b Papa Dog's Blog: Bernardo's Seventh Annual Poker Birthday Surprise

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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Bernardo's Seventh Annual Poker Birthday Surprise

We’ve been throwing a surprise party at the poker game for Bernardo’s birthday every year for the past seven. You’d think after seven years it would become a little less of a surprise, and it’s true there’s no surprise that we throw the party; the surprise comes in how we throw the party. As you’ll see, it started out fairly simply, but with each passing year it’s been necessary to make it more elaborate and complicated to effect a surprise. A brief history:

1999: The first one actually had nothing to do with the poker game except for the fact that all the participants were in the poker group. Mama Dog and I told Bernardo that Kenilu had invited us all over to his place for supper. It was no secret then and it’s no secret now that Bernardo and Kenilu didn’t go along, so while Bernardo was a little mystified why Kenilu would be extending the olive branch of a dinner invitation, it never occurred to him that it had anything to do with his birthday until we brought out the cake.

2000: The year the surprise became officially attached to the poker game. We had started occasionally having a Big Stakes night – a $100 buy-in rather than the usual $20 buy. We scheduled a Big Stakes night to coincide with Bernardo’s birthday. Everybody chipped in and we bought him a set of clay chips. We arranged for El Dingo to keep him distracted in the living room around the start of game time so that his back would be turned when Mama Dog and I walked in with a cake. Surprise.

2001: Another year, another Big Stakes night, another set of clay chips, another cake. Yes, it was a bit of a repeat. The only thing we changed was to have the surprise come late in the evening rather than at the start. His birthday this year was midway between two scheduled games, so I figured that if we didn’t have the surprise at the start, he’d think it wasn’t coming until the following game.

2002: After the previous year’s admittedly lacklustre performance, Bernardo made the strategic error of bragging that he hadn’t really been surprised, but had just gone along with it in a spirit of cooperation. This is what’s known as throwing down the gauntlet, and it resulted in the first really complicated birthday surprise. I decided to set Bernardo up with a gaffed deck. Several gaffed decks, actually, because I couldn’t be certain how many people would actually show up for the game. I stacked decks for tables with five, six, and seven players. Since I also couldn’t be sure whether it would be a red deck or a blue deck in play at that time, I had to gaffe a total of six decks.

This may all be gobbledygook for people who don’t play poker, but I decided to set Bernardo up with a stone-cold high-low hand in a game he wouldn’t think could be rigged. I chose the game of Anaconda. There are many variant versions and rules to Anaconda, but the way we generally play it, everybody is dealt a seven card hand, and then passes two cards to the player to their left and one to the player to their right. Everybody then has seven cards (the four they held and the three that were passed to them), from which they form their best five-card hand. With cards coming from so many different sources, Bernardo was unlikely to think he could be dealt a bogus hand. In truth, it’s very easy to do as long as everybody else at the table is in on it.

We generally play Anaconda high-low, meaning that the pot will be split by the person with the highest hand and the person with the lowest hand. Since we play California lowball - meaning that straights and flushes are disregarded in forming the low hand. This allows for what’s known as the “pig” hand – the hand that can win both low and high. The best possible pig hand is a low straight flush. Ace through five – a five high – can’t be beaten for the low hand. If the cards are of the same suit, that’s also a five-high straight flush, which can only be beaten by a higher (and just as unlikely) straight flush for the high. This would be Bernardo’s dream hand in Anaconda, and I decided to see to it that he got one.

There were only a few variables to control. One was to make sure that Bernardo held the cards I wanted him to hold when it came time to pass. This was fairly simple. I knew that he likes going for the low hand in Anaconda, so I stacked the deck(s) to deal him four low cards – I think it was ace, two, three, five – and three random higher cards, something like eight, ten, king. The only reasonable move would be to hold the four low cards and pass the three high ones. Another thing that had to be ensured was that Bernardo be seated to my right, since all the decks were stacked for his hand to be received by the played in that position. This was seen to by making sure that everybody else arrived earlier than he did, and that the open chair was held to my right. The game was in the kitchen, and the open chair at the table had its back to the stove.

The other thing to be circumnavigated was the formalised ritual of our play. In any given hand, one person shuffles the deck from the last game, another cuts the deck to be played, and a third deals. This called for a little assistance from my confederates around the table. At a prearranged signal – just before it was my turn to deal – we halted the game for a ten minute bathroom/drink break. While people were milling about, I took Raisin Rob – seated across the table from me, and having shuffled the deck from the previous game – and surreptitiously handed him the deck of the right colour gaffed for the right number of players. He went back to his seat and when he was sure Bernardo wasn’t looking, he pocketed the deck he’d shuffled and put the gaffed one in its place. When everybody was back in place, Raisin Rob slid the deck across the table to Bernardo. This was the neatest trick of all – Bernardo himself cut the deck to me. All the more reason he should feel secure that the hand was legit. It wasn’t. As soon as Bernardo had cut, the Kitty, seated to Bernardo’s right, asked him a question. Bernardo turned to answer him, and the second he looked away, I undid the cut, placing the top half back onto the bottom one. Then I dealt out the fake hand of Anaconda.

As expected, Bernardo held his four low card, which were of mixed suits. Conveniently, the Kitty passed him two low cards, both spades. I also passed him a low spade. Two of the four low cards he held were spades; the three spades he received from us and the two he had held were the ace through five. He had the low straight flush. He looked up and said, “Think I need a drink.” Papa Pirate laughs about this still; we know Bernardo’s tell. If he looks at his cards and says he needs a drink, it’s probably time to fold.

The next step in Anaconda is for everybody to form up their five card hand, then set it face down, ready to be rolled up one card at a time. Everyone rolled their cards. As expected, Bernardo rolled the two of spades. Everybody else rolled a card – one they’d been issued before the game even started and covertly slipped into their hands – with a word scrawled across it in thick black marker ink. Reading clockwise starting from me, the cards read “Bernardo, your presents are in the oven.” Stunned, Bernardo turned around and opened the oven door. The presents were indeed inside the oven, but in front of it was a piece of paper bearing the legend “Just “pretending” to be fooled, my ass! Happy birthday!”

Oh – we showed him our hands. We all had straight flushes too, higher than his. He had to admit he’d been thoroughly bamboozled.

2003: The best surprise that never happened. The Kitty and I cooked up a doozy. Bernardo’s greatest animation hero is Hayao Miyazaki. With the Oscars coming up, we decided to invent an Academy screening of Spirited Away. The Kitty mentioned it months in advance, planting the seed. He told Bernardo he thought he could score tickets. The plan was for the Kitty to take Bernardo to the screening, stopping in Richmond to pick up a fictitious friend. The house they stopped at would actually be the Mircat’s house – to which Bernardo at that point had never been – and we would all be waiting there to tell “Surprise!” We went to great lengths with this. The Kitty printed up fake free passes with appropriate movie and studio logos and phoney copy written by me. There was some talk of doing a fake web site for the screening, but it never came to that. In the end it’s just as well we didn’t go to the extra effort. Bernardo’s annual winter pestilence got in the way. On the night of the “screening” he was flu-ridden and unable to go, thoroughly bummed that he was going to miss his chance to see his hero Miyazaki. Oh well.

We ended up having a surprise in July, six months after his birthday. Pretty surprising I suppose, but it was a lame substitute for a great but thwarted plan.

2004: Back in stride. Bernardo and the Kitty both work at a movie theatre. The Kitty is the maintenance man and has his own little domain behind the main screen. The building was originally a vaudeville house, and the backstage area is extensive. We set up a poker table in there. The Kitty was giving Bernardo a ride to the game and said he had to stop in the theatre to get something. He alerted us by cell as they pulled up, and we turned out the lights. When Bernardo walked in, the lights came on and we yelled “Surprise!” loudly, but completely inaudibly in the theatre over the rumbling soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

All went swimmingly until the manager showed up and kicked us all out. We’re still not entirely clear on what happened, but the Kitty said he’d gotten the manager’s okay to do this, while the manager insisted he’d had no idea what we’d been planning. Myself, I’d been incredulous that he’d okayed the thing, so I didn’t argue when I found out otherwise. I mean, we were gambling and drinking in the back room of a business establishment (and had a couple of minor children with us too), so he was on pretty firm ground for kicking us out. We relocated to the Pirates’ house and the night rolled merrily along.

This year (last night): Last night we had our most involved surprise yet. We again had the game out at the Mircat’s house in Richmond, where pedestrian Bernardo is not easily able to roam. Ordinarily he’d catch a ride from either El Dingo or the Kitty, but I had both of them claim they wouldn’t be attending. “I’ll tell you what,” I told Bernardo, “we’re going to be out there early. Why don’t you just take BART to El Cerrito, then call us at the Mircat’s and we’ll come pick you up.” I even helpfully supplied him with the BART schedule, telling him what time he should catch the train to be there on time.

An hour before Bernardo’s scheduled arrival, I met the Pirates at the BART station. As I’ve probably mentioned, Papa Pirate works for BART, and so does his friend R-Word, who met us there. I’d never met R-word before, but more important, neither had Bernardo. R-Word used to be one of the BART parking ticket dudes – he still had his uniform, which looks convincingly like a BART cop’s. He even came wearing a flak jacket. After clearing things with the station agent and the BART cops patrolling the area – we didn’t want any repeats of the previous year’s error, especially since the guys who might shut us down would be carrying guns – R-Word stationed himself outside the station entrance and the rest of us stationed ourselves in the second floor of the parking garage across the street. From there, we had a commanding view of the station plaza. As Bernardo’s train arrived, I had a set of binoculars trained on the escalator and El Dingo had a set trained on the stairs. Bernardo came down the escalator, so I spotted him first, and called out a description of his clothes – “Black jacket, white pants, carrying an orange bag!” Papa Pirate jotted these details down on a steno pad.

Obligingly, Bernardo went to the payphone and called the Mircat to let him know he’d arrived. The number I’d given him was actually the Mircat’s cell, not her home number; she was stationed in her car so that Bernardo wouldn’t hear the parking garage noise. She told him that Mama Dog and I would be there to pick him up shortly then she rushed out to join us.

Bernardo exited the station and went to wait for us near the parking lot. At this point, R-Word, looking for all the world like a BART cop, walked up and asked to see his BART ticket. Puzzled, Bernardo showed it to him. “Did you just get off that train, sir?” R-Word asked. He began peppering him, Jack Webb style, with pointless but insinuating questions. Then he radioed to “dispatch” for a “readback on the description of the suspect.” Papa Pirate, up in the parking garage with his radio, played the dispatcher. He read back of Bernardo’s ethnicity, age, height, and the colours of the clothes he was wearing and the bag he was carrying. Bernardo blanched, despite his certainty of his own innocence. R-Word told “dispatch” that he’d be bringing the “suspect” back to the “office” and asked Bernardo politely but firmly to come with him. In the first “this is all just a big mistake” phase of a Kafka scenario, Bernardo did as he was told and came away quietly. R-Word led him across the street to the parking garage elevator. Bernardo was naturally wondering why he was being taken to a parking garage when he was supposed to be going to a police station, but he was so off balance he couldn’t put it together. In the elevator, R-Word turned to Bernardo and said, “Sir, the first question I have for you is—” and, timing it to coincide with the opening of the door at the second floor, he pulled Bernardo’s beloved drinking mug, which is stored at my house and brought along to every game, “—is this yours?” Then the elevator doors opened and there we all were, yelling “Surprise!”

Bernardo almost collapsed laughing. He had to admit we’d gotten him good this time.

I have to say here – I’m the first to admit that there’s an element of cruelty to any surprise party, and what we’ve been doing to Bernardo for seven years definitely falls into the category of what Penn and Teller called Cruel Tricks for Dear friends. The annual surprise wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun – and wouldn’t be the much-anticipated event it’s become for our poker group – if Bernardo weren’t so thoroughly good-natured about it. So happy birthday, buddy, and be warned that I’m starting to think about next year.

Also: This party was sort of a combination birthday/bachelor party, since Bernardo’s getting married in a couple of weeks. I asked him recently if he was feeling nervous and he replied, in that way of his, “I feel like Slim Pickens riding the bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove.” With that in mind, here’s a picture of the cake we presented to him when we finally made it to the Mircat’s place last night.


Blogger Brownstein said...

God damn, that most recent surprise was brilliant. Kudos for pulling it off.

And happy birthday, Bernardo, hope marriage treats you well.

8:15 PM  

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