I saw hunger in his ferocious eyes. But I wasn’t afraid. I knew the next lesson was about to begin.
“Sam!” yelled my grandmother, instinctively and in that terse disapproving way it seemed she could summon up from nowhere. Immediately the aggressiveness vanished from my grandfather’s countenance and he obediently shrank back into his chair.
“What do you want me to do, Flo? Those are the rules,” he said, timidly trying to justify his actions. Sensing his own reticence, he tried to counter it by continuing with a voice rising in intensity and ending with a tone of self-assured purpose. “He dealt me the King of Diamonds. The rule is you have to let the dealer know as soon as you get it. You’re supposed to shout ‘Sette e la mezza,’ too. Do you expect me to treat him any different than anyone else? Sooner or later he’s gonna go out in the real world. You think they’re gonna treat him nice? No. Look at him. If he doesn’t toughen up, they’re gonna eat him alive.”
“But he doesn’t know Italian,” countered my grandmother, this time much calmer.
“He’s smart enough to learn,” answered my grandfather, a tinge of mocking anger in his tenor.
“That’s OK, grandma,” I interrupted, staving off one of those traditional Christmas Eve family arguments Hollywood demands of its Italian characters. “I get it. He’s just following the rules.” So ended, on the initial card of the initial hand, my first ever chance to act as dealer in our family’s annual card game.
The truth was, my grandfather never wanted me in the game in the first place. The card game is called “Seven and a Half” (or Sette e La Mezza in Italian). It’s just like Twenty-One, except picture cards are worth a half instead of ten and the objective is to get your cards to add up to seven and a half. It’s generally played on Christmas Eve, but we played it throughout the Holiday season. It’s an old game (some call it a predecessor of Blackjack) and it has some variations. One of them includes choosing a wild card – usually the King of Diamonds – that, in our case, made you an instant winner. If you were dealt the King of Diamonds, or if you were dealt a “natural” (i.e., two-card) seven and a half and the dealer didn’t equal you, you immediately took over as dealer.
Oh, I forgot to mention a very important thing. Seven and a Half is a betting game. Being dealer makes it a whole lot easier to win money. It’s good to be the dealer. You want to be the dealer. So, when I finally won the right to deal I was very excited and everyone saw that. When I lost the deal on the first card, well, you can imagine how sympathetic all the adults were.
Except for my grandfather.
You see, he loved playing the game. He loved the betting. He liked winning the money, but there was a something he enjoyed even more. As with many a passionate Sicilian, he was prone to dramatic outbursts like the one just mentioned. This tended to make his poker face about as effective at hiding things as a see-through dress. If his emotions betrayed him so much, why did he relish the game? More than winning a pot full of chips, he liked winning the psychological battle even more. If my grandfather were to have ever appeared on Jeopardy, he would have vigorously bet it all on the final round. His only purpose in this maneuver would have been to capture the reaction of, and surprise, his competitors. Sometimes that alone – not a shrewd poker face – was enough to win the round.
Ironically, my grandmother had better command of her emotions. She could be cool and calculating if she needed to be. When the situation demanded, she could be a loud aggressor (and that meant using tough – but never R-Rated – words). And she could turn it off and on without batting an eyelash. She had the perfect poker face. Except, she rarely won. Why? Unlike my grandfather, (and more like her depression-era generation) she was more prone not to take risks. They were a perfect couple.
Anyway, for my grandfather, having a kid – and one not yet even a teenager – in the game cheapened this challenge. These Christmas Eve games generally included adults of his generation (it was, after all, an Italian Christmas Eve, and that means a lot of people with nothing to do except wait for Midnight Mass). They allowed my father and my older uncles to play, but that was about it.
I didn’t know it at the time. In fact, back then I thought everyone loved to count and add (and all that math-numbers kinda stuff) as much as I did. Sure, I did well at those speed tests in school, but, then again, I don’t ever remember being the fastest, and I do remember finishing behind a lot of kids. My parents and my grandparents knew I was good at math before I did. They also knew I liked watching them play Seven and a Half. One year, my father let me and my brother Kenny partner with him. Each of us sitting on a respective knee, he’d let us make decisions and overrule them if we made same the mistake twice. That’s when my grandfather started letting his displeasure be known.
“Pat,” he’d growl whenever my brother and I took a little too long to make a decision, “you gonna play or are you gonna let your kids run your life?”
My father ignored him. He wasn’t being disrespectful, though. After all, this was my mother’s father, not his. Had his own father, sitting two seats over, seconded this complaint, my brother and I would have been sent off to the family room to watch whatever was on TV. Instead, my paternal grandfather was too busy trying to count the cards to see if he should take another card or not. He didn’t have time to pay attention to what his counterpart was saying. Sensing this as approval, my father let us continue to play.
I don’t know how I learned to play so fast. My parents and grandparents liked to think it was some innate thing (having to do with my fondness for math). At first I did to. Then, as I got better and better, I realized it wasn’t something pre-programmed in my genes. Additionally, I didn’t know the concept of counting cards, let alone how to count them. My seemingly “natural” decision-making process really represented the sum of watching the adults play over and over again. I noticed certain patterns, not in the cards, which, by definition, were random, but in the players – patterns of betting, asking for more cards, and for folding.
Most of all, I learned winning meant understanding the psychology of the players more than the arbitrary order of appearance of the cards. The cards actually did mean something. It’s just, other than deciding whether or not to take another card, you couldn’t really do anything about it. It was all up to chance.
You could, on the other hand, read the faces of the players. And that meant you might be able to make a reasonable guess as to what they’re betting on. And that was really important if you were the dealer. And that’s because only the dealer plays against everyone. And that’s why the dealer can make a lot of money. And that’s why you want to be the dealer.
And that’s why, several hands after our opening scene, when my grandfather dealt me the King of Diamonds, I jumped up from my chair (yes, all five feet of mini-me) and shouted Sett’ e Mezz’!
The whole table burst out laughing, but the loudest was my grandfather. He looked at me with that silent twinkle in his eye. I might have been ten years old, his gaze told me, but I had learned my lesson.
I could sense he wanted to teach me more. Much more.
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