I played a lot of poker in high school. That was back in the mid-1970s. Poker for high school students wasn't like it is today. There was no Internet, no televised poker tournaments, and surely no legal poker rooms in New York where I grew up. For high school kids especially, poker was strictly an underground game – illegal, forbidden, and compelling. For us it was like smoking cigarettes or drinking beer or smoking pot or getting laid. You wanted to do it because it was forbidden. And it was fun.
A favorite variety of the game back then was guts. We generally played it in the senior room of the high school – a private room set aside only for seniors where we got away with playing poker because faculty didn't enter (unless they smelled cigarettes or pot). Small fortunes changed hands over this game. And we were all on very short bankrolls. So it produced some bad feelings. I think Bob Crumstein still owes Mark Casper $223. To this day I get a shiver of nervousness when I think about it. Here's how it's played – at least how we played it.
Many players played at one time. We usually had 10 or more at a long cafeteria table in the room. Everyone got dealt three cards face down. Everyone put in $.25 each. This was the initial pot. It would be matched by players losing the hand, as I'll describe. When the pot was matched there was no ante.
Beginning to the immediate left of the dealer each player in turn declared "guts" or "no guts". If he declared "guts" it meant that he was in the hand. If he had the highest three-card poker hand of all the players declaring "guts" – straights and flushes not counting – then he won the pot. If, on the other hand, he declared "guts" and was beaten by another hand held by a player who declared "guts" then he lost the hand. As a penalty for losing he had to put into the pot an amount equal to the pot at the start of the hand. He had to match the pot. If more than one person who declared guts lost then each had to match the pot.
The size of the pot could become very large. Here's a typical run of hands for you to consider.
Imagine the game starting with ten players. Three players declare "guts". The first player reveals two aces, a very strong hand in this game and usually a winner. The second player reveals two kings – also a very strong hand and usually a winner – but not this time. The third player who declared guts turns over three 6s. It is better than any pair. So he wins and the first player's aces lose. After the player with trip 6s takes in the $2.50 pot, the two losers must match it by putting in $2.50 each, making the pot on the next hand $5.00.
On the next hand, an early decision maker figures he may steal the $5.00, hoping that other players will be too nervous about matching the relatively large $5.00 pot. So he declares "guts" as a bluff of sort, with only a pair of 7s. Unfortunately for him, the very next player has a pair of Queens – a hand that dictates a guts call for all but the most timid player. So he declares guts as well. And then, fantastically, the next three players and the dealer all declare guts as well. They have, in order, trip 9s, a pair of Kings, trip 5s and a pair of Jacks. The dealer, declaring guts with the pair of Jacks, made a bad move – even for this game. It might have made sense to make this call with one or two players already in the hand. But with all of the other folks declaring guts in front of him it was a very bad move. But most high school players back then were awful. .
The player with the trip 9s won the $5.00. Then the six losers put in $5.00, making the pot for the next hand the astronomical (by high school standards in the 1970s) $30.00.
The game continues. The next hand four players declare guts. Trip Kings beat out three other strong hands. Three players put in $30 each. That produced a pot of $90.
The next hand everyone declares "no guts" up until the player in front of the dealer. If he declares "no guts" then the hand is dead (we didn't let the dealer win if no one else had called guts in front of him). So, effectively, the player right before the dealer is the last person to make a decision about whether to open the hand at all.
He looks down and sees A54 – an Ace high. Ace high is generally a borderline hand in late position like this. It's a little better than 50:50 to beat a random hand. Still, it's quite a risk. Since it loses to any pair. And the dealer will almost surely suspect weakness because of the late position and the huge pot.
The player in next to last position is generally aggressive. So he takes his chances and says "guts". The dealer looks down and sees "229" – normally not a hand to risk the princely sum of $90 on. But it is a pair, and he knows the other guy is pretty wild. So he reluctantly says "guts".
He wins $90 and his opponent must match the pot.
We usually played without cash – both to make detection of our gambling more difficult and also because we often played for money we didn't have on us. It was an easy game to keep track of on paper – since the bets we simple and only involved an ante or a pot-sized match. We developed convoluted IOU structures to keep track of who owed whom how much.
Unfortunately, because we played "on paper", collection became a real problem. Ethical players like myself always paid up. But some didn't. It became unfair, with many bad feelings. I stopped playing when someone announced that all debts were being reduced by one decimal place. Instead of Joe Tessatore owing me $107, he now owed me $10.70. I wouldn't have minded except that I had just paid up my loss of $27 to someone. Instead of being more than $70 to the good I was going to be $17 in the hole.
But the game did produce a lot of action. It can be a great home game too I imagine. I'd tend to suggest that there be some limit on the size of the matched pot. But even so, my shivering memories of putting more money than I had in all the world on the line still causes me to decline when asked if I'd like to play at home. But who knows, maybe some day I'll find the spine to play a few rounds of guts again.