Sunday, May 9, 2021

He took refuge in online poker: ‘This is never about the cards’

One of my closest friends is Myki Bajaj, a 30-year-old film and television producer in Los Angeles. We see each other every week, and we usually speak several times. Our conversation goes from the mundane – sports and culture and the like – to more serious topics, such as family and being brown in America. We travel together and often talk about projects on which to collaborate.

What makes our friendship unusual – or completely normal by 2021 standards – is that I’ve met Mikki in person One Time. It was at a chance work meeting on the West Coast last year, weeks before the coronovirus epidemic caught up.

Our friendship blossoms through a medium I never expected: online poker served with a side of Zoom.

I will not miss the epidemic, with the suffering and isolation caused by this planet. And I am one of the lucky ones. Knock on wood: I am healthy and have been employed for the last year.

But, whenever that happens, I will miss one thing about quarantine life. I have developed real relationships with people through poker, which, ironically, is a game built naturally on mistrust.

Shortly after the United States’ lockdown last March, Mickey invited me to play a poker game with his college friends in the middle of our first catch-up conversation. He is an avid sportsman. Prior to last year, he would host a low-stakes game on Friday in his backyard to de-stress everyone from his workspace. I am the opposite of Avidya. Sporadic? Current? Oh really, the words I’m looking for are No good.

In the epidemic version of the game, each player – and there were up to 14 of us – would download an online poker app and then get on a group video call to act like we played and we were in the backyard. Myki’s friends were scattered across the country. New York. Los Angeles. Washington Atlanta Seattle One even tuned in at a ridiculous time from London. But this game brought all of us to the same place at the same time.

Our amateur salon, which could remain open for more than four hours at a time, became a regular meeting place, weekly and sometimes several times a week. I looked forward to it. And when I didn’t realize that it was happening, I became close with this group of strangers. In the absence of happy hours and normal workplace socialization, they became a relief from the monotony and solitude that had suddenly become our collective normal.

Zoom discussions, shouting bluffs and lucky flush draws, will emphasize topics ranging from politics to literature to dating and many more. I invited some of my friends to join it, and all of a sudden, my previous acquaintances were meeting my new people, making connections upon connections. Sometimes, calls were silenced as cards were dealt. Not because we were trying to hide our hands or focus on our pocket pairs, but because the group had become comfortable with nothing: the correct identification of healthy relationships.

Soon, I realized that we were not the only ones who sought out this hybrid zoom-poker virtual outlet for comfort. A friend at work invited me to join his weekly poker game which he and his friends started with a similar setup. And suddenly, I became friends with another group of people I might never have met. And then I had a one-on-one game with friend Alex, another person with whom online poker raised the wheels for friendship.

Relationships formed more quickly than poker. In a group, we celebrated a birthday. In another, we exchanged holiday gifts. Aaron, whom I have never met, sent me a Homemade Beer Brewing Kit. I sent Mitch a bottle of champagne. One of the poker players has come in handy professionally: Ben, a die hard fan of the Philadelphia 76ers, helped me with many articles written about the NBA team.

Is an example of people turning Gambling games in an epidemic. In 1918, as the country had Spanish flu, law enforcement would break down Underground Gambling Salon Conduct in a one-man assembly despite restrictions.

You might be wondering why I stay in the past tense about these games. If people start going out again, can’t they continue? It is not that the zoom is going to disappear like the sun at night. And it is true. In theory, games can continue. I think they will sometimes, due to indifference.

But it is heating up outside and more and more people are being vaccinated. People haven’t seen their friends and family in person in months. Why would you spend a Saturday night staring at a computer when you can be outside and for the first time in more than a year?

We are already playing less than we used to. My heart does that the low poker indicates that the country is seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. But seeing that meaningful connections are more difficult to find when you leave your 20s, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss.

And then I am reminded of something Myki once told me.

“It’s never about the card.”

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