I was told before I got there that Casino de Montreal’s poker room was bilingual and that I’d be hearing English and French at the table. So I was ready for that. What I wasn’t ready for were the face cards. My first hand, the dealer dealt me two cards, and when I peeked at the corners of the cards to see what I had, I was greeted by indecipherable information. One of my cards had an R on it, and the other had a V.
I lifted the corners a smidge higher and I could see that I had two face cards. From there I had no choice but to lift my cards completely off the table and hold them close to my chest to view them in privacy, like I did when I was eight years old. I deciphered the artwork and determined that I had a king and a jack. I couldn’t tell you at that time which letter meant king and which one meant jack, but at least I knew what I had. Whew!
The flop came V, D, 4, and my mind kicked into puzzle mode.
I know I have a pair of Vs, whatever that is. And the D isn’t a king or a jack so it must be a queen.
I leaned forward to examine her face to be sure.
It’s okay. Everything is okay here. No need to panic. I just need to crack the code, that’s all, and everything will be fine.
I looked at my king and jack again, pictures and all. And that’s when the fears began to feed. The fear of horrendously bad betting errors. The fear of being the biggest boob in the building. The fear of giving money away.
My king had an R in the corner and the jack had a V. That was all I needed. I’d cracked the code. R is K, D is Q, and V is J. It should be smooth sailing from here on in.
Wrong! My bafflement did not subside. Over and over I had to pause and think in unaccustomed ways. Typically, when I get to the turn-and-river part of a hand, my mind is instinctively trying to figure out what my opponent has. Not this night. I was having a hard enough time figuring out what I had. Every time a face card appeared — in my hand, on the board, or in my opponents’ hole cards — it was like Louis XIV himself was giggling at my confusion.
You might be wondering why I was playing poker in Montreal in the first place. I was in Montreal because I was coaching a European client who was barred from the United States. Sounds a bit clandestine, doesn’t it? Perhaps some kind of espionage? He claims he was banished because of a visa violation. My theory is that he’s a revenge-driven ex-CIA operative plotting to destroy the world from his secret lair in Aruba. And in the meantime he was hoping to plug a few leaks in his poker game.
We met in Montreal instead of Vegas because it was the closest foreign poker room to my house that had what we needed. And we were going to be here all week, so I knew I had to do something to correct my newfound blindness right quick.
My fears can get the best of me. They can also bring out the best in me. I took a break and went to work. I asked the floorman what R, D, and V stand for. R stands for Roi, he told me, meaning king. D was for Dame. V was for Valet. I wrote all that down.
Next, I stopped by the gift shop and bought a deck of French playing cards and went to my room and opened them up and glared at them. I think that helped. But I was still crippled by these kooky cards when I rejoined my client — let’s call him Mr. Bond — and the others, at the table. It was impossible to just play poker.
After the session, Mr. Bond told me a fun fact that has nothing to do with this story: “I have played poker in France,” he said. “You will find nothing but Ks, Qs, and Js in the corners of the facecards in France. The only place you will find French playing cards is in Canada.”
The next morning, while writing to Kay about why we now own yet another deck of cards, I had a revelation. I typed “KQJ” into the email, and it occurred to me that those letters in that order register in my mind exactly like 123 and ABC. A-ha! Problem solved! Today (I thought) I will train my brain to perceive R, D, and V using the same neural pathway it uses for 1, 2, 3, and by tonight, I’ll be able to play poker in French.
And I did. And I was.
This is the spot in the column where typically I extract some kind of lesson or advice from the story I’ve told. Okay. I got one. A classic.
You just never know what sort of cards the universe is going to deal you. You might get good cards, or bad cards, or cards that make no sense at all. And there ain’t a darn thing you can do about it anyway so you might as well be kind to your parents and try to get good sleep because that stuff matters.
And here’s one more.
If you happen to be a non-French-speaking person planning to play poker in the French part of Canada, I suggest that you start saying this to yourself now: “R D V, R D V, R D V....”
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