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2-13-12 - Breaking a Fifty Year Old Vow

On the next to last day of my recent stay in Fort Worth, I broke a vow fifty years old, a vow never again to gamble. Since that time five decades ago until the fifth of February this year, I have not wagered any money on a bet, on a flip of a coin, on a card game, on one of many brief stays at Reno, Tahoe, or Las Vegas, not bought a lottery ticket. I can remember one member of the poker game at David Cohen's getting angry at me when I wouldn't join in one night I'd dropped by to say hello. I have never taken advantage of sure thing bets or those I know of that are easy ways to make money because they're counter-intuitive. It's not just because of the vow. I've broken many vows. It's also because I don't have the urge to bet. I don't like competitive games. I don't like to lose but I also don't like that much to win, don't like to get the better of others, would rather not get into that whole thing. But there's also an experience behind the vow that lead me not to gamble since back then, not a penny ever - till Super Bowl Sunday this year.

I made that vow in Henry Matranga's pool hall on a hot day in the summer of 1961. I was sixteen and on the way to my grandmother's house mid afternoon. Since I was going there or by there my mother had given me five dollars to give to her mother - don't remember why - a donation, dues, debt to a yardman. On the way, rather out of the way, I dropped by the pool hall. It was a smoky old place, maybe eight tables all standard, no snooker or billiards, cold drinks and cigarettes available from machines, bad coffee, a couple of pin ball machines, bare walls, hanging florescent lights, a few chairs.

Henry sat on a stool when he wasn't up and around, was bespectacled, looked to be in his seventies, short, welterweight, strict, quiet, but not unfriendly. I remember his son Frank knew my aunt Eleanor in high school, maybe even dated. Henry knew my grandfather to say hello. Maybe that's why he let me and my friends play there even though we were under eighteen. The other customers were always older.

Matranga is an Italian name and there was a small Mafia presence in Fort Worth which at one time I'd heard had earned the nickname Little Chicago - for gambling and prostitution. Even when I was a teenager I'd hear about such things going on in town. The only thing I remember organized crime being involved with in Fort Worth was pinball and vending machines. I didn't understand why. It was hinted that some people in this pool hall were involved with the Mafia. Maybe that was all imagined ambiance but I know I never had to worry about being hassled by toughs there or even near there. I loved going to Henry's to play eight ball, rotation, and smoke.

"One quick game of rotation," I told him. "Just got a dime."

Henry racked the balls himself, quickly and tightly. A man at the next table asked if I wanted to play. I said sure.

"How about eight ball?" he said.


Henry heard and re-racked for eight ball.

"Play for a dollar?" the man asked.

I'd seen him play there before. He was a salesman from the neighboring Montgomery Wards headquarters building. He was better than me. I've never been very good at pool.  "Loser pays," I said.

We played a game of eight ball. He won. I reached into my pocket for the dime, handed it to Henry.

"Eight ball's fifteen," he reminded me.

"Oh yeah." I reached in some more. Nothing. "Play you for a nickel," I said to the man who'd just beat me and handed Henry the five dollar bill. He gave me $4.95 in change.

It was very important that I give this five dollar bill to my grandmother. I had to win this game. My mother would not approve of me giving Granny four ones and ninety-five cents in change. Granny wouldn't like it either. This guy wasn't that much better than me. I'd almost won the game before. I lost that next game badly though. I gave Henry another fifteen cents.

I calculated. "Play you for a quarter," I said. Loser pays was understood. Needed that fiver back.

He won again. Darn. Gave Henry another fifteen cents. That left me with $4.65 and a 30 cent debt. "Play you for 65," I said. He nodded.

I almost won that game. "That's ninety-five," he said. "Wanna quit?"


Gave Henry another fifteen cents. Counted my change while he racked. Darn. If I don't get that five back Mother will kill me I thought. Granny will scold but mother might get irrational, out of hand. She's really very nice but, little things like this sometimes can ignite her (back then). Hmm. Got $4.50 and so that's 50 plus 95 equals 145. "Play you for a dollar forty-five."

He laughed. "OK."

I choked bad on that game. Was ahead and missed a super easy shot. My hand was shaking. "That's two hundred and forty pennies my friend," said the salesman. He was enjoying it. Gave Henry another fifteen cents. I had $4.35 left and owed $2.40. Sixty-five and 240 is... is 305. "How about three bucks and a nickel?" We were on.

"Rotation?" I said. Maybe another game would change my luck. Henry looked up. The salesman nodded.

He broke. He'd broken every game except the first. Winner breaks. I was sweating. I still had enough to pay up if I lost this game, But then I'd have to face the consequences at Granny's and then at home. Sounds like no big deal now. But remember inflation. According to the Inflation Calculator on, five dollars in 1961 was worth $36.77 in 2011. So it's like you gave your kid or friend or whatever forty bucks to pay a debt and they gambled it away en route. Add that to the uh... importance of attending to details and the value placed on property and money in my family, and that sweat on my brow is more understandable. Don't get me wrong. My mother was generous and not a penny pincher. She just wasn't cool with wanton waste and household misdemeanors.

Only the fifteen ball remained. I had a shot. Missed. He missed. I had a better shot. Missed. He had a difficult shot. Banked it in.

Moment of decision.

"I gotta get back to work," he said as I gave Henry a dime. The salesman was waiting for his money.

"Three o five," I said.

"No," he said. "Three o five plus the 240 from before." That's five and... forty-five."

Uh oh. Forgot to add that. I counted my change. Owed $5.45. Only had a quarter and the four bills. No. Damnit. No. Let's see. Wow. No. I don't have it. What to do. Mind blank then spinning, grasping at mental straws. Pretend I think it's in the car then come back in and apologize and bring it to him tomorrow. Embarrassing. He'll be okay. Dread to do that. And then there's still no five dollar bill for Granny. I paused looking down. Looking for excuses to bring instead of the five dollar bill, finding none.

"One more game."

"OK. One more. Then I really gotta go."


"Rack 'em Henry," he said.

Henry was already taking the balls from the wall  and placing them in the triangular rack.

"Play you for six twenty."

"Six twenty," he laughed and nodded. "You've sure got some system."

Henry looked at me and shook his head a little. I think he knew what was up.

These old tables of course weren't the type that swallow balls. In eight ball we'd leave the balls in the leather netted pockets, moving one to another pocket if it got too full. With rotation we'd line them up on the wall on narrow shelves scooped to match the form of the balls so they wouldn't roll off. His balls were on the top shelf and mine on the next. Henry had  been looking at these rows of balls for decades and could tell you the sum of your row in a glance. Naturally in rotation the player whose balls add up to the highest number wins.

I was not doing well in this game. The salesman had a bunch of balls on his shelf  I hardly had any. There were five balls left on the table, mostly the highest number balls. I was getting numb all over with fear. Fear of two women in my family and now fear of the salesman and Henry too. He didn't like any funny business in his establishment. If I lost this I'd be over eleven dollars short. A lot of money back then.

I was wishing I could walk back in the room and redo this whole scenario. If I'd just played rotation instead of eight ball the first game, I could have paid with my dime and driven off care free but no, now I'm anything but care free. I'm the polar opposite of care free. More like polar bear opposite, polar bears that can rip your face off and suck the marrow out of your bones.

"Your shot," the salesman reminded me looking at his watch.

I looked at the table. Henry walked by and looked at the balls in the rack. "Which are you?" he asked.

"I'm the lower shelf," I said.

He looked at the table. "You've got to sink every ball on the table to win," he said and walked off.

I looked at the five balls on the table. I was stuck on a cliff and they were the rocks below. I heard the winds of panic rustling. I felt the like crying, like collapsing. But I didn't. I gathered myself. I pulled in all my forces. I spoke directly then to the highest on high mind of mind, and I prayed sincerely.

When most people think of prayer, I gather they think it's something you do to some other being somewhere that has power, usually a supreme being that has all the power and one asks that supreme being for whatever one wants. Please let me live, I don't want to die, for instance. I had a comparable feeling, but I wasn't raised on that type of prayer. I was raised on prayer being rooted in one's oneness with absolute perfect mind that was the one core truth of life, life beyond the material universe. So I didn't say, please god, let me win. I just directed a most sincere request as high, as deep, as subtle, as intimate as I could, and said silently in my mind, "If I sink all five of these balls, I will never gamble again."

Without pausing to reflect on the significance of the moment, I rubbed the green chalk cube on the round leather cue tip,  put my left hand on the white chalk cone and shook off the excess, placed that hand on the table with the business tip of the cue stick slid through the ring created by index finger and thumb resting on middle finger splayed out with the other two, sighted the ball with the lowest number, and pulled back my right hand which gripped the butt of the cue. All the fear and trembling dropped away. Just about everything dropped away except for my ability to stand, hold the pool cue and shoot.


This recent Super Bowl Sunday a few friends came over to mother's house in Fort Worth. Carl brought fajitas he'd made at home. Warren brought a salad and chips. Jackie brought a raw vegetable assortment with dip. John showed up - I told him not to bring anything. Jerry dropped by. Mother sat with us. We talked. Warren was in the kitchen getting the salad tossed and tortilla chips with cheese heated. Carl got out a piece of paper and drew horizontal and vertical lines. It was a Super Bowl pool. Each square represented a meeting place of two different scores. Each square cost a dime. There were lots of empty squares. To heck with it. I didn't want to be a Super Bowl pool pooper. I went to my room and got eight dimes, threw them in the hat and marked eight squares with DC. I lost it all.

It's been a good vow. I'm still thankful for it.

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