I ran past the newly renovated shed to the end of the yard. Five feet from the reservoir state property line I whipped around on the ball of my left foot and held my arms wide as the football spiraled into my chest. “Are you kidding me?!” my brother Nico yelled as he tossed his arms up. My dad smiled from across the yard even though he’s the one losing ten dollars. My mother cheered from up on the pool deck. I laughed and tossed the football to my younger brother. I wiped the sweat off of my forehead and bent over placing my hands on my knees. The catch was pure luck. When I spun around my long brown pony tail whipped me in the eye causing it to water and my hands just flailed. But it was ten more dollars in my wallet—well, for now, until I placed another bet and lost it. In my family there was always another bet.
Most kids play backyard catch with their dad for fun, but for me, money was involved. Before we started a wager was made: if you caught so many passes you made ten dollars, if you missed you owed ten, and not owed in the way that you could later forget about. If I bet something, I kept the bet. People think it’s a cliché and say “That’s the way of the Italians,” but to me, it’s the way of my father. The Italian gambler. He drilled into our minds the significance of loyalty. A deck of playing cards are more than just small cardstock squares that a dealer shuffles about on a green felt table. Cards taught me about family, loss, risk, and hope. “The cards come and go, and aren’t always on your side, but family is,” my dad preached. “And always will be there for you.” Gambling is a way a life; it’s my family’s life.
This all began long before my father gambled away my crib money. My father’s first large gamble was America. When his family emigrated from Italy my dad’s life was tossed upside down, and since then has revolved around the luck of the draw. From being tossed into the English speaking John Barry Elementary School and not knowing a lick of English to battling his way to an engineering degree, he recognizes the importance of risk and reward. Taking chances is in his blood. A gambler’s life doesn’t stop when you push in your stool and gather up what you hope to be more chips than what you started with.
Modern casinos (read: a fancy mall with poker tables), accommodate all ages, with indoor swimming pools, spas, a day care center, and a sporting arena. Now most parents might say that having a child grow up in a casino is bad parenting, but I beg to differ. Almost every weekend my family and our close family friends would make our way to Mohegan Sun. A place where women walked around in sparkly dresses with matching heels that were just a tad too high, men strolled around with cigars dangling from their mouths, and celebrities peeked around corners looking out for rabid fans. But for us kids, there was the holy grail: Kids Quest the Chuck-E-Cheese of the casino. This wasn’t all the casino offered us; it offered us time with our family. Over the years we built irreplaceable memories at what some would call an adult playground, but to us kids the place was a family playground.
It was a usual Saturday morning when my mother woke up my brother and I before the sun even hit over our suburban backyard. Every weekend turned into a mini vacation. Well, most weekends. Sometimes us kids got pretty bored.
I can remember my friend Jessica and I floating on our backs staring at the white ceiling for the second weekend in a row.
She asked, “What should we do?” I shrugged with my ears still under the water so her voice was mumbled.
“We are bored!” my brother and her brothers yelled from the deep end. Our moms in the hot tub beside us explain that we were leaving soon to go shower and get ready to meet our dads for dinner. Killing time we began to count the tiny multi-colored one-inch by one-inch tiles around the perimeter of the kidney shaped pool. It seemed impossible to count them, but we were determined.
“Time to go!” Mom called.
“But how are we suppose to keep track of where we are!?” I asked. The pool bartender chimed in and said we can keep our tab on his clipboard behind the register so next weekend we could continue. We all smiled and left to wash the chlorine off our bodies. I look back now and have no idea of what the ending amount was, all I remember is that we counted them all. My brother refers to this moment as the time when he really understood the definition of patience.
We walked to the main part of the casino where tiny bright yellow beads hung above our heads and benches inspired by tree branches lined the walls. We were all starving. I always knew how the game was going based on my dad’s walk. Standing tall and walking at a modest pace with his head up meant the game was going well, the cards were on his side. But, if his walk was fast and his head was down it meant he was going to eat dinner quickly so he could go redeem himself. Usually we sat down at a restaurant that had too much silverware. We ate and made our way back to our room and walked passed Teresa our favorite check-in lady. She smiled and waved and asked how dinner was. My brother yelled, “Delicious like always!” We all chuckled because my brother’s love for food is like no other.
Before going back downstairs to the tables my dad went through his goodbye ritual. He would always ask my brother and I how much we loved our daddy and we would joyfully scream (well joyfully scream most of the time because my dad was a fan of repetition and would ask us a million times) “A whole big bunch!” He’d kiss us goodbye and ask for good luck. Before I left the threshold of my elementary school I knew a deck of cards like the back of my hand. I understood them because I knew how to play poker. It was something my dad taught my brother and I at a very young age because “The cards can teach you life lessons, lessons you may not even know about.”
Anyone who has cable television has either watched or scanned over ESPN streaming the World Series of Poker. Many know the program as old men slouching around a table wearing dark sunglasses, fiddling with their chips and scanning the cards in front of them; as well as confident commentators chirping over the static footage. The game they are so intently playing is Texas Hold’em which many simply refer to as poker. Poker is a game of skill but also a game of luck. You never know what you will be dealt and you never know what card will appear after the flop. Your fingers are constantly crossed and your mind is always moving a mile a minute through the different outcomes. Cards are tricky; if you don’t fully understand the game then playing at a professional casino is not for you. Practice at home with chips not worth money, like how I learned. When learning how to play with empty chips (chips with no value) it’s easier to take risks, and Texas Hold’em is all about taking risks. If you can’t take risks then don’t play. Empty chips allow you to feel dangerous; you don’t really have anything to lose, so why not gamble.
You sit down at the table, heart pounding. The dealer dressed in black deals the shuffled fifty two cards: you receive two. Don’t pick them up; let them sit face down on the table. Casually place your non-dominant hand over the cards and with your other hand quickly raise the corner to slightly reveal the cards, memorize them. Time to anti-in, depending on your wild side, you either stay in the game and throw in your chips or fold tossing the cards back to the dealer. You’re in. The dealer tosses a discard card to the side and reveals the three-card flop. These are the shared cards; everyone includes these in their hand. The betting begins, you either check by knocking on the table twice, bet, or fold. Next, the turn, the dealer places another card face up and the same process begins. Finally the river, which some say is the most important, the last and final card is revealed. From here, if you bet, all remaining players reveal their hole cards (your two) and the winner is revealed. Simple. Playing poker builds up your ability to take risks and to place trust in the uncertain, skills many non-gamblers don’t possess. These are the skills you transfer to your everyday life. Depending on your mindset it can either benefit you or send you into a downward spiral into a deep lonely abyss. Thankfully my dad took the better route and used his gambling ways to benefit himself and our family.
I remember being about seven-years-old and sitting at the dining room table in my Nonna’s kitchen. My dad sitting across from me dealing out a game of scopa (an Italian card game) my mom tending to my younger brother in the living room and my grandma tending to what smelt like her best sauce ever. The cards are out, still a little weary on how to play my dad stiffly tells me to be confident. I jump at the sternness of his voice. I place a card down hesitantly.
“Did you hear what I said?” My dad asks with his eyes still focused on his cards. I nodded. His voice a little louder tells me to place the card back in my hand and do it again. This time I slam it down and look him dead in the eye. “Better,” he goes.
My mom yelling from the living room to remind my dad it’s just a game, my Italian-speaking grandma looking over her shoulder with love in her eyes telling me to proceed. We continue silently. Topolino’s voice (the Italian version of Mickey Mouse) murmured through the air from the television my brother so intently watched.
“Life isn’t fair, and you always have to be confident,” my father whispered as he contemplated the colorful cards fanned out in his hand. I didn’t think much of it; my father is known to ramble and I just passed it off as that. I look back now and realize the importance of that scopa game. Our family’s life has always revolved around one another, and we’ve never veered off that track, even when we mess up we fix it, like when my mother told my dad to go win back my crib money. Which he did.