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Pocket Cowboys

My old man had promised her he wouldn't gamble again, but special occasions call for exceptions. After all, he was a new father, and it was a night to celebrate.

It was a balmy Saturday in Honolulu, the evening after I was born. Poker Night at my Uncle Danny's house, and my old man was passing out cigars to the guys.

"Becoming a father has been the best moment of my life," he said. "Deal 'um!"

My old man had promised her he wouldn't gamble again, but special occasions call for exceptions. After all, he was a new father, and it was a night to celebrate. Besides, since we weren't scheduled to come home from the hospital until the next day, she'd never have to know. Her ultimatum -- the one that threatened to take their baby and move to the mainland if he ever lost their money gambling again -- could wait one more day.

Sitting in the big blind with five other players calling before the flop, my old man looked at his hole cards: the King of Clubs and the King of Spades. Pocket cowboys, as they were known on the mainland. Or, in that case, paniolos. Hawaiian for cowboys. Two of them. Must have been a sign.

"Raise 'um," my old man said with a forced reluctance, pushing another ten dollars worth of plastic chips into the pot. Ten dollars was a decent piece of pocket change back in 1969. Two weeks worth of gasoline. All the players loosely called, as the night was young.

The flop came: Ace of Clubs, King of Diamonds, King of Hearts.

The old man had flopped a miracle four of a kind! His goal at that point was to keep everybody in the hand, and let the pot grow as large as possible. It was his chance to finally make up for those two blown paychecks the previous month.

"Check 'um," my old man said.

The player to his left, Marvin, bet ten dollars, possibly seeking information. Two other players called, sending the action back to my old man with the four Kings.

"Columbus took a chance," my old man mumbled, faking a nervous smile. He smoothly called Marvin's bet, pushing another ten dollars into the growing pot. With two more cards to come, now was not the time to scare everybody away with a raise.

The turn card came: 6 of Hearts. An excellent card for my old man, making it possible for somebody to have an outside shot at a Heart flush. Blood, as my grandfather would call it. All the same suit. Family.

"Check 'um," my old man said.

Marvin bet twenty dollars. Strong. To my old man's dismay, the remaining two players folded, leaving him heads-up against Marvin, who obviously wasn't going anywhere. My old man figured Marvin must either be on a flush draw, or maybe two pair. Marvin gambled with Ace rag all the time.

"Raise 'um," my old man said, peeking once again at his pocket Kings before pushing another forty dollars worth of chips in the pot.

"Call!" Marvin shouted. "Try show me da kine!"

The pot had grown larger than an entire paycheck. My old man riffled the stack of chips in front of him, the remainder of an entire week's pay. If he could just find a way to push all his chips into the pot and get Marvin to call his unbeatable four Kings, he'd walk out of there with nearly a month's worth of salary in cash. Not a bad way to end a week. Not a bad way to begin fatherhood. Hopefully a Heart would come on the river, giving Marvin a possible flush.

The river came: Ace of Spades.

If Marvin was chasing the Heart flush, he'd missed it. If he did in fact have an Ace, he'd be sitting on a full house, Aces full of Kings, and he'd surely bet.

"Check 'um," my old man said, giving Marvin a chance to bet at the pot. Or perhaps even bluff. In either case, if Marvin bet anything, my old man was planning to come over the top with the ol' check raise.

"All in, brah!" Marvin pushed all of his chips into the pot. Over another hundred dollars worth, enough to scare away anybody who didn't have an unbeatable hand.

"Call," my old man said, throwing his two Kings face up on the table. He stood from his seat with a victorious grin that wouldn't quit.

Until Marvin turned up pocket Aces.

We moved from from Hawaii shortly after I was born, and I've missed the homeland ever since.


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