Emotional Health · Family & Friends · Lifestyle

Poker, Bunco, and Other Games Women Play

Brownmiller wondered, Why are men so fascinated by this game?

It is, by all odds, the oldest established permanent ladies’ poker game in New York. Twenty-five years ago, author Susan Brownmiller, journalist Robin Reisig, and a group of their friends—most of them active in the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s—began getting together every Saturday night in a quest to discover why men are so fascinated by this game.

Brownmiller, author of the influential 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, got interested in poker while she was covering the trial of Joel Steinberg, accused—and convicted—of killing his illegally adopted daughter. “While we were waiting for the jury, the men all said, ‘Ah, let’s play seven-card stud.’ I asked if I could join. And I knew nothing about poker. I thought I could just figure it out on my own, and I lost all my money, and I thought, ‘These guys have this skill; what do they get out of this game? Is it all machismo? No woman I know knows anything about poker.’”

The game still goes on—every third or fourth Saturday—with only Brownmiller and Reisig remaining from the original group. What is the glue that holds the players together?

“The most important thing is that one of us take charge of the cooking,” Brownmiller says. “We always have a lavish meal—pot roast, pasta, lamb stew—with someone bringing the salad and someone else the dessert. Then we clear the dining room table and play.” (Since few of the players have dining rooms, the games often take place in her apartment.)

The conversation can get spirited; these are not the clenched-teeth sessions you see in old Western movies . . . gunslingers silently throwing down cards. “There are a lot of egos around the table,” Brownmiller says, “and lots of things have happened to people around the table in the last few weeks.” The players are all feminists, and, as Brownmiller puts it, “Democrats—at least. And they all have political opinions, especially during this season.

“We are all competitive, and nobody likes to lose,” Brownmiller says. “We keep up with the games that are played in the casinos: Texas Hold ’em and pai gow. . . . There’s bluffing and having an impassive face so you’re not revealing your ‘tell’—we do a bit of that—but the stakes are too low to make the game absolutely vivid; it’s not onerous if you lose. It’s unlikely for anyone to win more than $20 in an evening.”

Twenty-five years into the tradition, “for us it’s now dinner and poker instead of consciousness raising—though we still do a bit of that,” Brownmiller says. “Playing poker is an easy way to get together; and since we’re all women, we don’t have to worry about having enough men in the group. That takes away that burden of the old-fashioned dinner party.”

She adds, laughing, “Early on, Robin had the insight that a poker group solves the problem of what single women can do on a Saturday night.”

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In the many decades of my adult life, I have played no games except, once in a long while, the wonderful word game Balderdash. But mah jongg? Bunco? Really? With some skepticism, I asked some of our writers and their friends to persuade me of the pleasures of their regular game of choice.

5307711592_4d1fa49d75_zPlaying Scrabble. (Photo by Scott Schiller via Flickr. Creative Commons License) 

The persuader-in-chief turned out to be Philadelphia-based writer Stacia Friedman, who has written several hilarious posts  for us. She plays Scrabble once a month with a group of “brilliant women—authors, playwrights, university professors, psychologists; many have Ph.D.s.” They meet in the home of her neighbor, Sybil Terres Gilmar, a retired school superintendent in her 80s. Sybil is, Friedman notes, a fierce player as well as an accomplished rower, pianist, playwright, novelist, Ph.D., grandmother, and volunteer ESL instructor.

And also “a fabulous baker.” That’s one of the reasons Friedman said yes, a year ago, to Gilmar’s invitation to join the monthly game. “The irony is, I never liked to play Scrabble,” she says. “My family didn’t play it when I was growing up. I’m not a gamer. I don’t even do crossword puzzles. But I knew I would have a nice time at her home. I also knew I’d have great snacks. So I thought, ‘It will be a nice environment; what do I have to lose?’”

But there was a deeper reason why she said yes: “For seven years I cared for a mother with dementia. I was her primary caretaker, and it was the most profound, traumatic experience of my life. Ever since then I’ve lived in fear of getting dementia. I understand that being mentally active is supposedly one of the best ways to prevent it. It doesn’t matter if you’re learning a language, learning how to dance, doing crossword puzzles, playing bridge—what matters is that you’re constantly challenging yourself.

“What’s interesting about this,” she goes on, “is that I’m a professional writer, so I like to think that I’m mentally challenging myself with every assignment on a weekly basis, researching articles and interviewing people. But I had a feeling that playing Scrabble would give my mind a kind of exercise that I didn’t have in the work week.”

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  • Susanna Gaertner April 4, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    What a superb accounting of something we should all be doing more of; I love charades but when I mention it out here people are not amused, much less primed to play. As a small child I used to be my Oma’s partner at canasta…we really cleaned up among the old biddies who didn’t think a child could play as well as I did. Ahhh, I miss those days!
    Thanks, Debbie, for the memories.
    Maybe we can assemble a game the next time I’m in NYC?

    Reply
  • Nancy Weber April 2, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    Gorgeous piece, erudite & funny. Especially love the description of mah jongg tile-washing & other rituals among regular combatants. Universal rules make
    it possible for strangers to sit down at a game board together & get right to it, but house rules add special flavor. The chess fiends here always say “queen check”; does anyone else out there have the same custom? And the food at the game meets Debbie describes! I play Lexulopus online with two different opponents I like very much although we never break bread on terra firma. Roberta & Jon, if you’re reading this: want to try eating virtual pot roast next time we play?

    Reply
  • Betty Mosedale March 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    This was a charming article. Except as a child, I’ve never been a game person and my husband definitely was not. But I can see now what value these games have and might venture in that direction. Balderdash anyone? Bravo, Debbie.

    Reply
  • roz warren March 24, 2016 at 11:06 pm

    What a fun post! Brings back terrific memories of playing poker with my pals in high school, and playing mahj or backgammon with my friends in college. Those were good times.

    Reply
  • Emily Kelting March 23, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    Great article, Debbie! Gaming has been BIG in my family.

    Balderdash–YES! My son’s birthday is Christmas Eve and after birthday cake is eaten, a rousing game of Balderdash follows, using the Oxford English Dictionary to find the words. So much fun! The definitions are hilarious, and the made up ones really sound as if they are straight out of the OED.

    Scrabble– I play an online version called Lexulous with 2 of my college pals who live on the West Coast (I live on the right coast). We usually have 5 or 6 games going at a time.

    Mah jongg–my grandmother had a beautiful set, and even though I haven’t a clue how to play (I’ll have to read Gregg’s book), my sisters and I had lots of fun making trains from the tiles all over her living room.

    And there’s more: my grown-up children (ages 29 and 26) love cribbage, poker, gin rummy and other card and board games.

    Reply
  • Margery Stein March 23, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    Vivid and interesting, although I’m not into cards. But, Debbie dear, I’ll play Scrabble or Balderdash with you anytime!

    Reply
  • Toni Myers March 23, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Many thanks for this fun piece, Deborah! I want to join in on a game. Bunco sounds like the most fun with the least effort. Alas, Boulder is far away. I play Words With Friends online, lacking the all-important community. Please count me in for a game of Balderdash some day. I could join you all in Philadelphia!

    Reply
  • Chris L. March 22, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    I’d play that game! Bring the box to Philly, I bet I can get Roz and Stacia to join in!

    Reply