June 23, 2005

No sex please, we're gambling

We can't lay back and think of England -- and what were women doing, advised to think of the Crown when Queen Victoria wore it, while their husbands had their way with their wives, as they used to say? Explain that and compulsory heterosexuality to me in an essay, with points for creativity and reimagined sexual scenarios, if you can.

Here, a century later, Elvis was King, and if you lay back and he came to mind, any number of images, from gyrating on Ed Sullivan to losing consciousness for good at Graceland, might capture you.

He may have been our royalty, but he was neither England nor the Crown, and women had discovered how to gyrate to meet their needs as the sexual revolution followed rock 'n' roll. (It was also not wise to focus on Elvis in flagrante unless you want a truly distorted image of the world.)

It's the 21st century. and it appears that hardly anyone has sex anymore. Too dangerous, too much of a complete and total crapshoot, and this nation has gotten way too puritanical to show seduction on TV. What gives better odds? What are we left to do and to watch?

Poker: a game currently in play on at least six cable channels. On the games channel, yes. But five others at minimum? Is it a game, a sport, entertainment, or travel related?

Three sports channels -- Yankees (YES), ESPN (or ESPN2, depending on which is more desperate for programming at any given moment), and Fox Sports Network -- plus Bravo, once marketed as the arts and entertainment channel, and the Travel Network, which is fond of running the "World Poker Tour" when you would prefer to discover places more exotic than Las Vegas.

The powers-that-program may have confused poker with golf: the announcers have the same hushed pitch, speculate in the same tones, and excel at Monday morning quarterbacking. It doesn't matter whether it's the American Poker Championships, the Celebrity Poker Showdown, the World Poker Tour, Poker Royale, or the PartyPoker.net Boston vs. Hartford Challenge.

Everywhere, it's the same shuffle. Poker gets better ratings than golf and has a larger, more appreciative and empathetic audience. Plus, it's not just about strategy and good form, it's about cash, about reading someone else's mind.

If no poker game is on TV, try one of the financial channels. None is about the worth of a company's products, it's about betting on their financial futures. In either case, follow the money. It's much less of a risk than following a potential lover.

This decade apparently Vegas has gone PG, despite commercials to the contrary. When I think Vegas, I think blackjack, craps, and hookers. I don't think oh, let's take the kids, or go to a spa, or much beyond the ad campaign's tag line, "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." If it does, then why tell me?

Everywhere I look I see a poker tournament or a crime-solving TV show. If I went to Vegas, I'd want to see old Vegas, the one where furtive tete-a-tetes (and other anatomical parts) joined in hotel rooms with hourly rates, and places where potential divorcees took up residence for the necessary six full weeks.

I suppose there's no sex at Disneyworld either. I can't imagine Mickey doing Minnie in the middle of a rendition of It's a Small World, though I'd be amused. Or is the bedroom of the future on display at Epcot? Presumably mouseworkers are demonstrating high-tech reproductive techniques involving petri dishes. Mouseketeers have to multiply somehow, and cloning has yet to be perfected.

But I digress: in my family, we all carry a gambling gene. My great-grandfather was a bookie in Saratoga; my grandmother loved going to the track. In my childhood, when my dad was betting, it was poker -- very much a man's game.

To this day I don't know a royal flush from an insight straight. My father's Wednesday night poker game conveniently doubled as an investment club.

I don't know how much money they made, but I do know who got thrown out for embezzlement, who was having an affair, whose marriage was on the rocks, who kept a mistress, and which Park Avenue player doubled as the club's bookie.

The games played at my parents' house required the custom-made poker game table (dark stained wood octagon with tray for ashtrays, drinks, poker chips, and a green felt playing surface) and called for an industrial air filtration system to run in the room where the game was held.

The core group hooked up in 1964, straight out of someone's weekly college game. Someone brought in Cuban cigars, out came the beer and the air freshening machine, the octagonal table and chairs, and not a week went by that my father wasn't playing, until he died in 1991, as the Wednesday night poker club noted in the obituary that ran in The New York Times.

Once a year, the club would have a weekend in the Caribbean on whatever island had the best casinos. No one came to work on his tan. No one brought wives. Everyone knew who snored the loudest, as the men shared hotel rooms, which they used only for sleep. Those could either be the priciest weekend of a player's year, or the most remunerative.

My father got comped no matter where the group went. There may have been beautiful women present, but the club didn't travel to get laid. You could find buxom women at home, but baccarat? Craps? Blackjack?

In the days before Native Americans on every reservation discovered high-stakes betting, you went to Vegas or you went offshore. (Or, long since available was the track, as my grandmother could attest. In the 1980s, my dad received the weekly football line at my parents' house via an early fax machine.)

I've had my own casino tour, from Haiti to Monte Carlo to Aruba. What did I learn? If you're on a roll, keep going (stock market translation: don't fight the tape). If your cards say double down, do it (stock market translation: if you like the company and the shares split, buy more). I've never dropped more than $20 in a casino, but I do my gambling -- politely known as investing -- on the New York Stock Exchange.

I don't know if this was a lesson my dad meant to teach me, but I know that if you don't roll the dice, you don't stand a chance of winning.


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