The key to Texas Hold 'Em, according to a guy named Joey who won $40 on Saturday night, is patience: Wait for your hand. Be careful with bluffing if you don't have the cards, because nine times out of ten better players will figure you out. Know your strengths and don't be afraid to fold. Don't try to control the game, because you can't. No showboating. Patience. This advice is delivered, unprompted, over a shot of tequila — surely the least patient of all alcohol beverages — but it is actually pretty good.
The Oaks Card Club — named for the old Oakland Oaks minor-league baseball team and a different kind of escapism — has been here on the corner of San Pablo and Park avenues for upwards of five decades, and it's hard to imagine it ever looking any different than it does today, 8 p.m. on a Saturday and positively teeming: sunken, packed card pit; green quilted-pleather booths and faux-wood paneling, a distinctly hotel-y feeling. At the bar, officially called the Oaks Corner and open to gamblers and non-gamblers alike, a Xeroxed and stapled packet that passes for a menu advertises "SPORTS BAR – HOF BRAU – GRILL — ASIAN DISHES," which sort of sums things up. There's sports memorabilia papered along the walls, an inflatable Budweiser-branded airplane hanging from the ceiling, and hot food 24 hours a day. Draft beers are $3.75 and popcorn is free; the martini arrives ungarnished and the wings come with packaged ranch dressing. No showboating.
I often hear people who don't gamble say they find casinos and card clubs depressing, but it's not really like that here. Or rather, it's depressing in much the same way any bar is — everyone existing alone/together, each at their own private point on the axis between escapism and addiction, just with a different, less socially acceptable vice swapped in. Which is to say: only depressing if you decide it is. A man with mismatched shoes declares his predilection for Cutty Sark and seven-card stud; the former coach of the Petaluma team playing to compete in the little league world series that night comes to the bar full of stories and wait for your pitch! admonishment directed at the television. People crack wise and wish each other good luck out there; outside, in the big room, fortunes are made and lost and French fries eaten. Petaluma went down in modest flames, 24-16, after a grueling three-hour game, but you know what they say about how it's not whether you win or lose.