Written for this week's "La Vida Local" column of the Durango Telegraph:
“You don’t have TV, how do you live without TV?” my uncle asked in disbelief. I was back in the Midwest, and as usual, something about my Colorado lifestyle, was surprising my relatives. Typically the topic of conversation is about me sleeping on a rock face, or how if its hard to meet women when I’m living out of a vehicle, but this time it was my lack of access to cable.
Yes, I have all but abandoned the recreational pastimes I grew up with, with one notable exception: poker. I learned to play poker with my uncles in Illinois, and over the holidays every year we’d sneak off into a basement filled with antique beer cans, a pool table and a card table. I almost always lost my five-dollar buy in, but liked the excitement of playing, and when I was old enough, I enjoyed the beer my uncles provided.
Sometime after I moved west in the late 1990s, poker blew up in popularity. In particular, Texas Hold Em, a seven-card variation of poker, took the nation by storm, and suddenly it was the way to play the game. Even in the small corner of the world that I was living in at the time, Gunnison, everyone playing poker had adopted Texas Hold Em, and there was no turning back.
Somewhere in the middle of this I had a friend who had a grand idea, we could fund our climbing trips by gambling. He had a system for several ways of winning money with roulette, blackjack and poker. For a brief minute I believed in his system when I won seventy dollars in thirty minutes playing blackjack in New Mexico, after returning from a climbing trip to Mexico. “See, seventy bucks can last a week in Mexico,” he said.
I shared his passion for this idea briefly, until I lost two hundred dollars at a roulette table using his system. “Just keeping betting on black,” he said. “Eventually you’ll win your money back.”
Well, I did keep betting on black, and the little silver ball kept landing on red until I was out of money. I still never lost faith in his idea until he left me hanging in Las Vegas one time. He was planning on meeting me there to test his systems in Sin City, but couldn’t make it; something about a tooth falling out because of his frequent tobacco chewing habit.
What we didn’t know at the time was there actually was a man who funded his climbing trips by gambling. For over twenty years, John “The Gambler” Rosholt was a climber by day and professional poker player by night. He funded a dirtbag climbing lifestyle from playing poker, and was known for his methodical, scientific approach to both poker and climbing. Rosholt considered poker a science, and a job rather than a game. Not only was he successful with poker, but he was also one of the top climbers of his time.
Sadly in 2005 Rosholt went missing in Las Vegas. The media covered his disappearance, and his sister Jane, tirelessly searched for him. Many theories existed about his whereabouts until 2010 when a climbing party found some human remains on a wall in Red Rocks, a climbing area near Las Vegas. The remains were tested and found to be Rosholt’s. Apparently he was scoping out a new route on the wall, and slipped, falling to his death. There are many interesting stories about him online, and hopefully someday, someone will write a book about the man they called The Gambler.
In Durango, I’ve found a great group of guys to play poker with. Like me, most of them don’t want to lose more than five to ten bucks a night, and laughter is of equal importance to winning hands. My buddy Travis, a smooth southern gentleman, is the ringleader, and last winter somehow convinced six to eight people down in his frigid basement once a week for a friendly game of cards. Good beer was always on hand, and it had a similar vibe to playing with my uncles, but instead of the antique beer can collection on the wall, there was a Wu Tang Clan poster.
I can’t overstate how cold it was in that basement, one night my friend Tim, who doesn’t have an ounce of fat on his body, and suffered frostbite as a teenager, showed up in a puffy coat and pants that one might see in a picture of someone climbing Mt. Everest. Though we made fun of him, he insisted it was the only time he was warm enough down in that dungeon.
This winter Travis is off to exotic travels with his lady, but we’ve still kept a decent crew together. We play every couple of weeks, and have found a warmer location than a seedy, dark basement. We miss Travis and his wit, “I don’t want nobody to get shot or stabbed down here, it’s only poker,” he would often say, but don’t miss the fact that he usually took all of our money.
Through poker night I’ve met some climbing partners, new friends, and grown closer with others. It’s a good time even when I lose my money, which is most nights, but I’ll admit it is much more fun when I’m winning. I don’t have the keen sense that John “The Gambler” Rosholt must have had, although his lifestyle was envious, and I’m glad there was someone out there living that dream.
I don’t have any regret about leaving behind a more sedentary lifestyle back in the Midwest for a more active one out here. After all if I stayed in the Midwest I’d never have any of these stories. But, I’m glad I’ve hung onto at least one pastime, poker night.