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  • Writer's pictureM. Linda Graham

"Do You Know Your Numbers?"

“Do you know your numbers?”

Camel cigarette dangling from her mouth, my grandmother bluntly asked my five-year old self on Christmas Eve. “Um, I think so.”

“Well then, Mary Linda, it’s time for you to learn how to play poker.”

Plunking the bag of pennies to one side, she shuffled the cards, and learn I did.

Coffee, cigarettes, dominoes and poker. Merry Christmas.

This past weekend two NPR programs featured the same author: Maria Konnikova, who wrote the best-selling “The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win.” A psychologist and successful writer for the New Yorker, she left her day job and, as a complete novice, learned how to play poker as a way to explore the topics of luck, skill and decision-making. Along the way she became an international poker champion winning over $300,000 and playing in the main event of the World Series of Poker. In the telling of this wisdom-packed, fascinating tale, it’s clear that learning how to play poker transformed her approach to work and life. And it reminded me of my Grandmother Iris, “work with the best” teaching me to play “the family game” on Christmas Eve when I was five years old.

On a recent trip to visit my parents, I sat with my father, my oldest brother, a box of poker chips, a deck of cards, and revisited that place of learning. I lost, but greatly enjoyed the game. “Figure your odds, know when to raise, know when to check, know when to fold.” While many midwestern families went to church on Christmas Eve, my father’s family gathered at his mother’s 800sq. ft. home where she lived with two of her unmarried daughters. “Do the best you can with the hand you’re dealt - luck, good and bad, is beyond your control, but what you do with what you got- that’s all on you.” My father’s two brothers and their families joined us, until 21 people crowded into a home already crammed with food, musty bric-a-brac, and a small Christmas tree with blue lights. It was a place filled with (cigarette) smoke, love and strange magic. Flasks of alcohol were smuggled in, coffee was plentiful, dominoes and poker ruled, hoarse laughs hee-hawed and whooped. “You gotta play if you wanna win.” While others learned about the miracle of the Virgin birth, I learned how to gracefully bluff, lose, and sometimes win. “Don’t be throwin’ good money after bad.” The gaming tables flurried well after midnight, when Santa time became imminent. Once my small change was gone, I was done, learning the most valuable lesson of all: “Never put more on the table than you feel easy losing – If you start to get nervous about how much you are losing, it’s not a game anymore. The sun will come up tomorrow. Learn to let go.”

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