I knew I was good at cards. I knew I was good back in the early years when I wasn’t good. The game of Poker spoke to me. When you find your calling you know it, don’t you? It’s a feeling deep down in your core. You don’t just feel like you can be great. You feel that you understand a skill like a dog understands a bone. It’s natural. No one has to teach a dog to chew on a bone. They just do it because that is what dogs do. It is what makes them happy. It is their joie de vivre. And that is how I felt the first time someone dealt me two cards face down and then asked if I wanted to check, bet, or fold. They might as well have handed the Great Bambino a bat and asked if he wanted to swing or go learn jazz tap. I knew that I could be a Legend.
There are so many college kids who spend their time idling away in uncertainty. So many that when I went to my councilor’s office at Brown and told him I wanted to switch my major to psychology he refused. He told me this sort of thing happened all the time and he preferred to let students think over their decisions before making such a drastic change to their educational path. That was a good point, I thought, and so I agreed to take some time with it. Everyone has had that class or that professor, at one point or another, that was so good it made him rethink his path. Dr. Benson was that person for me. He was a phenomenal teacher. He made the way people think the center of my universe for the semester I spent in his classroom. Most of his stuff I forget now, but I was glued to it then. And I will never forget what he taught me about the tendencies of human behavior.
I’m no psychologist, but I am one hell of a good card player. Despite, or you could say especially because of, my current situation I have certain insight into how people act under pressure. It is in their faces. In their bodies. In their mannarisms, speech patterns, and unconscious gestures. When in comes down to it, when it is me versus them, they know they are weak, and so do I. And they know that I know. When they lean back in their chair we both know they are faking relaxation. When they sit bolt upright we both know they are trying to contain their excitement. When they bet big and I come over the top they might not know what I have, and I might not know what they have, but we both know the simple truth that I am better and I am going to take everything they have worked so hard for.
There is only one lesson I never bothered to learn. It is best summed up in the proverb, “You can shear a sheep many times, but you can skin him only once.” Now that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but in Poker the meaning is clear. You can take a little money off of a fish over and over and he’ll keep coming back, but as soon as you bankrupt him, he’s finished. I was always about bankrupting people, mostly because I could.
It was never about the money for me. The day I got that Brown diploma that said “Richard Farmer, Bachelor of Accountancy,” I knew money would be no object. I was almost as good with numbers as I was with reading body language, and I could account with the best of them. Upon graduation I moved back home to Virginia and got a job with a prestigious firm in Richmond. I won’t say which one because fuck those assholes. They don’t deserve the press. But they paid me a pretty penny to move into a beautiful red brick, two bedroom house on Monument Avenue and an even prettier penny to handle a few of their more lucrative business accounts. The whales were what we called them. I wish I could tell you the prettiest penny of all was the wife I found while working their, but her name wasn’t Penny, it was Lilly, and so the joke wouldn’t work. I consider it a lost opportunity.
We met, as high school-ish as it may sound, in the lunch line. One of the perks of my company was that it had a cafeteria.
I didn’t really get along with my coworkers. That’s not to say I disliked them or they disliked me, but we didn’t have much in common. They were so painfully boring. It was as if they came to work, brokered the sales of fixed-income securities, and when they finally went home the chose to relax by calculating the accrued interest. So it followed that instead of befriending the walking, talking Prozac pills I called office mates, my best friend in the whole company was Milo, the guy whose only monetary responsibility was counting the $3.50 it cost for a burger and fries.
Lilly was standing in front of me that day, waiting for the line to move along. I was as absent-minded as usual while queuing, amusing myself by perusing the boxed milk in the ice tray, looking to see if any were past the expiration date. It was her smell that caught my attention. It wasn’t overwhelming, barely noticeable actually, but the subtlety only added to my attraction. It was peaches. I couldn’t say what else, but I know I smelled peaches. It must have been lotion or shampoo or something. My guess is lotion because I could smell it on me after we cuddled on the couch at the end of our first date. I remember on the drive home I could smell her on my hands. Peaches. Definitely peaches. That moment set her firmly in my memory.
But in scoring that date all credit goes to Milo. He didn’t even know what he was doing until it was done. He was ringing her up for her meal when he greeted me in his usual manner of, “Hey, bro. Whadoya know?”
“Another day in paradise,” was my reply.
He laughed. “For you? What about me? I think I know the price of every combination of everything we sell down here! Come on. Ask me what a milk, pizza, and a fruit salad costs. Hell, make it two milks. I know it. With tax. I’m tellin’ ya when are ya’ll gonna hire me? I can count shit too, ya know.”
“The day they give me a team,” I said, “you’ll be on it.”
“Give you a team? Shit.” He said. “I thought you liked working here! That’ll be $4.78 young lady.”
We both started to laugh. I was so caught up I barely noticed the look of distress on Lilly’s face as she fumbled around in her purse, counting change. “I’m so sorry. I forgot I gave my last five dollars to my sister for her son’s lunch.”
Milo grimaced. He didn’t want to have to send a girl away without a meal. “How much ya got?”
“Only thirty five cents,” she said.
“Oh, dear…” Milo said before I cut him off.
“Hold on there. I think I have a little extra on me. Just a sec.” I searched through my wallet and pants pockets more than their size seemed to justify only to confirm that I barely had enough for my own lunch, let alone the stranger in front of me.
“No dice?” Milo asked.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I hear the Flying Squirrels have a game against Akron on Saturday. That right?”
Milo’s eager “discussing baseball” look appeared on his face. We became friends the day I needed someone to vent to about the Braves moving their farm team from Richmond to Gwinnett, Georgia. I mean seriously, the Gwinnett Braves?
“Yessa, it is,” Milo said.
I grinned at him and he grinned back. The deal was already done, so the performance was just for Lilly’s sake. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You go ahead and wave this lady along and tomorrow I’ll be paying you with the full price and a pair of tickets. How’s that?”
“That depends,” Milo said, milking the situation. “How good are the seats?”
“Don’t insult me,” I said. “Have I ever done you wrong before?”
“That you have not,” he said. “That you have not.”
He waved to Lilly and I to move along. She was hesitant so I put my hand on the small of her back and led her away.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she said.
“Oh, don’t worry,” I said smiling, “Milo and I have an understanding. What’s your name?”
And the rest, as they say, was history.
It wasn’t until Lilly and I moved into a proper house with a proper basement that my card playing really took off. Sure I had played in college with friends and roommates, but back then we didn’t have any real money. As good as I was the most I ever walked away from a table with was just enough to buy the booze for whatever party I was planning. And I always had a reason to throw one. Did we win a football game? Let’s rage. Did I get an “A” on a test? Let’s rage. Did we lose a football game? Fuck it. Let’s rage. I didn’t care and it didn’t matter. What mattered was having a good time. Fortunately for me I could get away with it. I was smart.
I was academically smart at least. As far as interpersonal relationships went, the story was very different. I could shear a sheep, sure, but it was more fun to skin him. That was one thing it took Lilly a long time to learn about me. Maybe I wasn’t competitive with her. I never really wanted to be. It was her friends’ husbands who I skinned. I don’t know why, so don’t ask, but invite a guy to a card game and he will say yes. It doesn’t matter if he knows how to play. He will always say yes. And they did. One after another, they did. I thought I was doing a good thing for my marriage at the time. I really did. Lilly wanted me to be friends with her friends and I felt I was putting forth a genuine effort.
My plan was going well, too, I thought. Right up until the day Frank Miller punched me in the face. And when I say in the face I mean square in the nose. When five red cards, diamonds and/or hearts, come on the board they call it bloody. There was nothing figurative about a bloody board that night.
Unlike in college, this group of guys played for real cash. The lowest chip amount was a dollar, not a cent. Fifty times that could make its way into the pot before the cards were turned, and they could have called me “The Janitor” the way I cleaned that table up. If I had cut my profits down to a few hundred a game it probably would have been alright. Hell, even with a grand a night I could have made a smooth getaway. But after a while, when you beat people as badly as I was beating them, they want to beat you. If they can’t beat you in whatever game you’re playing then fists are always an option.
“You son of a bitch,” Frank had said when I turned over my diamond flush. “God damn it.”
Of course he would be mad after a hand like that anyway, but I needled him. “Trapped you. Damn man, why do you always go for the trap?”
“Fuck off,” he said.
“It’s like fishing with a hand grenade,” I said. “As long as I show up at the docks I’m going to come away with something!”
Frank’s face shook. He balled his hands into fists on the table. For a second I thought I could actually see steam coming out of his ears. And if that had just been a thought, I think I would have been fine. But, as was once more made painfully clear, self-control was not one of my strong suits.
“God damn, man,” I said, “Do you have a brain or just some little head-elves that stoke the fire under a boiler? You need to relieve some of that pressure or you’ll blow your eyes right out of your head!”
That was advice he decided to take. Before I could apologize or even put my hands up the table was turned over, cards and chips were across the room, and my face was being redistributed. I didn’t even have time to lift myself off of my newly-laminated basement before Frank and the three other guys we were playing with stormed upstairs, grabbed their wives, and ran off without so much as a tip of the hat. By the time I made it to my cooler to grab a cold beer to put on my nose I could hear my own wife’s footsteps headed toward the basement door.
“What the fuck!” I heard. The words “What the” were muffled, but the door opened on “fuck!” which I received loud and clear. “Again, Rick? Fucking seriously?”
I was pressing the beer against my face and trying to catch the droplets of blood with my shirt. Still dazed I replied as innocently as I could. “What?”
“You know damn well what!” Lilly said. It was such a clichéd and ubiquitous phrase I tried not to let her see I was giggling. I failed.
“I was just trying to entertain some of your friends.”
“No,” she said. “I was entertaining my friends. I told you to be friendly to Frank and the guys while we were upstairs. And what did you do? The same thing you always do you dumb bastard!”
I was starting to regain my senses although I swore I could still hear bells chiming in the distance. “Look…” I started.
“No, you look!” She said. “I’m sick of this shit. I’m sick of you running off our guests every time you bring out that god damned poker table.”
“Sweetheart,” I said, “I just can’t think of anything else to do with them. They always agree to play.”
“Yes, you’re right.” She said and I knew it was about to get ugly. “They always agree to play. Once. And then they never come back because you can’t fucking control yourself!”
Have you ever been in such disarray that you can’t make sense of anything? Wherever you are, you can’t remember how you got there? Whatever you’re doing, you can’t remember why? However you’re feeling, you can’t remember what set it off? Because that was exactly where I was when I pushed past my wife headed toward the stairs. I didn’t say anything. I just headed up to our bedroom and started packing, beer still pressed firmly to my face.
“What are you doing?” She asked. I didn’t respond. I was barely listening. Everything she said sounded like it was coming from the other side of a canyon. I was busy using my one free hand to stuff whatever shirts and pants were at arms reach into my black leather travel suitcase.
“Hey!” She said. “I asked you a question.”
Still nothing out of me. I gathered my car keys and wallet from the bedside table drawer. I pushed past her again and headed to the front door. I threw it open, slammed it behind me, and I made my way down the cobblestone path to my garage. I clicked a button on my car keys and the door lifted. Behind it was my baby, my red Chevy Camaro I bought when I was in college. Practical? No. And I was well beyond the years where it was the coolest, hippest thing I could afford. But I still loved her.
“Richard!” Lilly yelled. “Richard!”
I turned and looked at her as she searched for something to say. She bounced words around in her mouth but her lips were pinball paddles. They kept shooting them back down her throat. “You’re not going to take that beer with you, are you?” was all she managed.
I pulled it off my face and looked at it. Then I looked at her. I cracked the can open with a satisfying “tsss,” then drank it in one long gulp. I crushed it in my hand and dropped it on the pavement. “Don’t wait up,” I said, breaking my silence. And that was it. I threw my suitcase into the passenger seat, turned the key and put my Camaro into reverse. The tires squealed when I backed up and again when I pulled out of the driveway. Lilly just stood there watching me go. Her expression was one of shock, but just as I turned down our street, in the rearview mirror I thought I saw her lip begin to quiver.
And then there I was, watching break lights stretch out in front of me like a long string of Christmas lights down the middle of the Jersey Turnpike. I could see the tallest of Atlantic City’s hotels peer over the otherwise dark horizon. I wasn’t sure if I was going back or not. Eventually, perhaps. I would decide that later when my head was clear. I didn’t think about home. I didn’t think about my wife or her friends. It never even occurred to me that I worked the next day. All I needed was a fix. They say gambling is addictive. I wasn’t planning on gambling. Playing slots or craps or blackjack is gambling. Poker isn’t gambling. Poker is a skill game.
My addiction wasn’t gambling. It was winning. It was showing off. It was validating my abilities. I needed to sort the rest of my life out but first I needed that high. That satisfaction. That fix. “Lets rage,” I said to myself as I hit the gas to cross the final stretch of road toward my destination. “Let’s fucking rage.”