~ a short story
Josa walked up to the door to the tavern just behind his friend. Chec’s words echoed in his head.
“C’mon, it will be fun. Take a load off. It’s never about who wins. It’s about being in the game. And the camaraderie!”
Chec looked back and grinned, leading both of them inside. The air within was cool and musty, counteracting the warm summer air of the evening outside. Josa welcomed that change. They were immediately engulfed by the soft rock coming from the jukebox inside, set to slightly too high a volume. Such noise was less welcoming. He began to regret his decision to come, once again. Returning to the anxiety of having to interact with a variety of new people in the context of competition, Josa sighed. It was lost in the sounds of a forgettable riff.
I am going to hate this.
Chec motioned him through the tavern’s interior, signaling something to the bartender as he did. There were few patrons. It was still too early. Some slow wooden fans spun overhead, and one didn’t. The lighting was low, and tinted, cheap stained-glass windows blocked out what remained of the day’s light. His co-worker, Chec, reserved the backroom here on a bi-weekly basis for these games. He knew the owner somehow. It was typical of Chec to know randomly influential people and then capitalize on those connections to their fullest extent.
I wonder when my time will come, Josa mused. By this point, they’d only known each other for a couple of months. New job, a new sphere of socialization to get through.
Together, they took the steps down into the backroom, which Josa now understood was also a kind of basement. There was a bright overhead light targeting a simple table in the center of the room. The mustiness of the place increased tenfold down here, but the music from the main area was muffled. The door closed and with it there was a silence.
“It looks like the gang is all here,” Chec spoke up jovially, breaking said silence.
The seated figures at the table, the other players, looked up to Chec and Josa’s descent into the den of their game.
Josa looked them over, recalling the descriptions Chec had related earlier that day.
Snide was here, a short and bald man. Short with words and time, Chec had managed to relate. He was smoking, and wore a bolo hat. There was an open seat was next to him. Snide grunted an acknowledgment as Josa prepared to take his seat. Chec apparently knew him from school. They were closer to acquaintances than friends. He is someone that will play to win, because this shit is important to him, Josa reasoned. It was a guess, more of an intuition. But Josa found he implicitly knew that kind of stuff about people.
Chec high-fived Don and brought it in, each smiling. Don was a long-time member in Chec’s band and they were the best of friends. He wore a patchy jacket and ripped jeans. His hair was long and his voice carried due to more than the volume of his words. It was clear that these two had the closest relationship of all. Don, like Chec, seemed to be more free-wheeling, more down-to-earth. He is someone who will try to keep the stakes low, he probably hates it when people around him start to argue, Josa kept in mind.
The last individual greeted Josa not with any words, but with a stare. Situating himself in his chair as he looked about, Josa noticed his steady gaze. He sat directly across from him at the table. His eyes were full and focused, apparently upon Josa himself. A bit uncomfortably, he returned the gaze for a moment, before turning away. He managed to bide his time continually situating himself in the seat. In rapid succession, Josa stared down at the felt table before him, with ridges carrying colored chips before each seat. Then, he looked back up to Chec out of instinct. He continued to chat with Don. Snide was rooting through his bag to his side.
Josa took a deep breath and his eyes unconsciously fell back on the fellow directly across from him, whom continued to look right at him, right through him. He wore thin glasses over grayish eyes, steely and resolute. His black hair was uncut and fell down around his head in seemingly random intervals and lengths. There was a certain intention being conveyed in the look. Josa found it more than unpleasant.
This must be Malan. The weird one.
“Hi. I’m Josa,” he managed to say, so as to break the unconscionable moment of this interaction.
The guy didn’t answer immediately.
Josa couldn’t help but think something was off about the guy.
It’s something in those eyes. What was it mom used to say about a person’s eyes?
Something important, I don’t remember.
Chec’s descriptors of the characteristics of this guy seemed to verge on the level of a warning.
“Oh yeah Malan, he’s a bit weird. He has this level of intensity about him… I don’t really know how to explain it… I mean I know you are pretty low-key, but I would be careful talking anything political around him, or anything about existentialism, or any of that other stuff you sometimes jump into unannounced… But in general, he’s really intelligent and super helpful… He is my neighbor, and our wives are friends. So I figured I would invite him out to the card game. Bob can’t make it this week after all…”
After a few more moments of sizing him up, Malan finally returned Josa’s greeting with:
“You’ve got a fire in your eyes Josa. I can see it clear as day. You are a worthy player.”
Josa, taken aback both by the words and the content of the observation, noted Malan already had a hand ready to go. The cards were up and he finally broke the look to return to them, glancing them over once before putting them back face down on the table. He pushed them to the center and then to Snide, who was already shuffling the deck reflexively.
Josa glanced over at Snide, and noticed his own eyes going back and forth between Malan and Josa. Snide appeared confused but ultimately unbothered by the exchange. For Snide, it didn’t warrant a response. He took Malan’s discarded hand and put it into the deck. Chec and Don finally managed to end their conversation, and took their seats at the small table. Snide prepared to deal. Malan’s back rested against his seat, his eyes now closed for an unknown purpose. Chec cracked some joke about it being time for everyone to lose their paychecks to him once again. Don laughed obnoxiously.
Josa sighed once more. So, poker. Here we go. He noticed for the first time how uncomfortably warm the room was.
Josa didn’t like poker because it was too reliant on luck. He understood, of course, that was the exact reason it was so popular, and so timeless. But games of chance, Josa believed, for all of their endless replayability were ultimately a fruitless endeavor, in a long-term sense. Especially poker. Josa knew you had to play the other players as much as you played your hand. But given enough time, everyone’s tells and strategies and bluffs could theoretically be surmised and thwarted. There was no reliable methodology to winning against similarly skilled opponents. Thus, given this style of long-run thinking Josa was prone to — in his mind, poker was a game not worth playing.
Of course, that isn’t the only reason Josa did not want to be here this evening. He also didn’t like most people, or having to interact with them in a social setting. Due to a rather persistent anti-social feeling within him, meeting new people had always been something of a complication to him. And interacting for the first time with Chec’s friends, whom he could already discern were going to be problematic to his psyche for a number of reasons, was especially difficult for him.
After a string of uninspiring Friday nights spent alone and without true interaction outside of himself and his many novelties, Josa had forced himself to say yes when Chec had asked. And throughout the hour or so leading up to this, it had been physically painful to answer Chec’s call, pull himself out of his room, meet up with Chec and then make his way down into town. Every step had been more regretful, more second-guessed, and more filled with the weight of time wasted as Josa had made his way eventually to the seat he now found himself seated in. And so it was against considerable odds that Josa found himself playing poker this evening.
Josa thinks to himself: Given this evening recast 100 times, 95 of them I probably stay home.
The first hand had been dealt out to each of the players. Two cards face down. Texas hold’ em, no ante, no blinds. $20 buy-in from each player. Quarter, one dollar and five dollar chips available. Recreational, lowest possible stakes as Chec had described it.
“It’s just as much about the conversations going on at the table as it is about the game itself. Just relax, play some hands, have some fun.”
Josa had a basic understanding of the game’s tenets and what constituted a ‘good hand.’ 2s, 3s, straights, same suits, face card power. Even without knowing the specific hierarchy of potential hands, he figured he knew enough to play. If things got serious, or if these others were skilled & experienced enough, Josa understood he would do a lot of losing. Josa supposed he would have to find that acceptable. After all, it wasn’t about winning — it was about socializing with new people.
Forgetting himself, Josa looked at his hand by pulling the cards entirely off the table and holding them aloft at about his heart. A pair of deuces, off-suit. This is a decent starting hand. He put it back down on the table, immediately realizing his mistake.
Foolish! Get your head in the game, Josa proclaimed to himself.
Against his better judgment, Josa’s mind began to reel with strategies and decisions, possibilities and avenues to victory. This was his nature. Finding the seat had been troublesome, but once he was firmly planted in it — another, more serious and more interactively competitive side of him took over.
Josa, recalling the core precept of poker, quickly looked up from his hand and to the other players as they read their own. Play the players.
“After playing one hand, you should be planning the next one.”
Josa smiled at such timeless yet basic advice. This would have to be his mantra now.
He tried hard to focus his attention upon the other players.
Their initial reactions to seeing their cards would likely be instinctual and thus potentially revealing. Valuable information could be gleaned before even the flop was placed upon the table.
Scanning across the table, Josa soon realized that Malan was once again boring a hole through him with his own steely gaze. Startled, Josa looked back down to his cards, and his chips. Malan smirked.
Damn this guy!
Snide now wore sunglasses. Chec held his cards foolishly. Don spun his two cards in his hand precariously, almost ready to drop to the table and become revealed.
“Gimme the flop, Chec!” Don spoke up to Chec, who was starting as dealer.
Three cards are turned over: Jack of Clubs, Queen of Spades, Four of Hearts.
Josa grimaced, internally. No help there to my deuces.
Don began to ramble on about some new TV show he was on.
Ignoring his words, Josa began to muse, I need to develop my strategy.
What level of aggression am I prepared to deploy with my bets? If I am consistently aggressive and make bets with cold conviction, likely bluffing a strong hand much of the time, then I’ll be inevitably exposed if I play hands to their conclusion. Of course, this is the rub of poker — such a strategy relies on forcing players to fold on the strength of your confidence before you have to hash it out on the river and reveal your hand. Such a strategy wouldn’t be successful for very long if the other players bluff in similar manners or if they are incapable of being bluffed, or if I lack the conviction to make my bluffs convincing. Playing with aggression accelerates the game, which can be good or bad, depending on such criteria, and depending on the level of skill and experience exhibited by the other players. Much of my own play should perhaps be determined by the play styles of the other around me… which I don’t know just yet.
Given my own level of skill and experience, it would probably be better to remain passive and reactive to the other players’ styles for now. I’ll start by feeling the others out, and then switch up my style based on careful observation of the level of aggression around the table.
Josa glanced around and could see that everyone, except for Snide, was preparing to make bets and calls following the flop. Snide folded without a sound, and leaned back in his chair slowly.
Josa glanced at him and his large shades, covering his eyes and face up. Discerning the minutia of his person in this moment, Josa made judgments.
Snide is likely someone who is capable of bluffing quite effectively — and thus playing poker quite effectively — with his emotionless demeanor, but who in fact lacks the conviction to. He cannot read others because he lacks the empathy to do so. Snide is likely someone who is a sociopath, and also a coward. I have to admit, it’s an oddly compelling formula. He should be easy enough to dispatch when it comes down to bluff pileups. However, such a style also meant his bets would carry significant weight. If he rides a hand out until the end, then one can be certain he has a winning hand.
Don started the betting: one dollar. The calls went around the table, including Josa, who considered the call reasonable with his pocket deuces. The second-to-last player to call or raise was Malan, who chose to raise — to three dollars.
Josa watched Malan and he turned his smirking face to Chec, who held the final bet.
Chec spoke, “So you’ve got a Jack, or a Queen? Perhaps both. Well, you can have it.” Chec deposited his own hand face down to the center of the table, indicating a fold.
Don exclaimed, “Well, it looks like Malan is back on his bullshit! I’ll pay for that turn, sure.” Don called the raise, putting two more dollars into the pot, to equal Malan’s three. Snide did not speak, having already folded.
When it became Josa’s turn to call or fold Malan’s re-raise, he considered what his decision might mean here for the games to come.
My instinct is to fold here. There’s only two more cards to be revealed, and it’s unlikely they will help me. A pair of deuces won’t beat what Malan likely has, perhaps not even what Don is holding onto. But I don’t want to, primarily because I would like to see Malan’s cards. If he is able to get out of this hand without having to reveal them, then I will gained minimal verifiable evidence of his true play style, namely his tendency to bluff. At this point, it’s all conjecture. And I don’t like having to rely on Don to make the bluffs for the whole table. He certainly doesn’t appear up to the task of taking on Malan. Perhaps no one is, it’s already clear to see that. Of course, this is the first game and Malan has never played with anyone else here, I think. He has the advantage on all of us. He seems to be at least mildly experienced at the game, if not highly so, and probably wants to set the tone for the night. His demeanor and opening raise on the flop marks him as someone who wants to play boldly and aggressively to secure wins and is confident that he can do so with consistency. I have no such illusions concerning my own game. At the same time, I can already feel the competitive fire within me growing. Regardless of his likely bluff here, I simply can’t pay to see it.
Josa took a deep breath, visible to Malan’s awaiting attention, and everyone else at the table.
And I can win in the end! I’ve got it. Folding here can set up the next hand, and the hand after that. If I fold now, it clearly shows my lack of confidence in what is no doubt a lesser hand. I am conceding the hand to Malan directly, giving him vital information regarding my own philosophy on bluffing and my level of confidence in my ability to play the game. That is, I am not that confident. That’s the truth and should be easy for him to surmise. What new player would be? He certainly has me marked for one. The only way for an inexperienced player to be and make convicted decisions with such confidence in hand is to wield a powerful hand. I will bide my time, letting hands pass me by until I come across my chance. And when that hand comes I will act! Such a strategy counteracts Malan’s perfectly well. I won’t get bogged down in his constant bluffs and battles of will; I won’t get caught up in a game that I know I cannot win. I will force him to play my game, where I have the advantage! I’ll deal in terms of reality.
Malan looked to each individual as their decisions came, and so his eyes rested on Josa as he discerned his final decision here.
“What’s the move, Josa?” Malan directed his words to Josa.
Without saying anything, Josa delicately placed his hand in the center of the table.
“Folding?” Malan paused. “Maybe I was wrong about you.”
Josa didn’t react, preparing mentally for what was coming next.
With a grunt, Don folded after the turn. Malan took the pot, and placed his unrevealed two cards back into the deck without a sound.
Josa smiled, internally. Bring on the next hand.
Don began to deal the cards. Malan spoke.
“So who normally wins out here?”
There was a newfound sincerity in his voice.
“Ha! Me,” Don said with a smirk, focused more on his dealing duty.
“I don’t keep track. It’s usually pretty even and we usually don’t even play it out. Lot of split pots,” Chec said.
“I won last week,” Snide claimed.
“Why?” Malan spoke.
“Why what? Why’d I win?” Snide responded.
“No. Why don’t y’all play it out, until there is a single person taking home the whole pot?” Malan said.
He appeared genuinely curious. It was already clear to Josa why. Chec responded first.
“Well, it’s not that big of a deal. We just — “
“Tonight we will be playing this until the end. It’s the only way to do it,” Malan interrupted, speaking the resolution simply and finally.
“Not everyone is like you Malan, it’s not that big — “
Malan directed his steady gaze towards Chec, tilting his head downward slightly.
“We play ’til the end, Chec.”
“Okay. Fine. I don’t care,” Chec spoke softly, looking away.
Josa marked the interaction, factoring it in to what was likely to be either a very short game with Malan as the winner. Or a very long one, with Malan bleeding everyone out of their remaining chips with vigor. Either way.
I have to stop him somehow. I don’t think I can count on anyone else here.
At the conclusion of the exchange, Malan returned his attention to his hand and finally looked at it. Josa stared him down, before taking a gander at his own.
One thing is for sure… this guy is spooky.
King of Diamonds. Four of Diamonds.
Excellent. Seeking a flush. Also a high face card looking for a pair. This could be a winning hand, Josa considered.
During this round, betting started with Josa. And with it, vital decisions to be made during each sequence. I will be setting the expectation, and perhaps revealing much of what I am holding. That is, if I stick around long enough. Here’s to hoping. Josa realized at this point, he was beginning to sweat under his shirt. There was no fan in the room, and minimal functionality with the air conditioning. He has the thought that it must be part of Malan’s machinations, to turn up the heat and have the sweaty, nervous, inexperienced and ultimately less committed ‘recreational’ players play right into his hands. He planned this… Josa shakes such foolishness away before continuing his progression.
The flop will determine my bets, Josa decided quickly. To begin, I will bet a cool two dollars. It was a reasonable price to ask to see the flop, and most would pay it at this point in the game, regardless of the strength of their hands.
Josa quickly placed two one dollar chips into the center of the table.
Snide called this time, placing his own two dollars to stay in the hand. Coming around to Malan, he re-raised the opening bet to four dollars, making no discernible facial reaction or drawn out motion, outside of his lowered voice: “Raise. Two dollars up to four dollars.”
Chec sighed, and folded. Don called, and so did Josa, and even Snide as well. The flop beckoned. He couldn’t necessarily be surprised at the move, but it was frustrating nonetheless.
He is forcing me to become more convicted with my play at every turn. Along with everyone else. It was likely, if he had simply called, then Chec would’ve stayed in. Why not? The flop provides so much information. It turns a nothing-hand into something. But due to his raise of my initial bet, it scared Chec away, who probably carried two low cards off-suit. After seeing Malan casually raise the price of the next three cards, Chec decided it wasn’t worth it anymore. And thus, Malan was able to casually increase his chances of winning the hand by a factor of 1/4.
“I am going to win this one, I can feel it,” Don spoke with a smile, reaching for the deck.
“I’d really like to see that,” Malan spoke sarcastically.
Josa glanced at him, shaking his head slightly. The dude is a glorified puppet master.
Snide audibly breathed through his nose, while narrowly bending his cards to view their top corners once more.
Don flopped the next three cards onto the table.
Jack of Spades. Two of Diamonds. Ace of Diamonds.
Perfect! Something ignited within Josa at this point. The flush was well within reach, only need one more card. Two more to be revealed. It was Josa’s bet.
Josa dropped into himself once more, needing to make a choice for his bet quickly. If I bet too much, I will scare Snide away and maybe even Don. Unless they also have strong hands… Damn. But I need to harvest as much out of a winning hand —
“You keep doing all that thinking and you might miss something important,” Malan spoke suddenly. Again, with his smile and his stare directed singularly at Josa.
Josa eye’s widened seemingly of their own volition. What?
Malan was staring across at him again, his two cards up and off the table. He had shifted positions in his seat. And his jacket was off, and laying behind him on the chair.
He is toying with me! Damn him. Dam —
“Hurry up Josa, what’s the bet?” Don looked to him with annoyance.
Josa shoved another two dollars worth of chips out into the table. The flush isn’t secure yet, but this will indicate I have something. It shouldn’t be enough to force any folds just yet. We’ll see. Josa appeared visibly agitated, frustrated at having his bet rushed in such a way. And after seeing Malan once again influence him, he knew he still wasn’t in complete control of his own actions within the game.
Need to get better.
The others all called the two dollars — Snide, Malan, and Don. Most were still in it and Malan didn’t raise or say anything else. Intriguing. He must be caught up in the statistics and chances of his hand for a change. Like the rest of us, he is waiting for his cards to play out. He is now playing like a rational person. Perhaps. Josa was only guessing.
A quiet fell over the table before Don continued his deal. There was a tension in the air, matched only by the focus of the remaining players. And even Chec seemed to be taken in by this effect, perhaps regretting his decision to fold.
Don slowly revealed the turn: Queen of Diamonds.
Josa held in a victorious smile. There it is.
This is the bet where I go for the jugular. Let’s see who has the balls to stick with me. I don’t need to see anything else. Josa moved six dollars into the pot.
Snide hesitated a moment, but then moved to match the six dollars. Josa nodded, continuing to consider the others’ hands and what he might be up against. Another flush certainly, but I have King high, which will be difficult to best. There was a straight in play as well — Ten, Jack, Queen, King, Ace. Malan, or one of the others may have it. And if so, they will lose to my flush. Perfect.
Josa has the sudden realization that he isn’t sure that a flush beats a straight. Oh no. It has to right? It’s too late now. It does, I am confident. I am pretty sure it is less statistically likely of a hand — which makes it more powerful. Anyway, I am on this road now, there is no turning back. Besides, they could be working with pairs or something shit, right? Just proceed as planned. Even hope they fold at this juncture. Hate to be working with hope, but that’s poker eh? Josa mused.
Malan moved to his chip, to call or raise. But then looked up to the table, at everyone, ending on Josa once more.
“So you’ve got the flush eh?”
Josa reacted instinctively, with a short and quite audible laugh.
Malan immediately motioned to throw his hand facedown towards the dealer, confirming his hold. His chips remained under his wing.
“Well played, well played,” Malan speaks to Josa.
Josa screams, internally. Dammit! I don’t get to see his hand! I still don’t understand how he plays. Did he have a solid hand and just not a flush? Or did he have nothing? This was it. I should’ve undercut the bet. I shouldn’t have laughed. I should’ve just acted on instinct. I should’ve …
Don sees the six dollars, and speaks “raise to seven dollars,” Don smiled as he puts one more dollar chip into the pot.
“Why?” Snide blurts out. He quickly composes himself, shaking his head.
Josa, still agitated by Malan’s fold of another secret hand, also considers Don’s raise. Well, he must have a flush as well. Now I just have to hope he doesn’t have an ace to best my king-high with. Josa scanned the four cards on the table. The ace of diamonds is already here, that means he definitely doesn’t have it. Even if he has two diamond cards as well, his hand is necessarily lesser than mine! The fool! Malan just told you and I even gave it away! Of course I have the flush, and it looks like you do as well.
Josa smiled as he dropped another dollar into the pot to call the raise. Snide slowly, and seemingly reluctantly placed his dollar into the fold as well.
Snide has a straight, and now knows he’s been outplayed. Stubborn, in addition to everything else? How unfortunate for you my strange hat-wearing fellow.
It was at this point, Snide put his cigarette out on the table, then proceeded to stomp it out on the ground.
Josa thought he saw Malan give Snide a look in response to this, but in his focus, he couldn’t be sure.
Despite Malan’s continued confounding and circumspect play, Josa found he was enjoying himself.
Soon after the river was dealt by Don.
Ace of Hearts.
Josa bet $5, swiftly and easily. At this point, everyone was probably in. And while he was relatively sure he was going to win the hand, he did not want to go too far. Let’s try to get a little more, and not scare them away for the reveal.
Snide folded. Don called, revealing three of a kind. Josa revealed his hand as well, showing a flush of diamonds. Josa took the pot.
“Ah you got me there Josa. Good hand,” Don said. “Let’s get on to the next one!”
Snide bristled, taking off his sunglasses and making the face one makes when they are upset. But for Snide it was weirder. Chec seemed less than eager to play again, even yawning with his mouth wide open.
Malan was acting nonchalant, sliding one of his chips in between his fingers in a repetitive motion. But even Josa could tell, something was burning within him. He wasn’t going to let this hand go.
Let’s see what the next hand brings then, foe! Josa smirks.
As Don slides the deck over to him, Josa and the others see Malan suddenly toss the chip he’d playing with up into the air. Flipping it like a coin, watching the rotations as it does, he moves with reflexive speed to catch it out of the air and slap it down upon the backside of his hand in one swift motion. Malan raises his hand covering the chip, so that only he can see.
“What side did it land on then, Malan?” Chec says jokingly.
“These chips are identical on each side,” Snide observes.
“Ah he’s just upset he lost that hand. Ha!” Don says.
Malan just smiles. Josa squints his way, doing so with unconscious curiosity.
It was Josa’s turn to deal. He took the deck and began to shuffle it in an amateur fashion.
“Oh c’mon, give me that,” Chec said, reaching for the deck, presumably to properly shuffle it for him.
“No, let the man do this thing. The dealer deals, and shuffles,” Malan implored. Chec backed off. Josa stopped trying to bridge shuffle and shifted his method to a less physically demanding and ultimately more randomized one.
Josa began to deal the cards from the deck into six separate piles on the table, face down. Randomizing the order that each pile was stacked, Josa went about shuffling the deck in this way. It was something he somehow knew about. Obviously inexperienced and less than dextrous, it seemed to him the best way to go about doing this without making a fool of himself in front of the others.
Josa has the thought arise: I wonder why we aren’t drinking anything. It seems odd to not have drinks in a backroom poker game among guys. He decides not to ask, for now focusing on his task at hand.
“So that was beginner’s luck I guess. Or maybe you have an aptitude for the game,” Chec said, regarding Josa. He was now the richest man at the table, concerning chips.
Josa shrugged, continuing to place the deck into the separate piles.
“Why did you decide to come?” Malan asks, directing the question to Josa.
Josa perks up, not fully comprehending the portent of the question. Why did I? But how does he even know that the decision was difficult for me? Wha —
“Hey man, just let him play,” Snide spoke up.
Malan put his hands up in innocence. “Okay, it’s fine. Doesn’t matter to me. Just wondering who this guy is alright,” Malan said. He returns to leaning back in his chair.
Malan looks to the other players one by one. Josa continues to place cards in piles.
Something about the room shifts. Josa doesn’t necessarily notice that. But he does realize that something has agitated Don. He is leaning forward, ready to speak something into existence.
Clearly agitated, Don speaks out. “We could ask you the same thing though. I mean, we don’t know you at all. Chec just brought you along ha-ha,” Don looked to Malan, then around the table. “Am I right? I can’t help but notice man… you just got this — I mean, who the fuck are you bro and why are you taking this so seriously?”
Don’s tone was serious. Josa started to pay attention. Chec seemed to not understand why Don was doing this. Snide had his shades back on.
“This game doesn’t mean anything. It’s a $20 game. You’ve been staring at folks and speaking ominously this whole time. Who — why — I mean, do you think you are in the World Series of Poker — the Wuhh-sopp — or some shit? Ha-ha! I mean c’mon!” Don looked around to everyone else expectantly. He was the only one smiling. Chec’s eyes were still wide. Josa was at a loss. He continued placing the cards into the piles absently.
Why is Don doing this?
There was a long pause. Malan stared at Don, while drumming his fingers on the table silently. Don averted his eyes.
“Are you finished? Can we get back to the game? Can we get back to why we are here?” Malan said sincerely, in a low voice. He looked away from Don, and to Josa, waiting for the deal.
Josa peeked that familiar intensity in his eyes. It was the same source as was there when he first sat down. He still couldn’t quite mark it. Perhaps because it was unlike anything he had ever seen in another person.
“You are a different dude. You are weird cat. And I bet people tell you that. They say — hey man, what the fuck man,” Don was being hysteric now. Chec began to chuckle.
At that, Malan explodes into motion, bringing something forth from underneath the table and fashioning it afore the table and those around it.
Josa, looking down at the card piles, misses most of this.
A gunshot rings out. A second.
Josa sees that suddenly Malan is holding a pistol out, firmly grasped in his left hand. He is staring at Josa once more. Blood spatters onto his unblinking face as two bodies hit the ground around the table. Josa is immobilized, unable to register what has happened. Snide falls out of his flimsy chair and to the ground. His hat falls off. He is panting, trying to speak.
“You… killed… what… oh my god… oh my god…”
“Deal the next hand, Josa,” Malan said simply, placing the still-smoking gun upon the table.
“What the fuck… what the…” Snide is backing away from the table, crawling on the ground away, but slowly. Josa cannot avert his eyes from the spectacle of Malan’s presence. He notices Snide’s frantic movement to his left, and the bodies of Don and Chec to his right, but they seem far away and less important than what is before him across the table.
Malan’s style… his hand… who is this person… what do I do…
Josa’s survival instincts kick in, he begins to try to think of an exit strategy. Soon enough, he makes two realizations: 1) in his panic — he is incapable of developing a sound strategy for his own survival, 2) in all of the ruckus of the last 30 seconds, he has continued to place the deck into the piles, nearing the completion of his long-form shuffling exercise.
“You two are the only ones taking this game seriously right now,” Malan said nonchalantly.
Snide screams and gets up deftly, turning and running the opposite direction of the way Josa remembered coming into the basement. He doesn’t get far before a third shot resounds throughout the room. His body drops in the darkness, away from the overhead light over the poker table. Josa jumps at the sound, despite a part of him knowing it was coming.
“Guess I was wrong,” Malan said. He blinks as he stares as Josa, and seems to relax. The gun is back on the table, his back is back against the back of his chair.
There is an intervening silence. Malan stares. Josa doesn’t breathe. Neither of them blink for many moments. The warmth and smoke from the gun emanate the air around the table. The stench of its expended shells mingles with the fresh deaths nearby. Six slightly unequally distributed piles of the fifty-two card total making up the deck lie on the green felt of the table. They go untouched for now. Blood pools around the two men’s shoes. Somewhere nearby, a rat sniffs from its hole. Josa sweats profusely and his mind continues to race. Faintly, the sound of the jukebox from the tavern can be heard, wafting its stale tunes into the scene.
For a flash of a moment, the light over the table reflects off of Malan’s glasses just so that Josa can no longer see those eyes behind them at all.
“Well,” Malan finally says.
Josa cautiously began to scoop up the piles of the cards into its whole.
What am I supposed to do now? Just play as if nothing happened? This guy is a murderer. This is madness. I have to escape somehow. I have to —
Josa’s musings are cut off by Malan speaking again.
“Why did I do it?”
Josa didn’t verbally respond. He began to deal the cards for them both. I’ll just let him talk, just let him do whatever.
Malan speaks, doing it as much with his hands, enunciating each word and phrase, eyes unblinkingly focused upon Josa and the table and the chips and the cards.
“It’s because they weren’t in the game. You understand how important that is?”
He’s clearly insane. Why didn’t I notice this before? Maybe I did and I just didn’t realize it fully. Maybe if I just play the game out, he will let me leave.
“I am not an insane person. I suffer from no madness save for the yearning for serious competition. People need to be seriously engaged in order for anything to matter. It’s integral to what I would call the good life. Perhaps you agree. I bet you do.”
That’s right. I have to take things seriously… Playing each hand as if my life depended upon it. Which shouldn’t be too hard…
“You will find, Josa… you will find that focusing on such simple things as a game of poker — it utterly tranquilizes the mind. And there’s nothing better for the job.”
Focus. If I get a good hand, should I try to bleed his chips out? Or should I go all in, acting with conviction? If there’s anything this guy wants, out of me, it’s probably that.
“You see, there is this sincerity to it. To decide that you will sit at a table with a group of companions and play out a game of imaginative chaos — it’s storytelling, it’s poetry, it’s the most important thing we do with one another. I’m not sure why you came today, but that is why I came… Yes, I think that’s why you came too.”
Does he even have to win? Do I have to win in order to survive this? It’s possible he just wants me to take it seriously, perhaps as I have been, and the final result be damned. It’s possible that winning is much less important that just competing.
“Alright, well enough of my words. Shall we play?”
Josa began to deal. A card to Malan, a card to himself, a card to Malan, a card to himself.
Deep breath. Just play.
Malan continued to stare into him until Josa averted his eyes to his cards.
Ace of Spades. Ace of Clubs.
Josa feels an aura of nervous triumph envelop him. His hands shake and he puts the cards back down onto the table, unable to bear the look of them for long.
This is a fated hand. My God.
“I am all in,” Malan speaks now with intrepid and dramatic fervor.
Josa doesn’t hide his surprise, losing his breath for the moment.
What could he have? Another pair of aces? Imagine the odds. A King and Queen, on suit? At this point, it doesn’t matter. He could have anything. It doesn’t matter. If I fold, there is high probability he will simply kill me. I have to call. That’s all there is to it.
It was then that Josa realized that it didn’t appear that Malan had looked at his hand yet. He hasn’t picked them up from where I dealt them.
Josa moved to place most, but not all, of his chips into the center of the table. He had more chips than Malan, and thus it wouldn’t be an equivalent bet. Technically, Malan would not claim victory if he won this hand. Josa made sure to place the bet with some matter of confidence, despite everything within him resisting such feelings. His motion is stopped however when Malan speaks again, his tone gravely contentious.
“I’m all in… but I am not talking about the money.”
Josa paused, once again immobilized by the ominous ambiguity within Malan’s words.
“These stakes are much too low for this. Don’t you agree?” Malan said, raising his eyebrows. Josa didn’t agree but that also didn’t matter. Malan took a single chip and threw it behind him with some degree of flair, proving its ample worthlessness to him.
Josa could not speak on the inquiry. He did not think it was necessary. Whatever Malan had intended for him was coming whether he could stand to acknowledge it or not.
Malan was practically whispering: “I am betting my soul upon this hand.”
Josa did not know what he had expected.
Malan, seeing Josa still held the deck, waived him off.
“And there will be no flop, no turn, no river. Our hands are our hands.”
“If you are to call my bet, you understand there is only one way,” Malan spoke while resting his hand lazily over the pistol on the table.
The room still held the stench of its work, and it was getting worse.
Slowly but perceptibly, Josa nodded.
Carefully, with trembling hands, Josa flipped his cards over on the table.
Immediately, Malan closed his eyes, gripping his face with one hand and kicking back his head with unrestrained and uproarious laughter, while flipping his cards over with the other.
Josa looked over at them, a crumpled duece and a seven, off-suit.
Malan’s voice, dripping with a specter of twisted ambivalence, precariously placed upon the ledge of some kind of sanity, rings into the air moments after.
“Just imagine how much you will be able to do with a spare soul, Josa.” ~