Bridge is the great American middle-class game and, as might be expected, it is the favorite diversion of card-playing commuters on trains throughout the country. Bridge is played on the Long Island, Pennsylvania, New Haven, Lackawanna, Chicago & North Western and Southern Pacific railroads. It is also played on the New York Central lines—with one important exception. On the Hudson River division of the Central, poker, not bridge, is the time-passing game on trains running back and forth between Grand Central Station and Harmon, N.Y., 35 miles to the north.
This is not the ordinary poker you play in a friend's home on a Saturday night. This is poker as played and kibitzed in the smoking car morning and evening by such characters as Eliot the Brain, Surgeon, Lucky Louis and Al the Ear Tugger. Instead of the polite murmurings of a serious bridge game, the Harmon smoker-poker special vibrates with such shouts and imprecations as "Deal, goniff!" "Shut up!" and "You and your lousy two pair!" Smoker poker has its own rules and practices. At first glance, they may appear to be blunt and crude, but they have been forged and honed by the unusual conditions of play.
In either direction, the train trip along the Hudson takes an hour. The idea behind smoker poker is to cram in as many hands as possible and yet have each pot as fat as possible. As a result, the varieties of poker played are either draw or seven-card stud. Five-card stud is out; it does not offer enough heart-stopping possibilities. Wild cards are out, and so are games like "baseball" and "high-low." ("In a lurching car, with four guys sitting down and four standing up, there's enough confusion already," says Eliot the Brain Surgeon.) To speed play, you can open on anything in draw. The cards are barely shuffled, and there is no cut. Why waste half a minute? And since all the players want to get as much action as possible, most of them stay through a hand with a holding they ordinarily would abandon early. Naturally, there is more than the usual number of flushes and full houses. When Eliot the Brain Surgeon says, "Full," Lucky Louis is likely to respond, "How high?" Sometimes you think they're playing with a pinochle deck.
The smoker poker game has been going on for 13 years. Eliot the Brain Surgeon—unlike most smoker poker players, he does not mind disclosing his full name, which is Eliot Stark—and a friend, a theatrical press agent, started it. The friend has since dropped out, but co-founder Eliot plays on even though he is not permitted to sit down in the game. He deals so ineptly ("He has the hands of a brain surgeon," a player once cracked, thereby giving Eliot his nickname) that he has been banished to standing in the aisle. Only fast shufflers are permitted to sit down in the seats. Eliot is likely the first commuter in the country to have clocked 221,772 miles standing.
April 22, 1963
The question has been asked, why is poker and not bridge played on the Harmon trains? The answer is twofold. First, Eliot and his friend preferred poker. "Poker is a game for extraverts," says Eliot, a corporate public relations man who once handled Jayne Mansfield. Second, even if Eliot and his friend had not started the game, someone else on the train probably would have. The Harmon trains serve the village of Croton-on-Hudson and, to put it mildly, Croton is considerably different from other commuter towns. It has been called Greenwich Village pregnant. Settled by Italian immigrants who came to cut stone for the Croton Reservoir dam in the early 1900s, it was "discovered" later by artistic Bohemians and political radicals yearning for the simple life. There is a minimum of Madison Avenue types. Through the years Croton has remained somewhat rural and nonconformist. It is a town of interesting individualists. Two main "industries" are think tanks. One is the Institute for Motivational Research, headed by Dr. Ernest Dichter, who is trying to sell everyone on the idea that automobiles are a sex symbol. The other is the Hudson Institute, where Dr. Herman Kahn and his team of nuclear strategists are assessing the various ways that nations can blow everyone up efficiently. So what else would you get from such a place but poker players?
The best way to capture the essence of Croton is to stand on the Harmon station platform some wintry morning when the wind is blowing in from the river, the snow swirls across the tracks and the air brakes of the trains spout geysers of steam. Instead of Brooks Brothers garb, the commuters are done up in fur hats, berets and greatcoats tailored in Belgrade at the turn of the century. On a Monday morning, it is easy to pick out the smoker poker players from the rest of this crowd. They are the ones who are smiling. The rest are glum at the thought of leaving their woodland retreats after the weekend, but the poker players seem happy to be going back to work. Actually, they're overjoyed about getting back to the game. Who said anything about work? Conversely, on Friday evenings, the regular commuters are elated while the poker players are depressed. Two whole lousy days to waste before the game on Monday morning!
The original game Eliot started is still going on the 8:15. There are games on the 7:23 and the 9:02, but these are sons of the 8:15. For instance, the 9:02 crowd is made up of former 8:15ers who 1) can now afford to indulge in banker's hours or 2) are feuding with someone in the 8:15 game.
When the 8:15 pulls in, the regular commuters clamber aboard the first two cars like Chinese refugees abandoning Nanking. The poker players peel off and head for the third car, a smoker. Before the train pulls out, a couple of hands are already dealt. The stakes are a modest quarter and a half. Usually there is one game, with seven or eight players participating and about half a dozen kibitzers hanging over the seats. At Ossining, the next stop down the line, up to three more players may join the game. (One morning they almost didn't. The conductor was so interested in the hand being played that he forgot to let the Ossining passengers on until they started banging on the doors.)
The three most prominent players in the game are Morris, Eliot and Dave. That's because they make the most noise. Morris tries to distract the other players with a constant line of aimless chatter. He openly admits this. "I'm trying to take your mind off the game, fellas," he announced gaily one morning when told to pipe down. The only players who can make him be still are Jimmy and Jack, ordinarily quiet players. When Morris gets carried away talking, Jimmy and Jack start a cross-table conversation about golf. Morris can't stand golf. When a tournament like the Masters is on, Morris stays silent. Eliot is perhaps the zaniest player. Exiled to the aisle, he is always the slowest to arrange his hand and get his money down. While the other players fume, he searches one pocket and then another for change. If he decides to raise, he may blow half the trip. In a draw game, he is at his worst. On any number of occasions he has broken up pat hands to, as he once put it in a loud aside, "sucker the other guys in." Usually he suckers himself right out, but he gets his kicks that way. On the other hand, he is also capable of staging the most outrageous bluffs. Once he and a player named Horace were the only two left in a game. "Can you beat queens?" Horace asked hesitantly. "Of course," said Eliot, slapping down a half dollar. Horace threw in his hand, and Eliot raked in the pot. He only had a pair of 6s. It is little wonder that Horace now catches the 9:02.
Dave gets on at Ossining. He is a good player, but what throws the others off balance is his cackle. Someone will have aces showing, but Dave will get a deuce and he will cackle. It is unnerving. In draw, he is devastating. He will take three cards and cackle. He will stand pat and cackle. You see him, and he'll beat you. You don't, and he cackles again. He may have bluffed you. With Dave it's impossible to figure the cackle.
Dave's good luck charm is Al the Ear Tugger. Al never plays. He only watches. He has been watching so long he has become a part of the game. He keeps the books. If Eliot owes Lucky Louis $3 or vice versa, Al notes this in a little book. If a player doesn't have a match, Al lights his cigarette. Al has a fresh deck of cards in his pocket. Al is equipped for every emergency. Should the lights go out, Al whips out a flashlight. This is his busiest time. Each player is screaming for Al to put the light on his hand, and at the same time all of them are yelling for him to keep it on the pot. But even when things are going routinely, Al is busy. He is tugging Dave's left ear. Between cackles, Dave explains this brings good luck. For extra special luck, Al also scratches Dave's back. "Once I scratched his back for the whole trip and he won a bundle," Al says. One day Dave brought his young son along. The boy noticed Al tugging his father's left ear, so he tugged the right one. By the time the train reached Grand Central, Dave's ears were red and swollen.
With Eliot fumbling for change, Morris talking for diversion, Dave cackling and Al tugging, the game rolls along in fine fashion until 125th Street, the next to last stop. Here the stakes automatically double, and the normally wild tempo of the game becomes explosive. There are just 11 minutes left to play. Not only are the losers trying to make up their losses (one player is known as Stymie, because he is such a fast finisher), but Abe enters the game. Until a couple of years ago, Abe lived in Croton and played the game regularly. Then he moved to Larchmont, served by the New Haven railroad. To Abe's horror, the New Haven abounds in Madison Avenue types who play bridge in the morning and read the stock tables in the World-Telegram at night. He had to make some sort of a break. So every morning, Abe takes the 8:35 New Haven train from Larchmont, rides 22 minutes to 125th Street, where he disembarks and waits seven minutes for the 8:15 from Harmon. Not a moment is wasted. On the platform he flexes his fingers in warmup, tilts back his hat and assumes a sprinter's crouch. The instant the 8:15 arrives, he charges aboard to the cry of "Deal me in!" When Abe lived in Croton he was a daring player. Now that he has only 11 minutes to play, he approaches the game with all the zeal of Willie Sutton left alone in the U.S. Mint. "We think Abe moved to Larchmont on purpose," Eliot says, "just so he could come on fresh and give it to us quick."
One morning when there was a new player in the game, everyone dropped out but the newcomer and Abe. When the newcomer dropped out also, the other players screamed that he should have stayed. They all simply assumed Abe was bluffing—he doesn't have time to wait for a good hand—and they had quit solely because they figured the newcomer had a winning hand. It is a rule that one of the regulars must stay, no matter how poor his cards, to keep Abe honest. This is a difficult chore, demanding the self-sacrifice of a Kamikaze pilot.
The lure of the game has marked the lives of other expatriates of Croton. A few years ago a fellow named Fred rented a summer cottage in Croton. He was accepted into the game and played every morning and evening. When he had to return to his home in Manhattan in September, he couldn't stand the separation. Every night after work he would run over to Grand Central to catch the evening game on the 5:38 to Harmon. When the train reached Harmon, he would dash up the station stairs and down another set to jump aboard the 6:34 back to New York. The 6:34 is a local making 20 stops, and Fred didn't get home until 8. He did this for six months. When he quit, the regular players figured he lacked s tamina. Another player, Don, who lived in Croton the year round, moved to New Rochelle, 25 miles to the southeast. Don had his days off in the middle of the week, and whenever he needed a haircut, which was about every other week, he would go to Manhattan via Harmon. He would spend an hour driving to the Harmon station, catch the 8:15, get his haircut in the city and kill the rest of the day wandering around until it was time for the 5:38. He would drive home from Harmon in the dark. All told, he spent 12 hours to get in two hours of smoker poker. The regular players see nothing out of the ordinary in this. If you like to play, you play. If you don't, you don't. A few weeks ago, a former Croton resident named Paul showed up on the evening train. For the past three years he had been living in Europe, renting out his house in Croton. When he walked up to the game, he got not one word of greeting. Instead, one of the players growled, "You're light." The game was on.
When the morning train finally reaches Grand Central, the smoker poker players and the kibitzers adjourn en masse to the Gateway Restaurant, where the big winner pays for coffee and Danish. (A bitter loser may try to get even by ordering scrambled eggs with pancakes on the side.) Most of the players, who have been smoking cigars and pipes on the train, haven't had breakfast yet. When they trudge into the Gateway, Tex, the waitress, greets them with, "Hello, miserables."
Although some of the players have been in the game for years, few of them know the others' last names or occupations. It wasn't until Lucky Louis' picture appeared in the Croton weekly that the other players learned his last name. By general agreement, it was none of their business to ask. If a smoker poker player runs into another player and his wife around Croton, it is an offense of the worst order to mention the game. Debts are never discussed in public, not even if a player encounters the debtor in the grocery loading up on pate de foie gras. Some wives, of course, are aware that their husbands play. Lucky Louis' wife, for example, knows it. When they decided to watch their budget some time ago, she at first thought of giving up the maid. Then she explained she just couldn't bear to take that step, so Lucky Louis nobly agreed to help out by playing on the train only one way.
Lucky Louis may be the most typical of the players. He got into the morning game three years ago in customary fashion. For two months he hung over an adjacent seat as an apprentice kibitzer. An apprentice kibitzer who wants to get in the game may make only approving, clucking sounds. He may not grunt in disgust or offer verbal criticism. If he does, he's at once tagged as a full-fledged heckler and the odds are overwhelming that he'll be rejected if he asks to play. After two months of apprentice kibitzing, Lucky Louis became a full-time genial kibitzer. He was then allowed to make approving statements instead of sounds. When he saw Eliot break up a full house in draw, he would say, "Beautifully played." Of course, all the while Lucky Louis was serving up such blandishments, he was carefully noting the strategies of the players. (A fat lot of good this did him. It is one thing to watch as a kibitzer and something else again to be swept up in the vortex of smoker poker.) Then one day, when one of the regulars failed to show, Lucky Louis offered to take his place. He didn't ask if he could play; that would sound as though they were doing him a favor. Instead, his tone implied that he wanted to help them out. After a brief, silent interlude, during which the players rolled their eyes back and forth at one another in mute discussion, they assented. Louis was in the game to stay.
But Louis still didn't have a seat. As a newcomer, he had to stand in the aisle with Eliot. Then, when one of the sitters was absent a couple of days later, Louis apologetically took his place. Through the years now, the seat—next to the window, facing forward—became his. If Lucky Louis doesn't show up tomorrow, the seat will be saved, at least until the train reaches Ossining.
In many ways, Lucky Louis lives for the game. "I'm set up for the day when I win and I'm down when I lose," he says. "Isn't that awful! I'm 'fed' by it. Even when I'm losing, I love the public display. Some of my pleasure in the game is the guy hanging over my shoulder watching me try to fill an inside straight. It's a heady feeling—you feel as though you've got to go for the straight just for this guy." On occasion, Lucky Louis could catch an earlier train home in the evening, but he finds himself hanging around for the 5:38. On the other hand, if he thinks he might miss the train, he'll find himself thinking up excuses to get out of the office.
The front smoker of the 5:38 is usually jammed. Here the players from the morning 7:23, 8:15 and 9:02 meet in a sort of Stanley Cup playoff. There may be as many as half a dozen games going, along with a nickel-dime game for younger commuters hoping to work their way up. On the 5:38, the stakes double at the Tappan Zee Bridge at Tarrytown, 20 minutes from Harmon. "It's amazing what keen eyesight losers have," Lucky Louis says. "There are some guys who can see that bridge while we're still in the tunnel at Grand Central."
Morning or evening, the game thoroughly engrosses all hands. Al the Ear Tugger says that recently one of the veterans happened to glance out the window. "Hey, fellows!" he cried in excitement. "Look! A river!"