A Chip and a Chair

I have a confession to make. I like to play poker. My father taught me when I was a little boy, and I was hooked then as I am now. But for several years I left the game, choosing other sporting arenas to satisfy my thirst for competition. That is until the World Series of Poker became televised and brought poker back from the dead.

So now I host a weekly poker night (usually Friday), and am just as fascinated and passionate about it as a good bottle of single grower champagne.

I read books, watch poker on the tele, and even have an on-line account. I have also played at underground poker clubs which are hard to find, especially since they are being raided every other week.

Anyone who says they play poker for fun and not money is lying, but I do not feel like I will be turning pro anytime soon. We play for low stakes ($20.00) and only play No Limit Texas Hold’em, with an emphasis on tournament style. Every player buys in for $20.00 and receives 2,500 in chip value. First place keeps the pot, second place gets their money back.

Winning is nice, but love of the game comes first. Oh, sure we keep score – I’m comfortably ahead in earnings – but it is outsmarting your opponents that brings the real rush. You can go “all-in” at any moment, putting your tournament life on the line. Poker is a mixture of psychology and nerve, competitiveness and acting, patience, and above all luck. It is better to be lucky than good, and no matter how much you play and try to master the game, you can never master the luck part.

Before you judge that poker is an expensive habit, let’s compare costs. For thirty bucks (ten on food or beer or wine) you can play several hours of cards with your friends in the comfort of your own home. You can bring whatever you want to drink, and snack on whatever everybody else brings to eat. Try to spend the same for a night on the town with your buddies, and check out the difference in cost.

Poker night is a perfect venue for sharing food and wine and discussing topics other than poker. Poker allows the flexibility to eat, drink, and talk between hands, and can be a very satisfying, social gathering.

Being the foodie that I am, I often take these opportunities to experiment with food and taste out of the ordinary beers and wines. You have to think outside the normal box of pretzels, peanuts, pizza and everyday lagers. Live a little.

As an informal panel, my poker/martial arts buddies, Scott, Neil, & Blake, aside from possessing fearsome fighting powers, also have very discerning palates. Scott usually brings party favors from the 1970’s like Pez or Sweet Tarts, as well as an oddball humor and propensity for TV trivia. Just ask him to recite any TV show theme song and be amazed. Neil can always be counted on for his extensive beer knowledge and zanyness, a quality needed on some slower nights, and Blake brings his chiseled smooth singing voice and voracious appetite for quaffing.

Over the course of two months, my friends and I have been sampling barley wines, which are beers originally brewed by the British, but currently is also being crafted here in America. Barley wines require a prolonged fermentation, thus yielding a higher alcohol content, ranging from nine to fifteen percent.

We sampled over thirty barley wines and enjoyed the quirky names of the bottles and the general nutty, creamy bitterness of the beers. Some of our favorites include the Old Marley, Hog Heaven, and Old Boardhead. For a unique, mind-blowing taste, tops on our list was the 2004 Thomas Hardy’s Ale and the bizarre 1999 Harvest Ale.

On other occasions we tried some Trappist beers, world- renowned for their complex and distinctive styles, made ever more enticing because the Belgian monks are responsible. The flavors ranged from sweet to dry, and the colors were opulently rich, from dark nut brown to golden amber in hue. These ales dazzled us with creaminess, and wild, spicy aromas of fruit. Aside from the well-known Chimays and Duvels, we really swooned over the Westmalle Trappist Tripel, the Allagash Tripel, and the Bavay Biere de Gard. The consensus favorite was the Chimay Peres Trappist Grand Reserve.

Wine is always a welcome guest to poker night, and we have sampled several interesting bottles from all over. Recently we tasted a cabernet franc from the North Fork of Long Island, the 2005 Pindar Pythagoras. The wine displayed good fruit and expressed balance while demonstrating the strength of Long Island’s terroir for this particular grape.

Just last week we tasted a 2001 Boscarelli Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which after an hour of aeration, paired admirably with a quick, one-hour perciatelli and Bolognese sauce.

My friend Peter played on his birthday, and we toasted to a very solid Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, which was medium-bodied and slightly nutty. Served with a spicy roast pork tenderloin (Kala’s recipe) with sautéed shitake mushrooms, it was pure delight.

On another night we tasted a couple of Albarinos, white wines from the Rias Baixas of Spain. We tried the 2004 Nora, a 2004 O Rosal, and the 2004 Gran Bazan.These rich, young, citrusy whites went down very smoothly and accompanied the jamon Serrano and salty bar snacks.

We try to steer clear from spirits – it clouds judgment – but bottles which made an indelible impression to me recently were the Balvenie 10 year and the Havana Club anejo reserva. Single malt scotch transforms the man, and if you can get it, the Havana Club is one of the most refined rum drinking experiences in the world.

Instead of the standard deli sandwiches, one night we all chipped in to buy tasty salumi, an herbed Rosette de Lyon, Spanish Palacios ham, Portuguese prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and provolone cheeses. Garnished with piquillo peppers, enveloped by flat onion nan and a little Dijon, and off to the Delonghi panini press. Follow that up with a nutella panini for dessert. Sweet bliss!

I’ll often put out some blue cheese and serve it with honey, crushed black pepper and nuts. There is never any left over. And if I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll make some homemade bread pudding with crème anglaise, a welcome sweet break from the tension of a late night.

I will always pursue new adventures in food and wine, and I guess for me, poker is also here to stay. If you can mix your passions in a similar way, don’t hesitate. Wait… What’s that? I think I just got dealt pocket rockets (two aces). I’m all in!
For recipes, refer to the recipes section of my website