by Alan Swyer
Many years later, having been indicted in Las Vegas on charges of racketeering and skimming, casino magnate Eddie Gault found himself thinking about a trip on the New York Thruway during what he considered to be his apprenticeship.
It started in the summer of 1968 in the area around Lake George. Billed then as the Prince of Prestidigitation, Eddie, with the long hair of the era, was the opening act at a small club when spotted by bird dogs known as Stan and Ollie because of their resemblance to Laurel and Hardy.
Only after doing diligence first on Eddie’s skill level, then on his intelligence and character, did they suggest that Deke Hutchins come see their new prospect. Deke arrived a couple of days later, then nodded his approval.
But when Stan asked if they should approach Eddie officially, Deke demurred. “In case he’s on to us, let him stew three or four days.”
The bird dogs heeded, then accosted Eddie outside the club one night. “Interested in a proposition?” Stan asked.
“You mean the way I handle ’em, I can go in and –”
“Lose your fuckin’ shirt,” said Ollie.
“Or get your head blown off,” added Stan. “No way you get thrown right into action.”
“You’re smart enough to know that playing for real’s different than doing card tricks for tourists,” stated Ollie.
“Or are you?” asked Stan.
“Was that the Deacon who was in the other night?” asked Eddie.
“Don’t change the subject,” Ollie said.
Eddie eyed the two bird dogs. “What exactly do you want me to do?”
“Learn,” said Ollie.
The following day, while driving on the New York Thruway, inscrutable Deke Hutchins, swung his willfully nondescript Buick toward a rest area. Then out jumped Eddie, who had just been given a handle: Shakespeare.
Returning from the bathroom, Eddie found Deke standing on a patch of grass. “You part camel or something? No, don’t tell me. Practice, right?”
Instead of answering, Deke took out a deck of playing cards and riffled it, then offered it to Eddie. “Do the Erdnase shift that I showed you,” he said.
Eddie started a move, but Deke held up a hand to stop him. “Not the S.W.E. The onehand hop.”
Confidently, Eddie performed the move. “Nice, huh?”
Instead of answering, Deke took the cards, then held them near his knees. “Do it here.”
“What in hell for?”
“Cause I said so.”
With a flamboyance that paid insufficient heed to the degree of difficulty, Eddie tried the move down low with no success.
Not bothering to gloat, Deke headed toward the car while Eddie played 52 pick-up.
Forty minutes later, while practicing the move in the speeding Buick, Eddie glanced at Deke. “How come you don’t play anymore?”
“How come your mother doesn’t have more kids?”
A moment passed, then Eddie again broke the silence. “The stories true?”
“Deacon stories. I can’t figure out what’s true and what’s not.”
“Doesn’t matter. If I say George? Or start bitching about George? Or tell a story about some guy named George?”
“But if it’s Tom I’m talking about?”
“Somebody made me. Or is onto something.”
“And if I say, ‘Company’s coming?'”
“Someone else is moving in on the game… This mean what I think it means?”
“That maybe, just maybe, I’m going to play?”
“Let’s see the move.”
Eddie did the move, then smiled proudly. “Pretty, huh?”
“Do it righty.”
“You don’t do shifts with the right hand. You deal with the right hand.”
“So don’t do it.”
Eddie frowned. “What’s next, standing on my fuckin’ head?”
“Could be. If I say, What it is?”
“Now you’re Soul Brother #1?”
“Did the other guys you turned out have to do this?”
“It means go for the jugular. Take the money and run. Get it and get the hell out. That enough?”
“What do you think?”
Eddie winced. “Righty, huh?”
With a groan, Eddie tried the move with his right hand, and the result was a wipeout.
Later that afternoon, with Eddie feeling grimy from the ride, the two of them stepped into a two-bedroom apartment devoid of all personality.
“The lap of luxury,” Eddie commented.
“You’re welcome to leave.”
“How long you figure for the training?”
“Long as it takes. Any other questions?”
“Not that they’d matter, huh?”
“Let me see it righty again.”
Eddie started to say something, then put down his suitcase. Taking out a deck of cards, he proudly did the move he’d been practicing with his right hand.
That evening, with empty Chinese take-out food containers piled on the kitchen counter, the two men were seated at a bridge table with Deke dealing hands of 5-Card Stud. “So?” he suddenly asked.
“You’re dealing bottoms.”
Eddie pointed to a hand. “There?”
“Don’t ask. Tell me.”
Deke gathered the cards and tossed them toward Eddie. “You do it.”
“Who gets the good hand?”
“The guy on second base – and you.”
Instead of answering, Deke reached for the cards… shuffled… riffled them… then dealt five draw hands face down. “Turn ’em over.”
Eddie studied Deke for a moment, then did as told. The first hand was a bust. The second held three Jacks. Deke had three Kings. The other two hands were worthless.
“It’s not just what you have,” Deke stated. “It’s who else thinks he’s a winner. And none of that magician’s 4-Aces shit, unless you want the joint to heat up like a pizza oven. All you want is enough to win.”
Two hours later, Eddie hit the bathroom to relieve himself, then stared at his weary reflection in the mirror. Dousing his face with water in a futile effort to wake up, he headed back to Deke, who looked cool, calm, and collected.
“Gonna tell me you’re not tired and you don’t need to take a leak?”
“Okay, I’ll bite,” said Eddie. “What’s the secret?”
“Just like playing cards.”
“Not like playing cards. It’s part of playing cards.”
Deke handed the cards to Eddie, then pointed around the table. “Deal around.”
“Tops. You’ve got to work on rhythm.”
“Tops for a half hour, then alternate: top card, top card – second, second – top, top – second, second. And freeze that left hand. It looks like you’re hailing a cab.”
Eddie fought back a yawn, shuffled, then started to deal.
Ten days later, the sun was beginning to peek through the shades when Eddie, still in bed, ran through a series of moves. Thanks to time and hard work, there was a new-found fluidity and self-assurance to the cuts, shuffles, and deals.
But above all there was a sense of quiet determination.
Several nights later, Deke and Eddie were trudging through a desolate zone that had largely been abandoned by the heavy industry that once made it vital, when Deke spoke.
“If I say ‘George?'”
“Everything’s fine. Keep it up.”
“This guy’s trouble. Or somebody made me. Or I’m drawing heat. So how’d you get into this?”
“I wanted to be a jockey, but I grew.”
“But where’re you from?”
“My father was a Bengal Lancers who met my mother near Kathmandu. They had me, they set sail for the South Seas, then came the pirates. I was orphaned and needed to survive.”
“If I say, ‘Expecting company?'”
“Someone else is moving on the game. You mean –”
“If I mention butterflies?”
“It means the guy’s playing a glim. A shiner. Maybe he’s using a high polished cigarette lighter, or a mirror in his pipe. Every once in a while the mirror catches the light and dances on the ceiling, so the old timers called it butterflies.”
“And if I say, ‘What it is?'”
“Go for the jugular.”
The next night, Deke stepped out of his bedroom and headed toward the john, then stopped in his tracks at an unexpected sight in the living room.
Seated at the bridge table, Eddie was dealing rounds of cards.
Deke checked the time – 4 A.M. – then looked on silently. Though not one for showing emotion, there was no hiding that he was pleased.
Two evenings later, armed with a bag of Chinese take-out, Deke stepped into the training apartment to find Eddie fast asleep on the living room sofa with a book across his chest. Quietly, Deke tiptoed over, peeked at the book – Thomas Pynchon’s V – then held the bag of food in front of Eddie’s nose.
Eddie twitched, sniffed, then woke with a start.
“Chow time, Shakespeare.”
“Jeez, I –”
But Deke did not let Eddie get his bearings. “You’re in a game with a guy who’s loose as a two-dollar hooker. Do you sit over him, or under?”
“Give me that again?”
“The guy’s in every hand. Do you want to play before him, or after?”
“Thought I was supposed to be dealing seconds.”
“The best two dealer I ever saw – hell, the best mechanic – lost money half the time ’cause he played so rotten. Half the hustlers I know would cheat you blind, then think it’s not kosher to sandbag a bet. You’ve got know how to play, and play right. How’re you going to set a cooler–”
“Where I deal somebody a great hand, but myself a better one?”
Deke nodded. “–If you don’t know how to read the guys at the table? Besides, nothing is better than playing straight, so you don’t have to move at all. And where you sit’s no joke. Do anything to get a loose player to play before you.”
“If the seat’s not open, tell the schmuck who’s in it that trading’ll improve his luck. If he won’t trade, offer cash. Or stare at him and say you need to sit on the south side of the room. He’ll think you’re crazy, which is fine. Drawing this guy into hands will make you money. It keeps other guys in the hand with 4-to-the-Straight or 4-Flushes. If you raise, you sucker him further. But if you raise in the seat before the loose player, you drive him out. This is all part of your business. Not just poker or blackjack. You’ve got to know how to play and how to think, whether it’s gin, pinochle, casino, canasta, or whatever. Get the fucking money. That’s your job.”
“But I thought.”
“Sometimes life comes down to four simple words.”
“Shut up and deal.”
Early the next morning, Deke and Eddie were deep in conversation as they strolled through a commercial district. “Is war a game?” Deke asked. “Or the stock market? A game’s something you play for fun, where luck counts. When you’re playing poker, it’s not playing at all. No more than guys play in the Super Bowl’s a game, or the World Series, or the NBA Finals. We’re talking skill. Stamina. Preparation. And hard fucking work.”
“How come you’re not playing?”
“Who says I’m not?”
“You wouldn’t be spending this kind of time with me.”
“I like that. You’re thinking. Now if –”
“You didn’t answer.”
“Why you’re not playing.”
Deke stopped and faced Eddie. “You’re right. But looks like we’re here.”
Puzzled, Eddie looked around. “A barber shop?”
Taking Eddie by the arm, Deke led his none-too-happy pupil inside.
A half-hour later, surrounded by a thick pile of hair on the floor, Eddie gazed at his cleancut reflection in the mirror.
“I look like some kid going off to college.”
Eddie gulped. “What’s that mean…?”
The next stop was a men’s store, where Eddie’s t-shirt and jeans gave way to a button-down shirt, a crewneck Shetland, and chinos. “We done?” Eddie asked hopefully.
“Not quite,” was Deke’s response.
Shortly thereafter they were at an optometrist’s place, where Eddie was being fitted with glasses. “Since my eyes are fine,” he said as they were leaving, “can I get an explanation?”
“First and foremost image. But they’re also great for shade.”
“What you magic guys call misdirection. It covers moves better than a cigar. And get a notebook and write in it, especially after big hands. Lots of numbers. Notebooks intimidate. When you win a few big hands, it’ll scare ’em even more, which helps you control the game.”
They walked down the street in silence for a couple of minutes, then Eddie turned toward Deke. “Can I ask why now?”
“Let’s say you just finished your senior year.”
“A class trip.”
Two days later, they were on a flight to Las Vegas. Landing, they climbed into a cab, then headed toward a sea of neon. “I am ready for bear!” he exclaimed.
“Only if I give the word.”
“But you said I graduated.”
“From high school. You’re here to observe.”
“That’s English for watch.”
“But when do I get to play?”
“If and when I say so. And if I do, you play straight. No deuces, no bottoms, no hops.”
At 9 P.M., into a casino stepped Deke, together with Eddie, who was clearly thrilled by the action. Deke waited a moment before speaking softly. “What do you see?”
“Guys nowhere near as ready as me.”
“Lots of bucks changing hands.”
“And you’d like to feel some of it.”
“Now that you mention it –”
To Eddie’s dismay, Deke pulled out a roll, then started peeling off bills. “Feel it.”
“Handle it. Sniff it. Let it sit in your pocket for a while. See if it makes you feel like a different person.”
“Call it an advance against future earnings.”
Self-conscious, Eddie took the cash, stared at it, then stashed it in his pocket.
Together, the two men continued to watch the poker action in silence until a guy in a dark suit approached Deke. “Just happen to be in the neighborhood?”
Despite the absence of a handshake or a hug, Eddie clearly discerned that Deke and the man, whose name he later learned was Carl, went back a long way.
Making no effort to introduce him, Deke leaned toward Eddie.
“I’ll be back.”
As Deke and Carl walked away, Eddie was able to make out the beginning of their
“So how’s Phil?” Deke said softly.
“Maybe he’ll surprise us.”
An hour later, Eddie unlocked the door to his hotel room, then turned and faced Deke.
“My first night in ‘The Town That Never Sleeps,’ and you’re telling me to sleep.”
“So don’t sleep. Read. Watch a movie. Call a hooker. Call a dozen hookers.”
“Long as I’m ready tomorrow morning?”
At midnight there was still considerable action in the casino when in stepped Eddie. He scanned the room to make sure Deke was nowhere in sight, then approached a poker table and observed, but not as before.
He watched one hand play out, then another, after which a heavyset guy chucked in his cards, grabbed his remaining chips, and stormed away.
Purposefully, Eddie sat down in the open spot, then pulled out the roll of bills given him by Deke.
Two hours later, Eddie looked edgy, insecure, and frustrated. Worse, he was also poorer, his stake having clearly dwindled.
But that did not mean he was ready to quit. Not with the hope that the next hand would be his salvation. Or the one after that. Or the one that followed.
Tired, dejected, and filled with the bitter taste of defeat, Eddie trudged into his hotel room, then winced at the sunlight that greeted him.
Swiftly, he closed the shades and kicked off his shoes, then collapsed on the bed without disrobing. But as he headed to dreamland, a noise rousted him.
Stumbling over to the door, he opened it to find Deke standing there, smiling and rested.
“Ready?” Deke asked.
“Give me ten minutes to jump in the shower.”
“I’ll be in the coffee shop.”
On a noon flight, Eddie and Deke sat in strained silence until Eddie finally spoke. “Okay, I blew it and lost the cash.”
“Because I’m hopeless, shiftless, and rotten to the core.”
“Or because of who you were playing against.”
“You know something I don’t know?”
“I know tons you don’t know.”
Eddie waited for a revelation or some special illumination, but Deke simply leaned back in his seat.
At dusk, silence reigned as Deke pulled the Buick out of an airport parking lot. “You didn’t lose ’cause you can’t play cards.”
“That good or bad?”
“I can teach a monkey to play cards. I can teach him everything you know, and more. But that doesn’t make him a card player. Just a banana-eating technician.”
“So what makes a card player?”
“I’ll tell you what doesn’t. You hear some guy bitching about the cards, he’s not a card player. Sure, the cards are a factor. But no more than whether some guy’s tired. Or worried that his wife’s fucking the neighbor. Or on some self-destruct kick. We’re talking about how you read other people, and how they read you. That’s why I’ve got you looking like Joe College. Confuse ’em. Give ’em something they don’t understand. There was no way you were gonna win in Vegas except through dumb luck. And when you’re playing for real, all luck’s got to do with it is how much you win or how much you lose.”
“All right, Shakespeare. Now’s your chance to start showing how smart you are.”
That night at the training apartment, Deke and Eddie were at the table with cards and chips in front of them. “I still want you to put in a few hours a day dealing,” Deke said. “But it’s time to get into practical things.”
Deke shuffled the cards and placed them in front of Eddie with a tiny edge of one card visible near the center of the deck. “Cut at the brief.”
Eddie did as told, then Deke shuffled and repeated the action. “Again, but this time instead of looking, feel it.”
Eddie did as directed, then Deke set the brief again. “Now talk to me while you do it.”
“You ante yet?” Eddie asked while cutting.
“Good. Now sit back in your chair till it tips over.”
Eddie started to lean back but could not quite bring himself to tip over. Then, suddenly, Deke was on the floor.
“You okay?” Eddie asked.
“You lean back and relax. Make sure your butt’s far enough back in the seat, and the chair cushions the fall.”
“Am I trying out for the circus?”
“You’re causing a disturbance so someone can come in with a cooler and bust out a game. A little melodramatic for your taste, but I’ve seen it work where nothing else does. But instead of learning, you think your life’s tough because you’re cutting to a crimp all day and all night. Right?”
Eddie said nothing.
“If you think it’s about spending a few months with me, then walking into a game SingleO, culling 3 Aces to the bottom, hopping a cut, and dealing yourself three-of-a-kind from the subway, you’re a naive motherfucker.”
The first rays of sunlight found Eddie and Deke still at the poker table. For Eddie it was a fight to keep his eyes open and not appear tired. But Deke remained seemingly indefatigable as he handed the cards to Eddie. “Deal.”
When a kid delivered a pizza at noon, Deke was already shaved, showered, and ready for more. Quietly, he walked into Eddie’s room, where Eddie was fast asleep. Opening the pizza box, he put it near Eddie’s nose, which woke him with a start. “You’ve got a hand where you can either draw to a Flush or to a 12-way Straight. One player asks for cards after you. What do you do?”
“Figure out who and where I am.”
“If it’s a 12-way Straight, it’s got to be in, say, Gardena or someplace down south where they use a Joker.”
“Good. Do you draw to the Straight or the Flush?”
“I’ve got more ways to make the Straight. But if he takes just one, I’m better off trying to fill the Flush.”
“And how do you get the edge?”
“You ask for one card but don’t set your discard on the table. Try to get him to ask for cards. If he asks for two, play to the Straight. If he asks for one, play to the Flush. Get it? Try to get him to commit first, even though it’s your turn.”
Dusk found Deke and Eddie on a walkway overlooking a containerport, still talking.
“A guy bitches and moans all night about the cards,” said Deke. “What’s that mean?”
“He’s not a card player.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you told me.”
“What if he’s setting you up?”
“Give me that in English?”
“You say I’m never tired. I sit there and never yawn. How do you know it’s not an act?”
“A guy gets reckless if I’m nodding out? I’ll nod out like nothing you’ve ever seen. Or play drunk. Or curse the cards. Or do whatever it takes. Somebody’s being loud and obnoxious, is it because he’s a pig? Or because it rattles the guys he’s playing with Somebody’s sloppy drunk. Is he really? Or does it let him come in with a cooler Somebody’s stretching all the time. Is it because of arthritis? Or because he’s giving the office?”
“You mean a signal?”
“Not a truck or a chimpanzee. We’re talking people. Observation. Knowledge. With me?”
“Then there’s performance. What do I mean? When you do what we do, you don’t wear your feelings. You keep ’em inside and wear what you want others to see. Got it?”
Again Eddie nodded.
“Here’s your chance to prove it,” said Deke, leading Eddie toward a waterfront dive bar.
Entering the place, Eddie understood instantly that it was lowlife heaven. There were black pimps in fur coats and cowboy hats, bikers and boosters, junkies and thieves.
Because Deke was watching him, as was everyone else, Eddie fought hard to play it cool. The two men approached the bar, where the tattooed bartender nodded. “Chivas,” said Deke.
“Same,” said Eddie.
With his new haircut and attire, there was no way Eddie was going to fit in, but he played it nonchalant as the drinks were poured.
Nonchalance, however, became harder to maintain when a huge dude came over toward him, staring menacingly at Eddie. “What you looking at?”
“You heard me, motherfucker.”
Forcing himself not to panic, Eddie substituted resourcefulness for firepower.
“At this knife, actually. You lost a red-handled knife, didn’t you?”
“What in hell you saying?”
As if from nowhere, Eddie produced a red-handled knife, which startled the Dude to the point where he reached into his jacket pocket, which proved to be empty. “Or maybe you lost a white-handled knife.”
As Eddie ran the knife through his hand, it turned from red to white, causing the Dude, and others, to gape. “Hold out your hand.”
Eddie took the Dude’s massive mitt, opened it, put the white-handled knife inside, then closed the his fingers over it.
“Say a cappella.”
Egged on by others, the Dude reluctantly spoke. “A cappella.”
Eddie responded by singing the first two lines of “Gloria,” then tapped on the Dude’s hand.
The Dude did as told, and was startled to see that the knife handle was red again.
Shortly thereafter, Deke and Eddie stepped out of the bar. Together they walked in silence until Eddie finally spoke. “What if that didn’t work?”
“What’s that mean?”
“What if it didn’t stop him?”
Deke shrugged. “Occupational hazard.”
“Tell me the truth. Are you packing? Or do you just know the guy?”
Deke shook his head.
“What’s that mean?” Eddie asked.
“What if the story is that there’s no story?”
That night, after a foray for Indian food, Deke and Eddie returned to the apartment and turned on the light. Immediately Eddie pulled out a deck of cards. “Time for another marathon?”
“Get some rest.”
“So you can wake me at dawn?”
“Sleep as late as you want.”
“Can I get that in English?
“Take some time off.”
“Why the change?”
“Maybe you earned it.”
“And maybe I’ll wake up 6’7″ and play in the NBA.”
“Maybe I want you rested when you play tomorrow night.”
Too pumped to sleep, Eddie lay on top of his bed with a paperback copy of Sometimes A Great Notion. Then he closed the book and reached for a deck of cards.
While practicing some moves, a sound in the hallway caught his attention.
Walking quietly through the dark toward the living room, he turned on the light to find Deke looking not the least bit unflappable or inscrutable. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m sure. And it’s none of your goddamn business.”
Eddie studied Deke, who seemed almost strung-out, then he turned and headed back toward his room.
The next evening, in a North Jersey neighborhood gone to seed, Deke and Eddie walked past a storefront church, a rough gin mill, a laundromat filled with lonely souls, and up toward a candy store.
There, Deke hesitated. “Sure you’re up to this?”
“I am, but what about you?”
Deke’s only response was a sour look.
Stepping in, the candy store, with its soda fountain, its magazines and newspapers, and some kids hanging out, seemed like many Eddie had seen before. Until, that is, Deke nodded to the bald-headed bruiser behind the counter, then led Eddie past the Playboys and racing forms, past the vintage pinball machine, and up to a door marked Private.
The bald-headed guy then hit a button behind the soda fountain, and the door swung open.
One look inside and Eddie understood much of what Deke had been putting him through, for it was both smoky and scary.
Entering the back room, it was immediately clear to Eddie that those assembled were not Ph.D’s or social workers. There was a rough garment district type, a racketeer, an older guy who looked like he could have a Saturday Night Special next to his pile of chips, a Puerto Rican wearing lots of gold, a big fellow in a lumberjack shirt, and an official from the New York stagehand’s union. In other words, not folks for whom poker was a social event or a game.
They eyed Eddie, with his youthful collegiate look, as if he were from Mars. But Eddie remained surprisingly calm.
“My friend Shakespeare,” announced Deke, “would like to play some cards.”
“As long Daddy gave him a nice allowance,” said the racketeer.
Displaying a significant roll of bills, Eddie took a seat at the table, doing his best to appear awkward while using his powers of observation as the first hand was dealt.
By midnight, the players were no longer as alert as before, with the exception being Eddie. Having learned his lessons well, he was full of vim and vigor, or at least appeared to be. And there was a nice pile of chips in front of him.
The Garment District Guy shuffled effortlessly, all the while gabbing away. “Guy in town on business calls his house in Beverly Hills, and the maid answers. ‘Maria.’ ‘Si, Senor?’ ‘Get my wife, willya?’ ‘She’s in the bedroom, Senor, and the door is locked.'”
“Shut up and deal,” interjected the Puerto Rican.
“I want to hear this,” protested the racketeer.
“‘Maria,’ says the guy, ‘why’s that door locked?’ ‘Because, Senor, she in there with the tennis teacher.'”
“Deal, for Chrissake,” grumbled the Puerto Rican.
The Garment District Guy set the cards in front of Eddie, who was startled to find what seemed to be a neatly placed brief.
Holding back a smile, Eddie cut perfectly, then watched as the Garment District Guy dealt a hand of Draw, talking all the while. “‘Maria, go to my study, open the desk drawer, and get my gun.’ ‘Pero, Senor.’ ‘Want me to call Immigration?’ A minute goes by, then the maid says, ‘I have it, Senor.’ ‘Good. Get the spare key from the kitchen drawer, unlock the bedroom door, and shoot both of ’em.’ ‘Pero, Senor!’ ‘Immigration, Maria.’ The maid takes a deep breath, then a minute later, he hears: Bam! Bam!”
“Thought we were playing cards,” protested the Puerto Rican.
Eddie picked up the hand he was dealt and did his best to show no emotion as he gazed at three Aces.
“To you,” the Puerto Rican guy said to him.
“Then I open for fifty.”
“By me,” said the union official.
“Me, too,” added the fat guy.
“Let’s say plus a hundred,” said the racketeer.
“Not for me,” said the old guy.
“And another hundred,” said the garment districter. Then it was back to Eddie.
“I call,” he said.
“Me, too,” the Puerto Rican chimed in.
“So do I,” said the racketeer.
Eddie studied his cards even though it was unnecessary, then did his best to create the impression he was drawing to a Flush.
The card was dealt, and Eddie picked it up to find himself with a Full House.
“Gimme two,” ordered the Puerto Rican.
“And two here,” said the racketeer.
Once the deal was completed, the fat guy spoke. “Do I get to hear the rest of the story?”
“After the fuckin’ hand,” insisted the Puerto Rican.
“A hundred,” said Eddie, kicking off the next round of betting.
“A hundred, my ass!” stated the Puerto Rican. “Two-fifty!”
“Five!” cried the racketeer, who then turned to wait for Eddie’s response.
“Why not an even thou?”
The others gulped, then put in their chips.
“Let’s see your Flush,” insisted the Puerto Rican.
Without gloating, Eddie turned over his cards to show the Full Boat.
“Fuck me!” screamed the Puerto Rican. But the Garment District Guy defused the moment by returning to his joke.
“‘Now what, Senor?” asked the maid. ‘Take the gun and throw it in the pool.’ ‘Pero, Senor, we have no pool.’ ‘Tell me,” the guy says, ‘is this Crestview 6-6267?'”
At dawn there was not much activity outside the candy store, just trucks getting a head start on the day, plus morning clean-up crews beginning their efforts. Then out came the Puerto Rican, who climbed into a Caddy.
A moment later, out came Deke together with Eddie. In silence they entered the Buick, then drove off.
Forty minutes later, Eddie was demolishing an order of lox, eggs, and onions at a deli when Deke’s continued silence finally got to him. “Not going to say a thing?”
“Maybe the money I won.”
“Why’d you call when the Fat Guy had you beat on board?”
“I win over two grand and the first words out of your mouth are why did I blow one hand?”
“Three Queens, you over-raised and drove out two guys.”
“Not really, my ass. Flush to the King you didn’t raise enough.”
“You are really weird.”
“Plus, how much of it do you think was your doing?”
“I wiped those guys from here to their mother’s house, and you play Monday morning quarterback? What’re you trying to get me to do?”
That evening, Eddie was lying on top of his bed reading Leonard Cohen’s “The Favorite Game” when in stepped Deke. “Whatcha up to?”
“Contemplating the human condition.”
“Feel like contemplating something else?”
“There’s another game tomorrow night. So if you feel like working –”
Minutes later the two men took places at the table, then Deke shuffled the cards. As he began to deal, Eddie spoke. “Thought you were pissed at me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“What’s that mean?”
“This is business.”
Eddie started to seethe, then channeled his fury by grabbing his cards. “Okay, talk.”
“We’re gonna work on more two-man moves. Guys who go Single-O have short life expectancies. I’m the dealer, and you’re on my left. Let me know what you’ve got.”
Deke dealt seven hands.
“You can use the office, signaling with hand signs, or verbally, or with toothpicks. Or your chips. But in this case, you can probably get away with flashing your cards. Whatcha got?”
Eddie flashes a pair of Kings and three odd cards.
“I’ve got a King. Watch.”
Deke tossed in his hand with the other discards, then picked up the deck. “How many?”
Deke dealt three cards, one of which proved to be the king which was previously in his own hand.
“I’m impressed,” acknowledged Eddie.
“Forget impressed. It’s a play that won’t draw much heat.” As he continued to speak, Deke demonstrated the actions. “I hold out the King when I throw in my hand, using the pile of discards to make it tough to see how many I throw in. Then I cap the deck. Since you’re on my left, I deal the King to you, though I could just as well deal you a pair, or fill in a Flush or a Straight. Like I said, it’s good. But the tough part is the break-off. I’ll show you a couple of ways to do it.”
Deke demonstrated, then Eddie gave it a try, proving again that he was a quick study.
At 3 A.M., Eddie was tossing and turning in bed when sounds in the hallway woke him.
On tiptoes, he headed toward the living room, where he found Deke hunched over with obvious respiratory problems. “Don’t tell me this is none of my business.”
When Deke failed to respond, Eddie persisted. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Yeah, play like you’re supposed to.”
That evening, a cab pulled up in front of a Manhattan brownstone.
As Deke paid the bill, out stepped Eddie, who gazed at a plaque that read: NEW AMSTERDAM CLUB. “Ready?” Deke asked.
“Thought you said it was tough.”
Deke buzzed, then spoke. A moment later the door was opened by a uniformed guard who gestured for them to enter.
Before following the Guard, Deke turned to Eddie, who looked uneasy, and whispered.
“What do you think?”
“I think you can kick the shit out of ’em.”
With an uncharacteristic pat on the back, Deke ushered Eddie into an ornate waiting room, where a dissipated man with a patrician bearing approached.
“Deke, good to see you!” said the man, who seemed to have fallen from money, grace, or both. “You needn’t dawdle,” he then said to Deke. “I’ll take charge.”
Watching the patrician, whose name he would later learn was Rutherford, head for the stairs, Eddie turned to Deke. “You’re leaving?”
“I’ll see you after the game.”
Radiating old money, the card room was a world which few civilians ever got to experience. Yet in the midst of captains of industry and scions of prominent families sat Eddie, who was seemed to be regarded as somehow less than human. With an ever growing pile of chips in front of him, at a certain point he found himself faced off against an aging Yalie. “I suspect, dear boy,” said the new foe superciliously, “that you’re bluffing.”
“In fact, I think everything about you is a bluff.”
Instead of letting himself get hot under the collar, Eddie played it cool. “So what do you propose to do?”
“I propose to watch you squirm. How does $1,500 sound?”
“Insignificant. Let’s double it.” Tossing in $3,000 worth of chips, Eddie smiled. “So am I still bluffing?”
With the issue even more about face than money, the Yalie squirmed. “I-I believe you are.”
Taking a moment to study Eddie, then another to glance at his fellow club members, he fingered some chips then shrugged and tossed in his hand.
Deke was seated in a corner booth of a deli when Eddie and Rutherford entered. Seeing Deke, Eddie could barely hold back his enthusiasm. “$5,100 and feeling fine.”
Instead of responding, Deke turned to Rutherford. “Give it to me straight.”
“Could have been significantly more.”
“Now I get shit from a guy I barely know?”
“He’s dealt a pat Straight against one guy he’s got coming out of his shoes, and another who’s so loose you could hang him out as laundry. Instead of passing and sandbagging, your boy opens, costing himself two units, minimum. Then –”
“I don’t want to hear this,” stated Eddie.
“You’re here to listen,” said Deke.
“Then maybe I shouldn’t be here.”
“Think this is a summer job where you can do what you want? Or just walk away?”
“Watch me,” said Eddie, starting for the exit.
That night, in a cheap East Village apartment filled with incense and patchouli, posters of Lenny Bruce and Che, plus Tim Hardin on the stereo, Eddie and a naked girl were getting stoned when suddenly there was a knock on the door.
The girl started to get up, but Eddie dissuaded her with both a kiss and the new joint he just finished rolling from the stash beside the bed.
Each took a toke, then the girl shrieked as the door to the apartment was smashed open. In stepped two cops with guns drawn. “Freeze!” said the taller cop.
Minutes later, Eddie was led out of the apartment. “Maybe we can work this out,” Eddie said.
“Sure, sure,” replied the taller cop.
“Let me make one call. Please…”
Less than an hour later, Eddie and Deke climbed into the Buick and drove, with Eddie waiting for Deke to gloat or lecture.
When not a word came, Eddie broke the silence. “You own me now?”
Deke gave Eddie a look, but said not a word a word.
“I suppose I should say thanks,” Eddie mumbled.
Again, Deke’s response was nothing more than a glance.
“All right, I blew it. I’m an ungrateful shit whose ass you saved. That make you happy?”
“Only one thing’ll make me happy.”
“Some time in the sun.”
That, it turned out, meant Miami Beach, where two days later, on the beach behind their Art Deco hotel, Eddie was soaking up rays when Deke approached. “Relaxed?”
“Sure, who needs action?”
“Your time’ll come.”
At 8 P.M. Eddie was lying on top of his hotel bed reading One Hundred Years Of Solitude when he heard a knock on the door. Opening it, he was far from surprised to see Deke.
“Hungry?” Deke asked.
“Yeah, for action.”
“Then get dressed.”
Ten minutes later, as they stepped from the elevator into the lobby, Deke turned to Eddie.
“How do you feel?”
“Tonight I win big.”
“Just enough to show you’re smart but reckless, with lots left to learn. Kind of what you pulled at the New Amsterdam, but on purpose.”
“When you win, I want you to gloat like an idiot. Can handle that?”
Eddie took in the sights as a cab led Deke and him through the suburbs, then up toward a slightly garish country club, where a liveried doorman opened the rear door for the passengers.
Eddie started to get out, then realized that Deke had not budged. “Coming?”
“You’re a big boy now. Ask for Schechter.”
“What about you?”
“Maybe I’ll head to Paris for the evening. Go on. Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for?”
In a room done in faux Louis XIV, a group of well-heeled but decidedly tough characters – a New York Italian, a Cuban, an older man, an Englishman, plus Eddie – were seated around a poker table playing table-stakes, mostly 5-Card-Draw, while the laconic guy running the game – Schechter – stood near a spread of cold cuts and fruit.
The Englishman glanced at a hand, then watched as the Cuban, with three Queens, bet.
Others dropped out until it was just Eddie, the Cuban, and the older man remaining.
“How’s $200 sound?” asked the older man.
“Not as nice as $500,” responded the Cuban.
Following Deke’s instructions, peeked at his cards, then grinned. “Only $500? Let’s make this big league. $1,000? $1,500? Nah, show some testosterone. Two large.”
“Too rich for me,” said the older man
The Cuban tossed in his hand, not even deigning to speak. But speechlessness was not a problem for the Englishman. “Lucky tonight, are we?”
Eddie watched through the corner of his eye as the Englishman put the cards they’d been using aside, then opened a new deck. Ostensibly busying himself with other things – arranging his chips, then taking a healthy drink – Eddie used his peripheral vision to monitor the Englishman, who executed a series of false shuffles.
Eddie cut the cards when they were offered to him, and when he hit a crimp, he cut the deck like a rube, setting himself up to be the recipient of a cold-deck: one prepared by the guy running the game, then false-shuffled by the dealer. The goal being to distribute good hands around the table, with the dealer somehow getting the best.
The players examined their hands, then betting began, starting with the New York Italian.
The Older Man put his cards face down on the table. “Night, night.”
The Cuban, however, behaved differently. “Double that.”
Then it was Eddie’s turn. “I’m in.”
“Me, too,” said the Englishman., who turned toward the New York Italian.
“Two,” said the New Yorker.
The Cuban also tossed in two, then it was up to Eddie.
“Just one,” he said. “And make it pretty.”
The Englishman dealt him a card, then put in one of his own. “Dealer also takes one.”
Dealing himself a card, the Englishman faced the New York Italian. “I check,” he said.
The Cuban then pushed in a pile of chips. “Another three.”
Recognizing that he had no chance of winning, Eddie decided to raise anyway rather than letting the dealer know he’d been made. “Make it four.”
“Why not five?” asked the Englishman, throwing in more chips.
When the New York Italian folded, the Cuban pushed in the requisite number of chips.
Studying the Englishman, Eddie tossed in more chips than he’d ever bet before. “I call, too.” He displayed five Diamonds with a Queen high. “Hail to the Queen, matey.”
“Noble sentiment,” said the Englishman, “but you lose.”
Enjoying the moment, the Englishman turned over his hand to reveal five Hearts, with an Ace high.
A couple of hours later a waiter arrived with a tray of drinks. While the others, most of whom were showing the effects of strain, sipped their beverages, the Englishman once again put the cards aside, then took a new deck handed to him by Schechter.
He did another false shuffle that only Eddie seemed to notice, though once more he made no comment. When the cards were handed to him for a cut, Eddie seemed again to be the dupe, cutting at the crimp. In completing the cut, however, Eddie brought his skills into use by palming the top card, thereby altering the order of each hand.
Unaware that anything was different, the Englishman dealt.
With people tired and nerves frayed, there was a significant increase in the intensity level as the players checked their hands. Then the New York Italian opened aggressively.
“A thousand big ones.”
The older man upped the bet to $2,000.
Eyeing three Kings, the Old Man put $2,000 into the pot, causing the Cuban to fold.
Eddie smiled. “Four thou.”
“Five,” said the Englishman, causing the New York Italian to toss in his cards.
The older man put in in the appropriate chips, then Eddie did the same.
“Cards,” announced the Englishman.
The Englishman watched the Older Man toss in two cards, so he dealt him two. Then he turned to Eddie.
“I’ll play these,” Eddie stated.
“Oh, will we? Dealer takes one.”
The Englishman dealt himself a card, then he and Eddie looked at the Older Man, who shook his head.
“Five do you?” Eddie asked the Brit.
“Ten does me better.”
Wordlessly the Old Man folded, which made it Eddie’s turn. “Make it fifteen.”
The Englishman watched Eddie put in the chips, then glanced at Eddie’s diminished pile.
“How much do you have in front of you?”
“Sixteen thousand and change.”
“Then here’s your fifteen, plus sixteen thousand and change.”
Confidently, the Englishman watched his putative mark put in all his remaining chips.
“Sorry, my friend,” he then said, “but four-of-a-kind beats a Full House or a Flush.”
Smugly he displayed his hand, which contained four Jacks.
“But not a Straight Flush,” Eddie corrected, turning over his cards to display the winning hand.
The sun was beginning to rise over the Atlantic when Deke and Eddie strolled along the water’s edge.
“I let ’em put in the cooler,” said Eddie. “Then I cut to the crimp like a mook. Could’ve driven a truck through it. Then, a couple of hours later, they try it again. I play the sap and cut perfectly, then look the guy in the eye. As I complete his cut, I cop the top card. Guess who winds up with his hand.”
“Maybe it’s time for a return on our investment. There’s a game we’re shooting for.”
Several days later, Eddie was swimming laps in a hotel pool in San Juan when he spotted Deke talking with a man he’d seen before. Climbing out, he wrapped a towel around himself, then headed over toward them.
“Shakespeare,” said Deke, “say hello to Mr. Harris.”
“Call me Carl. Play tennis?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Since I pulled a tendon, mind hitting a bit with my wife?”
That afternoon, while Eddie rallied with Carl’s wife on one of the hotel’s tennis courts, Deke strolled toward the bench where Carl was watching.
“You ought to relax more,” Carl said.
“I’ll work on that.”
“Yeah, the same time you take cooking lessons. I can see you with a hobby.”
“Some day I may fool you.”
“Smart kid you’ve got. Even Charlene likes him.”
“We’ll talk about it.”
At 8:30 that evening, Deke ambled into the hotel restaurant where Eddie was finishing a meal with Carl and his wife.
“Sorry you didn’t join us,” Carl said upon seeing him. “Coffee? Espresso?”
“Your pupil has some interesting thoughts,” Carl stated before turning toward Eddie. “Tell him what you were saying.”
“It was nothing.”
“Nothing, my ass. Sit, Deke.”
“We should be going.”
Begrudgingly, Deke sat. Then Carl again turned toward Eddie. “Go on.”
“I was complaining that people look at Vegas now as passe’. Yesterday’s news. And Shakespeare here came up with some great ideas.”
“Tennis,” Carl’s wife stated. “Boxing. Rock ‘n Roll.”
“People will come to see tennis and boxing?”
“If we give ’em championship bouts and matches with giant purses.”
“Plus you’ve got the TV tie-ins,” added Eddie.
“Great, huh?” said Carl.
“Direct from Vegas, Muhammad Ali vs. so-and-so,” said Eddie. “Jimmy Connors vs. Bjorn Borg.”
“We make back our expenses while getting advertising worldwide.”
“Making Vegas a place to vacation as well as gamble. And where you can bring your whole family.”
“Instead of a fading dinosaur or an old age home.”
“Which is why,” added Carl’s wife, ” rock ‘n roll.”
“It’s everything our guys there were never able to grasp. We’ll still comp the high rollers who come for the action, but we’ll add a new demographic. Tell him,” Carl said to Eddie.
“It’s middle America we’re talking about.”
“We?” interrupted Deke.
“Let the kid talk.”
“People with RV’s. Honeymooners. Conventioneers.”
“A whole new image,” said Carl’s wife.
“And tourists,” added Eddie.
“From Japan,” stated Carl. “Europe. South America.”
“All the places where they’ll see the fights, tennis matches, and concerts,” said Eddie.
At seven the next morning, Deke was putting on his shoes when he heard a knock on his door.
Opening it, he was surprised to find Carl standing there. “Want some company?” Carl asked.
“You look like shit.”
“Never felt better. And at my age that’s something after staying up all night. Pissed?”
“Should I be?”
“Abso-fuckin’-lutely. I like the kid. And I know you put a lot of time into him.”
“Yeah, and what’s effort? And while we’re on the subject, what’s emotion?”
“Who’s talking about emotion?”
“The kid. You should hear him talk about you. You know I’m taking him.”
“What’s doing with the Greek?
“I’ll know today.”
“Once he chews up the Greek, he’s mine.”
“How do you know he’ll chew him up?”
“I know the guy who turned him out.”
Wrapped in towels, Carl was sitting alone in the steam room when in stepped Deke. “Any update?” asked Carl.
“You’re good on reading people. What do I envision for the kid?”
“An idea guy you can bring along and groom.”
“As in turn out?”
“I get the feeling you’re headed somewhere.”
“He’s got it, Deke.”
“No news to me.”
“I can’t afford to wait, so I’m giving him the nod.”
“In Vegas? As of?”
“He can make us a lot of money.”
“Sooner than you think.”
“So I cancel the game?”
“Tell the Greek there’s a replacement.”
“How do I find a guy who can make him happy?”
“Look in the mirror.”
That evening, the elevator door opened in the hotel lobby, then out stepped Eddie, whose eyes lit up at the sight of Deke. “Hear the news?”
Instead of elaborating, Deke entered the elevator. An instant later, the door closed behind him.
In the hotel restaurant an hour later, Eddie dialed a number on a house phone, then waited while it rang. Hanging up, he walked over to where Carl and his wife were seated.
“Maybe he went for a stroll,” Carl offered.
“Excuse me, will you?”
Approaching Deke’s room, Eddie knocked, waited, then knocked again. “I know you’re in there!” Eddie knocked even harder, but still no answer. “You don’t want to open the door, I’ll have the fire department knock it down!” Eddie kicked the door and turned away, then was surprised to hear Deke, who at last had opened the door. “Get lost!”
“I understand what you’re going through.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“You busted your ass turning me out, and now I’m off in another direction.”
“Your friends are waiting.”
“It’s not the skills that go, it’s the nerves.”
“No clue what you’re talking about.”
“Guess who saw when you could hardly breathe. And the way you look now.”
“I don’t need this.”
“Then there’s the talk on the street.”
“The word’s flukey, right?”
“An exhibition player. Great at demonstrating. But when it comes to a game –”
“Get out of my face.”
“Fine. Who needs you anyway!”
Eddie started to turn away, then again faced Deke. “I’m not leaving.”
Deke shrugged, then stepped into his hotel room. Eddie followed, closing the door behind him.
Ninety minutes later, Eddie watched Deke, who had been pacing relentlessly, come to a stop.
“You see it happen to others,” Deke said softly. “They win big, get a reputation. Then one day, they’re afraid to lose. They try not to think about it, but the fear is there. It grows and grows, then it devours. You see it happen, but like getting old, you don’t believe it’ll happen to you. Then suddenly it’s there, it’s who you are.”
“It’s only how you see yourself.”
“You don’t know shit about me.”
“Want me to talk about the night you broke Dudek? Or destroyed Simo? Or turned out Curren?”
“So you did your homework.”
“No more than you guys did on me. What if I say we can change things?”
“What if I want to help?”
“I’m not real good at taking help.”
“No shit. Deke, listen. Despite yourself, you’re a great guy.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You’re right. But you didn’t just turn me out. You made me.”
“Look what it got me.”
“Trust me, okay? Forget the way you see yourself.”
“One psych course, and now he’s Freud.”
“I’m not leaving until I get you to see you’ve still got it. Even if I have to beat it into that thick skull of yours.”
“Gimme a break.”
“Somebody wise once told me that sometimes life comes down to four words. Shut up and deal!”
The next evening a taxi pulled up at a marina lined with breathtaking boats, then out stepped Deke and Eddie.
Despite his trepidation, Deke looked fairly surprisingly fit. But as the two men approached a venerable 65 foot wooden yawl, he suddenly faltered, only to be caught by Eddie, who took his arm.
“Through my eyes, remember?” Eddie whispered. “See yourself through my eyes.”
Deke braced himself just as down the gangplank came a distinguished-looking man exuding confidence prosperity. “Mr. Hutchins.”
Eddie watched from the dock as the two men went on-board. Ten minutes later, off to sea the vessel sailed.
At dawn, Eddie was standing on the dock, coffee cup in hand, watching the splendid 65- foot yawl approach. As it reached land, then was secured by deck hands, Eddie saw the highrollers emerge from the cabin.
Still in suspense, Eddie observed the gangplank being lowered, then the card players shaking hands. Then, surreptitiously, Deke shot him the office.
Weary but exhilarated, Deke ambled down the gangplank with a Chinese guy and a Swede.
But while they headed off toward the street, Deke walked toward Eddie.
Together they started off in silence, then Eddie spoke. “So the Deacon’s back?”
“That’s just a rumor card players tell.”
With that, the two of them climbed into a cab.
As they headed toward their hotel, Eddie faced Deke. “One last question?”
“All that stuff –”
“Losing in Vegas. The bust. The bar on the waterfront.”
“What about it?”
“Was it all a set-up?”
“What gives you that idea?” Deke answered wryly.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, and boxing. Next up is one about singer-songwriter Billy Vera. In the world of music among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel “The Beard” was recently published by Harvard Square Editions. http://harvardsquareeditions.org/portfolio-items/the-beard/ His most recent story to appear in New Pop Lit was “Country Sweetheart.”
(Portfolio painting: “The Card Player” by Vilmos Aba-Novak.)