Saturday, February 09, 2008

Dirty Poker

A legendary gambler named Swifty Morgan roamed Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1950s. Swifty was Irish but spent most of his time playing poker with his Italian and Jewish buddies who populated the neighborhood. Both the Italians and Jews knew Swifty was a degenerate gambler who oftentimes took up cheating to recover his losses. His specialty was marking cards, usually done in a crude way by filing down his overgrown thumbnail to a sharp edge. Several times Swifty was caught in the act, whereupon the Italians and Jews alternated beating the shit out of him.
But they never barred him from the game because he was such a degenerate loser. The one rule they finally posted to prevent Swifty’s cheating was to forbid him to bring cards to the games. All decks would be furnished by whichever Italian or Jew hosted the game.
Swifty had a hotblooded Irish temper, and he got pissed off real quickly when he started losing. During a two-month span in the 1955, Swifty’s losing streak took on wacky proportions. He’d finally had enough of losing his bankroll to the Italians and Jews, so he came up with a plan not only to get even with them but to take their bankrolls as well.
There was a small five and dime store in the neighborhood that stayed open till midnight. It was about the only place of commerce that wasn’t closed by nine o’clock. The last time Swifty had been there, he noticed that playing cards were on sale.
One wintry afternoon, Swifty walked inside the store at five o’clock. He went directly to the shelf where the cards were displayed and bought half the supply of Bicycle decks. He took the cards home, and using a knife with a very thin blade removed the cellophane wrapping on the boxes, paying special attention to leave the store’s price tags in place and undamaged. He then carefully slid the wrapping off the first box, leaving the cellophane intact. He used a razor blade to cut open the side of the box, leaving the blue sealing stamp in place on the box’s flap. He removed the cards and began skillfully marking their backs with tiny applications of a daub he’d bought in a novelty store.
Finished marking, he placed the cards back in the box, reglued the open side and very carefully slid the cellophane wrapper over the freshly resealed box. After refolding the wrapper to the exact way it appeared before he’d slit it, Swifty fetched a cloth and laid it over the cellophane. Then he pressed a hot iron lightly against the cloth, sealing the cellophane. Upon final examination of his work, Swifty was satisfied that the deck, still sealed in cellophane and protected by the blue stamp, appeared as though he’d never opened it.
Swifty repeated this process for another nineteen decks. Then he immediately returned to the five and dime store. When the owner wasn’t looking, he scooped the remaining decks on the shelf and dropped them into his sack. Then he restocked the shelf with the twenty decks he’d marked at home. Now every deck of playing cards for sale at the five and dime was marked.
That night, Swifty went to one of the Jew’s houses in the neighborhood. He was swiftly searched by both the Jew and one of the Italians before they allowed him inside. He had no marked cards or cheating paraphernalia of any kind on his person. He was led to the eight-handed poker game upstairs.
The game of choice was five-card stud. The stakes were $10-$20, a pretty steep game for the times. It started at nine o’clock. After half an hour of play, Swifty was stuck $200. By ten he was stuck $350. Growing angrier by the minute and adding a bit of theatrics to his outburst, Swifty had enough. After a losing hand, he tore up his cards.
“Whaddaya do that for, you little twerp!” cried one of the Italians.
“Never mind,” Swifty said indignantly. “I won’t do it again.”
The host of the game fetched a new deck of cards and dealt out the next hand. Swifty lost on purpose. When one of the Jews threw over his winning hole card, Swifty ripped up his cards again.
“Whaddaya do that for, you little asshole!” cried the Jew who won the pot.
“Never mind,” Swifty said indignantly. “I won’t do it again. This time I promise.”
“You won’t do it again?” cried the host. “You can’t do it again. I don’t have any more decks of cards!”
“You don’t have any more decks?” another of the Italians asked in a voice filled with panic. “How we gonna continue?”
“Looks like we’re fucked,” the host observed. Pointing at Swifty he added, “Because of this little Irish piss-ass.”
“Does anyone have any cards on them?” someone asked.
“I would’ve brought some,” Swifty replied quickly. “But you guys forbade me to bring cards.”
“Shut up, asshole!” the meanest of the Italians said. Then to everyone: “None of yuz got any cards?”
Everyone shook his head.
“Shit!” hollered the last Jew. “We can’t even buy any cards. There ain’t nothin’ in this shithole neighborhood open past nine o’clock.”
At this point Swifty looked around the room longingly, preying he’d hear the magic words.
“Wait a minute!” the host said in a burst of sudden excitement. “The five and dime on Fourteenth Street. I forget the name of it, but I think it’s open until midnight…Yeah, it is! I bought some lozenges there one night when my mother had a sore throat. They sell cards!”
An instant later, the last Italian, who was also the fastest runner of the bunch, was out the door on his way to the five and dime. He was back five minutes later with two decks of pretty blue-backed Bicycle playing cards.
Three hours later, Swifty had all their money.
The Italians and the Jews beat the hell out of him on his way out the door. But not because they discovered the marked cards. They just got pissed off because Swifty was leaving with their money.