It's poker night at Jack's house. What will his engineer father bring to the table?
"I am thinking," says Mum, as I slide out a brand new pack of playing cards and riffle them, all crisp and lovely and full of promise, between my fingers, "of banning smoking in this house. They've managed to ban smoking in pubs where the sun don't shine, I don't see why I should have to put up with it in my newly-redecorated sitting room. Which I myself painted, in a totally unappreciated effort to keep household costs down."
"But it's the poker game, Mum!" I say. "They get nervous!"
"Then they should try chewing gum. I will personally put a packet by each player, along with the peanuts and those revolting triangle crisps that leave dust everywhere. And if I find that one more person has wiped orange nacho trails on my new walls I will give him a five-card flush he will remember for a very long time."
"What have they got to be nervous about?" asks Amy, one of the twins. "You're all teenagers, you've got no money. It's not as if you're betting the house, are you?"
"Are you?" asks Mum, narrowing her eyes. "Or my new laptop?"
"No, we play moderately, Mother," I say, although I've never revealed the stake. It's (whisper) £2 each. Me and the guys took a decision, when we started this weekly poker session, not to go over or we'd have to steal from our parents which would be well embarrassing for a poker bet, so we'd have to pretend we had a drug problem instead. Which is just what they expect of teenagers, anyway, so everyone would be happy.
"So, ah, the full complement turning up tonight?" asks Dad, angling for an invite. He's dying to try out his poker face, perfected over many agonising meetings where the board reveals, once again, that they've slashed budgets or cut projects or have decided to move the deadline up by six months.
It's poor man's Botox: years of swallowing disappointment and taking career shocks with a straight face mean that he has difficulty expressing emotion, and if you press him on it he will say that hopeless man management is responsible for the general belief in the population that engineers aren't good with feelings. And that he'd make a great spy: he'd never crack. Yeah, right. I don't think keeping your eyebrows rigid counts for much when they're waterboarding you but that's Dad, still thinking they just shine a light in your face and ask you loud questions in a Russian accent.
"Has your strategy changed from when you were eight and you'd never fold?"
Dad taught us to play, but he's a rubbish teacher with zero patience and very high stress levels and used to go mad when we kept saying "Dad, what is it when you get...." so he wrote all the names of the hands down on bits of paper so he could hold them up, seething silently. I bet we're the only family who learned poker via flash cards.
He also never, ever, let us win, saying it was a good lesson for us, and that we'd never understand his system anyway. Which is why I play with my friends and not with him. Because friends can't help letting you win especially when you are a master of psychology, like me.
Dad also taught me that when someone asks you if you can play poker you always say: "No, but it sounds fun!" Then you wipe the floor with them.
"Actually, yes, Dad, I have a sophisticated system going now where I play with my opponents' minds and never let them know what sort of player I'm going to be in any game. So sometimes I fold quite a lot, actually. Then they can't tell when my hands are strong. Psychology, see."
"Psychology? What's that got to do with poker?"
Poor Dad. He actually thinks poker is about the cards in your hand, when what it's about is what your opponent thinks is in your hand. It's like thinking school is about getting top marks for everything, or work is about getting it all done on time. As I see it, so long as people think you're doing all that stuff, you don't need to do jack.
It's why I won't let him take part in the game because we'd make him cry like a baby. You see, Dad thinks everything can be described as a system, and if you just understood the system better you'd win every time. If only he could be a bit more like Rain Man, a bit better at card counting, he'd take down the casino. You can see him now, in his little grey suit and white shirt, humming to himself, an engineer on a mission, losing thousands of dollars. You see, he's thinking systems, I'm thinking psychology. World of difference.
"I know what you're thinking, son," he says. "You're thinking I want to be more like Dustin Hoffman. Well, I have one word for you. One word."
"Yeah, what's that, Dad?"
"Pocket money. As in, let me play or I'll stop it."
I stare at him, wondering whether to pick him up on the fact that I haven't had pocket money since I was 14 and they decided to give me an allowance, which, furthermore, would have qualified as one word, but I can see the light of poker madness in his eyes, and relent.
"You can play, but it won't be pretty, Dad," I say.
"Hit me," he says. "What's the stake?"
I consider allowing him to bankrupt himself while we stick to £2 each but decide even he, with his no psychology rule, would notice something funny going on.
The guys arrive, we feast on additive-packed nachos and beer, and play.
And Dad wipes the floor with us. It turns out he really can count cards. (Is this how he always beat me when I was a kid?) Who knew I had Dustin Hoffman for a father?