Vickroy: Lifelong friends ‘all in’ for monthly poker get-together
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy July 16, 2014 4:28PM
For 34 years this group of long time friends have crammed around poker tables in basements and kitchens keeping their friendships alive. at Tom Cosgrove's home, Friday, July 11th, 2014, in Chicago. | Gary Middendorf/for Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 18, 2014 10:04AM
It’s just after 9 p.m. in the basement of Tom Cosgrove’s home in Chicago’s Beverly community when cigar-smoking Matt Moran checks his hand, raises the bet and casually kicks off his shoes.
Jim Byrne hands out another round of Beck’s beer. And Chuck Kraling, dressed in a “PETA” T-shirt — People Eating Tasty Animals — gets accused of misdealing again, something he does “more than any other player,” Cosgrove said.
Tom Tansey looks up from his hand.
“Hey, did you know that Tim McGraw’s great-great-grandfather came over on the same ship as Elvis’ great-great-grandfather?” he said.
There is a moment of silence and then the place erupts in laughter.
It is Friday night poker with the boys from St. Sabina Parish. They munch, they drink, they ponder their odds, and through ribbing, sparring and tender moments of sincere support, they remind each other that they share a very special gift: a lifetime of friendship.
They’re all in their 60s now. Most are retired, their children grown. Some have moved to the suburbs. But all look forward to poker night.
For 34 years, the 10 men have gathered every month or so to play cards, retell old stories and just be there for each other.
“We’ve all lost family, friends,” said Cosgrove, who used to own an insurance billing business. “But we still have each other.”
“This is special,” Jim Figliulo, a Chicago trial lawyer, said in agreement. “There’s just a feeling of trust, of comfort. When we walk into a game like this, on a night like this, it’s just really a nice feeling.”
“It’s like 30 years get wiped away,” said Tansey, a retired Chicago police officer.
The monthly poker gathering has its roots in their 1950s childhoods in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham community. It harks back to an era before cellphones and virtual friending, before organized upbringings and micromanaged childhoods — to a time when kids from the same neighborhood attended the same school through eighth-grade graduation, when every parent knew every other parent’s sons and daughters, and when Tansey would get dropped off at Figliulo’s house with a roll of pennies.
They were simpler times, when kids relied on imagination, wits and solid social skills to get them through.
Little did they know that way back then, over darts and pingpong, topped off by a meal made by somebody’s mother, they were planting the seeds for a lifetime of regular get-togethers.
Not all of the men hail from St. Sabina’s. Frank Foster went to St. Cajetan’s, and Figliulo linked up with Moran in high school. But several of them — including Figliulo, who is credited with reuniting the group after they were well into their 20s and 30s — grew up together, hailing “Yo” from each other’s porches and participating in the basketball program at the nearby community center.
After high school, Figliulo went to law school in Arizona. He practiced there for a few years after graduation. In 1980, when he was 31, he moved back to the Chicago area and began calling up his old buds.
The first poker game was held at Joe Griffin’s place in Beverly.
There have been modifications over the years — sometimes they’ve had to postpone a week or two or even skip a month when health issues, parenting dilemmas or other pressing events arose. During Lent, they wait until after midnight to eat meat. And the last hand is now dealt about 1 a.m. instead of at dawn like it was when they were younger.
Other than that, they pretty much adhere to a routine. They each take a turn hosting, with the host supplying food and drink. The night begins with beers and chitchat about 8:30, and the first card is dealt about 9. About midnight, they break to eat.
Tansey was considered the best cook until Figliulo married Ruhan Memishi a few years ago and she inadvertently stole the honor.
They play their own version of poker, one they call “four cards in the middle.” During the games, they talk about politics, sports and the old days, when a kid was expected to be home within minutes of the streetlights going on.
“If your mother had to come out on that porch, you knew you were delinquent,” Tansey said.
All drinking stops with dinner, Tansey said. And anyone who’s had too much simply spends the night. Most bring about $100 to bet — a bargain considering the night of entertainment it buys them, Figliulo said.
Though everyone has taken a turn in the winner’s circle, it is the unseen benefits that deliver the real prize.
“The game is secondary,” Figliulo said.
The group has a rich history, filled with good times and tough times, all of which have served to strengthen their bond.
John Griffin, a retired Chicago police detective, remembers the day in 2009 when he picked up his son, Jimmy, at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and drove like a madman to get back in time for the game.
“We’re driving back through Indiana and we get to Purdue (University) and a terrible rainstorm hits,” he said. “I said, ‘All right, Jim, we’re going to pull over and wait.’ He wants to get home badly too to see friends. We get home maybe 12:30, 1 o’clock in the morning, and Jim says, ‘Would you like to go to Tom Tansey’s house for the game?’ I said, ‘No, it’s a little late.’ I didn’t know Tom had left the light on for me.
“My son died the next September. So it was better that I spent the night with him,” Griffin said.
Jimmy Griffin was just 23 when he died in his sleep from an enlarged heart. After the loss, the guys in the poker club rallied around John. They still attend an annual fundraiser in his son’s memory held at Mother McAuley High School.
Cosgrove, who recently had to postpone hosting because his wife underwent brain surgery, said, “Everybody gets something. Everybody takes a turn. And here we are, still moping along. We have other friends but this group goes back 60 years. This stuff goes back forever.”
They’ve gone to Sox games and Bulls games together. They’ve also driven to Saugatuck, Michigan, where Figliulo hosted the game at his summer cottage.
“They’re solid guys,” said Byrne, who often prefers to sit out the game and fetch drinks when needed or sit in during players’ bathroom runs. “You grow up in the city and there are some rough areas. These are good people.”
Frank Foster, a lawyer who now lives in Brookfield, said, “I really enjoy this group. I feel really lucky to be a part of it.”
Figliulo said, “We’ve always gotten along. We share a closeness and intimacy that goes to the marrow of our bones. It’s not even a conscious thing. We laugh and tell stories that seem to get better with age. The guys come from many different walks of life and share the heartaches and joys of life the way old friends do.”
While the men seem astonishingly open about what the friendship means to them — a sentiment that grows with age, they say — they just as quickly lighten the mood.
“Chuck here used to live down the street from me,” Figliulo said. “He was the toughest guy in the neighborhood. He used to put us all in a headlock.”
Chuck offers to put them in a headlock again. The retired Western Electric employee who now lives in Mokena once served in the Air Force. After he was discharged, he traveled the world, backpacking across Singapore, Laos and South America.
“He’s also lived in Afghanistan,” Cosgrove said. “He once sold his school ring — his school ring! — for a rifle or a camel or something.”
They all laugh and then Tansey pauses.
“When we first get together, we’re not just shaking hands, we’re hugging each other,” he said.
Figliulo said, “And we don’t do that normally.”
“Yeah,” Tansey said. “We’re tough guys. Although there might be some tough guys crying before the night’s over — because they lost all their money.”