Frank Mulligan: Know when to fold ’em

Frank Mulligan

What are the odds your grandparents would teach you how to gamble? Or, more accurately, how not to gamble?

Well, in my case, that’s what happened. And over the years, I figure they’ve saved me a jackpot.

My grandfather regularly played “the number” years ago. I gather pretty much everybody did back then, even though it was –– nudge, nudge, wink, wink –– an illegal enterprise in those days, and not the dignified, respectable revenue stream it has become today.

Like a lot of players, he had a favorite combination that he would employ week after week. I forget what it was based on, but it was his habitual favorite. Except for one week.

For whatever reason, that particular week, he didn’t happen to run into the person purveying the numbers. And that week, his number came in.

I learned this is how luck works when it comes to the lottery. I also learned, don’t play it. It’s not worth the aggravation.

My grandmother’s lesson was more direct, actually. She was visiting our home at a time when I had just learned how to play poker, and I cavalierly offered to teach her the game. And being a budding 8-year-old card sharp, I suggested we “make it interesting.” Yes, channeling Humphrey Bogart, I even used that phrase.

I retrieved my rather extensive Kennedy half-dollar collection. They had a nice poker chip quality to them. They also had the allure of resembling the silver dollars cowboys tossed across the table in movies just prior to accusations of cheating and the inevitable gunplay.

I explained to my grandmother that the prized 1964 halves in my collection were actually made of silver, and she was suitably impressed. I gallantly offered to overlook their inherent numismatic superiority and play her even up for the pedestrian paper money she was toting around in her pocketbook.

She agreed to the deal, I thought naively. She was a sweet, doting grandmother, but mercy has no place at the gaming table. I was going to take her for everything she had in her purse.

I was unaware at the time that my grandmother had played poker once a week for nickels, dimes and quarters with her friends for the previous 25 years or so. My stacks of Kennedy half dollars very swiftly found a new home in front of my grandmother, to the very last coin. Even the prized 1964s.

She let the import sink into me for a moment or two, teaching me the meaning of poker face as well as how the game is played in the big leagues.

Then she said, “Frankie (she called me Frankie well into my 40s), never gamble with something you don’t want to lose.”

And then she gave them back to me.

Frank Mulligan is an editor in GateHouse Media Plymouth, Mass., office, and can be reached at