The Two-and-Eights part one

So since I moved to Benicia I've been playing Texas Holdem Poker once or twice a week, in a local league.

For anyone who doesn't know, "Texas Holdem" is the most popular variety at the moment. Each player is dealt two "Pocket" cards which are exclusively theirs. Unless everyone drops out of the betting at some earlier point, five more cards are dealt to the table face-up - the flop which is three cars, the turn which is the next one and the river which is the final card. The idea is to make the best poker hand of five cards from the five on the table and the two in your hand.

Sometimes I do okay, other times i just can't seem to catch a break. We don't play for money, just for chips, and it's tournament-style so there's one winner at the end of the evening. It's a nice way to spend a couple of hours, and me, Liz, and when they're around the two offspring all enjoy it.

The people that run it are called "Aces Cracked", after the fact that just because you're dealt two aces doesn't mean you'll always win.

Witness last Sunday. I was on fire - I went into the first break as the chip leader, I went into the second break as the chip leader. When we were down to just two, the other guy seemed to have swept up about half the total stakes - I had, it turned out, just 5 more 5.000 point chips than him. I'm dealt pocket aces, so naturally I go all-in. He calls, with a far inferior hand. But wins in the end with three nines. I'm left with not enough to even cover the blind at this point. Out in the next hand of course. Aces Cracked indeed.

Much as i enjoy the poker, it just makes me certain I'm not gonna be betting serious money on it. I might at some point enter a tournament which you have to pay to join, but that seems more like paying an entrance fee than gambling somehow. And of course you might win something.

One hand which i seem to be dealt repeatedly is a two and an eight - obviously this is eminently fold-able. I've taken to calling it the "Cockney hand", because in Cockney rhyming slang if you say you're in " a right two-and-eight", it means you're in a state.

So I thought that talking about various travels within the USA could be called "The Two-and-Eights".

Incidentally I've just spent several fruitless moments trying to find out where the phrase comes from. Is it money related? (As in two shillings and eightpence, and if so, why that sum? Why not three and eight, or six and eight?) - does anyone know where it came from?

So we moved to New Jersey in 2006, which was a bit of a surprise to us and to New Jersey too. It all happened very quickly, and just a few months before we had no idea we were coming. If you'd asked me at the end of 2005 what was happening the following year, I'd probably have mention a planned holiday or two, or maybe an upcoming game, or some milestone in the kids' lives. Emigrating wouldn't have entered my head.

But that wasn't the first time I'd been to the US. Liz had been a number of times on business, but nobody I worked for ever sent me anywhere interesting. Most exotic location work ever sent me to was Reading.

I decided to make a trip as a treat to myself for a round-numbered birthday in 2004, which more or less coincided with something I wanted to do anyway - a King Arthur freeform game called "Tales of Pendragon". If you don't know what freeforms are, hang about - I'll probably talk quite a bit about them at some point. In the US they tend to be called "Theater style LARPS" or some such - basically you pretend to be somebody else for a couple of hours or a few days, with a crowd of other people that are doing the same thing - and you each have values, goals, friends and enemies, and enter a different world for a while.

This one was being held in a hotel in Timonium, a town a little way outside of Baltimore. I decided to stay on for about a week after the game, to take a look around.

I flew from London, and changed planes at Philadelphia, where I had to wait hours for a connection. If I'd known my geography a little better, I'd have released that it would probably have been quicker to leave the airport and get a train, but I didn't know that in advance.

Baltimore is serviced by an airport which also serves nearby Washington, though I don't think I knew that at the time.

To get to Timonium there was a Light Rail connection which went via Baltimore.

I can't tell you a whole lot about Timonium from that experience (though I did go back there for other games later, after I became a native) since i spent almost all my time at the game.

I do remember there was a lot of frustration with trying to phone home using various phonecards. This was actually a bonus because there were all sorts of ructions at home, mainly due to my parents getting the dates completely wrong and not turning up to help with the kids until just before I came home. I was blissfully unaware of all that because I didn't mange to phone home for more than a couple of minutes the entire trip.

After the game i moved into a hotel near the Inner Harbor for a few days.

Right now I can't find any pictures of the game or of Baltimore, if I do so I'll add them later.

Baltimore has a bad reputation in the US, something I wasn't aware of at the time. It was my first US city. As always, I did a lot of walking while I was there, and found that some areas are pretty depressing. I've said in a previous entry that in my experience the more litter there is the less pleasant an area is to live in. Not just because of the litter i think but because of the attitude it shows. Some parts of Baltimore are in a horrible state from that standpoint. I was awaiting a bus at one point, I don't exactly recall why now, and I looked at the area around me. Every square foot had discarded candy wrappers, cigarette packs, fast-food containers, and more. I even encountered a personal pet hate more than once - broken glass in children's play areas. What sort of mind does that and doesn't think about, or doesn't care about, the possible consequences?

One thing I noticed then and have seen clearly elsewhere since was Churches. If a church is called "Saint John's" or something simple, it will often be an impressive structure, tall, imposing, richly decorated. But if it's called "The First Bible Truth Church of Jesus and all the Saints" and stands about twenty feet away from "Holy Spirit First Bible Truth Tabernacle" and several other such, then all will be in whatever building they could find, probably in not very good repair and formerly a shop or a warehouse or some such. Nevertheless, I suspect that the level of faith, community involvement and belief is much higher in the elaborately-named ones.

But not all of Baltimore is poor and pitiful.

The Inner Harbor itself is still one of my favourite places in the US, and I have diverted to it on several occasions if only for a few hours while travelling - and once took the whole family there for a weekend.

One of the first things I did was to go to a Diner for breakfast. In the corner were two overstuffed cops drinking coffee and eating doughnuts. It looked like something out of a TV show to me. I ordered breakfast, and encountered for the first time the peculiar American phenomenon of "too much choice". What sort of bread did I want, butter or pretend butter, grape jelly or berry, how should the eggs be cooked, oh you want milk with your tea? do you want lemon too? what sort of tea - herbal, green' or black? decaffeinated? what sort of milk, 1%, 2%, Whole, Lactose-free, Almond?and so on, endlessly. The sign said "All-Day Breakfast". That's cos it took all day to bloody order it.

It was also my first encounter with USA portions. They don't seem so huge now, I guess I'm acculturated, but the whole time I was in Baltimore, I' d have a single starter for lunch and maybe another later if I wasn't still full.

If you haven't pigged out at some other point in the day, there's an amazing indoor market which is almost exclusively food places.

There are a huge number of bars and restaurants around the Inner harbor, and sitting on a sunny day contemplating the water is a favourite thing. I was particularly glad to find several bars with a large array of local and Philadelphia small brewery products - I'd been afraid that I'd have to drink Budweiser, but I arrived in a time when craft and micro-breweries were blooming.

One especially nice feature was that there are elevated walkways throughout the area, so you don't need to be crossing busy roads. Safer and quicker.

In a souvenir shop I bought my daughter Poppy a t-shirt with the phrase "World's best Poppy" (she outgrew it, and I bought a bigger one on a subsequent visit). I was a little worried that "Poppy" might have some strange, possibly ribald meaning, but the stallholder told me that it meant "Dad" or to some people "Grandad". Her name still confuses little kids from time to time.

I can't find the name of the time-travel museum which was there then, but had gone by the next time I visited. Basically, there was a movie and some minor special effects as our hero travelled through time witnessing various key events. You watched from a sort of moving platform. Before we went to the main event, we had a quiz to establish who knew the most about the history of the USA and Baltimore, to establish who would be the official "Time Navigator". I won, to the embarrassment of the locals and of myself. Let's say I'm good at guessing..

If you're a museum fan, there's a number of them nearby (art, industrial, science, kids, etc), and there are several historic ships in the harbor too including the USS Constellation which was in action during the Civil War.. There's a water taxi which travels around the Inner harbor from place to place, which is very useful. I visited one museum of recent art which had a special exhibition of art by older people, and one very moving piece which must have taken years to put together was a series of tapestries depicting a young jewish girl's experiences in Nazi Germany, and the ways she managed to stay out of the clutches said Nazis. I believe this was the "American Visionary Art Museum" which specialises in self-taught artists.

The Aquarium is well worth a look too. I like aquariums - I've been in this one, Boston, Camden, and several others in this country, and many others elsewhere.

And if you're a history buff, you're right by Fort McHenry of "Star-Spangled banner " fame.

Sport fans have, well, whatever the stadiums here are. The Ravens? and the Orioles?

Oh, and I almost forgot the Dragon boats. I didn't hire one when I was there on my own, but when the whole family went some years later we rented on and it was good fun. They're paddle boats in the shape of, you guessed it, dragons.

I'll regale you with more "Two-and-Eight" encounters later. Possibly after some other stuff.