Independent Pursuits: Poker

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The Independent Culture
JACK THE PUMP was one of those characters who enliven the game, who become one of the fixtures of the room. His nickname came from his dodgy lungs, which caused him to carry an oxygen inhaler whenever he played. He was paper-thin, pink-faced, bright-eyed, always smartly dressed, never short of a quip at his favourite game, which was low-stakes seven-card stud, 50p ante and pounds 1 to open.

For 25 years he played every afternoon and evening at the Grosvenor Victoria, as willing to call a man down on a single pair as he was to pump the betting up if he had a drawing hand. Jack liked to claim he could not read or write, but he certainly understood the language of cards.

A friend who knew him well says he never failed to make between pounds 17,000- pounds 25,000 a year at seven-card stud - which takes some doing at low stakes. He was out of his depth at the bigger games, though he occasionally tried them. "All things being equal -" Jack would begin one of his little cracks between deals, "which of course they are not -". Or, "Wine, women and song - actually, I'll drop the song and take aces wired." He had an endless fund of silly jokes, which did not distract him from playing a good game.

Jack (real name John Barnes) started in the snooker halls, made some money and got into car-dealing. He acquired motor show-rooms in south London, which he evidently managed successfully. He needed to because, to hear him tell it, he had shelled out a lot of money on his wives and women friends. At one stage he had a place in Las Vegas, where he went for the dry climate rather than the gambling, though he probably enjoyed plenty of that, too.

Jack had that inestimable quality, which only a few poker players have, of not complaining about his losses, though he might become a bit pinker in the face, or exulting over his winnings. I had many a good-natured joust with Jack, and used to pretend I couldn't sleep at night after he beat me out of a pot. "Here you are; would you like it back now?" he would ask, "Or will you take a cheque?"

He used to talk about coming over to Paris to play poker there. The thought of the lights, the gaiety, above all the good games, tickled his fancy. But we both knew he would never make that trip. Jack the Pump's lungs finally gave out, but he leaves a happier memory among his fellow players than more many famous players ever could.