8/06/2010

Felt

Five hundred twenty six dollars and thirty four cents.

This is my paycheck after two weeks of full-time employment at the Thrift-Sak. It's enough to pay the rent, two tanks of gas, and the car insurance on my jalope of a ride.

My apartment is a complete shit-hole. When Sandra used to come over, she told me that the cockroaches were complaining. She was always funny in that way that would annoy you, the more time you spent around her . She stopped talking, eventually. I should feel awful that it happened, but I really have no right to complain.

Forty four thousand, nine hundred dollars.

The sun is starting to crest over the city line, but that's what I won last night. What did it cost me, exactly?

Two packs of Marlboro lights (in a box), a Rockstar energy drink, and Sandra.

It wasn't my fault that they got her, really. I played to the best of my ability, and so did she. Maybe she caught the wrong river card on the wrong hand. Maybe I'm ten percent better than she is. Or, maybe, I just got lucky. Ask me if I got lucky, and I'll tell you --- I did, okay? I GOT LUCKY.

It's 5:43am and I have to be at work at the Thrift-Sak in seventeen minutes. I'm parked outside it, now, contemplating on whether I should go in or not. I'm leaning towards no. After all, I'm living in the fast lane now. I made my breakthrough, but not in a way that I'd thought possible.

People all over America play poker. Some for fun, some for sport, some as an excuse to see a hot girl take her clothes off, and some to make a living. I wanted to be that person for the longest time. Last night, I found a game with the highest stakes I've ever encountered, and now, I'm thinking it's possible that I could be upgrading soon. New place, new ride, new haircut.

Their game starts at midnight. Rule number one is that you don't play unless you bring a friend. Rule number two is that one person leaves a winner. Rule number three is that the game is off unless they get a full table of ten players.

Last night, I was number nine.

The buy-in is not of monetary value. In fact, the entire concept is a little distorted if the only poker game you've ever played is in Vegas. The rules are no limit texas hold em, which means that any player can go all-in for their entire chip stack at any time. The difference is, you don't buy your chips with your hard-earned.

You’re gambling, of course. Your only motivation is your own avarice. When you're invited, you know what the pot amount will be. Last night, it was forty four thousand nine hundred dollars. Tonight, it's sixty two thousand, three hundred twenty dollars. Why the sudden increase, you ask? Because they had a lucky winner at a full table, that’s why. Yours fucking truly.

It runs every night except Sundays in the back room of Romantico. It's one of those yuppie-hack metrosexual clubs downtown, by second avenue. People in that place are rail thin, and they wear spandex, lycra, and every other tight-fitting material that you could think of like it’s going out of style or something. Most of them are doped up on some substance or another ---ecstasy, pills, whatever.. It's not really my kind of place, but what goes on in the back room is completely discreet. It's under wraps, per the owner of the property, but it always starts at midnight. Some guy in a black suit with freaky red contacts runs it, and I can’t figure out what puts me off about him. He calls himself an artist and pretends he’s on some unearthly mission or something, but I just wanted to play poker, and he invited me. Said I was real good and could make a living playing in his game. He has the most groovy contact lenses I’ve ever seen, too. They make his eyes look they’re blazing on fire in low light.

So I’m all set to go play last night, but I don’t know anyone and she’s all I’ve got. I was never too fond of Sandra in the first place, really. She looks great naked (she has a tattoo of a purple crescent moon on her hip, and she smells like lilacs), but she was always a bitch to work with. She'd only come over if she got too drunk and her shift ended one or two hours before mine. For once, I actually needed her around. I asked her to go with me to the club to play cards, and she told me to go chop my dick off. I told her which club it was, and all of a sudden, she was all rosy-eyed. I guess she thinks she's a high class girl. She said she'd played poker a few times before. I didn't want to tell her that strip poker is different than the real thing, because you're playing to lose and get laid. I needed her, to get a chance at the pot. I didn't care if she lost. She was shitty with her money in the first place, so the prospect of a free tournament entry and winning forty grand sounded good to her. Like I said, she's not too intelligent.

The poker room itself is made almost entirely of stone. It's cold in there, despite the fact that it's a hundred degrees in early August before the sun goes down. There are broad, sweeping drapes that make a coverlet around the old rock, creating a perimeter around the room. There are no windows or openings whatsoever. The drapes bleed from the walls, the most vibrant of reds. The candles that are scattered around the corners cast an eerie, flamed glow towards the table itself. If you exclude the modern additions, it would look like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. The Masque of the Red Poker Room, if you feel me.

The table is some kind of black, charred material that looks like a mixture between wood, glass, and ebony. When you fold your hands on it or rest your elbows on the rim, your skin will get warm. Keep leaning and you'll feel hot. Eventually, it feels like you just ran your hand under a boiling water faucet. For that reason, I usually try to keep my hands in my lap. I learned to memorize my cards so I didn't have to peek at them after the first time.

The felt of a poker table can have a surreal, plush feel to it. Like a pool table, except it's molded over with a top layer of plastic that allows the cards to skim across it easier. This felt was the smoothest and most exotic that I'd ever seen, except that you could feel it moving. Put your chips in the center, place your fingertips on it to raise the edge of your cards --- and I swear you could feel a heartbeat. The surface is peach-colored and smells strongly of women's perfume. For some reason, touching that felt gives me a hard on. I guess you could say I've taken gambling to an unhealthy level.

When you first enter, you'll think you've lost your mind. You'll see heaps and heaps of chips, but some of them are more of an off-colored white than the others. Some players will look nervous and freaked out, but the tall man in the suit doesn’t let you leave once you step through the back door. When it finally hits you, you'll realize that your chips are made of human bones. All ten of you will exchange a nervous glance with each other before the blinds hit and the clock starts ticking. Under the gun, just like that. I didn’t care. I spend most of my time at the table watching people and observing their tells. That’s how I win --- I play the person across me and get inside their head. Most of the time, the cards don’t mean shit.

When you go all-in, you don't put any chips in the middle of the table. Instead, you stand up, walk to the back corner of the room, and they put their hands on your shoulders. They're waiting, you see. To make sure you made the right move --- that you really had the best hand. You'd better be sure. Bluffing in this game will cost you a lot more than your mortgage.

One by one, the people around me go all in. I’m surprised that Sandra is doing as well she is, honestly. People go to the corner, they bust out, and they leave with the tall man and his buddies in the robes through the back door. I don't know who they are. They have to be loaded. They give us our chips, they tell us to sit, and they get pissed at me when I try to smoke at the table. They aren't any different than the fat, cocky pit bosses at the Mirage, really.

I play tight, and I try to trap people when I know I have them in a tough spot. I’m a table bully at heart, and I’m catching some cards. Before I know it, there are only three of us left, and Sandra has enough chips in front of her to entertain a pack of dobermans for a year. A few minutes later, she knocks out this other poor chap in front of us, and we're down to two at around three in the morning.

I look down, and I try hard not to let a little smile break the corners of my mouth. I have two kings. "Cowboys," as some call them... or "danger rangers." The second best starting hand in poker. Although there are two of us left, the stakes are getting high. We both know that whoever wins this game isn't going to work at the Thrift-Sak ever again.

What would you do with that kind of hand? You'd go all-in, of course. And that's what I do--- before the cards even come out. I stand up from my chair, waltz over to the corner, and the red-eyed old man clamps his bony fingers in to my shoulder and waits with a smirk on his face. He knows something that I don’t.

Sandra rises to her feet, as well. She flashes me that stupid, sideways grin that makes me want to spit in her face.
"I'm all in too, Dicky-Dog." She says.
She walks over to the other corner, and they have her locked in, as well.

I hate when she calls me Dicky-Dog. My name is Richard. Not Dick. Not DICKY-DOG.

That's when I see her cards on the table. She's turned them face up, like mine. Pocket aces. Bullets. Pocket rockets. The big cheese. The number one best starting hand in no limit hold em. Suddenly, percentages are racing through my brain. I have a three in fifty two chance of hitting another king and beating her in this hand. She’s an eighty nine percent favorite. I hear a low grunt, hot breath expelling across the back of my neck from the robed figured on my right. Their fingers are crushing in to my flesh, now, even deeper. They know I've made a bonehead move, and that I'm probably the next one heading through the gated door. At least I know, either way, that I'm not going back to the Thrift-Sak tomorrow. It’s a shitty job.
Sandra's giddy like a school girl.

The turn card is a three. My winning percentage has just been chopped in half. One last draw.

I've never been as scared as I am in this moment.
The dealer in the black robe lays down the last card. The king of spades. I am saved.
The look of horror and revulsion on Sandra's face is almost classic. Her little khaki skirt does a poor job of hiding the fact that she's pissing herself. They must be really digging in to her. The voice that I hear next almost unsettles my bladder, as well. It's definitely not human. It comes from the tall man.

"Three of a kind kings beats a pair of aces." He says.

The figure at the table rises to his feet, and he extends his sleeved arm outward, pointing directly at Sandra's face. For the first time, I can see that his finger is not of human origin. It's made from the same material as my poker chips.

"We have a winner for this evening. The tournament is over." His voice scares the shit out of me, but the tall man’s announcement is delicious to my ears.

As they escort me out and the gate comes to a close with a slow groan behind me, the last thing I can see is Sandra's face, twisted in absolute horror. She’s missing her lips. I have a briefcase full of money and a head full of images that I will never forget.

It's 6:28AM now, and I am officially almost half an hour late for work. I toss my Thrift-Sak shirt in the wastebin by the gas pumps, but as I leave, Chaz is pulling in to the parking lot. Chaz is a pretty good worker, and he doesn't really give me a lot of shit. I like Chaz. In fact, I'll be inviting him to tonight's game. He's never played poker before, but I told him the stakes aren't terribly high. It won't even cost him anything to buy in, since it’s not a paycheck week. He knows a deal when he sees it.

I'm looking forward to touching the felt at that table again. There's a purple half-moon crescent on it, just at the corner by seat seven. It smells faintly of lilacs.