The Poker Player

Kate Brandes

The Shuffle and The Deal

My father played poker. He taught me the game.

The riffle shuffle with a cascade finish is my specialty. Half the deck is held in each hand with thumbs inward, then the cards are released so that they interleave. After the riffle, the cascade bridges the cards into a neat stack. I’ve been competent since age seven.

Although less showy than the shuffle, the art of dealing cards is just as important in setting up a fair game. The bottom of the deck is kept concealed. Cards slide off the top and are handed out low to the table, face down.

Thorough shuffling and a proper deal give players an even chance. But people don’t start life with an even chance.

My father was the first-born son of the local doctor, a fact that gave him position in a small coal town in the 1950s. It was a childhood of privilege, but also of high expectations.

As an adult, he preferred to be called father, not dad. He insisted my sister and I say things like pachyderm, instead of elephant, when we were still learning words. Intelligence and position were important. They were the chips he used to place his wager. 

The Hand

My father married my mother, had two daughters, and became an organic chemistry professor at a small university in New Orleans. By the time I was four my mother had left him and taken us with her.

In retrospect, my sense is that he expected a winning hand. He expected his marriage would last. He expected to come home at five every day and have a cold gin and tonic waiting. He counted on respect. He assumed his daughters would love and believe in him. He assumed we’d grow to become whole people.

What we didn’t talk about: how my father defied the meaning of the word dad. How he chose not to know his daughters, chose not to be involved, chose not to support us even though we were being raised on welfare.

No one offered a word about any of it and so neither could I.

The Play

There are certain qualities of a good card player: experience, intelligence, willingness to learn, ability to control emotions, and enough heart to risk a gamble.

My father could win at poker, sometimes. There are no such promises between human beings.

Every time our lives intersected, he seemed to me like someone who felt on the outside, sad, and lost as to how it had turned out that way.

When I was in my early twenties, I visited him once in New Orleans and found him stagnating in the same life, in the same apartment he’d lived in for almost twenty years with the same brown card table and metal folding chairs in the living room.

While I was there he took me to his office at the university. He had a handmade mug on his desk with a childish drawing. This was a mug I’d given him as a present for Father’s Day when I was three or four. He still used it and carried it around to his classes. And I couldn’t figure out whether it meant something to him or if he was still bluffing.

I wonder if my father loved cards so much, because that was safer than gambling on relationships. Maybe one heartbreak was enough for him. Maybe after that the only thing he could do was fold and leave the table.

I don’t know. I’ll never know.

When my father died this year, my uncle explained over the phone there would be no service. My father hadn’t kept in contact with him or my aunt. He hadn’t been in touch with any family. He only had two friends and one of them was out of the country.

There are the cards in your hand, the choices you have. My father had demons. Whatever they were, they kept him from life.

How to Spot Cheaters

A cheater stays silent in the face of artifice, manipulation, and distraction. Stacking the cards, false shuffle, bottom dealing—that’s just the beginning.      

It’s the responsibility of a good card player to spot a cheater. Otherwise you’re going to be deceived by the silence and taken in by the desire to play a normal game. You’re going to lose.

All my life I’ve edited my father from my storyline. What was there to talk about? How do you describe something that isn’t?

“He wasn’t a part of my life.” Say that enough times and it becomes a cheating kind of truth. It keeps the cards close to the chest. “It didn’t matter.” We never talked about it, so it didn’t matter.

Truth is, my father was the thing I couldn’t settle and so I didn’t.

But when he died, it wasn’t nothing. When he died, I felt the holes he’d fathered in me—the ones I’d patched over time and hidden from people, from myself.

I’d been cheating.

Family isn’t always everything. Sometimes it’s nothing. It all matters.

How to Win

I have a book on playing cards. One of the tips is, “You’ll never win unless you devise ways of preventing yourself from working against your own interests.”

How does this boy grow up to be someone who dies alone? When did he start cheating life? When did life cheat him? How many times did he let it slide?

I have two sons. They are nine and eleven.

I have pictures of them that look like this one — all innocence and openness. We all have pictures like this of ourselves.

If I give my sons anything, I hope that, despite the holes I may mother in them, they’ll live with hearts on the table. I hope, no matter what, they’re all in.


Kate Brandes lives in the small river town of Riegelsville, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two sons. She’s worked as a geologist and environmental scientist for more than twenty years. Kate is also a writer and artist. Her first novel, The Promise of Pierson Orchard, was published in 2017. 

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