For over two decades, I served as a volunteer at a 4-H Camp near my hometown. One of my primary gimmicks over the years involved teaching kids how to play poker. While poker isn’t your typical strategy to work with youth, over the years I saw the game bring kids together, develop friendships and even help mold young boys into responsible young men.
Over the course of 20 years, I would estimate that I’ve played more Five Card Draw than most any other poker player in the world and I never won a dime from most of the play. The real winners were the generations of kids that learned basic skills of poker and developed both life and social skills through our camping program.
Five Card Draw Was Best to Teach Basic Abilities
In the 1990’s, very few people in my area had ever heard of Texas Hold’em. The two predominate games in the area were Five Card Draw and Seven Card Stud. Some folks still played Five Card Stud but usually the modified form.
While I preferred Stud poker, it became clear early on that it wasn’t the best game to teach total newbies to poker. I switched over to Five Card Draw and that proved the easiest to teach kids. Most kids are hands-on learners and trying to teach them the concept of making a five-card hand works better with juggling five cards and not seven.
Every new player would be given a basic tutorial on hand rankings, and I mean every new player. After a while, the regulars would start teaching the new kids the hand rankings. We also had a standing rule that new players could get help in making their hands. We weren’t playing for money or anything of value, so collusion didn’t matter.
Next, I enforced a strict declare with each hand to help the kids learn their hands. This was partially because we often used wild cards. If you called two pair when you actually had four of kind, someone with a better two pair was going to beat you. Cards didn’t speak and most kids learned quickly either to pay attention or get help if they didn’t quite understand their hand.
Betting Took Too Much Time
Anyone that watched our various groups play poker were amazed that we were sitting there playing poker but not betting anything whatsoever. The funny thing about that is that more than once I tried to introduce some type of betting into the game but the kids got bored with it because it made each hand “take too long.”
Sometimes we would have to institute some form of betting, like when I held a poker tournament one year. Betting typically constituted of putting up an ante and playing out the hand. For the tournament, players could place a single bet after the draw but that was as far as betting went with most games.
The Hook? I Cheated
One question I was asked frequently over the years of being a counselor was how I kept the kids interested in the game without betting. That was easy. I cheated. Not every hand but often enough to keep the game interesting for the kids.
During my freshman year of college, one of my friends was a known cheat at cards. He was a fair mechanic with the cards and taught me a few things with them. Granted, I never had his flair for working a deck but it was enough to pull the wool over some 9 to 13 year-olds.
However, a lot of my “cheating” was so blatant that it only required someone being observant to catch it. As you can expect with a group of kids, our games were quite rowdy and I would take advantage of their distracted state to take extra draws, rifle through the muck pile, etc. And I would often cheat in such a way that when I went to showdown, it was obvious. “You can’t get five aces every time James!”
Trying to catch me at cheating became a part of the game that they seemed to enjoy just as much, and sometimes more, than the game itself. One year, one of the teen counselors setup a video camera trying to catch me cheating at cards. They gathered together to watch the film and when I showed up, they showed me “the exact moment when I cheated.” They missed two other obvious instances – in the same hand.
True Example of a Social Game
Poker is often called a social game and I can think of many experiences as a counselor that back up this claim. I actually picked up this little trick in college but it worked really well at camps. On the first day of camp during our recreation period, I would sit over at one of the picnic tables shuffling cards and maybe even playing a couple of hands myself.
Quite often, I’d draw over one of the quieter kids or one that just wasn’t making friends and we would start playing. Other kids would see this and roam over to see what we were doing. In time, we’d have a table full of kids and sometimes I’d have to get another deck to open a second table.
Eventually, the kids that would roam over would start having an awesome time hanging out and BOOM you have a new clique of friends at the camp. What would start out as a bad week for some of these kids would turn out to be one of their best experiences thanks to the new friends they made through playing poker. I became a bit of a rock star and always had a group of “shadows” following me everywhere around camp, and I mean everywhere. “I’m going to poop. Go over there for a while.”
Many of these kids would return to camp because of the fun week they had and some of these kids would become teen counselors. A couple even served as adult leaders. When I think back on my “poker career,” there are times where I think less about the final tables and the money won and more about the lives that were changed thanks to monkeying around with a deck of cards on a picnic table.