I have a choice tonight, either to play poker or do something else. It is a type of decision that is not uncommon for me as my day comes to a close. R had a home game tonight, yet there were so few attendees for the tournament portion of the evening that I believe the late cash game has been cancelled, for I have not received a return call saying otherwise. I will miss playing with friends, having a good laugh and perhaps relieving some of them from their paychecks. Instead, if playing poker with friends was something I still cared to do, I could go to Poker Academy where I would be sure to find a few regulars to sit and joke with, and perhaps donk off some of my hard-earned fake money to someone chasing a flush despite pot odds against such endeavors coming to fruition. I could, except that the virtual world of Poker Academy strikes a little too much of a real-world chord of sorrow for me this day.
Yesterday, as I was preparing to pack up for our little trip into the big city, I received an email from a longtime PA friend that one of our numbers had passed. Ben Kramer, one of us old-timers had died on the 16th from a heart attack. He was 48 years old.
If I had only chatted and played with Ben online, remaining a virtual entity, my reaction might have been different than the tears I now tried hard to hold back.
It was Christmas 2005. DW had given me a present of two different poker softwares. She gave me two because she could not determine which one I would like or need more. I read the boxes before opening either, and when I learned that one had an online component in which I could play against other software users, the choice was easy. I already had one software in which I just played against the programming and it had lost its appeal rather quickly, as I could readily beat it. This new software also had programming against which I could play, yet to actually play against humans…!!!! I went missing for several days thereafter.
Humans were a different story altogether. They were much more difficult, unpredictable, not as bluffable (a flaw in programming). It was as if I had never played a flop before in my life. What was I doing wrong? Nothing, really. I was learning. And other humans were telling me what I was doing wrong. Not only was I learning; I was being taught.
Not every lesson came with kind, patient words. Like every corner of life there are the mouth-breathing types at PA as well; yet, the core group of players (there seemed to be less than 150 of us in total back then) were pleasant folks, and several of them knew what they were doing. Ben was in that latter group.
Every day after an admittedly too-lengthy of a session, I would tell DW of interesting hands and people. While caring less for the replaying of hands, she was more intrigued by the autobiographies I gleaned from casual chats. She was interested but incredulous. “How do you know they are whom they say they are?” I didn’t. In fact, although the stories and the language used seemed to coincide in my deconstruction, I too must admit some early reticence.
Still, I played on and on, against many of the same people every day. It soon became apparent that others were truly pleased to see me at the tables, and I was equally pleased to see them, so much so that I developed a little entrance speech. I would sit down and exclaim “Hello dear friends.” I had become part of a community, a small, but growing, tight-knit group of people.
Within a month of my arrival at PA there was talk of a meet-up in Las Vegas. Several PA players began coordinating a trip on the PA Forum. Ben was the ring leader. I told DW of these plans, and she remained suspicious of what would come of virtual acquaintances meeting in person. Again, I was as well, yet I mentioned the trip for a reason. I secretly wanted to go and find out, to put faces to nicknames like CaptnBen, Terra, Uncle Trick, JobE, Seahurst, and several others, for the group of attendees grew to about twenty. Safety in numbers, right? But it was not to be.
People returned from the trip and posted their tales on the Forum. People had so much fun that plans began almost immediately to make this an annual event. And the person who would be in charge was Ben.
Ben lived in Chicago, not too far from my old stomping grounds. In October 2006 I had an opportunity to return to the Windy City and met up with Ben. He took me sailing on Lake Michigan (Ben was a champion sailor), and we went to dinner. We hit it off. I even tried to do the Yenta thing with him, fixing him up with women I knew and liked. I wouldn’t do that for a shmuck, to be sure.
In November of that same year I had a chance to go to Las Vegas and met two more PA members, Uncle Trick and eptigs, both who lived there. Two more great guys. One thing was for certain: I would be at the next Poker Academy Rendezvous.
As the time neared, it became apparent that the second annual event would be truly something to behold. Ben had arranged for tutorials in which a PA developer would explain some of the more advanced features of the software; he had reserved part of the Orleans Poker Room (where we stayed) for a private PA tourney; and he set up another tutorial in which players would help each other discover their tells. We all received t-shirts that proclaimed, “I’m not afraid bots!” Indeed, we were a force to be reckoned with.
We played a lot of poker in those five days. I rarely left the tables, and often at the same table one could find Ben. Ben had been coming to Las Vegas for over twenty years and knew the casinos well. His favorite room was the Tropicana, a small room to be sure, yet a consistently profitable venue for our man. One night toward the end of the trip, Ben offered to take me to the Trop and few other places. In that I was a babe in the woods, I accepted his offer.
The Trop had one table of Limit going, so we went over to the Excalibur. It was there I saw Ben in all of his glory. No sooner had we sat down at the table, Ben knew almost everyone’s story. He was the friendly table captain. Even the young studs who thought they played better than they actually did were eating out of his hand. He hadn’t needed to read a pro’s book to know how to do this. It came naturally. Ben and I both walked away from that game up quite a bit.
Ben did such an outstanding and impressive job that year that as a group that we decided he should organize the next year’s event as well, only this time he should get paid. Everyone gladly sent him $60 a head to work his magic. And work it, he did. More tournaments, more tutorials, and more hijinks. And most importantly, he was always there with a friendly word, a funny story or advocacy with the poker room. Friendly clout.
This spring we didn’t have a reunion. There was talk, but with the economy the way it is, many of the regular attendees had to tighten the belt for a while. Maybe in the fall, we suggested. But that didn’t happen either. The fact that PA itself was waning didn’t help matters. There were fewer and fewer players online, and most of the old-timers had either lost interest in the software or moved on to FTP, Stars, Titan, Cake, etc. Maybe it was a natural evolution for so many of us who, once having learned the game to a certain degree of proficiency, needed to try out our new chops elsewhere.
One was accustomed to not seeing Ben at the tables during the summer, for that is, after all, sailing season. Yet, come November he would show up and we would reconnect. Ben had many nicknames, and depending on the bankroll for a particular nick, one could find him playing in all but the biggest games. (As a very social entity, he spread himself thin.) If I saw him enter the lobby, I would seek him out, for the table he chose to play at would sure to be fun. But Ben didn’t show up last November. I wrote a post in the Forum asking if anyone had seen him. Nothing.
Last February Ben finally played a game. We chatted a bit and he promised to call me in a few days to catch up. He didn’t. And to my discredit, I did not call him either.
And now he’s dead.
I read of Ben’s passing while I was talking to my Dear Mother on the phone. She was updating me on the status of family members and her flowers. It is a conversation we have on a weekly basis. I do a lot of listening, and that is okay. But now I did not hear anything as I was trying hard to hold back the tears. When we finally hung up, I went upstairs to tell DW the news. And then I cried.
DW suggested I call Ben’s home and leave a message. I only had his cell number, yet I knew I could not leave a message on it in the state I was in, so she did it for me. And I did what I knew I could: I wrote an email to the PA reunion google group.
There is now talk of a memorial reunion.
It won’t be good enough.