What is it about a cheater that drives me crazy? Few things in life are as galling to me as having to suffer the cheater's averted eye of denial, or his tortured view of reality.
Certainly there are more important things to worry about. For instance, I have barely a clue as to the meaning of life, or even how to earn a decent living. Over the years I've mellowed on all sorts of things that used to get my goat, politics in particular, but cheating at games still unravels me.
Others are willing to let such venial transgressions go without calling attention to them. But in the middle of a friendly frisbee-golf game, I can't stop myself from going after what I perceive at cheating any more than I can stop a Blue Jay from dive-bombing an alley cat.
Perhaps the cheater represents an easy symbol of what is most wrong with the cynical age in which we live. Maybe I'm trying to make up for a dishonest aspect of myself. How about the times when I was cheated out of something dear?
While all three are true to some extent, the main reason for my strident take on cheating flows from a particular batch of summer mischief. At the time I was a remarkably hard-headed 12-year-old boy, and my grandfather seized the moment to drive a point home.
A blue-collar architect by trade, Frank Owen was a natural entertainer. He began singing professionally in his teens and performed regularly for most of his adult life. His facility as an emcee and storyteller was legendary among his peers.
However, at the time of this tale his public life was behind him.
Shortly after retiring from the railroad his easy hold on good health slipped away. Consequently, he withdrew from most activities. Once he got some of his strength back, he enjoyed sitting in the shade and umpiring for baseball games. And he found he could still play cards although he was slow in handling them.
This was the summer he taught us the fundamentals of playing poker. After baseball a few of the boys would gather around the table under the plum tree. As we were beginners we didn't play for real money. Each player got so many chips. If he lost them, he was out of the game. Over soft drinks, as one of the boys shuffled the cards for him, my grandfather would hold court.
He said he'd never let us beat him, claiming he owed it to the game itself to try his best to win each hand. So he always won the most chips. Woven throughout the raconteur's method of betting were stories about poker hands and football games from his cavalry days serving with the Richmond Blues during World War I.
Gentle afternoons such as these came and went so easily that summer, there was no way I could have had more than a na‹ve boy's thin sense how precious they were.
On the other hand, there were times he would make it tough on me. Especially when he spotted a boy breaking the rules of a game, or his rules of the yard. It was more than a little embarrassing when he would stop a ball game to cite cheating or dirty play. If it was a flagrant violation he would summarily bar the player from the yard for the day.
As likely as not, the stories he told during poker games would end up serving to illustrate what he saw as standards. We were instructed to never forget that in sports the team's success always came first. He would scold us that withholding one's best effort in a game, just because the score is heavily against you, is shameful. He would challenge us to expose the true coward at the heart of every bully, rather than give him sway.
The old man's hard-edged opinions about fair play, and looking directly in the eye at whatever comes along, were not particularly modern. Nor were they always easy for know-it-all adolescent boys to swallow.
Verily, the day came when a plot was hatched. A couple of the boys came up with an idea for having some fun. They wanted to see if we could beat him just once with artful subterfuge.
The conspirators practiced for hours, passing cards under the table with bare feet and developing our signals. It was generally accepted that we would not get away with it for long, but it would be sweet if we could pull it off for only a few hands.
Following the next baseball game, with the ceremonial watermelon consumed, most of the boys went home. Then the four card sharks moved in for the kill.
To our amazement, our plan went off smoothly. After a few hands of what we saw as subtle trickery we got blatant. We expected all along to get caught. Obviously we had to get caught so we could gloat over fooling him and taking the great master's chips.
Later, as he told the story about a Spanish women who bit him on the arm at a train station in France, one-eyed jacks tucked between dirty toes were being passed under the table. At this point the joy was draining out of the adventure. So with desperate, secret gestures we called off the ruse. A hand was played with no shenanigans. Then he was out of poker chips.
Head bowed like a beaten man he said, "I just can't win for loosing. You boys are too good for me today."
He pushed his chair up to the table, took his cane, and walked away so slowly it was agonizing. The game was over. We were no longer pranksters. We were cheaters. I wanted to shout out my confession but I didn't. As he negotiated the steps to the back porch, my last chance to save the day evaporated.
It was hard to believe that he hadn't seen what we were doing. For weeks my anxiety over the matter festered as I searched in vain for the courage to bring the subject up.
F. W. Owen didn't play poker with us again. He went on umpiring our ball games and telling stories. We tried poker without him but it didn't work. We had gotten too old to play poker without real treasure on the line. The chips had lost their magic.
My grandfather never said a word about that afternoon. Although I thought about it many times before he died eight years later, I failed to clear the air and tell him what we did. The shameful words always stuck in my throat.
Since that summer, I've surely cheated at worse than games and I've been betrayed by much more than a teammate. Yet today, although I can forgive all sorts of behavior that has injured me, I still cannot abide a cheater at games.
F.T.Rea is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond
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