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Play Folk #1: Tombstone Hold 'em

Myles Nye

We did it!

After weeks of planning, the club launched to a resounding success. The first ever play date of our new club welcomed 24 players to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery for a game of Tombstone Hold 'em.

Inaugural group shot.

Inaugural group shot.

Look at us! 24 people of all different backgrounds, ages, shapes and sizes, who all are willing to show up in real life to an event in LA and play a rare game. It's a fine thing to behold.

We started off right near the entrance, and one a critical mass arrived we relocated to the Watchorn obelisk, a straight shot from the gate and - as it turned out - an easy place for other players to find us, even if they were just wandering around. Our group did stand out.

We began with a reading from the book of Jane, aka Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, where I first heard of Tombstone Hold 'em:

Perhaps more than any other project I've worked on, Tombstone Hold 'em has demonstrated one of the most vital powers of gameplay: it gives us explicit permission to do things differently. We are accustomed to being asked to behave and think unconventionally in a game. We're used to being creative and playing outside of social norms when we're inside the socially safe "magic circle" of a game. And the more people who come together to play an unconventional game like Tombstone Hold 'Em, the safer it feels. A crowd carries the social authority to redefine norms.

... Today, Tombstone Hold 'Em lives on as a viral happiness solution - it's free to adopt or adapt, and no products or special supplies or technology is required. All you need are a set of regular playing cards, something to use as poker chips, and a way to invite friends or strangers to play their respects with you.

First, I love that little bit of wordplay at the end there: play their respects.

Secondly, it's no small feat getting that group together, but we did it by golly. I know I'm being rather repetitive on that point, but it's no small accomplishment. If you don't live in LA, you wouldn't understand.

After that, we explained the rules and began the game. The first hand was won by Dash (Myles's cousin) and Diana (Lily's former roommate), who met for the first time at the game.

Beginners' luck.

Beginners' luck.

Gameplay continued, and for the first hour or so, nobody won more than one hand: every game was won by a new duo. Dash and Diana were the first to win twice, but then Dice and Rocky Rob tied it up.

By the way, despite Jane's suggestion, we did not use an "ordinary" deck of cards: they are a deck I acquired by funding a Kickstarter campaign, called "A-maze-ing Deck with a Twist... and a Turn."

Each card is a maze, and the entire deck is a maze too. You start in a corner and, when you pass through the icon of another card, you jump to that card. The goal is to get from one joker to the other.

Each card is a maze, and the entire deck is a maze too. You start in a corner and, when you pass through the icon of another card, you jump to that card. The goal is to get from one joker to the other.

Now after we played a few hands out, we agreed that there was a certain anticlimax to the game as traditionally played; with no bluffing and ample time to find the optimal hand, the game was primarily about speed.

So then, Billy B., hereinafter "Tombstone Billy" proposed a rules mod. Here is Billy with his daughter April.

The Tombstone Billy Rules to Tombstone Hold 'Em:

  • Deal out a flop of 3 cards. Wait 30 seconds before dealing the "turn."
  • Deal the "turn." Wait 30 seconds before dealing the "river."
  • 60 seconds after the "river," make the Last Call.
  • At any time, a duo can leave the flop and place their chips on the tombstones. Being first counts. Maybe an King comes up in the first 3 cards, you run off and get two more to make three of a kind: you'll win if the flop doesn't improve. But if the last two cards are Aces and you weren't there to see it because you already took off, someone else will win with four of a kind. Make sense? Sorry guys, it's late.

We played the rest of the game this way and it did raise the drama quite a bit, as each duo had to decide whether to stay or go. Then, just for grins, we dealt out random cards and gave everybody new partners.

Well, almost everybody: Em remained with her boyfriend Scott. They were just meant to be together I guess.

Dash and Dice, each with two wins under their belts as part of separate teams, won again when they were paired up, making them the winningest players in the bunch.

Right before we finished, we played one last hand, Tombstone Billy style, for just the top two teams: Rocky Rob and Dice vs. Dash and Diana.

D&D took off after the turn, sure they could win with a flush, but Rocky Rob and Dice, critically, stayed to see the river, which very dramatically came up an 8 of clubs, opening the door for either a four of a kind or, remarkably, a straight flush which they FOUND, scoring them not only the highest hand of the entire day but also the win for the championship match. It was a wonderful, dramatic climax to a fun, lightly competitive day.

The winners. Rocky Rob played poker professional and Dice was a clown with Cirque du Soleil, so they were the odds-on favorite before the game even began.

The winners. Rocky Rob played poker professional and Dice was a clown with Cirque du Soleil, so they were the odds-on favorite before the game even began.

Willa brought pastries from Starbucks for everyone and also stale bagels to feed the ducks, so after we cleaned up all our gear we went over to the pond to throw bread at the birdies. A few people drank the Stone IPA I bought. It was a magical afternoon.

Stay tuned for Play Folk #2 on a weeknight in April.

Scattered thoughts:

  • Jane advises getting permission from the cemetery to play this game if a large group will be attending, but we did not heed this advice. After we'd been playing for about 90 minutes, Melvin, a security guy in his golf cart, came along and gave us the fisheye. I approached him with a big smile, and he said what we were doing didn't seem like a problem but I'd better discuss with the owners. He gave me a lift in his golf cart to the building at the front entrance. I spoke to a woman there, who I think was reception, and in 2 minutes she'd given us our blessing. I walked back to the group and got a great perspective of what the game looks like from afar: duos scampering amidst the graveyard. Everyone looked expectantly to see what the verdict was, but of course I was returning with good news: play on!
  • The first people to arrive were two girls who introduced themselves as Homa and Tobey. Shortly before we read the rules, they said they wanted to go walk around the cemetery first before playing and then never came back. Who were they? Who invited them? I do not know. Clearly our club wasn't for them. Maybe they'll attend a future play date.
  • Myles waving 2 people over and inviting them to play. They were not at the cemetery to play the game.
  • I realized afterward that we never technically played the game as it was intended, with the duo staying at the tombstones until Last Call is announced. I don't think it's so bad that we played it our way, which relied less on speed.
  • Rocky Rob pointed out that it would have been fun to move to another part of the cemetery after a while, because we all became familiar with the tombstones in the vicinity of the Watchorn obelisk, which is quite remarkable if you think about it, and very much in keeping with the true, intended nature of the game.