He Sought Refuge in Online Poker: ‘This Is Never About the Cards’

One of my closest friends is Myki Bajaj, a 30 year old film and television producer based in Los Angeles. We see each other every week and usually speak several times. Our conversations range from the mundane – sports and culture and the like – to more serious topics like family and tan in America. We consider traveling together and often talk about projects we can work on together.

What makes our friendship unusual – or completely normal by 2021 standards – is that I met Myki in person once. It was at a random work meeting on the west coast last year, just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Our friendship blossomed through a medium I never expected: online poker with a site from Zoom.

I will not miss the pandemic with the suffering and isolation it has caused across the world. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Knock on wood: I’m healthy and have been working all last year.

But there is one thing I will miss in quarantine life when it is over. I’ve built real bonds with people through poker, which, ironically, is a game that is inherently suspicious.

Immediately after much of the United States was banned last March, Myki spontaneously invited me to play a game of poker with his college friends in the middle of one of our first catch-up talks. He’s an avid gamer. Prior to last year, he hosted a low-stakes game in his backyard on Fridays so everyone could take the stress out of their workweek. I am the opposite of eager. Sporadically? Occasionally? Oh, actually the words I’m looking for are not good.

In the pandemic version of the game, every player – and there were up to 14 of us – downloaded an online poker app and then received a group video call while we were playing, pretending we were in the back yard. Myki’s friends were scattered across the country. New York. Los Angeles. Washington. Atlanta. Seattle. They even tuned in from London at a ridiculous hour. But this game put us all in the same place at the same time.

Our amateur salon, which could be open for more than four hours, became a regular meeting place, weekly and occasionally several times a week. I started looking forward to it. And although I didn’t fully realize it when it happened, I got close to this group of strangers. In the absence of happy hours and normal socializing in the workplace, they became a break from the monotony and seclusion that was suddenly our collective normal.

The zoom discussions, punctuated by yelling about bluffs and lucky flush draws, would range from politics to literature to dating and many other subjects. I invited some of my friends to join and all of a sudden my former acquaintances were meeting my new ones and making connections through connections. Sometimes the calls would go silent when cards were dealt. Not because we were trying to hide our hands or focus on our pairs of pockets, but because the group was comfortable with nothing: the real hallmark of healthy relationships.

I soon realized that we weren’t the only ones looking for this virtual hybrid zoom poker outlet for convenience. A friend at work invited me to his weekly poker game that he and his friends had started with a similar setup. And suddenly I made friends with another group of people I would probably never have met otherwise. And then there were the one-on-one games with my friend Alex, another person who online poker turned the wheels of friendship with.

Relationships quickly became about more than poker. We celebrated birthdays in a group. In another, we exchanged Christmas presents. Aaron, whom I’ve never met, sent me a homemade beer brewing kit. I sent Mitch a bottle of champagne. One of the poker players came in handy professionally: Ben, a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia 76ers, helped me with several articles I wrote about the NBA team.

There are precedents for people to turn to Gambling in a pandemic. When the Spanish flu hit the country in 1918, law enforcement agencies broke up underground gambling salons Operation despite a ban on face-to-face meetings.

You may be wondering why I keep talking about these games in the past tense. Can’t they go on even when people go out again? It’s not like Zoom disappears like the sun at night. And that’s true. In theory, the games can continue. I imagine that sometimes they’ll do it for nostalgic sake.

But it’s getting warmer outside and more and more people are being vaccinated. People haven’t seen their friends and family in person in months. Why stare at a computer for hours on a Saturday night when you’ve been out and about for the first time in over a year?

We play less than before. I’m sure less poker indicates that the country sees a light at the end of the tunnel. But since it is harder to find meaningful connections when you leave your 20s, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss.

And then I’m reminded of something Myki said to me once.

“This is never about the cards.”

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