World Series of Murder
by John Vorhaus
1. Do Not Leave Your Cards Unattended
“Dealer, you’re killing me.”
Angry Pete Bonner threw his two cards away with a backhand sling and chomped hard down on a toothpick. It splintered and poked him in the lip, ratcheting up his rage another degree. He pushed his chair back from the poker table, giving room to his ample girth. Pete had been sitting there playing Texas hold ’em for ten straight hours, and his hemorrhoids had been screaming for the past four, which did not do much improve his mood.
Texas hold ’em is a deceptively simple game. Like chess, it takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. Unlike chess it can win you a fortune if you play well and lose you your shirt if you don’t.
In hold ’em, each player gets two cards. There’s a round of betting, and then the dealer turns over three common cards, commonly called the flop. The flop belongs to everyone. If those three cards fit with your two cards – like an 8-7-6 to go with your 10-9, or three spades to go with the two in your hand – then you’re happy. If the flop doesn’t fit, you fold; at least you do if you’re smart. After the flop comes another card, the turn card, and another round of betting. Should players still care to contest, there’s a last card, the river card, and a last round of betting. Then the showdown. Best five-card hand wins.
Texas hold ’em is a beauty, and Texas hold ’em is a bastard. Texas hold ’em will give you the biggest adrenalin rush you’ve ever had, and also the biggest heartbreak. Sometimes on the same hand.
When chess dreams, it dreams it’s Texas hold ’em. You bet it does.
Megan Moore glanced at the two cards she’d been dealt. Queen of diamonds, jack of clubs; Q-J offsuit. Not in this position, she told herself, for there were still five players to act behind her in this round of betting, and she couldn’t be confident that none of them would raise. She slid her cards gently toward the muck – the pile of discards in the center of the table – then tented her chin on her interlaced fingers and languidly studied Pete Bonner. Angry Pete, she said in her head, invoking the nickname that opened her mental file on him: Medium to strong player, but prone to this sort of moody misbehavior. Bluffs with bad aces, holdings like A-4 or A-3. Once fluked a win at the World Series of Poker. Hasn’t stopped wearing the bracelet. Thinks it makes him invulnerable. It does not.
Megan kept such mental files on all her opponents. It was a strength of her game, and hers was a game of many strengths, including memory, discipline, patience, intelligence, card sense, and the built-in deception that strong (female) players gain when they’re curtly blonde and dead bang cute.
The action folded around to the player on the button. Last to act, he made the standard position raise. Pure real estate, thought Meg, knowing that the button was just attacking the two players forced to post blind bets and therefore unlikely to have hands any better than random. Sure enough, the blinds couldn’t defend, and both folded.
Next case, thought Meg. She watched Brad, an earnest young dealing school graduate, scramble and shuffle the cards. She noted the machine-tooled precision with which he worked, squaring the deck over a blank plastic card, the cut card, to conceal the bottom card on the deck from prying eyes. As she looked at the deck, though, she briefly left the table and found herself in her mind back at McCarron Airport, back in the middle of the day. What the hell happened there? she wondered. Then, instantly, Think about that later. Think about this now. A $20-40 limit Texas hold ’em game against a tough line-up of Las Vegas locals was no place to let the mind float free. Megan knew this. There was nothing about the day-to-day play of this game that she did not know. Always, though, it was a question of focus, of marshalling the resources. Do that and you win; fail, you lose.
Cards came. Meg received 10-3 offsuit, made the routine fold, then watched the others play. Fold… fold… Angry Pete was next to act. He sat motionless, not touching his cards.
“Up to you, sir,” said Brad. He wore a white dress shirt with silvery sleeve garters and the signature mylar bow-tie that the dealers at the Galaxy Casino all wore. Pete didn’t move. “Sir? It’s up to you.”
“Time,” said Pete. He stared pointedly into the middle distance.
“Player asks for time,” intoned Brad.
Megan drifted again, drifted back to…
Rob and her parked at the curb at McCarron. Rob with his cell phone and laptop and his briefcase filled with post-convention reading for the plane; and Meg behind the wheel of her red Mazda Miata, the one thing in the world, bar poker, she could honestly say that she loved. Meg and Rob: Both of them baking in the dry desert heat, and neither even trying to pretend that this wasn’t goodbye for good. A loudspeaker overhead droned, “The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. No parking.” Rob halfheartedly invited her inside for one last drink, but she said she couldn’t leave her car unattended. “Car?” he’d said wryly, “or cards?”
And then he was gone. Gone Rob, gone for good. Gone back to Scranton, PA, for God’s sake, the place that he lived and the place he had wanted her to come and live too. The thought of which had made Meg shudder, for how far away was the nearest workable poker game from Scranton, pee a? What sort of life could she hope to have in that wasteland of white collar jobs and blue blood churchgoing protestants and red brick two-story homes with stately elms out front that shed leaves in the autumn which needed to be raked; and bake sales outside the local Safeway store conducted by Blue Birds or Brownies in the company of their mothers which, if all went according to Rob’s plan, she would one day be? And the nearest workable poker game where? Atlantic City? Foxwoods? Or maybe Rob would indulge her and twice a year they could fly out here where Meg, her poker skills atrophied by disuse and neglect, could get her hat handed to her by the locals who would never move to Scranton and never go weak; no, if you wanted to swim in these waters, you had to stay shark. So, in sum, though she liked Rob, and loved the feel of his ripply muscles against her back while they slept (though in fairness how long would it be before he lost his muscle tone? Probably no longer than it would take for her to lose her game) she had to admit it was true: She couldn’t leave her cards unattended, and she wasn’t strongly motivated to try.
Now it formed a mantra in her mind: I will not leave my cards unattended. I will not leave my cards – She caught herself in mid-wander suddenly was back in this card game in this card room, trying to squeeze her living out of other players’ mistakes. Not a lot of margin in this business. I’m losing it, she thought. Time to go home.
Angry Pete still hadn’t picked up his hand.
“Sir?” said Brad. “Please? You’re holding up the game.”
“I called time, damn it. I’m thinking.”
“Here’s something you don’t see every day:” said Dev Nelson, a dry Australian expat slouched deep in the three seat, three positions to the left of the dealer’s box, far out on the apogee of the oblong table’s frozen orbit, “A man contemplating the play of cards he has not even seen.”
“Shut up, Limey brat.”
Dev sat up. “Floorman!” he barked. “Abusive language! I want this man barred!”
Staunch floor manager Brenda Belmont had been on shift, and thus on her feet, since two p.m. Corns made her feet ache, but they couldn’t carve into the callous of her cynical good cheer, for Brenda loved her job and appreciated the fact of employment in air conditioning most of all. She walked over to the table, prepared to adjudicate with confidence and conviction, for it is the floor manager’s creed, if you can’t be right, be loud. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Pete called me a bloody Brit,” said Dev. “I want him barred.”
Brenda rolled her eyes. “Sure thing, Dev,” she said wearily. “Is ten years long enough? Or if that doesn’t suit, I could make it 20.”
She turned to walk away, but just then Angry Pete proclaimed, “I’m not playing this hand till the dealer apologizes.”
“Apologize?” said Dev. “For what?”
“For dealing me swill all night.”
“Mate, he’s only been in the box ten minutes.”
“He dealt to me earlier, and he dealt me swill then too. They all have.” Pete crossed his arms. “It’s a conspiracy.”
Brenda turned to the dealer. “Brad?”
Brad shrugged. “It’s his turn to act. He’s asked for time, but he won’t look at his cards.”
“What’s the point?” said Pete. “They’ll just be swill. They’re always swill when I play in this swilly swillhole.” He made a broad gesture with his hands, meant to encompass the card room, the casino and, perhaps, existence on this mortal plane as Pete Bonner understood it to be. A run of bad cards can make a man existential.
Megan watched Pete self-destruct with wry interest. She knew that tilt – the sudden, explosive and total loss of a player’s control – happened fast, but this was fast. The Galaxy Casino had recently toughened its rules on player behavior. Pete could actually get himself barred. Not that his sunny personality would be all that much missed.
Brenda kept her tone light, for this was an absurd, almost comical, situation. “Pete,” she said, “if you don’t act, I’ll have to kill your hand.”
“Kill it! Kill it! It’s dead already!” Pete savagely flicked away his cards. They landed face-up in the muck. Aces.
Aces. One diamond and one club. Two aces. A hold ’em player’s wet dream. “Oh,” said Pete. “Oh. I’ll play those.” He snatched the cards back. Megan glanced at Brenda. She knew what was coming.
“Sorry, Pete,” said Brenda. “You can’t. Your hand hit the muck.”
“Oh for Christ… First you deal me swill all night and then when you finally give me a hand you won’t let me play it? What kind of gyp joint is this?”
“Knock it off, Pete,” said Brenda sternly. “I mean it.” Megan silently applauded the floor manager’s brass. A bleeder like Pete was good money for the game, but it got old listening to him whine.
Pete held onto the pair of pickles. “I’m playing this damn hand.”
“Sorry, Pete. No.”
Pete turned and glared at the dealer. “You froze the deck.”
“What?” said Brad? He was new enough to the job that the out-of-line antics of a guy like Pete Bonner still struck him as novel – and distressing.
“You shipped me aces just to make me look bad.”
“Mate,” said Dev, “you need medication. Really. Fiorinal, Ritalin, something.”
“Pete,” said Brenda softly, “can we move on?”
Pete slid the pocket aces back and forth between his fingers. “Fine,” he said at last. “They wouldn’t have held up anyhow. They never do.” He fired the cards at the dealer. Brad’s hands shot up to block them, but one ace got through, hit his cheek, and – incredibly – drew blood, the way a paper cut will.
Brad started to his feet, fury reddening his face like rosacea, but Brenda gently held him down. “I’ll handle this, dealer,” she said. She turned to Pete. “Cash out, Pete. We’ll see you next week.”
“Wrong, girly girl,” said Pete. “You’ll never see me inside this gyp joint again.” Pete left. Brad picked up a paper napkin from a nearby drink trolley and wiped the blood from his cheek. He looked at the napkin incredulously, and then looked up at Brenda, as if to say this is my job? This is what my job’s all about? Brenda shrugged expressively. She patted Brad on the shoulder, and the young man resumed dealing. The game went on. You could die at a poker table – fall down dead with your face in your chips – and the game would still go on. Such is the nature of poker. Soon the game resumed its natural rhythm: bet, bet, raise, fold, call, re-raise, fold, fold… next case.
Eventually Brad finished up in the box and went on break. A few minutes later Meg racked her chips and walked to the poker room cashier. She’d won a little more than $500. As she cashed out, she kibitzed with Brenda about Pete Bonner. “He went off so fast,” said Megan. “I wonder where that came from.”
“You know what they say, honey. To an asshole, the whole world looks dark.”
“In any event, I thought you handled it well.”
“Sugar,” said Brenda, “no one goes off on dealers in my card room. That does not take place.”
Megan said goodnight and worked her way slowly across the Galaxy Casino’s mammoth gaming floor, past the slot machines and Flip-It machines, the video poker and video keno terminals; past the sports book, hollow and silent at this late hour, its counters and chairs littered with Racing Forms, tout sheets and parlay cards. This was Meg’s decompression time, and she found herself in the familiar state of being simultaneously wired and tired, keyed up from hours of intense concentration, yet at the same time drained by same. Eventually she landed at the Quasar Bar, climbed onto a barstool and ordered a beer. Now that she was done playing, she could allow herself a drink. She sipped her drink and, as was her practice, reviewed the night’s play in her mind, studying the mistakes she’d made, doing her best to learn from them.
I had pocket kings in late position, she mused. I raised before the flop and the big blind called. What would he call with in that situation? A smaller pair or an ace with any other card. An ace had fallen on the flop, and that’s where Meg had blundered, choosing to believe that her opponent would continue to chase with an underpair, instead of crediting him with the ace that she knew he had. She drove the betting all the way, but her own hand failed to improve, and she had lost $70 to the big blind’s A-8. It was the only mistake she’d made all night, but still… one’s too many. Even one. If you’re not going to play perfect poker, Meg, you’ve got no business playing at all.
Megan Moore had come a long way in a short time. Just six months earlier she had been first-string flunky to a wannabe badass, one Jack the Hack Aldrete. He’d been building a theme restaurant, Gangster’s, and hired Meg to do the bird dog’s job of hunting up Las Vegas memorabilia and paraphernalia to trick the joint out. She’d found a treasure in the hands of a salty collector named Jim Rafferty who, in the way of salty collectors, had refused to part with his trove. This made Jack mad, and he’d tried to seize Rafferty’s collection by force. That’s when Meg shifted sides and helped Rafferty out of his bind. Raff had thanked her with a fair payout, and for the first time in her life, Meg had found herself with a bankroll that matched her poker ambitions. And so she went to work.
She put in her hours, concentrating fiercely at the table, studying the better players, emulating their bully tactics and tricky moves. Away from the table she thought about the game and read about the game and talked about the game for coffee-shop eternities with other players, thus deepening her poker understanding to the point of instinct. Gradually she worked her way up through the limits, starting at the $1-4 tables, where the minimum bet was one dollar and the maximum bet was four, and no one made much money, not even the house. When her play improved, she moved to the middle limits, $4-8, $5-10, and finally up to the lower high limits, $10-20 through $30-60, where a working professional could earn a decent wage if she stayed sharp, stayed sane and never strayed from the path of perfect poker. Not even one mistake. Even one’s too many…
Now, six months into her pro career, she had a solid game and solid prospects. With steady profit in the cash games and a couple of small tournament wins, she was starting to earn the respect of her peers, and starting to grow into herself as a confident, competent young woman. One day she hoped to be counted among the top top pros. And if it cost her a Rob-minded boyfriend or two along the way, she guessed she could live with that.
It’s just that I’m lonely tonight. It’s just –
“Well if it isn’t Megan Moore, the bright new star in the poker firmament.” A scrawny young man hopped up onto the next stool, his tight white polo shirt clinging to his stick frame. He leaned against the bar and began polishing its smooth surface with the palm of his hand. Meg clicked open her mental file on him: Vic Mirplo, AKA Slick Vic. Low-limit rail rat with delusions of competence. Attack his blinds; he defends them much too much.
“Not tonight, Vic, okay? I’ve had a long day.”
“What? I just wanted to congratulate you on your monster big win.” Meg had bagged first in a hold ’em tournament at the Sherwood Casino earlier that week.
“Thanks. I got lucky.”
“I guess. To the tune of what? Two grand? Three? You couldn’t uhm…” Vic put on what he imagined to be his best puppy dog face “…spare a taste?”
“Gee, I would Vic, but I lost it all.”
“No way, man. You? Where?”
“That’s a joke, right?” he said. “A joke. I mean, hey, whatever, but you don’t strike me like the type to take a bad gamble, y’know? Like I could see you playing keno for instance when hell needs a heater.”
“Funny, Vic. You should be a comic.”
“You think? Because I’ve thought, you know, I’m a pretty funny guy. I could do stand-up, a lounge act, like. Like I could do stuff on poker players, how they’re always hitting you up for money. Like even just twenty bucks or so to beef up a bankroll?” Again the puppy dog eyes.
Megan allowed herself a smile. Vic was the worst kind of wheedle, but for some bizarre reason, she found the disingenuous mooch engaging. “You don’t quit, do you?”
“Nope. It’s my special gift. Tenacious is my middle name.”
“Can you make your last name Go Away?”
“For twenty bucks, sure.”
“Ten.” Meg unspooled a sawbuck and bestowed it on Mirplo, whose mind immediately turned to other things. Among the many yawning holes in Vic’s poker game, he had the attention span of a saucepan. He bummed a cigarette from the bartender, then wandered off in the direction of the sports book.
Meg finished her beer and left by the south exit, which dumped directly into the Galaxy Casino’s big south parking garage. Heat punched her when she stepped outside – relentless Las Vegas summer night heat, the kind that doesn’t let go until just before dawn. A reek accompanied the heat, the characteristic stench of a parking garage that had baked all day in the sun and now yielded up a stew of smells: asphalt, rubber dust, oil, exhaust, gasoline, and the urgent perspiration of the thousands of gamblers who had parked their cars here and walked inside the casino searching for a dream come true.
Do not leave your cards unattended. The phrase floated back into her mind unbidden as Meg traversed the garage. Rob had told her he couldn’t get serious about a professional gambler. She’d tried to explain that she was a poker player, not a gambler. The distinction had been lost on him, and that, as they say, was the proximate difficulty right there. Fine, thought Megan, let him grab his debutante or grad school girl. I never wanted to be those things to begin with. I will not leave my cards unattended.
Meg noticed the blue-bubble lights of several police cars, out back behind the parking garage, near where she’d parked her car. She slowed as she approached. When she got close the cops stopped her.
When she whispered, “That’s my car,” the cops let her through.
There, right where she’d left it, right up against the back wall of the big south parking garage, was her perfect red Mazda Miata. Perfect no more, alas, for something had caved in the windshield and dented the sheet metal hood. Something big. Angry Pete Bonner.
Well anyway his corpse.
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