Bridge is the great American middle-class game and, as might be expected, it is the favorite diversion of card-playing commuters on trains throughout the country. Bridge is played on the Long Island, Pennsylvania, New Haven, Lackawanna, Chicago & North Western and Southern Pacific railroads. It is also played on the New York Central lines—with one important exception. On the Hudson River division of the Central, poker, not bridge, is the time-passing game on trains running back and forth between Grand Central Station and Harmon, N.Y., 35 miles to the north.
This is not the ordinary poker you play in a friend's home on a Saturday night. This is poker as played and kibitzed in the smoking car morning and evening by such characters as Eliot the Brain, Surgeon, Lucky Louis and Al the Ear Tugger. Instead of the polite murmurings of a serious bridge game, the Harmon smoker-poker special vibrates with such shouts and imprecations as "Deal, goniff!" "Shut up!" and "You and your lousy two pair!" Smoker poker has its own rules and practices. At first glance, they may appear to be blunt and crude, but they have been forged and honed by the unusual conditions of play.
In either direction, the train trip along the Hudson takes an hour. The idea behind smoker poker is to cram in as many hands as possible and yet have each pot as fat as possible. As a result, the varieties of poker played are either draw or seven-card stud. Five-card stud is out; it does not offer enough heart-stopping possibilities. Wild cards are out, and so are games like "baseball" and "high-low." ("In a lurching car, with four guys sitting down and four standing up, there's enough confusion already," says Eliot the Brain Surgeon.) To speed play, you can open on anything in draw. The cards are barely shuffled, and there is no cut. Why waste half a minute? And since all the players want to get as much action as possible, most of them stay through a hand with a holding they ordinarily would abandon early. Naturally, there is more than the usual number of flushes and full houses. When Eliot the Brain Surgeon says, "Full," Lucky Louis is likely to respond, "How high?" Sometimes you think they're playing with a pinochle deck.
The smoker poker game has been going on for 13 years. Eliot the Brain Surgeon—unlike most smoker poker players, he does not mind disclosing his full name, which is Eliot Stark—and a friend, a theatrical press agent, started it. The friend has since dropped out, but co-founder Eliot plays on even though he is not permitted to sit down in the game. He deals so ineptly ("He has the hands of a brain surgeon," a player once cracked, thereby giving Eliot his nickname) that he has been banished to standing in the aisle. Only fast shufflers are permitted to sit down in the seats. Eliot is likely the first commuter in the country to have clocked 221,772 miles standing.
The question has been asked, why is poker and not bridge played on the Harmon trains? The answer is twofold. First, Eliot and his friend preferred poker. "Poker is a game for extraverts," says Eliot, a corporate public relations man who once handled Jayne Mansfield. Second, even if Eliot and his friend had not started the game, someone else on the train probably would have. The Harmon trains serve the village of Croton-on-Hudson and, to put it mildly, Croton is considerably different from other commuter towns. It has been called Greenwich Village pregnant. Settled by Italian immigrants who came to cut stone for the Croton Reservoir dam in the early 1900s, it was "discovered" later by artistic Bohemians and political radicals yearning for the simple life. There is a minimum of Madison Avenue types. Through the years Croton has remained somewhat rural and nonconformist. It is a town of interesting individualists. Two main "industries" are think tanks. One is the Institute for Motivational Research, headed by Dr. Ernest Dichter, who is trying to sell everyone on the idea that automobiles are a sex symbol. The other is the Hudson Institute, where Dr. Herman Kahn and his team of nuclear strategists are assessing the various ways that nations can blow everyone up efficiently. So what else would you get from such a place but poker players?
The best way to capture the essence of Croton is to stand on the Harmon station platform some wintry morning when the wind is blowing in from the river, the snow swirls across the tracks and the air brakes of the trains spout geysers of steam. Instead of Brooks Brothers garb, the commuters are done up in fur hats, berets and greatcoats tailored in Belgrade at the turn of the century. On a Monday morning, it is easy to pick out the smoker poker players from the rest of this crowd. They are the ones who are smiling. The rest are glum at the thought of leaving their woodland retreats after the weekend, but the poker players seem happy to be going back to work. Actually, they're overjoyed about getting back to the game. Who said anything about work? Conversely, on Friday evenings, the regular commuters are elated while the poker players are depressed. Two whole lousy days to waste before the game on Monday morning!
The original game Eliot started is still going on the 8:15. There are games on the 7:23 and the 9:02, but these are sons of the 8:15. For instance, the 9:02 crowd is made up of former 8:15ers who 1) can now afford to indulge in banker's hours or 2) are feuding with someone in the 8:15 game.
When the 8:15 pulls in, the regular commuters clamber aboard the first two cars like Chinese refugees abandoning Nanking. The poker players peel off and head for the third car, a smoker. Before the train pulls out, a couple of hands are already dealt. The stakes are a modest quarter and a half. Usually there is one game, with seven or eight players participating and about half a dozen kibitzers hanging over the seats. At Ossining, the next stop down the line, up to three more players may join the game. (One morning they almost didn't. The conductor was so interested in the hand being played that he forgot to let the Ossining passengers on until they started banging on the doors.)
The three most prominent players in the game are Morris, Eliot and Dave. That's because they make the most noise. Morris tries to distract the other players with a constant line of aimless chatter. He openly admits this. "I'm trying to take your mind off the game, fellas," he announced gaily one morning when told to pipe down. The only players who can make him be still are Jimmy and Jack, ordinarily quiet players. When Morris gets carried away talking, Jimmy and Jack start a cross-table conversation about golf. Morris can't stand golf. When a tournament like the Masters is on, Morris stays silent. Eliot is perhaps the zaniest player. Exiled to the aisle, he is always the slowest to arrange his hand and get his money down. While the other players fume, he searches one pocket and then another for change. If he decides to raise, he may blow half the trip. In a draw game, he is at his worst. On any number of occasions he has broken up pat hands to, as he once put it in a loud aside, "sucker the other guys in." Usually he suckers himself right out, but he gets his kicks that way. On the other hand, he is also capable of staging the most outrageous bluffs. Once he and a player named Horace were the only two left in a game. "Can you beat queens?" Horace asked hesitantly. "Of course," said Eliot, slapping down a half dollar. Horace threw in his hand, and Eliot raked in the pot. He only had a pair of 6s. It is little wonder that Horace now catches the 9:02.
Dave gets on at Ossining. He is a good player, but what throws the others off balance is his cackle. Someone will have aces showing, but Dave will get a deuce and he will cackle. It is unnerving. In draw, he is devastating. He will take three cards and cackle. He will stand pat and cackle. You see him, and he'll beat you. You don't, and he cackles again. He may have bluffed you. With Dave it's impossible to figure the cackle.