Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Card Player. This entry in the "Aunt Sophie" series covers poker.
Aunt Sophie tells a lie
“Is there a hell, Dollink?” asked a familiar voice.
I did not have to look up from my breakfast in the Anaheim Club’s coffee shop to know that my Aunt Sophie had come up behind me. “Sit down,” I offered, “join me for breakfast.”
Aunt Sophie slid into the booth seat opposite me. The waitress hovered expectantly. “Just a glaz’l varmss,” Sophie requested softly.
The waitress looked at me questioningly. “She’ll have a hot tea, please,” I translated.
“And so now,” I asked, returning to my eggs Benedict, “why the theological question?”
“Just tell me, please,” she returned; “I want to know if there’s a hell.”
“In that case,” I answered, “I’m going to have to waffle a bit in my answer, and say, ‘That depends.’ That depends on what you believe. If you’re almost any kind of Christian, there is a hell. If you’re a Moslem…”
“I’m not a Christian, or a Moslem,” Aunt Sophie interrupted; “you know that. I’m Jewish, and I want to know if there’s a hell for us.”
“Of course I know what you are, Aunt Sophie,” I supplied. “I just wanted to make the point that hell is not an absolute thing. No one has ever seen hell. No one has either proved or disproved its existence, any more than anyone has proved or disproved the existence of God, for that matter. Whether hell exists or not is a matter of faith. Most observant Christians believe in hell; some more so than others. Calvinists, for example, not only are very strong on hell, but they also believe that, except for a chosen few, everyone on this earth is foreordained to go to hell. But I know you want to know what Judaism teaches. Jewish scholars are of divided opinion. Anyway, how about a little Biblical history? There is no literal word for hell in Hebrew. But, in the time of the Kings, about 700 B.C. — and, by the way, a Jewish scholar wouldn’t call it that; he would use the term BCE, which stands for ‘Before the Common Era’ — some people among the Hebrews believed in the god Moloch, a god of the Ammonites and Phoenicians. This was set up by King Manasseh, the predecessor of Jehoash, also known as Josiah. Human sacrifices were made to Moloch in Jerusalem in the valley of Hinam, or Hinnom. The valley was named after a man who once owned it. King Solomon is said to have embraced worship of Moloch; there are passages in the Old Testament decrying this practice, it being contrary to Jewish law. In particular, the sacrifices were by fire and of children. Anyway, this sort of thing being the worst man could do to man, since that time Gay Chinnam, the Vale of Hinam, came to symbolize hell. This is merely a symbolic meaning, however, just as Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, came to symbolize heaven. In the traditional memorial prayer, El Mahle Rachamim, God of Mercy, are found all expressions of afterlife, and the lack of it, as, ‘May the Merciful Father find for the soul mentioned a perfect resting place under the wings of God’s presence. May he rest in paradise’ — literally, the Garden of Eden — ‘May He keep him among the everliving. May the soul rest in peace in his grave.’ But the rabbis and scholars have always been ambivalent in their attitude towards heaven and hell. In fact, according to the Talmud, it is no heresy to deny the existence of either. You may also have heard of Sheol. That was merely a gloomy place of departed souls. There the souls were not tormented, as in the Christian and Islamic place of everlasting fire, merely left to wander about unhappily, sort of a way station. Gay Chinnam was certainly a place of punishment, but it was not till the New Testament that that actually meant hell. The pronunciation in Greek became somewhat distorted, and was rendered eventually as Gehenna. So, the upshot of all this is, you can believe in hell if you wish, and not if you don’t wish. Is there a hell? It’s up to you.”
“My,” sighed Aunt Sophie in admiration, “such a detailed explanation. Where did you learn all that stuff, in cheder?”
“No, not really,” I put in. “I didn’t pay much attention in Hebrew school, and, anyway, I quit before my Bar Mitzvah. No, I got this from an etymology class at Stanford. Now, tell me, why you want to know if there’s a hell.”
“Because,” replied Aunt Sophie, sipping her tea, “I told a lie in the poker game. And some people say you can go to hell for telling a lie.”
“Well,” I extemporized, “that too is a matter of opinion. And particularly in a poker game, which is built in some ways on a framework of deception, what sort of lie did you tell?”
“I said I was betting blind,” she declared, “when I definitely wasn’t.”
“Oh dear,” I declared, “that’s certainly one of the lies a gentleman or lady playing poker never tells. The sort of lying you’re doing when someone bets and you raise with a weak hand on a bluff, trying to give the impression of strength where there is none, why that’s just part of the game. And the lie in which you say you’re losing when you’re really winning, well, that sort of lie is harmless, and, although I advise against it, it’s not really ethically wrong. But to say you’re betting blind when you’re not, that’s purely dishonorable, to my way of thinking.”
“I’m in complete agreement,” assented Aunt Sophie. “You see, I listen to what you’ve told me.”
“So why then,” I queried, “did you say you were betting blind, when you weren’t?”
“Well, you know that awful Friendly Fred?” she continued.
“Oh, yeah,” I growled, “that angle shooter. I didn’t think he played low-limit lowball.”
“I don’t know if he does,” she went on, “this was in a bigger game, $20 and $40.”
“Aha,” I smiled, “I see you’re coming up in the world of poker.”
“Of course,” Aunt Sophie beamed, “I told you I wanted to be a triple-threat player. I read Mike Caro’s book, Poker for Women, and his Advance Strategy for lowball. Anyway, this Friendly Fred, whenever he draws a card, if he thinks the other player isn’t looking, he sneaks a peak at the card, and says, ‘I bet blind.’”
“Mm hmm,” I agreed, “any cheap shot he thinks he can get away with. If you say you’re betting blind, you’re supposed to really bet blind. Of course, you can have the best of it, like drawing one to a wheel with the joker working when the other player is drawing two, and that’s a good blind bet, but it’s just bad form to say you’re betting blind in that situation if you’ve already seen the card. And it only hurts you in the long run anyway, because eventually you get a reputation for lying in that situation, and no one believes anything you say, and they don’t give you any action. And a situation might come up in which you really do want to bet blind, but the others will just treat it as if you’ve seen your card anyway.”
“Yes,” she said, “but this seemed to be a pretty unsophisticated crowd at the table. I was the only one who noticed what he was doing. He got a lot of calls by saying that from players who made a queen or jack after the draw who would not otherwise have called, because everyone at least had noticed that when he looked at his cards he never bet unless he had the nuts. I guess that’s why he was lying; he knew that everyone had caught onto his tight play.”
“Yup,” I chuckled, “he must be nearly busted. When he loses a few pots, if his old lady has let him have any money, he tries to play his best, which he equates to playing tight.”
“So,” she took up, “I’m in a pot with him. He opens the pot, and gets three callers. I have a joker-wheel to draw to, and I raise it. The dealer, who is a bit sloppy, gives us our cards. The three callers are all looking at their cards. As Fred’s hits the table in front of him, I see him lift it for a fraction of a second, but only out of the corner of my eye, because I don’t want him to know I’m watching him. He leaves the card face down on the table and doesn’t touch it any more. The dealer sails my card across the table, and as it comes flying over it tilts ever so slightly before settling in front of me. By now Fred is watching my reaction, and I never touch my card either. But I caught the barest flash of the five of spades, which makes my hand perfectly. Now Fred says, ‘I bet blind.’ I know he saw his card, but the other dummies haven’t caught on to him yet. The first two fold, and the third says, ‘I gotta keep you honest,’ and calls, who knows with what, probably a ten. ‘I raise blind,’ I say. Fred thinks I’m somebody’s sweet old grandmother, and has no idea I been learning from an expert.”
“I didn’t tell you anything about high-stakes lowball,” I protested.
“That’s okay,” she remarked, “you been teaching me about poker, and I been reading about lowball by an expert. Naturally, when it gets back to Fred, he says, ‘Okay, I’ll gamble with you; I won’t look and I’ll reraise you. Now that one caller folds, saying, ‘I don’t think this hand will beat both of you.’ So I say, ‘And I’ll reraise you blind, Mr. Smarty.’ I can see he loves it. He raises me back, and I raise him, and we just keep going until he’s got about three bets left. And he says, ‘I better take a peek at this card. I don’t want to go all in and find out I’ve got a pair.’ Then he raises one more time, and I say, ‘If you’re gonna look, I better, too,’ and I look and naturally I raise his last bet. And you know, he had been on a winning streak. He had over $1000 before the hand started, and he put all of it in. And guess what? He had a six-four. And we weren’t in a jackpot game, so he didn’t even get a jackpot. So, am I going to go to hell for lying?”
“Aunt Sophie,” I responded gently, “normally I do not feel that two wrongs make a right. But in this case I think I can safely make an exception. Friendly Fred deserves anything that happens to him, and I’m glad it came from someone he thinks is a sucker. I think even if you believe in hell you’re not going there for that lie.”