“Why are you so worried about your cards,” she asked in her precise English, muddied only slightly by a vague mélange of mid-European overtones.
“Well, gotta look at my cards and see what I got,” I answered.
“Certainly take a look but how hard is it to understand five cards right under your nose? After that quick glance, look where it is important to look.”
We were on a foldable card table on a small stone patio behind my Uncle Charlie’s house; small neat brick ranch, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, no garage; “fourteen nine but only a hundred down,” advised my uncle, bathing in the good luck of the GI bill. It looked like a castle to me, coming from my brownstone with no grass in sight. A worn deck of Bicycle cards, the blue ones, were spread over the canvas table top.
“Well, Grandma, I can’t see the other person’s cards, can I?”
She shifted in her nylon-webbed beach chair, her tightly bunned grey hair bouncing in one motion on top of her head. Her thick legs, wrapped in inscrutable white leggings, stuck straight out from under the table; I imagined all sorts of veins, bumps and maladies embossed on those legs underneath; I had not, in all my ten years, seen her actual legs, at least that I could recall.
“You can, Stephen, if you know where to look.”
I glanced behind her but of course there were no mirrors, no window reflecting her hand. I sat quietly, waiting. My Grandmother was always patient, never raised her voice, lived with my Aunt and Uncle and younger nephew in the suburbs of New York City in what seemed to me bucolic wonder.
“You look at your opponent. That is how you know that person’s cards.”
“You mean, if they smile you know they have a great hand,” I said as I pounced on an idea I could grasp.
“Yes, yes. But what if he is lying? Smiling to only make you think he has a good hand? That’s not cheating you know.”
“Maybe because he bets a lot of money?”
“Yes, yes, that too. But maybe he’s bluffing?”
“That’s lying to you by betting a lot of money. He hopes to scare you away even if you have a good hand.”
“Oh.” Now totally confused: “so what am I looking for, exactly?”
“His body. Does he look tense, like his bet makes him nervous? Is he sitting back, like he knows he has you beaten? Is he in a hurry to bet or has he thought a long time about his bet? Is he in a hurry for you to bet, one way or another?”
“Those would be good things to know, Grandma, but how will I know them by looking at someone?”
She smiled, the sad sage smile of the old. “If you look hard enough, you will learn to know,” she said. “Now, look again at your cards and place your bet.”
I had a pile of shelled pistachio nuts in front of me. I bit my lip for a moment, then counted out ten and placed them neatly in the center of the table. My Grandma immediately threw her cards in the middle, face down, and signaled for me to pass my cards for a shuffle.
“Wait,” now really unhappy, “why aren’t you playing the game? You get to bet and then you get to throw down three of your cards and get three new cards, and then we both get to bet again.”
“I know you have a really good hand. My hand is okay, but it is not likely going to beat you this time.”
I stared at my three Aces and I think my lower lip even quivered a little. “How do you know,” I asked.
That same smile. “You bet too much. You bet too fast. You are too young to really understand bluffing. You were too interested in your own cards, and you told me all about them by how you played them.”
I tossed my cards despondently into the middle. They fell face-up on the table. My grandmother’s hand froze over them, she looked up at me and prepared to speak. I had no idea what I had done wrong, but I knew, just knew, that I was about to find out.
* * * * * * * * *
The sweat poured off my face and made the neck of my T-shirt a darker blue. My glasses slid down my nose every time I looked down at the concrete on top of my front stoop leading into my brownstone. Lou and Stevie S (there were so many of us Stephens that our parents all identified us with a letter for our last names) sat on a lower step, their bodies turned towards the surface. Morty from upstairs and me, we sat on our haunches up top. In the middle, a large pile of nickels and dimes. In front of those three, a small pile of silver coins. In front of me, a large pile.
“Fifty cents,” said Stevie S, fingering a short stack of dimes.
“Whoa, it ain’t the last card, ya can only go a quarter,” I said.
“Yeah, says who?” Stevie S’s hand started to drop the dimes into the center pile.
“Cut it out, Stevie. Ya know the rules!” Marty reached out and pushed Stevie S’s hand to the side; a couple of dime dropped out onto the second step, bounced once and flew onto the sidewalk and began to roll down the street.
“Now look watcha done, ya fuckin’ douche,” allowed Stevie S in a sullen plaint as he stood up and pursued his dimes. “And I don’t like the deck,” he spit out. ‘’Next time, I bring my own deck!”
“Fine,” I yell at his back as he bends to pick up his money. “I can beat your ass even you bring a deck you marked.”
Stevie plunked himself back down and quickly made change so his bet was a quarter. “There! Ya happy now?”
I looked at my hand, I was the only other person left in the game. Two pair, jacks and tens. Not a bad hand for draw, no wild cards. And I could draw another card once I bet.
“Hurry up, dummy,” said Stevie S.
I waited a minute, then carefully placed my hand face down on the remainder of the deck. “Take your money,” I said.
“Crap.” Stevie S threw his hand into the middle, face up; three kings. “You are luckiest son of a bitch in the world,” said Stevie S, as he picked up the coins.
I looked down at my pile of silver and smiled the sad sage smile of the old. I might only be 14, but I still had the biggest pile of nickels and dimes.
* * * * * * * *
“Hey, Stevie! The Delta Chi convention is coming to New York in a couple of weeks. At the Astor! Hundreds of pumped up frat guys drinking cheap booze and throwing up in the halls. Do you know what that means?”
Marty never did say “hello” or “hi it’s Marty” or anything else to start a conversation. He was right into the message from word one, and in truth the voice was so distinctive that you never confused him with anyone else.
“Hiya, Mart,” I slowly drawled. “How are you doing? How are things in Philadelphia? Are you studying hard? What’s your favorite subject?” I always tried to divert him, it was a fun hobby and I knew it drove him crazy.
“Asshole, listen to me. In fact, listen into the phone. What sound do you hear?”
“Let me guess. A college sophomore breathing heavily and that can mean only one thing!”
“Ka-ching! Ka-ching! I hear the sound of cash, lots of cash. I hear the sound of Lincolns and Hamiltons and Andrew Jacksons!”
“Marty, bills don’t go ka-ching, coins go ka-ching. And since we are having this cryptic one-way conversation, what is Delta Chi and why do I give a shit?”
“Ah, mon ami, permettez moi! Delta Chi is the big fraternity for those rich College kids who are Greek Geeks. Surely at Columbia you have heard of fraternities, oui?”
“Sure, of course, they run the whole length of 114th Street. So what?”
“Well, I am talking earlier today with a guy I know, he’s in Delta Chi at Penn. I play cards with him sometimes. He stinks. He alone could almost cover my tuition bill. SO he tells me that he is going to this annual convention and I ask him, like what’s that all about, and he tells me they have meetings and then they drink and walk around Times Square looking at the people and going into Ripley’s and maybe take a train down to the Village, but this guy, he loves playing poker and there are these big money poker games late at night, sometimes until dawn, and everyone is drinking beer or rye or something, and the pots are big and how he’s going to play all night because he loves playing poker with the guys.”
I have forty pages of Plato to read; the book is face-down on my desk, I am standing at the wall phone that serves our suite of two dorm bedrooms and a common room. I want to get back to Plato, not because I love it but because I would love to just finish it. “So what’s this got to do with the price of tea in China?”
“Ah, mon ami,” more of his bad mock French accent, “this is how we make what we call ‘la moolah.’ From these drunk jerks. I moi meme will come up on the RR early that evening. You will take the subway to 49th street. We will meet for a light healthy dinner with NO alcohol, a couple of cups of black coffee, and around about 11 we stroll into the lobby of the Astor, find a card game, and we play til dawn.”
“I don’t want to spend a night playing poker. Exams are coming up….”
“Stevie, listen to me. This is not social. This is business. Most of these guys can’t play for crap even when they are rested and sober. We are going to clean up. And by clean up I mean hundreds each easy, probably thousands. See, we play sober, we each grab a beer and nurse it all night so no one notices, we just play our game. You and me in the same game, for safety ya know? That may cut down winnings but still it’s safer. Probably we hit two games, maybe three. We dress regular but no school emblems or anything, we tell them we’re from somewhere, I’ll figure out a chapter from which no one likely is attending, Texas or somewhere.”
“Marty, I don’t want to do this. And what if we don’t win? Cards are cards, ya know. Hey, you aren’t going to bring one of your special decks, are you?”
“No, course not. And I don’t want the shit beaten out of me either. No need, these clowns will be real marks. Tell ya what, I’ll stake you, give you say $500 for starters. End of the night, I’ll give ya the $500 to keep. You just give me anything ya got over $500. If you’re busted, I’ll give ya five from my own money. No risk. I’ll even give ya more depending on how much you and I win. Or either of us. Ya can’t lose, mon ami.”
“Marty, they’re gonna figure our we’re ringers and beat the shit our of us.”
“Not us, pard. Just you!”
“It’s a joke, jerkoff. It’s a joke. C’mon. you know my old man doesn’t have enough money to send me here, I gotta play cards and this is easy pickings. I NEED you, bro.”
I let out a small sigh. ”When the hell is this?”
“The eighth and ninth. Ninth is best, they’ll be even more wasted the second night.”
“All right, all right but listen. If I get nervous or anything, we’re gonna have a code word. Like ‘hey, aren’t we supposed to meet Harry about now?’ and if I say that, I don’t care how well we’re doing, you gotta say like ‘o yeah’ and we cash out and leave. Ya gotta agree to that because you, you get buried in the game, you want the bread too much, you gonna run through the warning signs and get us killed by some drunk football jocks who are figuring out what we’re doing.”
“Whatever you say, boss. You wanna slow play the night, you wanna not go all in, you wanna cash out, it’s all your call.” He paused. “But I do need you, bro. Know what I mean?”
I close my eyes and exhale. He is always doing this to me, I have no resistance. He is my best friend. He has bailed me out plenty. He is the excitement in my life, truth be told. Truth be told, he had me at ‘ka’ching.’
“Yeah, okay okay, you’re on.” I am sorry I said it but I had no choice. “You pay for dinner also,” I blurted.
“Anything you say, Stevie; anything you say. Just remember: ka-ching.” The line went dead. I picked up Plato, but all I could think of was poker on the front steps of my brownstone. Marty was the only one who was a winner. Except of course for me…
The Astor had seen better days. Actually, I am not sure that is true. The Astor lobby looked like the kind of fake-gilded public space that never had a better day. Two stories high with elaborate crystal-festooned hanging chandeliers dangling from plaster-molded ceiling ovals painted white with tinged edges of gilt, heavily carpeted with mock-oriental wall to wall of a dark cherry red hue, populated with numerous worn leather chairs and an occasional mock-Chippendale wooden settee, the lobby absorbed large numbers of noisy people without really welcoming them into its arms. Ash-trays on pedestals, some over-flowing with cigarette butts, stood at attention next to many of the arm-chairs.
And across this crowded and confusing space trod large numbers of perspiring college men, many in school T-shirts and shorts, boat shoes without socks, a mild odor of sweat blending peacefully into the residual tobacco overtones of the ambient air. Older patrons looked up in either amusement or annoyance, but neither reaction pierced the attention of the students; freed from committee meetings and the “grand conclave” at which the national officers announced the growth of membership and the new rules against violent hazing, their conversation revolved around cheap dinner options and asking “where’s the action.”
We looked like we belonged, Marty and me, because we were of the proper vintage, proper attire, proper vocabulary. However, unlike the others, fun was not on our minds. Filled with half a card-board crusted pizza and a giant cup of bitter coffee, I wanted to find a men’s room and then a subway uptown to the dorm, particularly as the chemistry exam had been rescheduled from today to tomorrow, and I was not sure I had the stamina to play cards all night and remember organic structures at dawn. Marty was so keyed up that I was afraid to let him ask about card games at all; he was walking through the lobby in predatory fashion, his head stuck forward, his lips pursed almost to a pucker. Likely I was projecting, but to me he looked like a hustler disguised in a dirty polo shirt.
“Leave this to me, will ya? And fer Gozzake, will ya take a chill pill?”
“Look, Stevie, I’m fine, you’re moving too slow. You’re too cautious. Let me handle this.”
I gave him a look that drew him up short.
“Marty, you wait here. Drink a piping hot cup of shut the fuck up.”
I turned away without waiting for an answer, walking slowly among the clusters of chairs, my head inclined towards the carpet and my brow knit in false consternation. Picking a small group of seemingly gregarious guys, I veered in their direction and looked up. As I approached they turned out to be bigger than I had originally imagined, but I had eye contact with one of them so the die was cast.
“Hey, man,” I began, ever a cool introduction.
“Hey, bro,” said the big blond with the acne pits and unwashed hair. “What’s shakin’?”
His shirt said “Duke.”
“You from Duke,” I asked cleverly.
“My friend and me, we’re up from Oklahoma.” I jerked my head slightly behind me, not even towards Marty who, hopefully, was leaning against the pillar where I had left him. “I’m Stan. You guys been to one of these before?”
A series of half grunts, some affirmative. I stuck out my hand and met Lars, and his buddies Pete, Choco and Lance; an unattractive cadre but you know what they say about beggars.
“Hey, yeah, it’s our first time and I was wonderin’ maybe there’s a card game going on we could join.”
“Ya know, lots all over but we, we just aren’t here to play cards.” He smiled and looked around his quartet, eliciting nods and a random “you said it” from Choco; or maybe it was Pete.
“Right,” added Lars. We’re gettin’ a cab and going to the Village and grab some beers and look at the creeps.” He paused for effect. “You ever hear of a bar down there, McSorley’s I think, my dad said he used to go there when Chi partied, ya know, in the day.” His head bobbed up and down for punctuation.
“Nah, never heard of it,” I lied. “So you here also, in the Astor, what floor you on where they’re playing cards?”
“Try eighteen,” said Pete. Or maybe it was Choco. “There were a couple last night, kept it up all fuckin’ night, good thing I passed out or I never would’a gotten any shut-eye.” He laughed the shallow laugh of someone who said something that wasn’t funny, and looked around the circle until everyone gave him a quick smile.
“Hey, yeah, maybe we will. Thanks for the tip. Have fun at McCarthy’s,” I added.
“Yeah thanks,” Pete/Chaco replied. “Later,” promised Lars, and as I turned away I thought to myself, ‘sure as hell hope not, you must be six-four if you’re an inch, asshole.’
Marty was not where I left him, no surprise, but at least he didn’t get into any trouble, he was seated on the edge of settee, his legs bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“Eighteen,” I said.
“Great. Let’s get goin.’”
“Sure. And Marty—stay cool, hear? And if say we gotta meet Harry-….”
“Yeah, I know, I know. Don’t worry about me. And here ya go.”
He stuck out his hand and gave me a roll of old bills, ones on the outside, held together with a thick rubber band. I slipped the band off on the way to the elevators and flattened the wad so it didn’t bulge out of my pocket. Never did a lot of money feel so unwelcome against my thigh. The folding gate on the elevator clanked shut and the elevator operator, wearing a cap with some fake badge on it, collared T-shirt and jeans below, drove us up to eighteen. By the time we were at about fifteen, you could already hear the din.
* * * * * * * *
“Hey, Marty, look at the time.” Grey light was invading the room through the dirty windows, illuminating the pizza boxes, beer bottles, Seagrams Seven bottles, Tequilla bottles, cups filled with cigarette butts, the mirror coated with white powder residue, two guys asleep in arm chairs, and six guys on the floor around a rearranged coffee table covered with playing cards and piles of bills.
“Whose deal is it,” asked one of the guys. I had promptly forgotten the names. I was tired, this was our third game, I had no idea how much money we had won but it was a lot, the bills were pulling at my pants pockets, pulling the fabric of my jeans across my crotch in a most unpleasant way.
“Me, gimme the cards will ya,” said another one; all this group were from NYU, which was making me uncomfortable from the start, it was in New York, I knew a lot of kids at NYU, and I would have preferred another game with guys from Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. And these guys they were really stinko, dropping farts and belches and passing a bottle around really fast, this one was either gin or vodka, something clear like water but certainly not water. We were killing them at poker, and I didn’t want them to get the idea that they should be, physically, killing us.
“Mart, it’s what, shit it’s after four, Harry is waiting for us, we said ya know?”
Marty looked up, a happy glaze over his face although in the last five hours I doubt that either of us had finished as much as a single beer. It was the flush of lust, an animal rictus of victory.
“Yeah, I know but ya know what, Stan, fuck ‘em, I’m having too much fun.” I realized I had forgotten to call him by our agreed fake names, he was supposed to be Mel and I was Stan, that’s what I had remembered until just now, when the fatigue got to me. Now I knew we had to split.
“Marty!” Loud and sharp enough to quell the chatter for a minute. “We gotta go, like now.”
Eyes narrowed as the rest of the table paid attention to the two of us, something that was not exactly a desired result.
“Whattaya got going at 4 in the fuckin’ morning,” asked the kid with the dark glasses and his umpteenth cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. “Ya got somewhere ta go, Stan or Stevie or whatever the fuck ya name is?”
Marty had his opening. “Stevie, go to the room, make sure Harry is okay, alright, if ya so worried about him.” He turned to the group. “Asshole picked up some chick in the lobby, who knows what sorta shape he’s in, ya know?” He snorted for effect; everyone relaxed, laughed.
“Ya, go ahead to the room,” Marty said, easy and slow like he was talking to some younger brother who was a pain in his ass. “I’m gonna stay and play with the guys for a while. I’ll catch you for breakfast. Okay?”
I was end-gamed; couldn’t stay now, couldn’t extract Marty at this point. ‘Damn fool, dangerous shit,” I thought. “Yeah, well fine, see ya later,” I said as I stood up with a slight wobble. “Wow, too much beer and booze.”
The big one stood up which gave me a scare but he stuck out his hand. “Thanks for playing. You were pretty lucky tonight, ya know?”
“Guess so. And everyone at school told me to be careful of those guys in New York.”
He chucked me on the shoulder, I gave the room a group smile and went out the door. I was going to stay down the hall to spot Marty if there was any trouble, but he seemed okay and the guys were pretty mellow even if they were loaded. I figured it would be weirder to hang around, so I called the elevator and the old coot running it paid me no attention and drove me down to the lobby and mumbled a good night.
There weren’t many places to be alone at 4 AM in the hotel lobby but there was a men’s room off by the bar. The bar was shut but the bathroom was open. I stuck my head in; no one in there, and all the stall doors were open so no one was hanging out on one of the toilets. I locked myself in, took a long satisfying piss and carefully pulled out the bills crammed into my trousers. There were a lot of small bills so I was not too optimistic, but then I started to count and didn’t stop until I emptied my left rear pocket which turned out to be stuffed with twenties which I must have segregated at some point, along with a few US Grants. I made the pile at just over $2300. Gotta say, I had a big grin on my face.
About then, I heard the front door swing, and then the long loud splish of someone emptying his horse bladder, and then the burping whoosh of someone throwing up a whole lot of miscellany, after which a soft “oh, fuck” and a few gargles with water from the tap after which the front door again swung and I was again alone. By then, the acrid smell had infiltrated my stall, and I got the hell out of there, through the lobby and into what turned out to be a warm and misty dawn.
Marty never showed up at the Chock Full O’Nuts on Forty Eighth, which was our rendez- vous point if separated. We were 15 years away from cell phones, there was no way to reach him. I went to Penn Station and stood on the platform for the first two trains to Philly in hopes of catching sight of him, but then I had to hop a cab back to campus and take my chem exam.
I got a B, which was a gift from the gods. Marty got two broken ribs, three missing teeth, a mild concussion and a crushed coccyx bone at the base of his spine and had to sit on an inflated rubber tube for six months until it healed. He was found without watch or money in the hotel stairwell.
I sent him all the money but he sent back five hundred. I guess a deal’s a deal.
* * * * * * * *
“We’re here in the lobby of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada interviewing Stevie Newhouser, winner of the 2019 Masters of Poker championship. Stevie, first congratulations.”
“Stevie, this is your third tournament win in the last two years but this has got to be the biggest. Five Million Dollars and a platinum and diamond bracelet appraised at almost two million more. What do you have to say about all that?”
“Well, first off, that’s a shit-load of mon—uh can I say that on TV?”
“Stevie, you know you can’t and you know you’re live but I am sure all your many fans will forgive you because, after all, you are King of the Hill and you are ‘entitled.’ So tell us, how did you do it? Did the cards fall for you just right?”
“Candice, the cards just fall the same for everyone. Anybody tells you poker is luck doesn’t know much about poker. It’s just like life, ya know.”
“Really. How do you mean that, Stevie?”
“You keep your eyes open and make your judgments based on the facts life tells to you. Same with cards. You just slow play your opportunities and then the world comes to you.”
“The cards speak to you?”
“No, the players speak to you. They tell you what they think. They may not know it, but they speak to you.”
“Well, Stevie, whatever your secret, you are again the champion. They don’t call you The Card for nothing. One last question, if I may?”
“Sure, Candice, fire away.”
“How in the world did you learn to play poker the way you do?”
The Card smiled and his eyes rolled back into his memory.
“Mein bubbie,” he said.
Candice knit her brow, and the station went to commercial.