Chapter OnePOCKET ROCKETS
Pocket aces. Shushie dealt me two aces: a club and a diamond. It's the best starting hand possible. Not often do cards like that come along-once in 221 hands to be exact. In five hours of playing, it's my first pocket aces and probably my only one for the whole tournament.
I stare at my cards and try to be ice. Every fiber in me wants to smile, to jump up and down, to point my fingers in the air and wiggle my knees back and forth like a showboating wide receiver after a touchdown. But poker isn't about grandstanding; it's about patience, it's about cool. And it's about money-lots of it.
Am I looking at my cards too long? I let them snap down to the table and gaze at the faded felt. I think about the Novocain from the last time my mom took me to the dentist, and let my face go numb.
Jimmy Burke, the local vet, and Sam Barr, our mailman, fold. Mandy Zimmer, the tired-looking waitress from the diner, knocks a hunk of ash from her cigarette. A finger of smoke rises from the ashtray and collects in the hazy blanket above the motionless ceiling fan. Mandy's fingernails are ragged and gnawed away. She calls the two-thousand-dollar bet.
I slide two black chips in front of me. "Call."
Shushie Spiegel, owner of the illegal poker club beneath the pool hall and the closest thing I have to a poker mentor, looks at me over his glasses with one of those "you sure you want to do this?" expressions. Then he glances at his stack. "Raise." He puts eight thousand down, two to call plus six more. Cheech Lombardi, the manager at the bakery, and some new guy who calls himself Sparks both fold. So, it's just Mandy, Shush, and me with fifteen grand in the pot.
It's not really fifteen grand. The chips are just points. You could call them clams or shekels or credits; it doesn't matter. It costs five hundred dollars to get in the tournament, and each player starts out with twenty thousand in chips. With a forty-player cap, the poker room takes in twenty grand cash, half of which goes to the winner.
Mandy calls and tosses in six thousand. Her stack is starting to look short.
The action is to me, and I'm tempted to raise Shush right back, to go over the top, but then he'd know I was holding good cards and he might fold. I want to bleed him slowly.
"Call," I say.
I don't usually play No-Limit Hold 'Em. It's too volatile. Anyone can bet their whole stack at any time, which means you have to have the cojones to stand behind your cards each and every hand. You can lose it all at once. But this tournament was too hard to pass up. The winner takes home ten thousand dollars cash, enough to get the money back in the register at my father's dry-cleaning business and still have a whole heap left for myself.
Shushie burns a card off the top of the deck and turns the next three-ace of hearts, two of hearts, and two of clubs. I flopped a full house, three aces and a pair of twos. My heart pounds in my throat, and I fight to keep my breathing slow and even. With a full boat, I have the best possible hand at the table unless someone's holding both the other twos. But any player with a brain between his ears would've folded a low pair before the flop. Four twos or a straight flush could beat me, but both are major long shots.
Mandy peeks at her cards again, and I know she's holding two hearts. It's one of her tells. She does it every time she's four to a flush. She's looking to see if the hearts she's holding are high enough to stay in. Mandy drags on her cigarette so hard it crackles like a campfire. She taps the table, signifying a check. She wants to see cards cheap in the hope her fifth heart will come along. If it does, she'll go all in. But she's already dead in the water.
Shushie, on the other hand, is less readable. His eyes don't quite point in the same direction, and his brambly, graying beard covers most of his face. He's slippery, too. He never plays a hand the same way twice. Shushie stares at me over his horn-rims. The burst capillaries on his bulbous nose make an intricate spiderweb that even the most talented team of spiders would have trouble spinning. "You gonna play or just sit there?" he says.
I glance at the others who've already folded. I scan the dozens of spectators. I love the feeling of all these people hanging on me. Me, Andrew Lang, high school junior. I only have my learner's permit, but here I am at the poker club making them all nervous. I inhale deeply. Breathing in the smoky air makes me feel older, more confident.
"I bet twenty thousand," I say. I push four white chips forward.
"Interesting," Shushie says. He leans back in his chair. It protests under his weight. "I'll raise another twenty." He tosses eight white chips in front of him.
Twenty thousand? Why did he raise twenty thousand? It's a small raise for the stack he's sitting on. It's certainly not enough to scare me off after my own twenty-thousand-dollar bet. A trap-it has to be a trap. Shushie taught me all about limping in, feigning weakness, and then following it up with a big bet to catch your opponent off guard. But I'm the heavy favorite in this hand.
"Too rich for my blood," Mandy says. She tosses her cards in. Even though her hand is promising, right now she's got nothing.
It's just me and Shush now, and the action is to me.
When I was new to poker, I would've freaked out at spending five hundred bucks on a single tournament. I would have said to myself, Jeez, think of all the cool stuff I could buy with that money: a bunch of PlayStation games, a kick-ass snowboard and boots, a hundred Supersize Extra Value Meals at McDonald's. I would've turned down the game without a second thought and spent the night hanging out with Scott. Now, a year later, I don't even flinch. I've lost twice that in one shot. I've also made more than five times that in the same amount of time. The one thought that runs through my head now is: If I don't put it out there, I'll never win.
"Play already," Shushie grumbles. "Stop sitting there like a lump of crap."
He's trying to intimidate me. That might've worked a few months ago, but I've learned a lot since then. The minimum bets are going up in a few minutes, though, so the faster I play the cheaper I can play for. When the blinds go up, the scales tip toward the players with the largest stacks. I pick at a crusty glob on the felt for a few seconds just to get under his skin.
"Call," I say and match his bet.
Shushie burns another card and turns up a king of hearts-one step closer to a straight flush. My face gets a little hot, but the odds of him holding two good hole cards and hitting the last one on the river are about one in fifteen thousand.
I glance at my stack. I'm sitting on about two hundred thousand in chips, around a quarter of the total for the tournament. If I were playing limit poker like I usually do, I'd be stoked. I'd walk away right now and consider early retirement. But the dollar amount on the chips means nothing. In tournament play, everyone has to keep going until one player has it all.
Shushie has close to twice what I have. I can't bump him out no matter what, but I could wound him. I might cripple the best player at the table. I can be chip leader and gain control of the action. With the betting limits going up soon, that would be huge. I could pick off the other players one by one.
And if I win, I can get that money back into the register.
And I'll have a big bankroll, so I can play the higher stakes tables next week.
Stop thinking like that. This is the right bet to make. There won't be an opportunity like this for the rest of the night. My heart explodes over and over again at the base of my throat. This is the turning point of the tournament. I'm going to remember this hand for a long time.
I slide my entire stack to the center of the table.
"All in," I say.