September 1, 2009
Once, it was called self-annihilation or beatitude; now it’s “flow” or “being in the zone,” science trumping metaphysics, as usual. No word comes close to catching the experience, so you might as well choose one that sounds good. My purest experience of it came, not on a meditation cushion or a free-throw line, but at a card table, and more than 20 years later I’m still scratching my head about what happened, how it happened, and why.
The... episode, for lack of a better word, happened on the grounds of a church, at least, though not the consecrated section. To raise operating funds, Good Shepherd Presbyterian in Hyattsville, Maryland, sponsored an annual Casino Night in the recreation building out back, featuring roulette, blackjack, and craps in the main hall and poker – the real thing – on a dark, narrow balcony above. Downstairs was festive: old-fashioned slot machines with pull-down handles and flashing lights, cigarette girls and vested dealers and kisses for luck. Upstairs was serious: a row of Formica-topped tables under a row of naked 100-watt bulbs. The players, seven at each table, sat on folding chairs of grey metal; around them stood others watching the game and fingering the bills in their pockets. Downstairs you could hear bells and laughter, the tinkle of ice cubes and the tick-tick-tick of the roulette wheel, the cheers of the winners and the mock-groans of the losers, while upstairs, everything was drowned in the whine of an overwhelmed window fan, except the clatter of chips and a few terse monosyllables: call, raise, fold, fuck. My companion, a Casino Night veteran, fetched me a drink with a cherry, a paper wallet full of “blessing bucks,” and a seat at a blackjack table decorated with crosses. Then he ascended to the real game, taking the stairs two at a time.
That was Owen, better of horses, player of hunches, loser of shirts. His track pals had been talking all week about this annual poker game, ludicrously illegal in those days, but winked at by the local cops because the Presbyterians were good folks who gambled only once a year, and, after all, the rake was God's. A couple of the railbirds planned to go, make some easy money, despite their buddies’ mutterings about candy and babies. Owen didn’t care; he was way down for the year and desperate to turn his luck around. I came for the cheap drinks, one of which I had in hand when, after losing my “blessing bucks,” I made my way upstairs to see how Owen was getting on. By the time I arrived, the ring of spectators around each table had grown dense. With the wait for a seat now more than an hour, players did not leave the table, even for a moment, without finding a substitute. Owen’s earlier eagerness to have my company began to make sense.
The crowd was particularly thick around Owen’s table, occupied by a couple of local semi-pros and twice that many conventioneers staying at the Marriott down the street. I watched for a while, admiring the skill with which the locals were relieving the conventioneers of their chips – not by deceiving them, but by allowing their assumptions to go unchallenged. We Americans pride ourselves on not confusing accent with acumen, but we do; we just don’t do it as systematically as some. And the diphthongs of Baltimore are right at the top of our “that's not an accent, it's just stupidity” list. Owen, proud son of the Chesapeake Bay, would have ruptured his bladder rather than abandon this lucrative table.
Before I continue, I should describe the kind of card player I was back then. My game was competent but barely so because I played too “tight,” meaning that I folded all but the very best hands – and, of course, had trouble making those pay off, as my friends knew I wouldn’t bet without the goods. So, while I was in a rut with my own game, I was an ideal gotta-spend-a-penny-need-a-sub player; Owen could be sure I wouldn’t toss his stack into the pot without a very good reason. I might even enlarge it, playing with strangers who wouldn’t abandon their hands the moment I touched my chips. In other words, Owen knew he could take his time. He whispered that he needed to get a drink and make a phone call while he was gone and would see me in about 15 minutes.
The bet reached me just as I was sitting down. My reflexes said fold, rather than wager thoughtlessly, but a new kind of caution urged me to wait. I glanced at my cards: a king of clubs and two hole cards in a game of 7-card stud. The bet was a paltry 50 cents to me, Owen having anted out of the small pot he won just before departing. In the first of many deviations from habit, I called the bet blind, without looking at my hole cards. The call felt good. Right. Powerful. Suddenly, I understood why the guys made calls “in the blind.” Before I thought it was foolish, adolescent, a “Look, Ma, no hands!” for boys too old to ride bikes. Now I got it. I got that it was a leap, not into a vacuum, but onto a springboard that might collapse with a thud or that just might bounce me higher in the air than I could jump on my own. Then I picked up my hole cards, and the soaring began.
I had another king and a deuce – promising but dangerous in a game with so many players. My pair of kings probably wouldn’t hold up, and I’d likely watch the third land in someone else’s hand, ideally without the fourth already “down and dirty.” Two pairs were more likely, with four cards to go, but the conventioneers never met a budding straight or flush they wouldn’t bet until the very last card – great when they didn’t hit it but... there were four of them. Not to mention the two locals, neither of whom had folded – though, for four bits, who would? I looked at my two kings, the king of clubs on the table and the king of spades in my hand, next to the 2 of hearts, and my brain coughed up the bit of reasoning above, while at the same moment I knew I would catch a third king and a second 2, which would land me kings full of deuces. I didn’t hope or wish for a full house; I knew I had it, and, although the third king didn’t physically appear until seventh street – that is, as my very last card – my conviction didn’t waver. Despite playing against a straight, a higher two pair (aces and queens), and enough drawing hands to bring four to the final showdown, the sensation in my gut was of playing a “made” hand the entire time.
Then I did it again, with a straight to the jack. And again – only three 7s, this time, but it was enough to beat aces over 5s and a busted flush. Then another, higher straight that was almost a straight flush – though I knew it wouldn’t be. The group around our table was starting to buzz, literally. I had always thought of “crowd buzz” as a metaphor, but, yes, here comes another revelation to add to the day’s total: crowds buzz, not like bees or vibrators but like those headless-giant power lines when you walk under them. The buzz is something you feel more than hear; the power lines vibrate with excitement. When I felt it, I got self-conscious and folded several hands in a row without really looking at them. Then I felt bad. Owen needed the money, I needed the money, and, for some reason, the money tree was standing unguarded.
I resumed playing and won a huge pot with a heart flush. After a third full house, no one would play with me; they studied their watches and waited for Owen to return. The deal went all the way around, and I won only the antes plus my initial bets. In the quiet, I heard whispers from the crowd. “She can’t be cheating. Too obvious.” I decided to lose a hand, but it took me a while; you can’t lose if no one will play. Finally, in a game of five-card stud, one of my opponents had a pair of queens wired. I had an ace in the hole and knew I would hit another ace – on the last card, I hoped. Yes, indeed. My opponent took a deep breath and bet. I realized that no one around us was breathing, either. “It’s good,” I said, mucking my cards quickly so no one would see the second ace. The sound of scattered applause almost drowned out the sound of breathing.
Owen came back from the bathroom, but, before he drew near the table, a woman restrained him by the arm and shook her head, “No.” She was behind me, so I didn’t see her; Owen told me about it later. She was behind me, he added, so she saw the mucked aces, which is why she didn’t want Owen to stop me. She wanted to see how long the streak – or whatever it was – would last. I played until word reached the conventioneers that Owen was back, whereupon they insisted, loudly, that he resume his place at the table. That was OK; the streak had ended a few minutes earlier. All told, I played for half an hour, and I would say that I retained the knowledge and the conviction that I have described for 27 of those 30 minutes. After the aces, I figured out how to lose enough to retain my credibility – and my opponents’ interest in the game – while winning most of the pots.
It never happened again – at least not like that. Poor Owen spent the rest of the year wondering why, if such a gift were to be visited upon his place at the table, it would arrive while he was away. He would have done so much more with it, he is sure; he would have parlayed it somehow into a lifetime winning streak. The woman who stopped him from resuming his place at the table was more ambitious. In my place, she laughed, she would have run down the street to the mini-mart on the corner and started picking lottery numbers. The week’s drawing was only two hours and a dozen miles away; surely, in my privileged state of knowing, I could have reached out just a little farther in time and space. As she grimaced with laughter, I wondered whether she was right and felt a trickle of regret at not having explored what I was fast coming to see was a genuine marvel.
The reason I didn’t is that, while the spell lasted, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Never had I – or have I since – felt such assurance or such ease. I was exactly where I should be, doing exactly what I should be doing, exactly as it was meant to be done: with grace, dexterity, and perfect understanding. The sensation was not one of transient opportunity but of arrival after long wandering – or, better, recognition after long confusion. If it happens to me again tomorrow, I know I will not buy lottery tickets, unless that happens to be what I’m doing at the time. That is just about all I know for certain.
So is this the same “flow” that an athlete occasionally enjoys? What happens to a basketball player makes more sense: he has practiced and practiced, and finally he’s able to get out of his own way for a while, let the muscle memory take over and play the way a cheetah hunts. So what if he suddenly can’t miss, even from mid-court, even blind. That’s not so strange; his body knows where the net is. So what if he suddenly seems to know what the other team is going to do before they do it. That’s not so strange; he’s reading the defense especially well. But with cards? OK, perhaps she has practiced a lot and is playing well – but, no, she’s not playing well; she’s taking terrible risks, risks that would normally cost her half her bankroll, not to mention her reputation for sanity. She’s calling a huge bet by a made set of kings because she knows she’s going to catch the one card in the whole deck that will complete her straight without giving a third player his flush. In other words, it’s not even that she’s reading other players unusually well, though she is. She doesn’t need to read them; she doesn’t need to play them; for a little while, the world is tipped so that all the balls roll right into her pocket.
Why? Why then? Why there? Why me? Yes, I spent many hours sitting on a cushion every day, but it was atop a barstool, not on the floor of a Zen center. I wouldn't begin to meditate for years. Was it just chance? Are epiphanies by nature random, regarded as fruits of spirituality because more likely to be recognized – and valued – by metaphysicians? If such experiences are not random, why are they impossible to replicate at will? I know how to induce a seemingly opposite state, a sense of being completely out of synch with the world, every movement a blunder, every comment a gaffe. That state I can achieve in paradoxically opposite ways: either by imposing my will too forcibly on my surroundings or by allowing myself to be forcibly imposed upon by my surroundings. I suppose, then, that one of the conditions required for “flow” is an alignment of self and other such that neither dominates. Yet such balance is surely the starting place for sound living generally. My questions don't take me far. Only the experience itself can properly explain the experience, so I go back, over and over again, to a long-ago card game on a shabby balcony behind a Mid-Atlantic church.