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“The Miner’s Headlamp Game” by Alan25main

August 14, 2019

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Ever play some really oddball poker variants? In this fiction piece by Ronald G. Pittenger, or Alan25main on Replay Poker, he details the fun you can have with some cards and basic poker rules. And, as an added bonus, what it was like making your own entertainment in the military in the 60s.

“Okay, guys. Ante up a quarter,” Parksie said. “We’re gonna do something different.”

“Geez, Parksie, why so much?” Our usual stakes only called for a nickel ante.

“Because I want you cheapskates to pay big for a change. Nobody ever makes any money in these games. It’s payday, all debts have been paid, and someone — me, I hope — will have a stake for the next week. We play every night, and none of us ever has any cash. Tonight, that changes.”

There were eight of us gathered around an olive green footlocker covered with an olive green blanket with the letters “USMC” centered. Some were sitting on the bunk beds we called “racks,” while the others sat on foot lockers pulled from in front of other racks.

Parksie was a skinny, red-headed kid of 18 from Eastern Kentucky’s coal country. Like the rest of us, he wore green twill “utility trousers” (the Army guys would’ve called them “fatigue pants”),  a white t-shirt, and spit-shined combat boots. I was a month younger, and we were all skinny except for Benware, who was still trying to lose weight. Benware’s 155 pounds looked bulky on his 5′ 3″ frame. The rest of us were about 6″ taller than that and averaged about 145 pounds. We all ate everything in sight, but it was worked or run off of us very quickly. Off in a corner, one of the non-playing guys was practicing reciting one of Kipling’s poems in a fake British accent: “It’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, an’ Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?” 

Grimacing, we all tossed in our quarters. A quarter dollar was big money in 1965. This was the big Payday Game that came around twice each month. Instead of playing for “payday stakes” with all IOUs to be paid on payday, this game would be for genuine cash. We weren’t even using the plastic red, white, and blue chips we had raked the pots for a dollar to buy (taken at 5¢ a hand if there was more than $1 in the pot) a few months ago. As a Private First Class, I was considered “well paid” when Uncle gave me that $39.50 every fifteen days or so. After all, we had just gotten a 10% raise from Congress. A year in the future, 1966, we’d get another raise, but lose 25¢ each payday because it put us into a higher tax bracket! There ain’t no justice!

Now, in truth, we really didn’t have a lot of need for cash, as long as we stayed on the base. Food was free in the mess hall. The Base Exchange sold extra large candy bars for a dime and packs of smokes (everybody smoked in early 1965) for about 25¢. The Enlisted Men’s Club sold hamburgers and cheeseburgers for 15¢ and 20¢ with free fries included. A pitcher–about three quarts–of soda or beer was 50¢ or $1 (but, you had to have ID saying you were over 21 for the beer on that base). None of us had a credit card or even knew how to use one.

The only reason one of us might want cash was to go on a date with a girl or play poker.

Parksie reached into a pocket and pulled out some large rubber bands. “Everybody put on one of these like a headband.” He passed an elastic to each of us. We all put on the bands.

“Nobody touch their cards,” he said. “Miner’s Headlamp 5-card Stud is the game. We get an up card and a down card. You can’t look at your own down card, but you’ll be able to see everyone else’s. The high up card must bet on the first round only. After that, we can all check, bet, or raise. Three more up-cards coming with a bet after each.”

“How do we get to see the other guys’ cards without seeing our own?” I asked.

‘That’s what the rubber bands are for. I’ll put your card inside the rubber band on your forehead. You won’t be able to see it, but everyone else will. You’ll put WoJo’s card in his band. Then WoJo will do Ben’s, and right around the table.”

Shortly, there was a lot of laughter at the ridiculousness of grown men wearing cards like headlamps stuck to the fronts of their foreheads. Of the eight of us, I could see back-to-back pairs of 7s for WoJo and Queens for Tony opposite me. My board King was the high card only because it was the first of the three Kings on the board. It was a good bet I didn’t have the cased one as my “head” card.

“With all these Kings,” I said, “somebody must have one in the hole. Maybe it’s me. I bet a dime.” Most of the spot cards, including the 7 and Tony’s Queen, folded, amid a lot of razzing that they had folded the winning pairs. Parksie raised a quarter. Knowing there was little chance for me to improve, I folded, too. And, then discovered I really had folded a pair of Kings. Which was, no doubt, why Parksie had raised. 

It came down to Parksie and Ben, each showing a 2 on their foreheads to finish the hand. The $4 or so in the pot went to Ben, who had paired a six on the final card. I silently swore I’d never play Headlamp poker again and I haven’t. I think Headlamp poker is even worse than No Peek 7-stud. At least you still have some dignity left after playing No Peek.

(Author’s Note: If you’ve never read Kipling’s “Tommy,” you should. It’s as true today as it was when it was written before the turn of the last century when Victoria, the Widow of Windsor, still “owned half of creation.”–RGP)