“If you’re playing a poker game and you look around the table and can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.” – Paul Newman, Actor & Philanthropist, 1925-2008
Manly etiquette is a crucial, forgotten victim of our culture’s gleeful self-debasement and institutionalized man-ambivalence. Generations past understood the codes of manhood, its obligations, and expected behaviors.
Now we’re slogging through a morass of anything goes, don’t tell me how to live my life, perpetual adolescence. Boys are growing physically, but they’re not becoming men. They’re becoming over-sexed, over-stimulated, over-confident twerps who can’t hold a job or take care of themselves, much less offer anything meaningful to anyone else.
Seth Rogan approves. History will not.
At the risk of sounding anachronistic, a re-emphasis on the little things would go a long way towards restoring some of manhood’s dignity. I don’t want to be heard saying that “Playing Cards like a Gentleman” is the key to restoring manhood. But if we begin insisting that boys take pride in the small things, it will help them better understand the big things. Note how these elements of etiquette are analogies for larger ideas.
“ Hey, Rick, it’s your bet!” I must’ve reminded “Rick” two dozen times in two hours that everyone was looking to him to fold, check or bet. He’d toss in whatever chips we told him to and then turn back to the game on television. To our credit, we never cheated him or punched him, but he was a lousy participant in the game.
More recently we were playing spades on a family vacation. My oldest nephew, who will be one his generation’s great men, was so excited to master the game that he was playing with us AND on his smart phone against AI opponents. His enthusiasm is great! His lack of focus on the game he was in was maddening.
Nothing is less manly than joining a card game, be it poker, blackjack, spades, or hearts, and not paying attention to what’s happening. This includes such sins as: not knowing the bet, playing out of turn, showing your cards, trumping a partner, having to stop to wipe the Doritos off your hands, and being distracted by your phone or the TV.
Play to Win
“Cards are war, in disguise of a sport.” – Charles Lamb, English Essayist & Writer, 1775-1834
I’m generally of the belief that men were made for “combat.” Ideally, this is actual combat, but in those moments when there are no muggers to chase, bullies to punch, or thugs to intimidate, men prepare for combat by turning casual activity into a competition. Put two boys in a room and, sooner or later, you’ll walk in to find them in the middle of some sort of competition. It’s what we do; we compete. We challenge each other and ourselves. We can’t help ourselves.
Eventually, out of those impromptu competitions, rules and structures emerge. A man, simply by virtue of being a man, ought to respect that. As such, the only appropriate response is to play to win. That doesn’t require being a poor sport. It doesn’t require being overly aggressive. But it does require respecting the history and tradition of whichever game you’re playing enough to give it 100%.
It’s disrespectful to give less than your best, because the guy next to you probably is. You’re wasting his effort and a chance to improve yourself. Casual card games are for women. Men play to win.
If you’re not interested in competition, then find a manly, relaxing diversion like cigar or pipe smoking. Or master the art of whiskey tasting. But whatever you do, don’t interfere with another man’s training by not taking competition seriously.
Respect the Cards
No one wins when you trash the cards. Here’s a short list of common mishandling of cards:
- Bend the cards. In an effort to keep their cards secret, a guy will grip them so tightly they begin to resemble Pringles more than playing cards.
- Crease, dog-ear, or fray the cards. This is just pure carelessness. Handle the cards like they matter. Take care of them.
- Dealing the cards so hard they fly off the table. This will bend or scratch the cards. You may even lose them. Whatever happens, it’s really annoying and unprofessional.
Honestly, this is the number one way I judge a man when I play cards with him. His treatment of the tools – especially when they’re someone else’s cards. It tells me a lot about him. And I’m sure I’m not alone.
Table Talk Ruins Everything
“Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.” – Robert Lewis Stevenson, Scottish Novelist, 1850-1894
If you’re invited to play a game you’re not familiar with, ask your questions upfront. It might even be agreeable to request a couple of cards up, practice rounds so you can get a feel for the game. But, once the game starts, shut up.
If the practice rounds and pre-game explanation didn’t clear everything up, learn by losing; that’s how men have always done it. After the game, ask for clarification. The guy who just stomped you will be glad to explain how he did it. DO NOT ask the other men at the table to suffer the indignity of having to play a sub par game to accommodate your ignorance.
And if you’re playing as the partner of the guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing, suffer silently. Don’t start giving him clues and hints. Learn from your mistakes and pick a better partner next time.
These are just some of the rules of etiquette governing a gentleman’s card game. I’m sure there are more. Sound off in the comments with anything I’ve missed.