Poker night has long been a popular male pastime, but for one group of friends it has been a tradition they've shared for the past 44 years.
Dan Muessig, Norb Schwartze, Steve Beck, Ed Mueller and John Schwartze have been playing together since they were in their early 20s, after meeting as students at Lincoln University in the early 1970s. Bobby Beck and Larry Rominous joined the original five to bring them to seven, which is where the size of the group has remained for three decades.
"We're not cutthroat about the poker and nobody really wins or loses much," said Dan Muessig, 65. "This is definitely a social gathering, just us guys, and we all enjoy each other's company and catching up on our lives."
Catching up with them in the basement of his home on a recent Friday night, the men were laughing and cutting up. This gathering, however, marks a special occasion as it's the last poker night for Rominous, who is moving to Florida at the end of the month to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren. It's really an end of an era for the close-knit group that meets eight times a year from September through May, and always on a Friday night.
"The thing that sticks with me about our card nights isn't playing cards but the friendships and the camaraderie," said Rominous, who retired after 34 years at the Division of Family Services. "We've had all kinds of discussions over the years about politics and sports and we really could talk about anything."
Each of the men takes a turn hosting and is responsible for providing snacks, including peanuts, chips and black licorice stick candy, along with a meal that's usually eaten at "halftime." Cold cuts, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and dill pickles are always on the menu, but tonight Muessig provides a cowboy stew as well.
"We snack all night long and we do a lot of
jabbering when we should be playing poker," he said.
Over the years, their gatherings have become tamer, too, reflecting their age and changing lifestyles. In the early days, they played from 7 p.m. to midnight, then from 6-11 p.m., but now it's been scaled back to 5-10 p.m.
Norb, who took over his father's Shelter Insurance Company, still commutes to the poker nights from his home in St. James, roughly 70 miles. The late nights were hard, especially when he often had to work on Saturday morning.
"It used to be seven guys smoking cigars and playing cards for five hours," said Norb Schwartze, 66, who retired in August. "I used to go home and take off my clothes before entering my house because my wife didn't like the smell."
Other wives didn't like the leftover smell in their houses, either, so the cigar smoke-filled man caves are no more.
"There's a lot less overindulgence overall," said Beck, 61, who always hosts a Texas Hold Em card night. "I drink iced tea now and it tastes just as good to me as beer used to."
What hasn't changed though are their heated discussions about the rules of a particular card game, or differing political views.
Although no formal election was ever held, John Schwartze (no relation to Norb) has served as the unofficial president or "sheriff," the one responsible for keeping the group on track.
"At times the cards are forgotten and there may be two or three different conversations going on around the table, so it's John's place to ring them in and start play again," Norb said.
"If a dispute arises he has the final say and there have been a few over the years but never enough to break up the group from playing or coming back the next time," he said.
Almost all of the men are passionate about sports, which is what drew them together in the first place. John Schwartze played tennis for Helias, and in their younger days the original five played softball and basketball together through the Parks and Recreation Department. Since then, they continue to play golf and horseshoes together and several also bowled on the same team, too.
When Norb, who is from Vienna, plays host, which is almost always in May, the other card players haul into a van to make the trip to his house, which sits on the St. James Golf Course. Usually they arrive early in the day and play golf before the poker night begins.
Steve Beck, Rominous and Muessig play golf together frequently at Linn, Columbia or the Lake of the Ozarks and the three of them have attended the Masters together, too, including one of the years when Tiger Woods was the champion.
"We're going to really miss Larry in our group and as a golfing buddy," Muessig said.
Beck concurs, pointing out Larry's wit and creative card games. He figures eventually they'll invite another member into the group because they've found that seven players works best for the card games.
When another member moved to St. Louis in the early years, they called Beck, who is Steve Beck's cousin and used to live around the corner from Muessig. He eventually became a member, although he still feels like a rookie and not an official voting member like the original five.
Looking back, it is impressive that they've stayed together.
"We had no idea when we started playing cards on that first Friday night in 1970 that we would be friends all these years later," Norb said.
While many friends drift apart, the poker nights have remained a constant in their lives as the men married, raised children and retired.
A physical education teacher at Cedar Hill for 28 years, Mueller, 65, and his wife spend a month in Hawaii each winter and fishing in Colorado in the summer. Muessig worked in the insurance business and for 22 years played bass guitar for Moonshadow, a local band that played all over Central Missouri. He still plays music at Heisinger Bluffs and the VFW.
"It's funny how our personalities have developed. We've always argued about the rules of the game but now we talk a lot about our grandkids," Muessig said. "All of us are in fairly good shape and we have had no serious health problems.
"I could see us staying together for quite a while."