A group of World War II veterans started a monthly card game over 60 years ago - and even through tragedy, the game still goes on strong
By MATT KELSEY
Published June 14, 2008
Kansas City Kansan
Jack Smith holds a fistful of playing cards in one hand and reaches for his stack of white poker chips with the other. The Kansas City, Kan., resident is sitting at his dining room table surrounded by four of his best friends, all of them dedicated poker players, each with a lifetime of experience. This is a serious card game, not for the faint of heart.
Smith looks at his hand briefly and throws out a single white chip, which represents a penny.
At this table, “penny” is not a poker term for a hundred dollars, or even a dollar. We’re talking one cent.
Of course, when Smith and his friends originally set the stakes for this monthly card game in 1947, a penny had much more value.
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Currently, the group has five participants - Smith, 86, an original member; Leonard Rose, 85, and John Wilson, 88, also founding members; plus Robert Campbell, 83, and Bill McCune, 89, who joined the group later. Although he’s the oldest player at the table, McCune has been playing with the group only a few years.
“I’ve been playing for 40 or 50 years,” Robert Campbell said during a recent monthly game, “and I’m still one of the new guys.”
Smith is the only one still living in Wyandotte County, but almost all of the members have strong ties to KCK, either through Roosevelt Elementary School or Wyandotte High School or Kansas City Kansas Junior College - now known as Kansas City Kansas Community College. All of the players are also military veterans, many of them serving overseas during World War II.
The original group’s link to the college, in fact, is what helped start the monthly poker game.
“It was right after World War II, and we were all coming back from various points around the globe,” Smith said. “We were all members of a fraternity at the junior college. It was during a reunion for the fraternity that a group of us decided to get together to have another party. That gathering evolved into a card game.”
Originally, the group had eight members. Over the years, Smith estimates, two dozen men had rotated in as full-time players, but some moved to different cities, and others passed away.
During a regent game, the current members listed off some of the former players, maybe as many as 15, who had passed on.
“Redman… Owen… Parker… Eddie… A lot of ‘em.”
LOW STAKES, HIGH ENERGY
Here’s how the group works: The players take turns hosting the monthly poker games. Players arrive at the host’s home at about 7 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of every month.
After they shake hands and share a few laughs, the game begins in earnest. Each player “buys in” to the game for a dollar, and each player starts with s tack of white (penny), red (nickel), and blue (dime) chips.
The ante for each hand is five cents - meaning every player puts a red chip into the pot before the cards are dealt. The minimum bet after that is a white chip, or one cent.
“Nobody hardly ever wins more than a dollar or loses more than a dollar,” Jack Smith said.
This is a dealer’s choice game, meaning almost every hand is a different variation of classic five-card draw, five-card stud, or seven-card stud poker. Almost every hand has at least one wild card. Some of the games are high-low, meaning the player with the best hand wins half the pot and the player with the worst hand wins half.
These are not the types of poker games you’ll find in a casino, but many of them are common to home games. Others, however, were invented by group members.
There’s “Woolworth,” a five-card draw game where 5s and 10s are wild (because Woolworth’s was a five-and-dime store). “Pass to the Right,” also called “Pass the Trash,” is a high-low game. Each player gets five cards and they pass three of them to the player to their right; then the cards are turned over one at a time with a round of betting between each card flip. “Baseball” is a seven-card stud game. The wild cards are 3s, 4s, and 9s - three strikes in an out, four balls in a walk, and nine innings in a game. If a player is dealt a 3 face-up (a strikeout), it costs him an extra 15 cents into the pot; a 4 face-up (a walk earns the player an extra hole card. In “No Peek,” another high-low game, players are dealt five cards face-down, and they can’t look at them. The cards are turned over one at a time, with betting between each turn.
Sometimes the players will stray away from the “named” games and just make up the rules as they go along. “Okay,” one will say, “five-card draw, sixes and eights are wild.”
Even though they’re playing a different variation of poker almost every hand, the games move along at a lightning pace. Sometimes, the players will forget the rules halfway through the hand, or they’ll forget to toss in a chip when it’s their turn, but the other players are quick to set them back on the right path.
The group has strict food-and-drink guidelines at the table. Each man can have a glass of root beer, and the only food allowed during the game is a bowl of candy corn and another of peanuts. Alcoholic beverages have never been allowed, but in the past many of the players smoked.
“We’d smoke cigars or pipes,” Smith said. “Not very many of us smoked cigarettes.”
Back when we were smoking, if you walked up to the table and looked down, you couldn’t see the table through all the smoke,” John Wilson said.
The men play for three solid hours, wrapping up the action at about 10 p.m. But before they drive home, the host provides a parting snack. Once last year, it was lemon meringue pie; last month, cookies.
For the poker buddies, it makes for a lovely evening. But sometimes, the players’ wives don’t have quite as much fun.
So every December, the players skip their monthly card game and throw a Christmas party for the wives. For years, the couples held a pot-luck dinner, but more recently they’ve eaten out or catered the event. Last year, they held a white elephant gift exchange - one person received Viagra; another, a diehard Jayhawks fan, got a Mizzou football.
“We started having the parties 20 or 25 years ago as a sort of thank-you to the girls for putting up with us the other eleven months,” Jack Smith said.
For their part, though, the wives don’t seem to mind their husbands’ monthly boys night.
“I think we’re glad that they can keep being friends after all these years,” Val Smith, Jack’s wife, said. “I don’t have to do any special cleaning to prepare for it. The guys just walk into the house and go straight to the dining room to play cards.”
But besides taking a break from poker for the annual Christmas party, the guys never skip a month.
Not for anything.
PLAYING THROUGH PAIN, TRAGEDY
Leonard Rose was set to host the monthly poker game in July 1981.
But several days before the scheduled game, on July 17, Rose took his wife to a dance at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Kansas City, Mo.
You know how this story ends.
That was the night the hotel’s skywalks collapsed, killing 114 people and injuring 200 more. The event was the worst disaster in Kansas City history and, at the time, the most deadly architectural collapse in the world.
Leonard Rose was one of the lucky ones - he didn’t lose his life that night. But he was severely injured, nearly crushed from the waist down.
Rose was rushed to a hospital, but he was soon horrified to realize he had no idea what had happened to his wife, or whether she was dead or alive.
“I didn’t know where she was for at least four days,” Rose said.
That week, Leonard Rose found out that the guys he played cards with were more than just poker buddies.
The players combed the entire city for Rose’s wife, looking over lists of victims and searching emergency rooms throughout the area.
They found her. She was injured, but alive, at a different Kansas City hospital.
After he heard his wife was safe, Rose settled into his hospital room for a long recovery. But Rose’s poker partners wouldn’t let him forget his obligation - he was the host for that month’s card game.
So the players made a deal with the hospital’s nurses, and that month they held the game right there in Leonard Rose’s hospital room.
Occasionally, members have had to miss a poker night here and there; some of them go on vacation or get sick, but the game goes on. Back in 1951, in the early days of the monthly game, Jack Smith had to miss 16 months when he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. But the game went on.
(Incidentally, Smith served as a cryptographer for the U.S. Air Force, coding American messages and helping crack enemy codes. But Smith says his experience with codebreaking doesn’t help him at the card table. “I strictly rely on luck,” he says.)
All of the players are in their 80s now, but the poker buddies don’t show any signs of slowing down.
“It’s been such a nice thing to look forward to every month,” Robert Campbell said.
“In some cases, it has developed into family friendships,” Jack Smith said, adding that he and his wife have taken several vacations with other couples from the group.
But the heart of the relationship is still the monthly card game.
It’s poker night, and John Wilson deals a game called “Dr. Pepper.” In this game, 10s, 2s, and 4s are wild - referring to an old Dr. Pepper slogan that encouraged people to drink the beverage at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. Since there are three wild cards in this game, it takes a monster hand to win the pot.
At the end of the hand, Campbell lays down four aces - a winner almost every time - and starts reaching for the chips. But then, Jack Smith spreads out a Royal Flush. The other players point to Jack’s hand and proclaim him the winner before Campbell can touch the jackpot.
“They’re all getting old and senile,” Bill McCune says with a chuckle, referring to the other players at the table, but not himself, of course.
As Jack Smith rakes in the pile of chips - a pretty big haul for one hand, almost sixty-five cents - Leonard Rose throws his cards down on the table.
“The first liar,” Rose says,” doesn’t have a chance.”