The Big Gamble: Is It All in the Cards For My Son Too?

Poker is the new Tribeca: prime media real estate. It is on TV at least three nights a week, and prominently featured in the slicks, where articles trumpeting the poker craze seem to be mandatory front-of-the-book content. (At this rate, Regis should be hosting his own poker show by year’s end.)

I first played poker as a 10-year-old at sleepaway camp; I got cleaned out by a bunkful of hobbit-sized card sharps who’d been playing since they were 9. So I wasn’t surprised last month when Sam, my 8-year-old son, started asking me to play with him. I wasn’t happy about it, either.

When I was Sam’s age, I’d spend Sunday mornings in the fall sitting on the edge of my father’s bed, watching him pencil in the betting lines on the day’s football games. His handicapping system included circles and stars and other hieroglyphic notations that marked which games were interesting, which were locks and which was going to be the big play of the day.

After he had made his decisions, we would call his bookie. Or rather, he would call, while I thrilled to the secret language he employed, with its inverse logic, where a “dime” meant a $1,000 bet, but a “dollar” only put you down for a $100. “It’s Charlie Havana,” he’d say to a guy named Pacey P. on the other end of the phone, “gimme three dollars on Houston laying four, two dollars on the Cowboys plus six and a dime on the Vikes.” Pacey P. would read my dad’s action back to him, and my father would draw final circles and stars around the teams on which he’d actually laid down bets. And then he would set his pad on the night table by his bed. I always picked up the pad the moment he let it go. I was fascinated by this palimpsest of my father’s doodles and notes to himself, as if the secret to the man would be uncovered if I stared long enough into his handwriting.

My son is like that with me. The family computer is in his bedroom, and at night I make business calls sitting in front of it. He lies down on his bed, pretending to read Harry Potter or to watch a Knicks game, but I know that he is listening. Even if he doesn’t understand everything I am saying, I can see that he is clocking me close, picking up clues, measuring, figuring, comparing. I try not to curse on these calls, or lie in an obvious manner. Or raise my voice. I am aware of the influence of my actions and try to modulate accordingly.

Here’s the problem: Sam knows that I co-wrote the film Rounders . It was partially based on my experiences playing poker in New York’s underground card clubs, and its growing popularity on video and DVD is often credited with starting the current poker craze. Mostly, I am proud of this. But ….

I remember the start of the 1981 football season. I was 15, and still spent Sundays hanging around with my old man. As the first games of the season were about to start, I saw that my father’s pad had nothing written on it. When I asked him about it, he told me that he had decided not to wager anymore, that there were better things to do with our weekends. “Like what?” I asked him. “We’ll figure it out,” he said.

I’ve tried, over the years, to get a straight answer from him as to why he stopped betting. What I like to think is that he began to notice how keenly interested I was and wanted to wave me off before I really started gambling myself.

Or maybe he had hit a bad losing streak and just decided he’d had enough. Either way, it was too late for me: The hook had already lodged. I spent years playing cards, shooting dice, betting on anything anytime I thought I might have an edge. Even after it had become clear to me that in the long run, you never really do have an edge, I kept at it. I once bet the best basketball player on Long Island that I could beat him at HORSE if he’d give me a three-letter spot, and lost HOR to HORSE. I played the captain of my college’s squash team in squash, for money, even though I had never held a racquet until that afternoon. I have bet on ball games between teams I knew nothing about, and have walked out of more gaming establishments with empty pockets and maxed-out A.T.M. cards than I really care to count up.

Before Sam was born, I used to imagine that I would make him into a world-champion poker player. I know that’s not the kind of thing most fathers wish for, but the way I had it figured was this: Someday my kid was gonna find himself sitting at a card table; I wanted him to be the boss. I decided that by the time he was 5, I’d make sure he’d mastered the basics-when to fold, when to press the action, how to spot a bluff. I told myself that I wouldn’t let anyone make him a sucker, get him on the wrong side of a big play.

That was before I’d ever actually seen him, ever actually held him in my arms, ever comprehended his potential.

Recently, after years of abstention, I ended up spending three days in a row at an L.A. poker casino. I did not win. Upon my return to New York, I attended a Gamblers Anonymous meeting for the first time. Toward the end of the meeting, one speaker there stood up and told the following story: “My grandfather died when my father was 13. He jumped from their apartment building’s roof. The only thing he left my father was a note that said: ‘Don’t drink. Don’t gamble.’ Didn’t work. I buried my own dad broke and destroyed. Today I came here because I don’t want to end up like they did.”

The other night, I came home from work to find Sam waiting for me in the front hall, carrying a deck of cards and a box of plastic chips. I silenced the part of myself that still wanted to teach my boy how to set a bear trap with a full house against an ace-high flush. “Let’s play chess,” I suggested, “or read together, or make song lists on iTunes that we can burn onto discs for Mom.” He agreed. But he didn’t set down the cards right away. He held onto them for a moment, hoping I’d change my mind.