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PERSONAL PLEASURES

Poker Night in Beverly Hills : Once a Week, a Film Director Forgets Wheeling and Concentrates on Dealing

April 13, 1986|PAUL MAZURSKY | Director Paul Mazursky's most recent film is "Down and Out in Beverly Hills."

"I love to direct movies. It is one of the great joys of my life. But there's a catch. When I start shooting a film, I have to miss my weekly poker game, and for me, that is nigh tragic. You see, the game goes from 7:30 p.m. to about 2 in the morning, and that's just too late if you have to be up at 6 a.m. to shoot.

For the past 13 years, come rain or come shine and if I'm not shooting, every Wednesday night I have played poker with the same six men. We used to play in a different man's home each week, but lately it's been down to my place, David Ben-Ezra's house or Perry Paul's Hollywood apartment.

Eating and poker seem to go together; we always play in the kitchen or in the dining room, so we can be near the food. Each week someone else is responsible for the refreshments, and no matter how much there is, someone complains that there isn't enough or that he's tired of the same junk. Usually, it's corned beef sandwiches with pickles, coleslaw, chocolate-chip cookies and lots of low-cal sodas--to avoid diabetic comas. Some evenings there is pizza or Chinese food. Under normal conditions, takeout food that's been sitting on a counter for a while would be inedible, but on poker nights, even cold moo goo gai pan is a delicacy.

Whatever the food, it's usually devoured in record time, and the game begins. The stakes are 50 cents and $1, and if you're having a bad run (as I am), you can drop $200 or $300 in a night. No matter how well the rest of your life is going, losing at poker is a desperate blow to the ego. You experience hot and cold flashes and paranoia (why me?); you're angry, irritable and willing to play through the night in an attempt to get even. You begin to fantasize that by some miracle you can win back $300 on a royal flush with all the suckers in the pot.

But it's all worth it. Poker makes you forget your real life. You release your hidden hostilities, you laugh a lot, you curse even more, you ride a roller coaster of winning and losing, and for a few hours you Walter Mitty yourself into being a river-boat gambler, a shrewd and dangerous man with steel nerves and a perfect memory . . . and things happen that simply couldn't happen anywhere else.

One night we were playing at my house and, just for fun, each of us put on a hat from my collection: a fedora, a pith helmet, a beret, a straw hat, a green visor, a baseball cap and a helmet. There was a knock at the door, which is unusual at midnight in Beverly Hills (it would be unusual even at noon). I opened the door to see a youngish police officer who informed me that someone had parked in the driveway across the street. Then, startled, he looked over my shoulder, and I could see that he was trying to figure out who this odd group was. Seven men in crazy hats playing poker in a smoke-filled room--was this a gangland conference?

And that's the way it goes, hand after hand--ups, downs, silliness, tension, laughter, corned beef sandwiches, dialogue by Pinter by way of Neil Simon. You wager real money, and you forget about directing movies and making deals. You are in the wondrous land of poker. Win or lose, I can't wait till Wednesday night."

FADE IN: INTERIOR PAUL'S KITCHEN--NIGHT

Spanish-style kitchen with wood-beam ceiling and pretty tile. One man is setting up cards and poker chips on a table covered with an old green blanket. The others are frantically making corned beef sandwiches. It is apparent that they have not eaten in at least a week, because they are devouring the sandwiches even before they have finished making them.

The Players are: the PSYCHOLOGIST ( Jeremy Ritzlin): in his 50s, likes to control the game, chain-smokes filtered cigarettes; the ACTOR ( Jason Williams): blondish, balding, 38, smokes a black cheroot, thinks he's Clint Eastwood in a "Dirty Harry" movie; the CONDOR (Harry Kulkin): late 60s, runs a biopsy lab, is nicknamed The Condor because he keeps his huge hands on the table over his cards at all times; the TRAILER MAN (Bob Sherman): sells mobile homes, always carries a lot of cash, never knows what game is being played; the IMPORTER (Perry Paul): bald, nonstop talker and kibitzer, imports $1,000 watches from Taiwan that sell for eight bucks here; the BOATMAN (David Ben-Ezra): retired, made his money in construction, is always going fishing on his boat, counts wrong a lot in games that require counting, can confuse you no end; and the DIRECTOR: has quit smoking and is always on a diet, complains constantly about his bad cards.

The ACTOR gives each man $25 worth of chips. Someone begins to turn up cards, and the first jack lands in front of the IMPORTER.

IMPORTER: Again I get the first deal. Is this a conspiracy?

PSYCHOLOGIST: Deal, deal.

TRAILER MAN: Hey, I'm going to Australia next week.

DIRECTOR: My cameraman is from Australia.

CONDOR: I'm going to Vegas.

IMPORTER (dealing): When?

CONDOR: Friday.

PSYCHOLOGIST: Let's play cards.

TRAILER MAN: What are we playing?

ACTOR: Six-36.

BOATMAN: I hate that game.

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