Winter can take its toll on your mind. The walls close in. The sky is grey and the snow piles up. Every morning you bundle up, scrape the windshield, crank the heat, and trudge to work.
Then the call comes,
“Hey Steve, wanna play poker Saturday night? Give me a call if you can make it.”
That call means there’s a reason to keep going, if only until Saturday. Yes, it’s poker on Saturday night, but this isn’t just any poker game. It’s all about the location.
From the street, the house on Madison’s near east side looks like all the rest, but a short walk down the narrow drive to the tiny back yard reveals an unexpected scene. Christmas trees snatched from the curb are arranged in the deep snow surrounding a 12 by 14-foot canvas cabin tent.
A short path has been shoveled to the zipper that opens the flaps. Nearby bottles of beer poke out of the snow bank. Candle lanterns light the backyard and a warm glow emanates from the kerosene lanterns inside. Smoke curls from the stove pipe poking out of the roof.
Inside a large wood stove puts out ample heat and warms every corner. An old toboggan sitting on crates holds a lantern, a few half-full whiskey bottles, and an assortment of cups and glasses. There’s an old dining room table and chairs with a couple of lanterns, some bowls of chips and a deck of cards in the middle of the tent.
People filter in and take their place at the table, each with a container full of change and a beverage of choice. The smell of kerosene, wood smoke, and canvas permeates as our eyes adjust to the lantern light.
“Let’s play some poker.”
John, our host deals the first hand, and everyone throws in a quarter (the maximum bet) as cards get dealt around the table. Five card draw, seven card stud, between the sheets, guts, Texas hold ‘em, seven cards no peek, each new dealer picks their favorite game.
As the game progresses the city melts away and you can imagine that the tent is somewhere in the deep woods far away, where no one can find you. The mood is easy, and the cares of the outside world are forgotten for now. Table talk flows from how the kids are doing, to what’s up at work, the weather, and how much is the current bet?
It’s an evening of pleasant conversation, with moments of deep concentration as players contemplate whether to bet or fold. The excitement grows with the pot until someone lays down the winning hand and rakes in the small pile of change in the center of the table.
A night of poker in the tent with the snow, the discarded Christmas trees, and the wood heat is a transcendent experience. It’s a great escape from the icy cold of winter while embracing it at the same time.
I’m always delighted when I get the call that there will be poker on Saturday night. But right now, there’s time for one more hand, and that’s good ‘cause baby needs new shoes.
Editor’s Note: This broadcast story aired again on February 17, 2021 to honor the 10 year anniversary of “Wisconsin Life” on Wisconsin Public Radio.
“Wisconsin Life” producer Steve Gotcher chose to share this feature as part of the celebration. He’s proud of the audio production in this story and loved revisiting a gathering that he looks forward to almost every (normal) year.