Card games give servicemembers chance to relax, talk trash downrange
CAMP VICTORY NORTH, Iraq — Five sets of cold, blank eyes stare out of deadpan faces prepared to give a Baghdad beatdown.
These guys are aggressive. They’re ready for war. Nothing would make them feel better than some rolled-up aces over kings.
This battle is called “No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em,” and the “rounders,” or players, are deployed medical troops in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Every couple of weeks, troops with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Cavalry Division’s surgeon section in Baghdad experience this kind of mini- drama, mimicking scenes of televised Texas No-Limit Hold ’Em tournament coverage on DVD.
Capt. David “KGZ” Zimmerman, medical operations officer for the 1st Cavalry Division, knows all the angles. The key to no-limit is to play the man, not the cards.
When the KGZ gets in poker mode, he pulls out all the stops. He has a baseball cap pulled down low and some black wraparound shades he’ll wear in the pitch of night to ensure no one plays him.
The Cav guys call Hold ’Em the Cadillac of poker.
“It’s a game that takes 30 seconds to learn and lifetime to master,” said Lt. Col. Roberto “Smooth Operator” Nang, the division surgeon, whose tactic is to up the ante just to test the water.
They started playing downrange after the KGZ wrote to the World Poker Tour and some Las Vegas casinos. Simple letters got the captain 400 decks of cards donated to the troops from the MGM Grand and Aladdin casinos, five free sets of the first season of the World Poker Tour, and a box of casino chips from www.oldvegaschips.com.
Across a cheap, white plastic table, the KGZ begins to deal. Just behind the troops, scenes of Vegas and the Bellagio dance across a television screen.
If it wasn’t for the missing green felt tables and tinkling of ice cubes, the KGZ’s air-conditioned trailer could be mistaken for a casino in the middle of a different desert.
Almost forgetting the earlier banter of trash talkin’, the game starts quietly as everyone peeks at their cards. These high rollers try to make the game as real as possible when they get the chance to play. The stakes are high.
Though gambling is not authorized, per Army regulation, what these rounders win is so much better: bragging rights, the honor of being called “Johnny Chan,” a two-time World Series of Poker champion, including a framed mug of the legend to keep until the next game, and exclusion from having to buy the next round of refreshments and snacks.
Usually the medical crew plays twice a month, depending on workload, according to Maj. Jim “Diamond Jim” Kelley, chief of medical plans and operations.
Diamond Jim said when the time is finally right to get the game going, the trash talkin’ begins around noon.
“The Colonel (Smooth Operator) is a good poker player in his own right,” Diamond Jim offered, “but he’s also got one of the fastest records for being asked to leave the table. He’s lost all his chips in just two hands.”
Quickly the banter progresses throughout the day until everyone gets off work.
The winner of the last game hosts the evening’s event in their trailer. This time’s winner is a laid-back guy named Sgt. 1st Class Steven “Sgt. Harley” Plante, the medical intelligence noncommissioned officer in charge.
He’s not a trash talker, but more of a one-liner, throwing in jabs when necessary, just to keep his competitors in check.
“These three guys,” Harley said, pointing to KGZ, Smooth Operator and Diamond Jim, “are the biggest trash talkers. Sometimes you have to stand on a chair it get so deep in here.”
Sgt. Harley said the night he won several weeks ago was a typical poker night in the hooch, just struggling along, but then his luck changed and he took it all.
All but one player, Sgt. 1st Class Buddy “Die Hard” Beavers, has had the opportunity to be Johnny Chan. Die Hard, medical operation noncommissioned officer in charge, blames it on not being able to attend as many games as he would like.
The truth is, no one in the medical unit plays as much as they would like.
“There are no weekends, no hours, per se,” Diamond Jim said. He explained that in their section they work around the clock and are always on call.
With the harrowing work schedule, the Smooth Operator said from a medical standpoint it actually makes sense to play cards.
“Number one, it’s important not to be isolated, lonely, or depressed out here. By coming together we share in camaraderie,” said Smooth Operator. “Number two, in terms of an outlet for stress and other relief, playing games or cards, from a morale and welfare point of view, is very therapeutic.”
These troops work hard by helping Iraqi hospitals and clinics get back on their feet, all the while still taking care of troops.
They also play hard.
Diamond Jim said they’re just some guys who like to keep score, no matter what they’re doing.
He said all the competition actually helps the poker posse function better together as a team and keep the deployment from becoming a daily grind.
With the KGZ hunkered down in his guise, Diamond Jim with an almost constant smirk on his face, the Smooth Operator instigating trouble, Sgt. Harley soaking it all in, and Die Hard shooting for the prize, the sounds of clinking poker chips resonates into the Iraqi desert, but in this room, the dreams don’t end and the sand turns to gold.
It’s just a game that keeps one office from getting burned out when deployed.