself cruelly buried in rural Ulster County, far from the poker-playing wannabe wise guys of his Brooklyn youth, my father the card player managed to adapt admirably. Soon enough, his – and, by extension, our – life revolved around his weekly poker night with a crew of locals who ranged across the socio-economic spectrum from the local bank owner to a couple of rag-tag small-town ne'er-do-wells.

Absolutely nothing interfered with the sanctity of poker night – no sporting event (Toby and I both played basketball and ran track for Kerhonkson High), no extracurricular activity, no ill child, no family crisis.

"I once asked him, when he refused to go to one of your games, 'What's more important, your card game or your kids?' He never answered," my mother said.

As with Mark McGwire and the recent House hearings on steroids, what he didn't say spoke eloquently.

Soon enough, I was off to college. Because my father had been of so little help to my mother in keeping the family going, it had been left to me to be the de facto man of the house, which delayed the inevitable teenage rebellion by several years. As soon as I hit Harpur College in Binghamton, N.Y., for my freshman year, I became a rebelling machine, a latter-day version of Marlon Brando in "The Wild One," who, when asked what he was rebelling against, said, "Whaddya got?" Drugs, sex, rock 'n roll, gambling of every size and shape – including, of course, poker.

I'm not embarrassed by most of the excesses in which I engaged during those crazy times, but here's one that still bothers me: For a long while, I was a rude, sarcastic jerk at the card tables, more interested in pulling off a memorably deflating ad hominem quip than a good play. It was almost as if I were still trying, pathetically, after the fact, to get my father to love me by imitating him.

Well, I was punished for my sins. I flunked out during my junior year after a few too many nights of driving 100 miles to a harness racing track in the Catskill Mountains, followed by all-night poker games in the dorm, followed by a few fitful hours of sleep when I should have been in class. In the meantime, my father, oblivious to my personal developmental drama – kids, you can't live with them, and you can't kill them – continued to exist only for his Monday night game, struggling through a series of debilitating strokes and other heart-related problems. Sadly, because of our lack of a relationship, I was equally oblivious to his angst. As he had sown in that normally meaningful father-son realm, so had he reaped.

He died of a heart attack on the morning of May 2, 1980. He ate breakfast and lay down for his usual pre-work nap, only this time he never got up. It was the day before his poker game; and when my mother called one of the players to tell him that my father was dead and wouldn't be showing up the next night, the guy said, "Oh, I guess we'll have to get someone else."

"He didn't even say he was sorry," my mother told me, half-pained, half-bemused at the memory.

Sounds to me like a game where my father would have fit right in.

As Doctor Freud might have said, "Very interesting, Herr Lovinger, but what does it all mean?"

On the simplest level, it explains why I value having fun when I play, something for which my man Maess from Minnesota chided me in a long-ago Toxic Mailbag. He believes that a true professional would not be distracted by anything that gets in the way of maximizing EV. Maess, I hear you, brother, but I must respectfully disagree.

And not to be cavalier about a home life that, at times, defined mental cruelty, but on a more cosmic level, I have always been attracted to meritocracies – like poker, harness racing and writing – because those are worlds where you will be accepted if you can walk the walk, where it doesn't matter who you know, or whether your father treated you like a dumb schmuck.

Surely, the psychologically astute among you, dear readers, will recognize that it's no coincidence that I am trying to make it in a field at which my father excelled – or, at least, liked to think he did.

The man has always been a cipher to me. I couldn't tell you what kind of movies he liked, whether he was a Democrat or a Republican, what he would have made of global warming or Paris Hilton. But I'm pretty sure he would have thought this poker journey I'm on is a pretty cool gig – almost as cool as getting to play in those huge, floating World War II crap games would have been.

Though I'm also pretty sure he would never have given me the satisfaction of acknowledging it.

NEXT WEEK'S COLUMN: How my father is still affecting my poker game, 25 years after his death.

Last week: lost $550

Career-to-date: plus $14,232.25

Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for and also writing a book for HarperCollins.

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