The River

 

 Pooch   pulled over by the side of the road, killed the engine, leaned forward and rested his head on the steering wheel, hands in his lap. Shit. Shit. Shit,shit,shit. How did it happen? How had he let it get this far?

He had left the house that night full of excitement and anticipation. After he had read his son his good-night story – a chapter from The Jungle Books – he had gotten changed and put his soda and chips into a bag to take with him. His wife Penny had kissed him good-bye at the door and told him, as she always did on poker nights, “Win big.” What she didn't know, because he hadn't told her, was that tonight he was playing in a new game, a no-limit game across town that George, one of the guys who would occasionally sit in with them, had told him about. It was a game for higher stakes than he was used to – you needed five thousand just to buy in - but Pooch was sure he was ready for it.

For two years, Pooch had been playing in a low-limit Friday night game with six of his friends and whichever one-timers showed up to lose their money. Pooch had been winning pretty regularly at these games. He'd also been playing no-limit with virtual money online. He'd started out with $1000 in play money and had finally, last week, gone over five million for the first time. It had taken a lot of hours, and he had learned a lot of hard lessons. “Amateurs play the possibilities. Pros play the probabilities.” Pooch didn't remember where he had read that, but now it wasn't an abstract idea. After hundreds and hundreds of hours of play over the years, it was something he felt in his bones.

By now, Pooch knew what he was doing. He was a counterpuncher, a sandbagger, a rock. His game was to fold and fold and wait until he had something good and then let the suckers bet into him. Most nights he would win only four or five hands, but he knew how to control his losses on the others, and he almost always came out up forty or fifty bucks. Each week he had put aside his winnings, and this afternoon he had gone into the cigar box and taken out his entire stake, which came to thirty-seven hundred dollars. He had also, without telling Penny, gone to the bank and taken out the $1300 they had saved together during their seven years of marriage. It's an investment , he told himself. I'm investing in me. And the money I make, I'll put it right back in the bank, with interest. Penny will be happy.

After all, he wasn't going to take any chances with it. He'd play safe, like he always did. And if the night went badly and he wound up going into the red, he'd just quit before he had to dip into the last part of his buy-in, the part from their savings account. But if he managed to get to the river with the nuts, he'd have it there to bet with.

Pooch got in his battered old Civic and drove up Sierra Drive to the address George had given him. When he saw the number on the mailbox, he pulled over, stepped out, locked the car, and made his way down the sidewalk to a small woodframe house with a corrugated aluminum roof. There was a light on by the screen door, and inside he could see four men, one of them George, sitting around a hexagonal table with a felt top. Neil Young was singing about the Prairie Wind on the stereo and there were some bottles and glasses on the table. The game had already begun. Pooch slipped off his shoes and stepped inside.

“Pooch! How you been, brah? C'mon over. We got a seat for you right here!” George patted the seat to his right.

As Pooch walked around the table, each of the three other men at the table held up his hand in greeting.

“Hey Pooch, I'm Paul,” said a slender Asian man in jeans and a t-shirt, slapping his palm as he went by.

“Willie,” grunted a dark-skinned, round-faced man with swept-back hair.

“I'm Thor,” said a gaunt-looking haole guy with Jesus hair, who stood up briefly, smiling a thin-lipped little smile, and clasped his hand as he passed.

“Put your money on the table, Pooch, and I'll get you some chips,” said George. “You want anything to drink?”

“No thanks, I'm fine for now,” said Pooch. He sat down, put his soda and chips on the table, and then pulled the 50 one-hundred dollar bills out of his vest and fanned them out in front of him. The guy named Willie reached across, swept the bills up in his hands, and counted them out into stacks of ten, saying the numbers under his breath.

“He's good,” said Willie, smiling at Pooch as he folded the bills and tucked them into a bamboo box on the table behind him.

“Welcome to the game.”

“Okay. Here's the deal,” said George. “Two games only, Hold ‘Em and Omaha. Your choice when you deal. Blinds are twenty five and fifty. At ten they go to fifty and a hundred. At eleven they go one and two. We keep playing until midnight, unless one of us craps out. Got it?”

Pooch took a deep breath. This is it.   “Got it. Deal ‘em up.”

 

For the first hour or so Pooch held his own. As he had planned, he folded often and tried to get a read on the players around him. From his home game he knew George to be a loose player, a guy who liked the action and was unlikely to fold if he had even a marginal chance of being in the pot at the end. Paul, to George's left, didn't show him much. He played quietly, didn't talk much, and dropped out at the first sign of resistance. Willie, across the table, bet hard in an apparent attempt to steal as many pots as he could, and kept up a steady stream of jokes. Thor, next to Pooch on the right, played with grim-faced concentration, Pooch could almost feel the wheels turning as Thor ground out the percentages.

Pooch got his first big break of the night in a game of hold ‘em. Willie dealt and Pooch, in the big blind, squeezed his cards and found himself looking at a K-3 of spades. The pre-flop betting went around without any raises, and Pooch checked. The flop came up A-Q-10, with two spades to the ace. All Pooch needed to see now was a jack or a spade. George bet $100. Paul dropped, Willie called. Thor studied his cards, gears turning, and then tossed them into the middle of the table. Pooch waited a minute to make it appear that he was thinking about it, and then called. There was now $600 in the pot.

Willie burned two and turned over… the J of hearts. Nut straight and a draw to the nut flush. Pooch made a show of doublechecking his cards, pulled his lips to the side in an attempt to convey disappointment, then looked up to the ceiling for a moment. “Check.”

George looked up from his cards, folded them together in his hand, and checked. Everyone looked at Willie.

“Looks like everyone wants a free card. I don't think so,” he said. He reached for a stack of chips. “Two hundred.” Pooch looked at his cards, paused, then raised $200.

George pushed his cards in. “Too much for me.”

Willie looked at his cards again, then looked across at Pooch.

“You must have something pretty good there, my friend. A king, I'd say. So what do I do now?” He smiles and took a drink from his glass of bourbon. “Can't win if you don't play, right?” He tossed in two blue chips, burned two more cards, and turns over the five of spades.

Nut flush . Let the games begin. Pooch sighed, rolled his eyes, and stared at the ceiling. “Check,” he says, rapping the table with his knuckles.

“Five hundred dollars,” said Willie, tossing in five more blues. He was smiling at Pooch and staring at him.

Pooch allowed himself the smallest of smiles. How much more could he milk this guy for? “Raise three,” he said, placing the stack of chips in front of him with exaggerated prescision.

Willie wasn't smiling now. He stared hard at Pooch, then looked at the money on the table. Twenty-two hundred dollars. Pooch felt the adrenaline, his heart pounding in his chest, and hoped his elation didn't show.

“Well, guess I'm going to have to call. Whatcha got?”

Pooch turned over his K-3 of spades, and Willie grimaced in disgust. He flipped over the jack and nine of spades.

“I knew you had the straight. Didn't figure you for the flush as well. Nice hand, cowboy.”

“Thanks,” said Pooch, reaching out and pulling in the $2500 in chips . Looks like it's going to be a good night.

For the next half hour Pooch played it slow. He tried to resist them temptation to loosen up now that he had a stack to work with. He contented himself with folding before the flop unless he had a big pair or a high sequence with both flush and straight potential. The game began to have a kind of predictability. George, Paul, and Willie were contesting a lot of medium-sized pots, often winning them with the kinds of hands that Pooch and Thor were methodically folding. When Pooch did find himself with a big hand, as often as not everyone would fold as soon as he bet. Thor especially seemed to be avoiding any kind of a showdown unless he had a sure winner. Pooch won three or four small pots simply by betting on nothing at all.

At eleven the blinds went up to $100 and $200. Now if everyone stayed in there was going to be at least a thousand dollars at stake in each pot. Pooch had a solid stack of chips in front of him now, about $8000 worth. George was short-stacked at a little less than a grand. Willie looked to have maybe three thousand, and Paul and Thor were around six grand each. On the first hand at the new level, Thor dealt a game of Omaha and Pooch found himself looking at the 8-9 of spades and the 10-J of diamonds. A good hand if board comes up middle. Everyone stuck around for the flop, which came the 6-7 of clubs, the ace of hearts, and 4 of diamonds. Pooch checked, George checked, and Paul bet $200. Willie folded, Thor studied his cards and called, and Pooch called. George threw in his cards in exasperation and heaved himself up from the table. “I'm gonna go take a leak. Cards I'm getting, I might as well go watch TV.”

  Thor burned two cards and flipped the 10 of spades. No straight. No flush. Thank you, God . Pooch reached for a stack of blues. “Bet $500.” Paul studied Pooch with a level gaze, trying to get a read.

“Five hundred dollars? That's a man-sized bet.” He reached for his glass of water and emptied it in a few swallows. “Okay. Call.”

 

Thor nodded his head. “Okay. One more card.”

Three thousand dollar pot, and so far it's mine. Please, no pairs, no clubs. Thor burned two more and turned up the four. Of clubs.

Pooch's ears were burning. Fucking river . “Check.”

“Five hundred,” grunted Paul, pushing his chair back and tossing in five more blues.

“All in,” said Thor.

Screwed, blued, and tattooed. “Fold.”

Paul looked at his cards again. “Well, I've got the flush, but you've got the boat. I fold.” Thor allowed himself the smallest of smiles as he pulled in the $3600 pot which gave him the chip lead for the evening.

 

Okay. Nothing to worry about. Only lost a grand or so. Still up $2000. It's getting closet to midnight. Just play it safe and don't do anything stupid. Pooch folded the next hand early, went to the bathroom, came out and stretched a little bit while they finished off the hand, which George managed to win, bring him back from the dead. When Pooch sat down to play, he discovered that it was his turn to deal. Perfect. I can wait and see what the others bet before I act. “Let's play Omaha one more time,” he said. He dealt out the cards. Just give me a nice clean no-brainer to play with.   He picked up his cards and found himself looking at the eight of spades, the eight of clubs, the nine of spades, and the jack of diamonds. Lots of possibilities. George studied his cards and checked. Paul bet $300. Willie called. Thor called.

$1600 in the pot already. If the right cards come up…   “I call.”

George sighed and dropped. Pooch took the cards and dealt out the seven of diamonds, the four of diamonds, and the eight of hearts. Paul checked. Willie checked. Thor checked.

I've got trips, and no one's betting.   Guess there's no straight out there. “I bet $500.”

Everyone called. Now there was $3600 in the pot. Pooch burned a card, turned a card, and stared down in disbelief at he eight of diamonds . Four eights! How many times have I gotten killed when my full house was bulldozed by four of a kind? Finally, I'm on the other side, and in an enormous pot! Please God, let someone have a boat, and bet it!

The next few moments were like a dream. Paul checked. Thor bet $300, Pooch, slow-playing, just called, and Paul raised another $300.   Thor called. Pooch called, and dealt the river card, the five of diamonds.

No worries! Paul checks. Thor considered his cards, and pushed in ten blue chips. “One thousand dollars.”

He's betting into me! The rock is making a mistake! O my god. I'm going to have SO much money when I go home… “I'm all in,” Pooch said, heart pounding, as he pushed in his entire stack.

“Don't think my boat is big enough,” said Paul, mucking his cards. Thor looked at his cards again, then looked at Pooch. “I hate to do this, kid. I really do. I call.”

Pooch flipped over his pair. “Four eights.” He began to reach for the stack.

“Hold on,” said Thor. “That's a great little hand, but it comes in second.” And he turned over the three and six of diamonds. “Little teeny straight flush. Sorry, kid.”

 

 

The cars roared by on the freeway. The Civic shuddered and vibrated from the sonic blast every time a truck blew by. Pooch lifted his head from the steering wheel, fighting down the panic and the nausea and the fear of what he was going to have to say when he arrived back home. He took a couple of deep breaths, turned the key in the ignition, and pulled out onto the freeway and drove off into the darkness.