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

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One of my closest friends is Myki Bajaj, a 30-year-old film and television producer in Los Angeles. We see each other every week, and we usually speak multiple times. Our conversations span from the mundane — sports and culture and the like — to more serious topics, like family and being brown in America. We mull traveling together and frequently talk about projects on which to collaborate.

What makes our friendship unusual — or perfectly normal based on 2021 standards — is that I have met Myki in person one time. It was last year at a chance work meeting on the West Coast, just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Our friendship blossomed through a medium I never would have expected: online poker served with a side of Zoom.

I won’t miss the pandemic, with the suffering and isolation it has caused across the planet. And I am one of the lucky ones. Knock on wood: I am healthy and have remained employed throughout the last year.

But, I will miss one thing about quarantine life whenever it’s over. I have developed real bonds with people through poker, which is, ironically, a game inherently built on mistrust.

Immediately after much of the United States went on lockdown last March, Myki offhandedly invited me to play a poker game with his college friends in the midst of one of our first catch-up conversations. He is an avid player. Before last year, he would host a low-stakes game on Fridays in his backyard for everyone to de-stress from their workweeks. I am whatever the opposite of avid is. Sporadic? Occasional? Oh, actually, the words I’m looking for are not good.

In the pandemic version of the game, each player — and there were up to 14 of us — would download an online poker app and then get on a group video call as we played and act as if we were in the backyard. Myki’s friends were scattered all around the country. New York. Los Angeles. Washington. Atlanta. Seattle. One even tuned in from London at a ridiculous hour. But this game brought all of us to the same place at the same time.

Our amateur saloon, which could be open for more than four hours at a time, became a regular meeting spot, weekly and occasionally multiple times a week. I began to look forward to it. And while I did not quite realize it as it was happening, I became close with this group of strangers. In the absence of happy hours and normal workplace socializing, they became a respite from the monotony and seclusion that was suddenly our collective normal.

The Zoom discussions, punctuated with yells about bluffs and lucky flush draws, would veer from politics to literature to dating and many other topics. I invited some of my friends to join, and suddenly, my previous acquaintances were meeting my new ones, creating connections upon connections. Sometimes, the calls would be silent as cards were dealt. Not because we were trying to hide our hands or concentrate on our pocket pairs, but because the group had become comfortable with nothingness: the true hallmark of healthy relationships.

Soon, I realized that we weren’t the only ones who had sought out this hybrid Zoom-poker virtual outlet for comfort. A friend at work invited me to join his weekly poker game that he and his friends had started with a similar setup. And suddenly, I had become friendly with yet another group of people whom I probably never would have met otherwise. And then there were the one-on-one games with my friend Alex, another person with whom online poker greased the wheels for a friendship.

The relationships quickly became about more than poker. In one group, we celebrated birthdays. In another, we exchanged holiday gifts. Aaron, whom I have never met, sent me a homemade beer brewing kit. I sent Mitch a bottle of champagne. One of the poker players has come in handy professionally: Ben, a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia 76ers, helped me with multiple articles I wrote about the N.B.A. team.

There is precedent for people turning to gambling games in a pandemic. In 1918, as the country was ravaged by the Spanish flu, law enforcement would break up underground gambling saloons operating despite a ban on in-person gatherings.

You might be wondering why I keep talking about these games in the past tense. Can’t they continue even if people start going out again? It’s not as if Zoom is going to disappear like the sun at night. And that’s true. In theory, the games can continue. I imagine they sometimes will, for nostalgia’s sake.

But it’s getting warmer outside and more and more people are getting vaccinated. People haven’t seen their friends and family in person in months. Why would you spend hours staring at a computer on a Saturday night when you can be out and about for the first time in more than a year?

We’re already playing less than we used to. I take heart that less poker indicates that the country is seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. But given that it’s more difficult to find meaningful connections when you leave your 20s, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss.

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

“This is never about the cards.”

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