Your Grandmother's Poker Game

By Ben Wear
|  Sunday, Jul 25, 2010  |  Updated 4:00 PM CDT
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Your Grandmother's Poker Game

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The game, like its long-time hostess, endures.

On most Friday nights for the past 64 years or so, while other Austinites were off at football games or movies or dinner, or whatever, political pioneer Emma Long and her friends instead have gathered around her dining table for poker. Three-raise limit, top bet a dollar, losses capped at $15 apiece. No silly games. Emma gets the last deal, and, always, the last word. Call if you can't come, and by God, don't do that too often.

Liberal Democrats preferred.

In 1948, when Dewey defeated Truman (well, almost) and Long beat the odds to became Austin's first female City Council member, she and her late husband, Stuart, were holding the game. In 1969, when Long lost her final race for council after pushing for an ordinance outlawing racial discrimination in housing, the Longs brought out the chips, as usual.

In the summer of 2010, with Long now 98 and three other long-time players in their ninth decade, almost every Friday and almost always at her Wilshire Woods home, everyone antes up a nickel just after 7 p.m., and the cards and chips fly.

Sixty-four years running, three to four hours at a pop. Something close to 10,000 hours, more than a year straight, of five-card stud, high Chicago, "Emma's game" and "That Woman's Game."

"I don't know exactly when it started, but it was right after World War II," says Long, who, because she was born on Feb. 29, jokes that she is 24. Long -- nails perfect, striking red hair and makeup just so, wearing a large bejeweled necklace and a brilliant blue crepe dress -- presents an unusually elegant image for a poker game.

"She's Lady Gaga," says Margie Alford, 72, a retired art director in the fashion industry who is the game's token Republican and, with less than five years at it, a relative newcomer.

"What else am I going to do with this stuff," Long says. "I'm 98 years old!"

The pot right, Judy Alexander, a psychotherapist who at 58 is the youngest member among the regular players, begins to deal. The game, a free-wheeling, beer-and-cigarettes affair in the early days, Long's sons say, is a more circumspect occasion these days. Long, though she uses a walker, retains the command of her 17 years on the council. When you've had a city park named after you (and later, a beer at an Austin brew pub), and the game's on your turf, you get to the call the shots.

"There's no drinking, no cussing, no smoking," Alexander explains. "It's about the game."

They call it "poverty poker." If your $15 runs out, you can play hands without betting until you win, rake that pot and keep going. And, in an odd sort of inflationary illusion, each player actually has $30 of chips, but they're worth only $15. Go figure.

"Typical Democrats," snorts Alford, who admits later that she actually voted for President Barack Obama.

The accounting at evening's end, however, is strict. You win, you win. You lose, you lose.

Emma and Stuart, a radio newsman in those early years and later impresario of Long News Service at the Capitol, began the game when they lived in Tarrytown on Clearview Drive, and Emma wasn't yet a politician. They moved it in 1948 to their new home near what is now Hancock Center (the house had belonged to Mayor Tom Miller, who would be on the opposite side from Long in many a council vote to come).

In 1975, the Longs and the game moved to Emma's current home in Wilshire Woods, in East Austin. On the walls are evidence of the mark the Longs made on Austin history, with framed front-page clippings, Ben Sargent political cartoons featuring Emma Long, and photos with her alongside Lyndon Baines Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, the City Council and other luminaries.

LBJ "dropped in on one night," Long says. "He didn't play, but he was there."

Stuart Long died in 1977. Emma, and the game, survived him.

There has been, of course, a rotating cast of players through the years, some locally prominent in politics or other endeavors, but also a fair share of regular folks.

Russell Lee, a world-famous photographer and University of Texas professor, anted up. Creekmore Fath, as a young man an aide to President Franklin Roosevelt who later moved and shook Democratic politics for a few decades around here, is said to have played some in the early years. So did his brother Conrad Fath (as a substitute, not a regular) until his death in 1990, and, a few times, Conrad's wife, environmental activist Shudde Fath.

"But I was just so pathetic," she says now. "And I would rather talk than play cards. And they did not like that."

Other players: Anita Howard, a long-ago Statesman reporter (as Emma Long had been earlier) and longtime Austin Community College professor. Henry Holman, a carpenter and union activist, and his wife, Mary, a nurse. Stan Alexander (no relation to Judy), a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University earlier in life. Glendora Bell, who retired as head nurse at the Austin State School. Howard, 86; Alexander, 81; and Bell, 88, are still regulars among the six or seven at the table.

There have been other journalists on hand along the way, professors, a student of Howard's, a young man who rented a room at Long's house. And T.Z. Hancock.

Ah, yes, Hancock, an iconic figure in the game's history.

Hancock and his wife, Louise, were longtime players when, one night in 1987, Hancock stood up from the table suddenly, announced that he was having a heart attack, collapsed to the floor and died.

It's a sign of the advanced age of most of the participants now in the game that it took several minutes and a few poker hands on a recent Friday night for them to recall the identity of the man at the center of this dramatic incident. Howard, who recently retired from ACC, finally came up with the name. Characteristic of journalists' often mordant humor and the game's wisecracking spirit, Howard noted that she had always regretted not checking to see whether Hancock was holding the famous "dead man's hand" -- two pair, aces and eights -- when his time came.

Howard said the game resumed the very next Friday after the tragedy. Louise Hancock continued to play at Long's. Her 2002 obituary in the Statesman mentions it.

Weekly poker nights, of course, are part of the country's fabric; no doubt hundreds of them take place each week in Central Texas. The Internet is rife with anonymous poker games. The game even was, for a brief time last decade, all the rage on cable television. What distinguishes this particular game, however, is its durability, its mostly elderly and female participants these days, and, of course, Emma Long.

"You don't think of an older woman playing poker on a Friday night," Alford says. "It's a man's thing."

Judy Alexander says she's thought a lot about the allure of the game, especially when friends ask her to go out on a Friday night and she has to explain, once again, that she has a regular poker gig with people decades her senior.

"For them, I would guess it's a perspective into their past, a familiar ongoing experience they have," Alexander said of those around the table. "That's very soothing as life happens around you, as you lose things, people die, you still have these people and this experience."

For her, "it's sort of exhilarating. They're very interesting people with fascinating stories. They've lived these exciting lives."

That's a Tuesday sort of musing, however. Friday night at Long's is about holding or folding, dealing, not feeling. Alford at one point, responding to an interloper's persistent questions, goes on a bit long for Alexander's taste.

"You stop talking," she says. "We're playing poker."

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