Friendliness Goes Out of the Window

Damon Runyon

I have been asked to decide a question phrased as follows: “In a friendly game of poker for moderate stakes—”

Now look.

There is no such thing as a “friendly” game of cards in which money is involved—poker or anything else.

A man who tries to win your money is not your friend, and you are certainly not his friend when you try to win his money.

When two persons sit down to play cards for money they are enemies per se. It is conceivable that one is superior in card sense to the other, meaning that he is the better player, and that this fact is known to both, hence the absence of friendship is all the clearer.

It amounts to the superior player taking advantage of the others. Is that “friendly”? I do not think so.

Does the winner, as a rule, show his friendliness by returning the money he wins? He does not. He puts it in his pocket with a gratified smirk. He may say he is sorry, but he is seldom sorry enough to make restitution.

Yes, you are dead right. There is no reason why he should. I am not arguing ethics. I am merely belting that phony old expression about “friendly” card games.

If the loser is unable to pay off at the moment, the winner is apt to make quite a thing of it and whisper it all over town to the discredit of the loser. Is that “friendly”?

Among friends, the financial capacity of a man is generally fairly well known. It may be no secret that he has no superfluous income, that he cannot afford losing any sizable sum. Yet in so-called “friendly” card games he may be permitted to lose his money to the point of great distress, and I say that is not “friendly.”

Oh, sure, he may win. That can happen. The chances are against it. You say he should know better, and so he should. But he may be the weakling type obsessed by a gambling passion, which must surely be known to his acquaintances, and when they play cards with him, knowing he is over his head, I tell you there is nothing “friendly” about it.

They are no more his friends than those who invite a drunkard to have a drink knowing that one drink is poison to him. If a skilful cardplaying man wants to play cards for money and he is a man of honor he will not prey on his friends. He will go outside his own circle to find his opponents among strangers. You may say it is just as wrong to despoil strangers who may not be any more able to afford losses any more than friends, but, I repeat, I am only knocking the legs from under that “friendly” thing.

If you are a gambling addict with bet-a-million gates proclivities on a low-bracket income and a man invites you to his home and wines you and dines you royally and then clips you for a week’s wages or more in an after-dinner card game, knowing your situation, I say it is anything but “friendly,” unless he declares your play does not go, and I have not heard of that happening since seven years ago last pancake Tuesday.

When two or more persons who can well afford it cluster about a table and play cards for high stakes and thrills I think it is all right, although a little bit silly in view of the fact that none of them need the money and that it is only going to make the winners dishonest because usually they do not want the losers to make income tax returns on their losses.

This is cutthroat gambling, but if none of the players can get hurt financially and it is an emotional outlet for them that beats giving the money to the needy, I say let them go to it. Only let us not have any more of that gab about “friendly” games for money.

Oh, yes, and I almost forgot to mention the health angle.

Some men, as we know, are stronger physically than others. Some men are starkers, or powerful fellows, while others are puny punks. They should be going to bed early and getting plenty of rest to conserve their strength. They should be going light on the smoking and not eat between meals. Perhaps their eyes are none too good.

Now then I have often seen it happen, and so have you, that healthy men keep their less robust acquaintances up playing cards to all hours, or vice versa, which amounts to the same thing. The result is the weakies’ health is sadly undermined. Their lungs are affected by their own excess smoking or by the nicotine vapors emitted by others. Their eyesight is impaired by long peering at the cards.

It is a common practice for card players to partake of snacks during long sessions and here is where those of less durable stomachs start their ulcers. Perhaps their absences from home makes for domestic discord and consequent unhappy mental reaction, though that is a detail compared to a man’s health.

But have you ever heard the strong say to the weak:

“Look, podner, you are about at death’s door and I think we better call it a night.”

You have not. That is, not if the strong is loser. And I say there is nothing “friendly” about a card game like that, even regardless of the money consideration.

There is an element of excitement in playing cards for money, especially to one who is playing with what is called “distress money,” which is money he needs and this excitement often produces divers and sundry anatomical disturbances besides those I have outlined above.

I have a friend in Los Angeles who was supposed to be one of the healthiest men alive but who came down recently with a mysterious attack that was not solved until they took him to a croaker and had a cardiograph made. Instead of the usually tipsy lines that the cardiograph gadget usually makes, this one got on the wrong tangent and registered my friend’s mental processes, not his heart action, and what came out was a message in plain words as follows:

“I wish I had knocked with six.”

I repeat some of my stories over and over not because I do not remember I have told them before but because I figure I may catch a new reader now and then who has not heard them, and this applies to my tale about the guy who made a big bet at Nick the Greek in a stud poker game and then began shivering and shaking as Nick contemplated the situation at length.

“Nick,” he said, “if you call me I’ll have a fit.”

“Go ahead,” Nick said, pushing in his dough.

The guy fell on the floor in his promised fit, sure enough.