We recently marked a milestone of sorts in our house: We quietly … surreptitiously … finally… retired Candy Land.
I don’t say quietly and surreptitiously because I enjoy hiding toys from my kid. I just don’t want to do anything that might alert my little hoarder-in-training — a kid who’d stash away every plaything he’s ever had since babyhood if our house had enough closets — that the game’s gone missing. If you’ve ever attempted a toy purge in the presence of a child, you know that even if your kid never so much as touched the workbench you dropped 80 bucks on because he was enthralled with Daddy’s tools, the mere threat that it might leave the house forever will prompt him to cling to that molded plastic like an environmental activist chained to a tree, sobbing MOMMY! IT’S MY FAVORITE. DON’T TAKE IT AWAY. PLEASE!!! until you return it to the playroom — where it will sit untouched till the next purge.
Having learned that lesson with the plastic workbench … and the inflatable Elmo I bought for my son’s second birthday … and the tinny synthesizer keyboard we tried to replace with an actual piano, I now do my toy purging on the sly. It’s not that I’m that mean. It’s that Candy Land is that excrutiatingly dull. If you haven’t gotten to this particular stage of childhood yet, here’s a friendly heads up: Candy Land is the tranquilizer of board games. Go ahead, play a few rounds the next time you can’t fall asleep. Works better than valium. Mid-game, you could probably drill my teeth, and I wouldn’t flinch.
Yes, yes, I understand its developmental value for introducing tots to structured game play and how not to hurl the pieces at the wall and stomp on the board when you lose (though that particular lesson will take some time to sink in). But spend a few years pushing a plastic gingerbread man through a junk food forest, from red space to blue space to green space to orange space, and your brain will feel about as sharp as those beginner knives you find in toddler cutlery sets — the ones that couldn’t slice butter if it was left out in the sun. After a couple of hours on a rainy Saturday, you’ll beg to stop playing. You’ll barter a kidney to stop playing. But as anyone who’s ever gotten within striking distance of that promised land o’ sweets only to draw the dreaded Gingerbread Man card and been booted back to the beginning to start the maddening trek over again knows, the game … never … stops. It’s like pedaling a stationary bike. You can play forever and never get there. In fact, I think we were still in the middle of the first game we started when we opened the box three years ago. Deep-sixing this baby wasn’t mean. It was self-preservation.
With Candy Land hidden away on the top shelf in the back corner of my office closet, I was free to introduce Fletcher to games that I wouldn’t need a double Scotch to endure. Games like Othello, Sorry and Chinese Checkers. Eventually, I figured, we’d graduate to Mastermind, Scrabble, and, my personal favorite, Stratego. In my Perfect Parent daydreams, I envisioned our little family gathered, Norman Rockwell-style, round the table for family game nights with a big bowl of popcorn, our golden retriever happily resting at our feet, a nice cozy fire in the fireplace …
Okay, so we don’t have a fire place. Or a dog. I’m actually more of a cat person. But you get the picture of wholesome Hallmark Channel-kind of family fun I had in mind.
Know what my sweet, pink-cheeked li’l cherub wanted to play instead? Poker.
Yessir, that’s my baby … the budding card shark.
I’ve asked Fletcher repeatedly and still don’t know what put the idea in his head, where he even heard about poker. It’s not like my husband Stewart has a weekly poker game. No one we know plays poker. My parents occasionally talk about “bridge,” but as far as Fletcher’s concerned, they’re discussing crumbling infrastructure in London, not cards. I spent four years in Vegas and still can’t tell the difference between a straight and a flush. To me, a full house means having weekend guests. Or that inane sitcom with the Olsen twins.
Of course, I was grateful that he wasn’t clamoring for Candy Land. But, seriously, in what universe is poker an appropriate game for a 5-year-old? Was gambling really the best example to set for our child, I demanded, when Stewart agreed to teach Fletcher Texas Hold Em. What next? Blackjack, maybe? Showing him how to blow smoke rings? Mix martinis? I could already anticipate the summons from his Montessori teacher: Fletcher’s reading well and starting to master subtraction. But we are concerned that he’s hustling poker games on the playground. Please see me at your earliest convenience.
When they give out Debauched Parents of the Year awards, we’re shoe-ins for the Under Six category.
But Stewart shrugged off my concerns in the way that husbands the world over shrug off their wives’s concerns when they think we’re over-reacting. Then he helpfully pointed out that we’d already exposed Fletcher to gambling, playing dreidl during Chanukah. If you’ve never played, dreidl is like rudimentary craps, but rather than rolling dice, you spin a top with Hebrew letters on it, then put pennies in or take them out of a pot based on which letter comes up. It’s a children’s game. But there’s probably a bookie who takes odds on it somewhere.
And, of course, eight days of dreidl spinning had not spiraled Fletcher into juvenile delinquency.
“Hon, we’re not talking about roulette or throwing dice here,” Stewart said, still trying to win me over. “Poker’s a sophisticated game of skill.”
Yeah, yeah. You say po-TAH-toe … I say we’re thisclose to having DCFS banging on our door.
But caught between a child who’s raised relentless pleading to an art form (Please, please, please, Mommy! I want to play!! Please!) and a husband who’s logged his share of glassy-eyed hours on Candy Land duty and was equally desperate for more stimulating diversions, I knew I wasn’t gonna win this one.
“All right, all right. We’ll play. But no cash. We’ll use M&Ms.”
At least I’d drawn a line somewhere. Though on reflection I realized that years from now Fletcher would be able to tell his therapist how his parents set him up for gambling addiction and diabetes. It was too late to buy back on that one though. Fletcher was already rummaging in the pantry for his Halloween stash.
“Found the M&Ms, Mommy!”
I wondered if maybe, between the anteing up, the calling and the raising, we could consider poker a “math exercise.” Oh yeah, I was grasping. That’s a whopper of a rationalization. But I figured it was my best defense if Social Services came calling.
So Family Game Night became Hold Em Night. Stewart outlined the basics of our sophisticated game of skill … er, math exercise. He explained the flop, the turn and the river. He detailed the different types of winning hands and what it meant to check, to call, to raise and match a bet to “make the pot right.” See — there’s some addition. Maybe “math exercise” wasn’t such a stretch.
We played cards up for practice so Fletcher would get the hang of putting together two-of-a kind, three-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, flushes and straights from the cards he held and those on the table.
“How’s that for some set theory?” Stewart said, pointedly. More math. Sweet.
Then we were ready to play for real.
We tossed some M&Ms into the pot, and Stewart dealt the cards. Two to each of us and three face down in the middle.
“I dealt, so it’s your bet, Fletcher,” Stewart nodded at him.
Fletcher knocked his little fist on the table. “Check,” he said. “I wanna see it for free.” One lesson, and he’s already got the lingo down.
I checked. Stewart checked. Then he flipped the table cards over: Ace of hearts. 5 of spades. 10 of clubs. That did nothing for the cards in my hand. But Fletcher gave a little yelp, then pushed a bunch of M&MS into the pot, with a big grin.
“Ooooh, Maaaah-meee,” he taunted, through a mouthful of chocolate. “I’m gonna beat you. I’m gonna beat you.”
“Okay, Poker Face,” I tousled his hair. “Try to save some chocolate for the game.”
“Here comes the turn –” Stewart dealt the fourth card, the 10 of diamonds. “Okay, everyone’s got a pair of 10s. Fletcher, your bet.”
Fletcher pushed more of his candy into the pot. “I’ve got the best hand! I’m gonna beat you. I’ve got the best hand. I’m gonna beat you,” he chanted, dancing excitedly in his seat. “I’m gonna take you to the laundry.”
“To the cleaners, baby,” I laughed. “You’re going to take us to the cleaners.” Okay, so he didn’t have all the lingo down yet.
“Uh huh … Can I show you? Can I show you?”
“Not yet. Let’s wait for the last card,” I said. I had squat but tossed more M&Ms into the pot anyway.
“And the river –” Stewart laid down the last card, the queen of hearts. “Okay, Fletcher. Whaddya wanna do?”
“All in!” Fletcher pushed the rest of his M&Ms into the center of the table. “Can I show you now? Can I show you now?”
We’d noticed during practice play that Fletcher loved to bet heavy, more, we figured, because he liked to see a big pile of candy on the table, than any real understanding of how to bluff. So wagering his sizeable pile of M&Ms could mean he had pocket aces … or nothing at all. And I didn’t want game night to end with him sulking, face down in the couch cushions because he lost all his chocolate.
“You really want to bet all your M&Ms?” I asked gently. He nodded, fiercely.
“All right.” We added the rest of our M&Ms to the pile too. “Turn ‘em over,” Stewart said.
Fletcher gleefully laid out his cards. It took a moment to register. Then Stewart and I looked at each other in disbelief. There on the table, between the community cards and his own, was a pair of aces and three 10s.
The kid had a full house.
Seriously. What are the odds?
“I told you I would win, Mommy and Daddy,” Fletcher said, all confidence and melted chocolate.
We looked at the cards, then back at each other, sharing a bewildered and bemused How the fuck did that happen?!? look.
Score one for poker math, I thought with chuckle. Then we brushed the chocolate off our little card shark’s teeth and tucked him into bed.