The Secret to Life, Poker & Longevity Learned from a 104-Year Old

The Secret to Life, Poker & Longevity Learned from a 104-Year Old

When David Mamet wrote The Things Poker Teaches for the New York Times Magazine back in 1986, one of the many lessons he enumerated was a crass thought many genteel players cannot grasp: poker is about money.

This unassailable fact of the game, to Mamet, meant that the poker player needed to adopt a steely resolve. It means not giving your fellow players a break because you value their feelings; it means not giving some back at the end of the night because you feel embarrassed by winning.

Mamet was 39 years old in 1986. Today hes 76. Al Staff is 104, and he hosts a poker game twice a week in Albany at the Avila Retirement Community in Albany, New York. Al has learned a thing or two from playing poker over the years as well, and hes drawn some different conclusions about the game. In Als game, the money is the least important part of the thing.

A dime a chip, he tells me as I buy in. Were real big spenders. I try to buy seven dollars worth, but all theyll sell me is two. They assure me cash will play. I look around the table at the stacks of dollar bills around the chips. If theres a hundred dollars on the table, Id be surprised.

The game is 7 Card Stud Hi-Lo split with a declare, which means at the end of the betting, the remaining players all put some number of chips in their closed fist to indicate which half of the pot they are playing for (zero for low, one for high, two for both) and reveal at the same time. When it gets heads up we stop betting, Al tells me. We just turn em over. I nod and take my stack of chips, and he gives me a final warning: we dont allow checking and raising.

Of course not. A true gentlemans game, this was.

The other players in Als game were an assortment of residents of Avila, all a bit younger than Al. The next oldest player, a former Boilermakers Union business agent named Bob Cullon, was 90 years young. He sent me a birthday card when I turned 90, Cullon said, and told me he got bar mitzvahed the year I was born!

One of the first people I met when I first moved in here eight years ago was Al, said John Bendick, a former State Police officer. He asked me how old I was. I told him, he says, I’m old enough to be your father.

Al is from the Albany area originally. He was a successful accountant, who owned his own firm. (He says he once turned down an offer to go into business with Richard Bloch, of H&R Block fame.) Al moved to Avila about eight years ago from Delray Beach, Florida, where he lived the life of Riley on the 7th hole of a golf course, and played 7 Card Stud Hi-Lo nearly every day in the clubhouse. Avila offered plenty of recreation for their residents, even the hustlers and sharks among them. They have a pool room, a bridge club, they go bowling, and play plenty of golf. Al had a passion for poker, and Avilia even offered that.

When I first started here, they had that game, whats it called? Three cards in the middle or whatever, Al says.

Texas Holdem, someone offers.

Yeah. Texas Holdem. Didn’t like that at all. The only time I played it is when there was nothing else to play.

Instead, Al offered that he could spread his own game, and the management obliged him with a table in the back of the dining room one Friday afternoon. He recruited a few customers, and the game has continued apace, twice a week, for the last eight years.

Finding players wasnt too tough for Al. He developed a reputation around Avila, even in his early years there, as a sage. The first five years I was here, I had a thousand cards printed: Free counseling on all subjects. For the players who showed up for his game, that counseling included the rules of Stud Hi-Lo. He was my teacher, says Dave Ditton with a laugh.

In fact, even though a lot of people who joined his game had played plenty of poker before, very few were familiar with the peculiarities of this particular game. They had to trust that Al was steering them straight, and he, in turn, had to trust them as well. Im deaf, so they have to tell me when theres a raise, he says. My vision isnt too good, either. I wonder aloud whether he trusts them to tell him the truth. Theyre not gonna cheat me for this kind of money.

They may not cheat him for his dimes, but they do plenty of gentle ribbing of Al during the game, to which he is generally oblivious. We talk about him in front of him, says Ditton. He cant hear us anyway! laughs Bendick.

Al, however, knows more than he lets on. He chuckles as he booms, Nobody in this place has a thin skin. You cant.

We’re all old. We know we’re all old. And we take care of one another, says Bendick. If hes short or he puts too much in the pot, we fix it.

In the early days, Al was the banker for the game, changing everyones cash into chips and cashing everyone out at the end of the game. Until one day when Al accidentally put the players cash into his pocket with his own cash, and got confused about what was what. I happened to have a bad day. I lost a lot of money. And – I lost some of the kitty, too. That was the end of Al being the banker. Bendick has handled the duties ever since.

But to play poker with him, youd never guess Al Staffs age. He tracks every card that comes out with aplomb. He knows how to read his opponents and how to make the right decision about which way to declare. He knows when someone folded the case card or when someone’s low was likely counterfeited by a flush. And he even offers me a little bit of his Free Counseling during a hand I lost with a set against a full house.

You want a free lesson about this game? he asks me.

I didnt drive up here in the snow to go home empty handed, I reply.

Youd have had a 50% chance at half the pot if you went low, he says. He means I should have read my opponent for going high, and taken my chance to get half the pot by declaring low, since we were heads up at the end.

In fact, you shouldnt even drop out when theres three left because youll have a 50% chance no matter what you have. I wasnt sure if he was right, but after doing the math later I realized he was. I guess you learn a thing or two when you play a game multiple times a week for thirty years.

I figure anyone who has made it past 100 and is still walking around dealing Stud games and calculating pot odds must have more advice to dispense than just the poker variety. Whats the secret? I ask him.

He didnt hear you, says Ditton.

Whats the secret! I shout.

To what? Al shouts back. To a long life?

Yeah! I shout across the table. What do I need to do?

Have sex every morning, Al yells matter-of-factly as he deals the next hand.

Sure, of course. That much seems obvious. But what about poker? Could all this Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo be at least a portion of Als founain of youth? I mean its not your average poker game. It has so much to keep track of. The folded cards, the outs for the high and the low hands, the strategy of which way to declare. Its a real puzzle of a game. And I submit to these players that perhaps this game was like hitting the gym but for their brains. I mean, a brain is a muscle like anything else. You gotta use it or you lose it. Could playing poker have helped Al live a long life, and kept him sharp so far into his years?

I dont think it has any effect whatsoever, he says, gravely serious. He says that hes seen plenty of regulars in his game, people many years younger than himself, pass away over the years. Thats the bad part of living in a place like this. We have lost so many friends. Weve probably lost at least seven guys since we started this game. And it hurts. But what can you do? The only person who knows the answer to when youre gonna go is the man upstairs.

The mood turns serious for a moment. Al continues: I have myelodysplasia, which is cancer of the blood. I’ve had it for 25 years. The doctors don’t know why I am alive. Now the doctor called up this morning, says I’ve gotta change my diet. My kidneys are failing. I’m not gonna worry about it. I’ve beaten it so far, I’m ready.

Youre ornery, Al, says Cullon.

Yeah, Al. Youre ornery. Nobody wants you in the next life, says Bendick, piling on. And you havent had sex in the morning in how long now?

I tell these men that if its all up to the man upstairs, and neither sex nor poker nor changing our diet on doctors orders will make a difference, we may as well have fun with every day we have. Thats pretty much it, says Kevin Niebuhr, who is sitting on my right and waiting impatiently for me to decide whether to call his raise while I prattle on with philosophical nonsense.

Its just more social, Bendick says, returning the conversation to the question of 7 Card Stud Hi-Lo. You see the way we banter back and forth. Hi-Lo keeps everyone involved. If it was just stud high, youd look at the first three cards and fold most of the time. Here you always have a hand you can play. Its an action game.

But thats also why a lot of players show up for one game and never come back. They have trouble getting used to the Hi-Lo part of it, Bendick says.

That was the hardest part for me when I first started, says Niebuhr. Figuring out this system of Hi-Lo.

We had a guy here once who called himself a professional gambler, says Cullon. I dont think he won once.

After we all cash out we see that Cullon, who they call the bully for his tendency to raise and press every advantage, is the big winner in the game with $11. If you could believe it, I once won $26 at this game, he boasts, a record that has never come close to being broken.

I never made as much as he did, Al says. Ive lost about $20, though.

My problem is I will raise even if I dont have anything, Ditton says.

Yeah, we know, says Bendick with a laugh.

Niebuhr doesnt think its so funny. Hes counting up his losses and hes down more than ten bucks. Most of the time, my biggest decision on whether to bet or check is this guy, he says, gesturing to Ditton, who is on my left. Because I know hes gonna raise.

Well you need to sit on his left, I suggest.

No, because I need to sit here so I can reach my coffee. And Al cant give up his seat and one by one they each explain how their seat at the table is necessary for access to the wall, or something else mobility related, which all becomes clear as they get up to adjourn the game and make their way out of the restaurant with their various canes and walkers.

As I stand up to leave, I ask Al how he did. I made five bucks, he says. And you?

Im felted. I pull my pockets inside out. Hooray! cheers Bendick.

Thats why we cant get people to come back, complains Cullon.

We gotta leave them money for tolls at least, says Al, folding up his five dollars and stuffing it into his breast pocket. Do you need any money for tolls? he asks me. I laugh, but realize hes completely serious.

Theres an almost certainly apocryphal story, though its been told many times, about the famous gambler Nick The Greek Dandolos. In it, the famous high roller is discovered in a Gardena card room at the age of 84, a long way from his days of shooting craps for millions of dollars with Arnold Rothstein or playing lowball with Ray Ryan by the pool of the Thunderbird in Vegas for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead, Dandolos was playing $5-$10 limit poker (some versions even say it was five cents) with little old ladies, virtually anonymous. Until one day hes recognized by a fan, who approaches him and asks him how he could stoop so low and play in such a cheap game. Isnt poker, as David Mamet once said, all about money? Isnt that the way we keep score?

According to the legend, Nick the Greek looked up from his hand and said Hey, its action.