They gathered. From across the nation and even the sea: Madison, Wisconsin; Cody, Wyoming; Auburn, Washington; LA; even Seefeld, Austria. Card wielding gladiators at one of the world’s elite annual poker summits. 2017 found the combatants in Canyon Services digs in Alta, duking it out in residential style in our pristine alpine environ.

For over 37 years this particular battle has raged across the country, changing venues each year in order to deal 5 card draw and 7 card stud. Six friends, whose individual competitive edges have been honed through decades of reading each other’s tells and betting patterns. Or, when that fails, knocking the edge off the competition with margaritas and good whiskey. Your correspondent counts himself lucky to number among them.

Guys playing poker.

Securely ensconced in the Village at Sugarplum, its splendor and privacy affording the competitors the concentration necessary to fleece good friends and occasionally torpedo one with a hidden full house (referred to at this particular table as a U-boat, the deadliest hand in seven card stud), the tournament commenced on night one. Holding aces, discarding trash, desperate gambits, foolishly drawing to the occasional inside straight (always 10.1 to 1 against) when the mood or whiskey struck, till the local Stellar’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) announced the pre-dawn.

Fortified by a few short hours sleep, recommencement of battle was delayed in order to partake of Snowbird’s Oktoberfest and a tram to soak up the view from Hidden Peak. A leisurely hike back to the village put the weekend’s raison d’etre back in focus: other peoples’ money. Not even steins of Utah’s best enjoyed in the shadow of Mount Superior, accompanied by accordions and alpine horns or the ladies serving them in Dirndl could hold back play. But it was close.

Guys at Oktoberfest.

With Little Cottonwood Canyon serving as the backdrop, the arena was reentered and battle recommenced. What followed was a blur of days and nights of nonstop Bicycle Card weaponry slung back and forth and the inevitable flow of lucky hands that favors one player in any given tournament. But the others fight on: skirmishes, ambushes and failed engagements. In the end, a shadowy player and culinary ninja known only as “The Bock” emerged victorious from among the valiant gladiators. His take after four days of trench warfare? $33.60.

Winning, the common goal in any competition, turns out to have a different metric at this table. Among the players, no one can ever seem to recall who won in any particular previous year. Friendship, stories (many retold from year to year), swapped in clear mountain air and tinged with the smell of sweet summer thunder showers, were the true currency exchanged in the arena. And to know that good friends are well again this year. The sharing of stories, that ancient human social drive, and to hear friends’ families’ are well, trumps even an aces full U-boat.