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The mathematician makes the good read

Joe Profio was good at math, I mean he was a genius.

Although that meant he was a whiz at calculus — not exactly something that earned you many dates during your final year of high school — it served him well at the poker table.

Now, I consider myself a pretty good poker player. Within twenty hands, I have a pretty good read on the players I’m up against and can pretty much tell when they’re bluffing or, better still, when they’re holding good cards. I have a pretty good ability to roughly estimate the odds of seeing a particular card relative to what’s on the table. However, with all those skills, during any given game, when I sense that the cards are just not falling my way, I know it’s a good time to walk away from the table.

My game is intuitive. How I read players around the table is determined by gut feeling more than deductive reasoning. As coldly rational as I can be in most things, I subscribe a certain amount of credence to the influence of luck on my game and the dynamics of the table I’m at.

Joe, on the other hand, played a calculating game and his faith in probabilities prevented him from pushing his chair back when it was evident that Lady Luck had determined he’d get nothing but junk. Worse, he was almost entirely tone deaf when it came to a read; I could bluff him blind, but even the most clueless pigeon could pull off a decent rush on Joe.

Still, Joe’s mad math skills made him the most formidable opponent during our lunch hour nickel-dime-quarter games and our higher-stakes games on Friday nights. His purely intellectual approach pitted against my gut instincts found us trading pots with almost uncanny precision.

I can’t remember when Joe and I formed our friendship but, in retrospect, we were an odd pair. He was the quintessential nerd: heavy into math, socially awkward, quiet and bit of introvert, he was not the kind of guy I’d hang with. Since I was a bit of jerk, a loudmouthed clown, scruffy as I could get away with and looking to get into any blouse that could be unbuttoned, Joe seemed far outside the galaxy where my ship travelled.

Yet, prior to our lunch hour poker games (I was the newcomer invited into a select circle), Joe took an interest in me.

Aside from poker, Joe and I found that we had a common interest in bands specifically, music that was fast and loud. On one hand, we had similar tastes in the popular heavy bands of the period: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Kiss, Blue Oyster Cult, et al. On the other hand, he was also into some of the other bands that stood outside the mainstream and also filled my collection: Iggy and the Stooges, MC5, the New York Dolls, Pretty Things, Dr. Feelgood, Radio Birdland, David Bowie, even some old stuff like Small Faces, early The Who and ’60s garage bands – all stuff my stoner friends couldn’t stomach, but Joe and I found infinitely superior to the bloated, pretentious rock that ’70s rockers raised fists and lighters for.

Whereas Joe was a math and computer nerd (he wrote Basic like he was born to it), I was a music geek, spending every spare quarter on albums by bands that weren’t heard on the radio and that I’d learned about from Lisa Robinson’s columns in Hit Parader or Lester Bangs’ reviews in Creem. In my room, alone and screaming along to the piledriver sounds of a musical and teenage revolution in the making, spinning sides by Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, the Dictators, Television, Suicide, Devo and Blondie, I was listening to stuff that (I never knew at the time) would change Rock and Roll forever.

Some days, I’d drive Joe out to “The Bridges” — a place well out in the country, amongst weeping willows and green swamps, a little dirt road that ran along the river and ended amongst a mountain of beer cans and old tires. I’d crank up something I knew would open his mind, watching him to see his reaction.

Stoic and sober (always refusing a toke off the bone), Joe would always ask, “Who” and “What” and “Where” he could find the vinyl (considering I spent a considerable amount purchasing through mail order). As I’d drive Joe back to his car, Chinese-eyed and warmhearted, sometimes I’d promise a cassette, sometimes promising something vague, maybe, or something specific (like we wouldn’t share flaming death roaring down backroads in Alabama).

To return the favor, Joe took a trip to the U.K. for the summer, a summer when new music had exploded in Europe.

His timing was impeccable, arriving almost a year after a European tour by the Ramones. The result of those shows being that the hungry and the hunted, exploded into rock n’ roll bands (to paraphrase The Boss), arguably creating the greatest movement in music since Elvis walked into Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios – and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message.”

While Joe was absent from our Poker Fridays, I was reading what was going on across the pond, aching to hear music I had no access to (in those days before iTunes or Amazon). Reported vaguely in Rolling Stone and released only on indie labels (the U.S. record company geniuses assuming those bands would find no substantial American audience), it felt as though I was floating in an isolation tank, piecing together the music in my mind into what I could only imagine.

Joe called about a week before school started. He’d returned from his summer in England and wanted to get some serious poker in before the start of our Junior year.

At his behest, I arrived earlier than the other players, advised that he had something for me.

“I think you might like this stuff,” he said as he handed me a Budweiser longneck and pressed two cassettes into my greedy palm.

There, in characteristically exacting Profio script, were song titles, times and band names: X-Ray Spex, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Slits... and, my holy grail, The Sex Pistols.

Joe wouldn’t allow me to listen to them during the poker game (the sounds too violent for the other player’s pedestrian ears). I assume we listened to stuff like Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or the Moody Blues (one of Joe’s faults was an inexplicable taste for interminable Prog Rock). I don’t remember the game that night.

For all I know, Joe’s gift was a ploy to get my head out of the game and give him an edge at the table.

What I do remember was the drive home and hearing those songs for the first time. It was a hot, muggy August night, and I had the windows down, the volume up, my hand pounding out the beat on the door panel of my 1967 Buick Skylark.

It was an experience I repeated innumerable times during my junior year as those tapes were played until the ferric oxide strips wore out. By that time, I’d purchased my own vinyl copies of those songs — many had been remastered by the time they were released in America (especially the Sex Pistols singles), to the detriment of the originals that Joe had provided me.

More, importantly, those songs opened up a whole new world for me. Not just in how I embraced music but in how I embraced the entire Punk culture. Full of contradictions — the music could be raw or polished, nihilistic or vociferously political — it suited just who I was at 16 and what I would become to this day.

Yes, Joe was a superb mathematician but his poker game lacked a certain psychological finesse but for one moment, in the summer of 1977, he read me perfectly.

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