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Have you ever woken up with a woodpecker building a nest in your brain, empty bottles of wine acting as pillows and a laptop shimmering in your face showing a big fat $0 in your poker account?
That was my life in 2009.
Poker was a mistress back then. The largest slice of my lifestyle pie was carved out for a job I hated. Drinking red wine every night helped me to forget about that little problem.
And when I had some spare time I would spend it playing poker. When I would win a few quid I would slip a few notes into my wife’s purse. When I lost a few quid, there was nothing but silence.
Over time the relationship I felt would last a lifetime started to fall apart. We were arguing more frequently, and always when we were both drunk.
In a desperate bid to save my marriage I quit drinking. My wife filed for divorce. On the papers it said I spent all my time sitting in my room playing online poker.
I was 35 years old. I first kissed her when I was 11.
A Greater Sense of Purpose
I said goodbye to my 10-year-old son, told him nothing would change and went to live with my parents. A few weeks later I went back to my ex-marital home to collect my stuff.
As I stood in the midst of 15 years of possessions, I began to lose it. I called a mate and told him to take the lot. I left the house with a PlayStation and TV for my son’s fortnightly visits, my laptop, Kindle, Dictaphone and a bag full of clothes.
Quitting alcohol is difficult. Stopping while going through a divorce, now that’s even harder.
Add a 10-year-old kid into the mix and there are times you are banging your head against the wall and you don’t even care if the blood spills on your mother’s new carpet.
My life was a mess back then, as I am sure it was for my son and my ex-wife. Given my track record as a drinker and gambler I should have ended up in the gutter.
But instead I found a greater sense of meaning and purpose than ever.
And Then There Was Tuesday Night
It’s strange to have a family for so long and then, suddenly, be alone. You miss the sounds of footsteps, conversations from afar, and the indentations in the sofa.
The loneliness increases when your friends and family can’t connect because you have removed the one toxin that used to hold you together. The isolation is a constant ache.
You can’t find it. It won’t stay still. Sometimes it’s in your heart; other times it’s in your head. I find it in my aching joints and in fingertips that hurt when they bend.
Ever since Homo Sapiens emerged from the East African dirt we have thrived in partnership. We had tribes, then villages, then cities, then kingdoms, then nations, and now the Internet means we are more connected than ever.
And then there was Tuesday night.
Welshmen Who Came to Life
My local home game and the most eclectic bunch of people you could imagine. It was like the United Nations with bloodlines stretching back to China, Iran, Ireland, Spain, Scotland and a band of Welshmen who came to life when they heard the sound of riffling chips.
The alcohol never affected the game. Those that drank it could handle it and those that couldn’t handle it didn’t drink it.
I knew that alcohol provided zero value for me but I was at a delicate stage of my sobriety with a divorce fracturing my sense of how the world worked.
None of them ever threatened my sobriety. I appreciated that. Away from the box room I was living in I was able to forget about the pain and just play.
My wedding ring. I still turned it with my thumb, stared at it. And wondered when I should take it off.
What do you do with a wedding ring? You can’t throw it away. You can’t keep it; what will you say to your next lover?
Poker Was Our Bond
Two of the lads in particular were with me tear by tear when I quit drinking and got divorced. Poker was our bond.
Without poker I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to sit down with them and talk about life.
I’m not talking about the surface-level crap that you bilge forth after a couple of pints. I’m talking about deep, meaningful conversations about how the world works.
Life is all about connection and I found mine at the poker table.
Before I joined the Home Game I knew some of the players. I would sit in the bar and judge them silently. I looked down on some, didn’t like some others; thought some looked a little bit scruffy and others were a little bit mental.
But isn’t that what we all do? Sit and judge? Assert our worldview onto others without a passing thought of what it must be like to live in the other person’s dirty white Converse?
After a few months in the game I found myself taking and receiving hundreds of pounds in loans. I hear people say that it’s a part of poker, and without these transactions made on nothing but a spit-shake the game would fold.
But it wasn’t like that.
“Great Game for Socially Inept”
We didn’t hand over cash to keep the game going. There was a real trust amongst us.
Sure, we had our scallywags with fingers in the pot from time to time. But, like John Duthie said when I interviewed him recently:
“I like all poker players. I know there are scumbags, but I like some of them because they are a bit dodgy.”
Duthie also called poker “a great game for the socially inept” and that’s what I was after my divorce. I couldn’t function.
Something was missing from my brain and I often wondered if my mate had taken it along with my CD collection and Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
I didn’t know what to do with myself; wracked with the guilt and shame of not being a dutiful husband and father, for running away to the haven of my mother’s box room, and the lies I said standing in tears in front of a God that I didn’t even believe existed.
But that was ok with those around the table. I never felt judged. I always felt loved.
And that’s not a word a bunch of working class men from the valleys use that often. But that’s what it was.
I Do Miss the Lads
It wasn’t the money. The money went into one person’s pocket one week and into the other person’s the next.
It was a deep connection between people who would never have even spoken to each other if it wasn’t for the game of poker.
I don’t play poker, today. I don’t even miss it. But I do miss those lads.
When I began writing this I thought that poker saved my life. I was wrong. Those lads saved my life. And I will be forever thankful.