Poker Nights

A rush of cold January air blows into the dining room of a Vineyard Haven home, and the front door slams shut. Taylor Collins walks in, immediately peeling off layers of winter clothes as he sets his heavy, silver briefcase on the table. The people seated around the wooden table watch casually as Taylor flicks open the case and starts removing the contents: a set of pristinely kept cards and poker chips, the most impressive one being a large, round dealer chip. Remarks are made about this new and improved dealer chip; the old one was a wooden circle with dealer scrawled across it with a marker, but this one is official.

Taylor, an amiable and down-to-earth thirty-nine-year-old, has been playing poker on and off the Island for ten years and now plays regularly in various games, including one he hosts at his Vineyard Haven home. And even on nights like this one when Taylor isn’t hosting, he furnishes the cards and chips.

Tonight’s game was organized spur of the moment by twenty-five-year-old Michelle Nepton as a way to pass the time at her home on a frigid winter night. Before the game starts, she cues the music – a CD with an eclectic mix of indie rock, classic rock, and jazz. Seven players chat idly at the table while munching on chips and homemade salsa that packs a punch. A large, aging German shepherd roams around the table looking for food or maybe even waiting to see if she’ll be dealt in. No luck for her, save a few people petting her and calling her name.

Taylor distributes the chips and deals the cards two to a player. They all carefully take a glimpse at their cards, then quickly put them back where they found them, face down on the table. Time for betting. No big bets this time around, but the night is young.

Buy-ins for games vary, but players agree that it’s worth the money invested. One player notes the $20 buy-in for many games isn’t a lot to lose – comparable to what a night out at a bar or restaurant would cost. The buy-in for this game is only $10, but it’s more casual than most.

Poker games like this one are a popular winter pastime on the Vineyard and provide an alternative to other forms of diversion. As jobs and activities slow to a more manageable pace and Vineyarders start their winter routines, many look forward to nights of entertainment, companionship, laughs, and, if they’re lucky (and skilled), some extra cash.

“In the wintertime out here as a single guy, there’s not a heck of a lot of things to do,” says Taylor on another evening when he isn’t playing. “There’s a game going on somewhere on the Island right now.”

The games fall under the category of social games of gambling, which are defined as non-advertised games played in a private residence with people of legal age who all have equal odds. Massachusetts doesn’t have a law specifically against these games and Tisbury Police Chief John Cashin says as far as he knows the games are legal so long as the house doesn’t make a profit.

Poker games aren’t new to the Island. Taylor says Texas hold ’em poker has gained popularity thanks to televised poker tournaments like the World Series of Poker on ESPN and the World Poker Tour on the Game Show Network. Taylor, who had been playing other types of poker for years, played Texas hold ’em for the first time three winters ago after a friend invited him to a game.

“I went and played not knowing totally what I was doing,” he says. Wanting to learn more, he then ventured to the library to find books on Texas hold ’em and watched televised poker to learn strategies from TV commentators. Before long, he started playing regularly in Texas hold ’em games.

“There’s different ways to look at poker, and the one thing that makes Texas hold ’em a little unique compared to other poker games, it’s more a game of skill than luck – much, much more,” Taylor says, adding that he looks at poker mathematically and psychologically.

Others share Taylor’s enthusiasm and specifically note the intellectual aspect involved in Texas hold ’em. As opposed to seeing poker as gambling, they note the skills that are learned and practiced: Holding in emotions, faking people out, and keeping track of odds are all large components of the game.

For Taylor, the weekly games he attends aren’t just about cards and winning money, but are about socializing. “Anything that makes the winter go by a little quicker is good,” he says, adding that a trick to getting through the winter on the Island is having one night of the week that you really look forward to.

And now is the time of year when poker players get a chance to test and improve their skills. Once the hectic summer season starts again, the games will come to a temporary end as the pace of Island life picks up. But for now, card aficionados are taking their places behind the tables to play some more poker.