Of the twenty players left in the poker championship, I recognized about half the names. They were all good players. No, not good, phenomenal. I should have been honored just to be one of them, but instead, I was scared of fucking up. And it’s when you get scared that you start making mistakes.
Still, I played well in the morning. I had an advantage in that I hadn’t been around for the last few years and people didn’t know my style yet. As far as they were concerned, they couldn’t trust me. Better to back down.
The rumor going around was that I was a tight player, which is true to some extent. Tight players tend to play fewer hands and have a higher percentage of winning money when they see the flop. This is in contrast to a loose player, who tends to bet on weaker hands. I’m definitely tight, but I try not to let it rule my game. I’ll bet on shit hands if I sense that the other players are hesitant. It all depends on the dynamic of the table.
I was also known for being a fairly aggressive player, which is almost a necessity when you wind up in the championship. In my opinion, you can’t play a hand half-assed. Either you play it right or don’t play it at all.
I had just won a big hand and was about to take a bathroom break when I felt Marie’s hot breath on my neck. “Have fun with Green last night?”
I almost choked. I wheeled around to look at Marie. “Keep your fucking voice down,” I hissed. “Jesus, are you following me or something?”
I noticed that Marie was looking down at my lap. My leg had started jumping again. I grab my knee, embarrassed by the spasm. “You better get that under control,” Marie said. “People are going to notice if you have a tell.”
“Holy shit,” I said. “What the hell...”
“I’ve done my research, Riley,” Marie said.
Marie bent down next to me and gently rubbed my thigh until the spasm stopped. I was grateful to her until I looked down and realized the side effect of her touch: my penis had become noticeably hard. Marie was amused, “God Riley, you’re easy, aren’t you?”
I forcibly removed her hand from my thigh. “You’re touching my leg... what did you think was going to happen?”
“Most guys can control themselves a little better in public.”
Speaking of control, I knew I had to get to the bathroom before the end of our break. I couldn’t risk another session without cathing myself. “Can we talk about this later?” I said.
Marie smiled. “I’ll walk you to the bathroom.”
But Marie didn’t just walk me to the bathroom. She held the door open for me so that I could wheel into the men’s room, then she followed me inside. Luckily, the bathroom was empty and Marie pushed me into the handicapped stall and locked the door behind us. She began licking the side of my neck. “Marie... Marie, come on...”
“Are you holding out for Green?” she laughed.
“No, I...” I pushed her away. She was right... I was thinking about Avi. Ever since last night, it was all I could think about. “Look, I’m in the middle of this competition. I can’t just—”
“So it’s not about Avi?”
“No,” I lied.
Marie gazed at me with her violet eyes. “Riley, I can’t lie to you. I’ve had a big crush on you for five years, ever since I saw you at that final table. I just couldn’t believe you were gay.”
“I’m not,” I said weakly. I should have been blown away by the thought of Marie Fallow having a big crush on me. She was one of the hottest women on television. But for some reason, it didn’t do anything for me.
I watched as Marie unzipped my pants. She was encouraged by how I had gotten hard earlier and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that what she was about to do wouldn’t do it for me. Back when I was younger, it was such a thrill watching a girl give me head, watching her mouth encircling my hard cock. Marie had great lips, nice and full, and she took my entire semi-erect penis into her mouth. I guess it was still a turn-on that she wanted me so bad, but not in the same way it used to be. I watched her suck me off, not saying anything, wishing I could enjoy it the way I used to.
Marie pulled away after several minutes of silence. “You can’t feel it at all?”
I shrugged. “Not really, no.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“What do you think?”
Suddenly, Marie’s eyes got all wet. I almost groaned. I wished she’d just leave. “Come on, don’t cry. It’s no big tragedy.”
Marie wiped her eyes. “I’m not crying.” She stood up, ran a hand through her hair, and smoothed out her blouse. She was a real professional, this one. “Good luck, Heartbreaker,” she said.
When I got back to the table from my encounter with Marie, I started playing like shit. Marie had shaken my confidence and it showed. I had Keith Tucker at my table and after I lost half my chipload in one hand, he actually stared at me, and said, “Are you okay, Riley?”
“Fine,” I said quickly.
“Are you sick?” He sounded concerned.
When you’re in a wheelchair, people are always thinking that you’re sick. If I get a headache, people want to call an ambulance. “I’m not sick. I’m fine.”
In poker, when you let something bother you enough that your play suffers, it’s called going on tilt. The philosophy of most professionals is that you can’t hope to eliminate tilt in your game, just to minimize it. It’s a business expense. It’s part of our nature. What I was suffering from now was short term tilt. Short term tilt usually gets set off by a few tough beats in a row, and suddenly I’m playing hands differently that I normally would, usually to my disadvantage. It’s a pretty vicious spiral. The best thing to do in this sort of situation is to step away from the game and cool off for a while. Lucky thing, my disability gave me some leeway. “Can I have a fifteen minute break?” I asked the dealer.
“Certainly, Mr. Haveson,” she said in this really patronizing voice. “Take all the time you need.”
I wheeled to the bathroom again and locked myself in the handicapped stall. I buried my face in my palms and mentally replayed the last few hands that I had fucked up. Once the downhill slide started, it was hard to put on the brakes. My only hope was to compose myself.
I heard the knock on the stall door. It sounded like Keith.
“You okay, Riley?”
I opened the stall door and saw Keith standing there awkwardly. “Fuck, Riley, I feel like I’m acting like your Mommy or something. I’m just worried.”
“What are you worried about?” I asked him.
“Five years ago, I felt like you were a brother to me,” Keith said. “I didn’t even find out about your accident until like six months after it happened. Why the fuck didn’t you tell me? Shit, I would have come to see you. Aren’t we friends?”
“I wasn’t in any shape to start looking people up,” I said. “I mean, I had half the bones in my body broken and the doctor told me I’d never walk again. It wasn’t exactly the high point of my life.”
Keith frowned. “That’s bullshit. I know you said it’s permanent, but there’s gotta be something you never tried. Isn’t there some chance...?”
That was all people wanted to know. I had accepted it, but now I had to reiterate it for everyone else I met. “Keith, I’m going to need a wheelchair for the rest of my life.”
“It’s not a big deal,” I said, for what felt like the hundredth time.
“Anyway, you should have told me,” Keith said. “Green was the only one who knew. And he kept his fucking mouth shut, of course.”
I looked up at Keith. Somehow, he seemed a lot taller than he had five years ago. “What do you have against Avi anyway? He’s not that bad a player.”
“Are you kidding me?” Keith spat. “Avi can’t play for shit.”
“That’s not true and you know it.”
“Look, I used to think Avi wasn’t a bad guy,” Keith said. “But then he married that bitch. Married her for her money if you can believe that shit. And now he thinks he’s too good for a bunch of lowlifes like us. Well, fuck him.”
I didn’t believe a word Keith was saying. Avi would never get married just for money. Maybe because his parents were pressuring him or something, but not just for the money. It wasn’t like Avi at all. “Why do you think he married her for her money?”
“Well, first off, she’s fucking loaded,” Keith said. “Second, well... if you met her, you’d get it. Those two deserve each other.”
“What’s so bad about her?”
“You’ll see tomorrow,” Keith said. “She’ll be at the final game if Green makes it. She was there the last two years.”
That wasn’t something I was looking forward to—meeting Avi’s wife. The one positive to not making the final table tomorrow would be that I could get the hell out of Vegas and avoid that uncomfortable situation.
“You ready to go back?” Keith asked me.
I nodded. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
But when I got back, it felt like everything I touched turned to shit. The short term tilt was turning into more of a long term tilt. I was playing the worst I had been since the competition started. It had happened to me before—in poker, there are bad days and there are good days. I was having a really bad day. I knew if I didn’t either start playing better or stop betting, I was going to lose all my chips. I saw guys leaving the table and I knew that I just had to hang on a little longer. I decided to play really tight.
It was about two hours later that I finally got a hand I felt was worth betting on: a suited ace and king. A suited ace king is a good hand, although like most hands, it’s no guarantee to win and you have to play it right. I slow-played the hand, but almost everyone dropped out except for Keith, who stuck around. I was initially glad to get Keith involved in the action. When the flop didn’t go my way, I began to feel a little nervous.
Keith checked and I decided it was time to get a little aggressive. I pushed a bunch of money into the pot, hoping to drive him out. Then, to my dismay, Keith raised me.
I stared at Keith, silently cursing to myself and trying not to let it show on my face. Keith had check-raised me. This is a classic move where the first player checks, knowing he has a better hand, hoping to lure the other player into betting first. Of course, among professionals, the check-raise can be a bluff in itself, done to lead me to believe that Keith thought he had the better hand when in fact he didn’t.
At this point, I was almost pot-committed. Also, an ace or a king on the turn or the river might have very well given me the better hand. I studied Keith’s face, trying to figure out what he was holding. He was wearing his shades and he was impassive. I decided to call his bet.
I never got my ace or king. Keith won the hand with a pocket pair of jacks, taking with him almost three quarters of my chips.
I felt sick after that loss. I looked down at the chips in front of me and felt certain that I couldn’t hold on much longer. I rubbed my temples, trying to will the cards to go my way. That was when I felt the hand on my shoulder: “Riley, it’s over.”
I lifted my face from my hands and looked up into the stern face of Jack McFadden. “But I still have chips left,” I started to protest, but then I realized what he meant. The tenth and final player of the day had just been eliminated. The day was over. “Oh,” I said. “Who was the last person to get eliminated?”
“It was me,” Jack said. He shrugged. He was a high-powered businessman with a wife and kids, but I knew poker was important to him. “Good luck tomorrow, Riley.”
To be continued...