Blinded Off

This game’s bigger than Tombstone, Arizona, longer than the Birdcage run. It’s been going without a break for eight years, six months and two days. Over fifteen hundred people have paid ten thousand dollars to play. It’s become big media, a reality show with its own channel. A monitor on the far wall keeps tabs on the pot, which is growing and it is huge.

I’ve been waiting my turn to play for five days. It’s dark here except for a single banker’s light and the red eyes of the cameras that follow every move. The only sounds are poker sounds, the whoosh of the shuffle, the slap of the deal, the click of chips. The sound of my heart thumping.

I don’t recognize any of the players at the table, which means that compared to me, they’re amateurs. They’re playing too fast, calling or checking too quickly, impatient and greedy. I can smell their fear, because poker does that to you, makes you afraid, especially when the stakes are high.

It’s like tag team wrestling, this game. The moment someone rises from the table, a new player moves in, and there’s no break between deals, no waiting for the newcomer to settle in. Hesitate or miss your turn and you go to the back of the line.

So I flex the muscles in my legs, ready to move the moment the referee calls the next player. The guy with his back to me is soaked through with sweat and I can see his shoulders shaking. He’s been playing for seventeen hours and is ready to drop. I’ll give him five minutes, max.

I feel someone move in beside me on the bench and I smell an old familiar smell. I know without turning my head that it’s Royal ‘Flush’ Seaton, and for a second, I feel the anger rise in my chest.

Flush whispers, “Good to see you, Burnham.”

I want to ask him how Bella is but I say nothing. I focus my attention on the guy with the sweat soaked shirt.

“She’s outside waiting for you, if you want her,” Flush says, his voice so low I think for a moment I haven’t really heard him.

The referee nods at me as the sweaty guy’s head jerks backwards. I’m in his seat before he hits the floor.

I watch the faces of the other players. The slightest twitch at the corner of a mouth, a movement of muscle under the eye and I read them. Two hands in and I’m already ahead. I bluff with a pair of sevens and the others fold. I’m betting high, and a runner is called to bring more chips. The player opposite me throws up his hands and leaves the table.

Then Flush glides in and picks up the deal.

My eyes are on Flush’s face. We’re the best, Flush and me, at keeping our faces still, at keeping the other guessing. We’ve been doing this for years, in the casinos of Vegas and Monte Carlo, and in the backroom brothels of Bangkok and Rio. We may be the only two players here who can afford to bet the pot.

Flush pushes a pile of chips into the center of the table. He buys three cards. Looks at me without expression as I raise him.

We go four rounds, raising and looking, buying and checking. The player to my right crashes to the floor and his seat is taken over by a youngster, but I barely notice the changeover.

The game has changed for me, though, and it’s no longer about being part of the longest poker game ever played, or even about the pot. It’s also about Bella and I’m no longer sure what I’m playing for. I think of Bella waiting outside and I check the monitor on the wall for the size of the prize, and I look at Flush.

There’s a twitch on his face that I almost miss, a barely perceptible widening of his eyes as he looks at his hand. I hold up two fingers to the dealer and he throws me the nine and ten of hearts. I breathe slowly, looking at a straight flush, nine to the king. There’s only one hand that can beat mine. I keep all expression from my face, but it’s hard.

And then Flush whispers one word, “Bella,” before he leaves the table and rushes from the room, his cards in his hand. The referee tries to stop him and some of the spectators are on their feet and the other players around the table look confused, calling to the referee. But Flush is gone and I can hear his footsteps echoing on the stairs.

I look at my hand again, my winning hand, and I think of the size of the pot. I think of Bella and I follow Flush.

It’s bright outside after the dim light of the poker room, and for a moment the sun blinds me, and then I see my wife and she’s standing under a tree, looking more beautiful than ever. I walk towards her, saying her name, and she holds out her hands, holds something in those hands, and I take it from her. A poker hand. Flush’s hand.

I turn the cards over and it’s two low pairs, fives and sixes. A small white card falls from Bella’s fingers, and I bend down and pick it up. It’s a business card. Larry J. Turnbull, Divorce Attorney, it reads.

There are tears running down Bella’s cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she says, and walks to a waiting car. I can’t see the driver.

Behind me, the longest poker game in the world goes on. The pot grows bigger. Flush’s cards fall from my fingers and flutter to the ground and I turn the business card over and see that someone has printed two words on its reverse.

YOU LOSE.