Three of a Kind: Excerpt

Three of a Kind
by John Vorhaus


three of a kind

It’s a few minutes later.  Judi has gotten the rest off her chest.  I now know that Sam the bozo is the floorman tonight at Club Pismo, and that his hobby, if you want to call it that, is sexually harassing cute dealers like Judi.  “I don’t mind him hitting on me,” says Judi.  “That’s what men do.  But when they’re married, and they go but that doesn’t matter, and you go, like, yes it matters, and then their ego gets all bruised and they take it out on you in the workplace, well, that’s just not fair.”

“I don’t recall seeing the words ‘life is fair’ printed on the contract,” I say gently, trying to appear sympathetic, but at the same time pithy and clever and deep.

“No,” she says, “no, I suppose they’re not.”  She sighs a big sigh, and if I were looking at her breastal units, I would be pleased by the aesthetic sense of their rise and fall.  I’m not sure if I’m using this phrase right — cognitive dissonance — but I believe that’s what I’m feeling right now, because on one hand I really sympathize with Judi being victimized by a big married perve like Sam, but on the other hand, let’s face it, I’m mentally undressing her too.  You could call this the conundrum of guyhood:  A man’s commitment to women’s liberation wilts in the face of a wet t-shirt.

Eventually Judi pats me on the shoulder, making my shoulder happy, and says, “Thanks for lending an ear.”

“It’s nothing,” I say, “I have two.”  She laughs, but I’m not sure if she’s just being polite.  I mean, it wasn’t that funny.  I can be funny sometimes.  It’s a strength of my game with girls, as it has to be because I don’t have musculature or leading man looks to lean on.  But some lame line about having a spare ear, well, that would be only barely funny even by Tim’s standards, and his are notoriously low.

After another minute she says something about her break being over, and heads back inside.  I give her a follow, and stand and watch for a while as she sits down to deal.  When she does this, she undergoes quite a transformation.  Her anger vanishes, as do, in fact, all other signs of emotion.  What takes over is steely, detached dealer precision.  There in the dealer’s box she becomes a fixed object, her concentration perfectly and totally focused on delivering the cards, managing the pot and running the game.  Crisp, swift, accurate.  I mean, this is some kind of dealer, above and beyond being dead-bang cute.

Oh, get this:  A few minutes later I’m in the men’s room and I hear a guy behind a stall door talking on a cell phone.  He says, “Right now I’m at Home Depot.”  Can you believe it?  I then hear him say, “Yes, they’re open late.  What are you saying?  Are you calling me a liar?  I’m buying a flange.”  A flange!  Would that be a socket-weld flange or a blind or a threaded flange?  I have half a mind to ask out loud, just to lend credence to the guy’s lies.

A flange, by the way, is an orifice union: a piece of metal that connects a second piece of metal to a third.  Why a guy would need a flange at this time of night, or ever try to convince his wife that he was out buying one, is beyond me.  But people are like that.  They’ll fabricate all sorts of nonsense in defense of their previous lies.  I pity this guy somewhat, but it’s his own fault if he can’t tell his woman the truth.  If it were me I would say, “Honey, I love you, but I loved poker first” and that way not get into that mess.

Back at the no-limit table, Tim, who was previously almost three racks ahead, has lost back a rack and this is not good.  He’s slumped way down in his seat, an inelegant pose for someone so long and lean as Tim.  I’ve seen this pose before and I fear it, for it suggests that Tim believes that the world has become Unjust.  In this state of mind, he is likely to unleash the Fury of His Chips.  Another of Tim’s many moves, the Fury of His Chips is designed to make super-aggressive play look like tilt-induced mayhem.  Trouble is, a lot of time Tim uses genuine tilt, and that is not the weapon of choice.

The blinds in this little no-limit game are a $1 small blind and a $2 big blind, forced bets for each of the first two players to the left of the dealer button.  After that, each player in turn has the option to fold, call, or, since it’s no-limit, bet anything, up to every chip he’s got.  On Tim’s next big blind everyone folds except the button, who just calls.  Tim, who has the last option to raise, just checks.  You have to wonder what kind of sneakiness the button is up to, just calling the $2 bet like that when, since he’s last to act, he can reasonably assume that any raise from him will drop both blinds and win him the pot uncontested.  You have to figure him for a trap of some kind, like maybe he’s hoping you’ll think he’s weak and you’ll do his betting for him.

The flop is an oddity, 2-2-2.  Tim checks.  The button checks.  The turn is a 9.  Tim checks.  The button bets $300 quickly as if to say, “Well, if you don’t want this little ol’ pot, I’ll take it.”   Which could mean exactly that, of course, or else exactly the opposite.  Tim measures his stack.  He has about $1500.  The button has two grand, maybe more.  He’s got Tim covered, if it comes to that.

Tim pushes his whole stack in.

The Fury of His Chips, oh God.

The button goes into a Big Think.  I try to ghost his hand, by which I mean I try to imagine what cards he’s got and measure his play against the hand I think he holds.  I’m thinking that maybe he limped into the pot with a medium pair, like eights, then checked the flop to induce a bluff, which he never got, so he came back on the turn with a bet to finish Tim off.  But now here’s a reraise all-in, and he’s got to worry that his limp before the flop let Tim into the hand with a nine or a deuce.  At $1500, he can’t afford to be wrong, so he folds.  He has played a strong hand weakly and paid the price by handing Tim an easy bluff opportunity, so let’s all go to school on that.  Though I must say that in no-limit poker, where you could lose everything you have with a single wrong move, it’s much easier to make good decisions when you’re just watching and not actually playing.  Less wear and tear on the nerves.  Anyway, it seems like Tim hasn’t gone completely on tilt, and after taking down this pot he steadies up his play.

I go back to my game and do nothing either spectacular or spectacularly stupid for about an hour.  When I next check back up on Tim, I see that Judi has moved into the box at his table, delivering cards and controlling the pot with her laser efficiency.  A dispute arises, in a hand Tim’s not in, over whether a raise had been declared.  Judi calls the floorman over.  It’s Sam the bozo, which I can tell both from his nametag — absent the bozo sobriquet — and from the way he puts his hand on Judi’s shoulder, just casually, like he’s only using her for support so he can lean in and make an informed and conscientious floorman-type decision, but really only so he can touch her.

Very quietly, her lips barely moving, Judi says, “Please take your hand off my shoulder.”  But he leaves it there.  He either didn’t hear her or he’s ignoring her.  She says it louder.  “Please take your hand off my shoulder.”

After a moment, he lifts his hand.  “We’ll talk about this later,” he whispers angrily.

“You know what?” she says.  “I don’t think we will.”  She stands up, takes off her nametag and her bow tie and throws them down on the table, like a rogue detective turning in her piece and shield.  She turns and walks away.

Sam yaps after her, “I hope you know you’re giving notice!”  Without looking back, she flips him the bird.  Sam gives the players at the table this look like, women, huh? I flash on the blowfish in the bathroom (excuse me, Home Depot) and how he and this moronic floorman are really cut from the same cheesy cloth.  What is it about men with women, huh?  Where do we get the arrogant insecurity to act the way we do?

A few minutes later I experience a prickly feeling on the back of my neck.  This is not a premonition or a vision, exactly, just an unbidden bit of wondering: If I were Judi, where would I be right now? And the answer comes, also unbidden: Outside, stewing.  And looking for payback. For no good reason that I can think of, I decide to go outside and have a look around.  Tim sees me leave and gets up from the table to join me.  He’s ready for a break, he says, or to even quit winners.  This last is kind of a joke of ours, for we always say we quit winners whether we quit winners or not.  Count on it:  If you ever ask me or Tim how we did in a game, we’ll tell you we quit winners.

There’s a scientific reason for this, not just bravado.  See, if people know you play poker, and they’re not players themselves, they’re all the time interested in whether you won or lost.  They may be your friend, but even so they may be secretly hoping that you lost a bundle because they’ve got this degenerate gambler framework of you in their mind, and they’d kind of like outer reality to conform to their cherished notions.  But if you play poker a lot, then you know that the outcome of any single session doesn’t really matter.  All that matters is how you do in the long run, and even that’s not so important as trying to play perfect poker all the time.  As Tim says, “You’re born broke, you die broke, everything else is just fluctuation.”  But if you get hooked on needing to tell your friends or peers that you’ve booked a win, it can move you off your game.  You start playing to impress the peanut gallery.  Outcome becomes more important than performance, and that’s the path to sucky poker.  So instead, Tim and I have this standard answer to the question of how did we do.  “We quit winners,” we say, no matter whether we won, lost or broke even.  It doesn’t matter if people believe us or not.  It’s just the answer we give.

You might think that we’re lying with this, and certainly there is a language called loserese, which is, basically, how a loser consistently says he won when he lost.  Like if you ask a loser how he did, he’ll say, “I won a few bucks,” or “I broke even, about,” or “I had a good time,” all of which are different ways of saying he lost, and probably lost a lot.  But that’s not this.  Tim and I both keep scrupulous book on our own play.  We know if we’re consistent winners, and we don’t lie to ourselves about that.  For instance, ever since I decided to turn (semi-) pro last year, I’ve been running net plus to the game, but not net plus to my living expenses.  Part of the problem is I’m still stuck at the low limits because both my bankroll and my fortitude preclude playing higher, and it’s hard, hard, hard to get rich one $3 bet or even $6 bet at a time.

We go out in the parking lot, where the fog has come in, bringing the tang of sea salt with it, and I fill Tim in on the whole Judi thing, what he couldn’t anyway guess from context: that an innocent dealer has been forced off her job by a toxic idiot.

“It makes you want to use violence,” says Tim, which to me is funny because Tim is a stick, no a serious stick, with all the muscle mass of, I don’t know… celery?  He could no more use violence than I could raise under the gun with jack-ten offsuit, which Tim however can do, and feel very comfortable with, any time at all.

Anyway, he’s farting around with his flash gun now, blasting the cars and the bushes with its single-shot strobe.  One flash reveals somebody kneeling beside a car.  Yes, it’s Judi, and yes, she’s letting some air out of some tires.  We cross over to her and stand there, watching.  She doesn’t look up.  She knows we’re there, but she doesn’t seem much to care.  “Do you want to gawk,” she says, “or help?”

“Help,” says Tim.  He flips the flash gun over and over in his hand.  “But we might could do better than that.”


Sam gets off shift at midnight and leaves the club a few minutes later.  This is a relief to Judi, who had worried that he’d stay all night playing cards, which he sometimes does.  But tonight he’s maybe concerned that someone will tell his wife about the feisty dealer who quit on him under subtext-charged circumstances.  He maybe wants to hurry home and get his lie in edgewise.

So Sam is quick-walking to his car when, per Tim’s plan, Judi vectors over to intercept him, looking oh so sad.  Sam says if she’s thinking of begging for her job back, she can forget it.  She says he’s got her all wrong.  When she quit, when she found herself alone, she was suddenly so scared.  Not of being alone, but rather of not being with Sam.  Her anger, she now realizes, was just the first iteration of love.

To me, watching from the shadows, she sounds like pure soap opera.  I wouldn’t buy it.  You wouldn’t buy it either.  But you’ve got to see it from bozo Sam’s point of view, where a potential problem has just turned into an opportunity, just like the self-help gurus tell it to.  Under these circumstances a certain subjective reality sets in, and you see what you want to see.  Like in poker where the hand you folded an hour ago is the hand you raise with now, because your discipline has cracked and bad cards have started to look like good ones.  After that, anything can happen.

So when Judi moved in for the kiss, Sam had no trouble opening his arms.  Nor, predictably, grabbing her ass.

Whereupon Tim steps out and gives him a blast with the flash gun.  Bam!

“What the hell is this?” says Sam.

“This?” says Tim, goofily tossing the flash gun in the air.  “This is the next generation of wireless digital cameras.   It’s linked to my website.”

To which I add extemporaneously, “”

“Blackmail?” says Sam.  “You’re blackmailing me over some kissy-face?”  He’s trying hard to represent indignation, but I can see the phrase negative repercussions forming in his skull.  The wife, you know.  The wife wouldn’t like it.

“Consider it severance pay,” says Judi, “or an out-of-court settlement for the sexual harassment lawsuit you’d lose.”

Sam thinks about this.  In these politically correct times, he knows she’s got a point.  “How much?” he asks.

“All the cash in your wallet.”

“That could be anything.  That could be twenty bucks.”

“Then I lose,” says Judi.  “But I don’t want to drag this thing out.  Sam, you’re a dillweed.  You deserve to be punished for that.  This is the best I can think of right now.  On the plus side…” she gives me and Tim a sideways smile, “my new friends have offered me a ride out of town.”  She turns back to Sam.  “That’s a generous offer, but I would want to pay for gas.”

I confess that I’m holding my breath.  I don’t know if Sam’s going to fork over, scram, scream bloody murder, or go raging bull.  After a long, pregnant moment (really pregnant – I think it gave birth to twins) he empties his wallet, shoving the bills savagely into Judi’s outstretched hand.

Then Sam says to Tim, “You’ll delete the pictures, right?”

Tim fires the flash again.  “Deleted.”

“Hey, is that a — ?”  But the flash gun is back in Tim’s pocket.  And we are on down the road.

Plus, when Sam gets to his car, he’ll find that his tires are flat.  There you go.

We stop in Santa Barbara for some breakfast, Judi’s treat, or rather Sam’s treat, for he turns out to have been good for several Big Bens, and Judi gives us her life story in 39 words or less.  She started out in advertising, of all the mundane idiocies, but she then decided that she didn’t want to spend her life making the world safe for advertising, so she quit that and trained herself up as a dealer.

“I’m a migrant felt worker now,” Judi tells us over pancakes and coffee.  “I follow the crops.”  What she follows is the tournament trail.  Vegas, Biloxi, Atlantic City, all over.  “I come out here in between times to chill out,” she says.  “It used to be friendly in Pismo.”

“Schismo,” says Tim.  “We call it Schismo.”  And I think, man, this is the wrong time for that bad sense of humor.

But guess what?  She laughs.  She actually thinks that’s funny.

My lord.

Tim basks, of course, which he’ll do in any approval.

But she next throws some approval my way, and I confess that I’m just as weak as Tim that way.  “Toke,” she says, “I don’t know why you came out looking for me in the parking lot.  But thanks.  I’m glad you did.  You’re all right, you boys.”

Aw shucks ma’am, twarn’t nuthin’.

By the time Judi’s finished eating, she’s made a good job of getting maple syrup all over her hands, and she goes off to wash up.  Tim kicks his legs up on the booth bench, stretching out with a satisfied sigh.  “Lucky thing they closed the Rose, huh?”

“Know what, Tim?  I’ve got five bucks says when we get back, no one’s heard of these measles but you.  Action?”

“No action.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Give me a break, Toke.  You have to admit it’s been a good trip.  We quit winners and,” a nod toward the ladies’ room door, “brought home a nice souvenir.  Confidentially…” he leans across the table and whispers, “I think I might be in love.”

And I think to myself, then Houston we have a problem, because I think I am too.

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