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I pulled into the parking deck of the Taj around 4:00 in the morning. From the neck down I was exhausted. My left arm was stiff from how hard it had been gripping the steering wheel. My legs shook as I stepped out of the red Camaro, forgetting my overnight bag in the passenger seat. I didn’t think about that until much later.

Lilly was the farthest thing from my mind when I saw the flashing red and yellow lights that spelled out “Trump Taj Mahal.”

I walked through the front entrance, greeted by several men dressed in flashy bellhop uniforms who seemed less than pleased that I didn’t have any luggage for them to be tipped off of. Behind them was a man in a black pinstripe suit and fedora smoking a cigarette. As I walked past we made eye contact and he winked at me. Somebody was still stuck in the fifties. Hell, it could have been the roaring twenties for all I knew. I gave a polite smile and kept walking.

The foyer was just as bright as the outside with reflective hardwood and marble floors, outlandish crystal chandeliers, and a massive blue and purple-lighted escalator. The reception area sat off to one side with wall-to-wall high-end shops lining the causeway. Some sold perfume, others expensive purses, and the rest jewelry and watches. I guess they figured they could compel the rich fish to buy when they first walked in before they lost their money and the poor ones to buy going out, quickly separating them from any winnings they might have accrued. One thing was certain. They had created a black hole of cash and only the most disciplined gambler could make it back out, like Hawking radiation, from the event horizon once they had entered.

The gambling floor was a vast room of slots with table games past those. Well, past the bulk of them, anyway. Slots were inescapable as were the bright signs hanging from the ceiling advertising the baseline prices of each row, five cents up to five dollars mostly. The VIP sections where the 10, 20, and 100-dollar slots lay were sectioned off so that the fabulously wealthy could make the casino fabulously wealthy in peace. It also ensured a separation between old and young, with the octogenarians gathering at the nickel slots while the up-and-coming generation X-ers gathered around table games, bellowing to each other for luck while being fed drinks by women in skimpy uniforms.

It was easy to become lost in all the action. I moved past it, finding the poker room and the pit boss that ran it. I handed him my card and asked for a seat. Casinos always give you rewards cards when you play. In theory it keeps you coming back to the same one in order to build up your points there. With those points you might get a complementary meal, a free t-shirt, or even a free room. Those slick fuckers will do anything and everything in their power to make sure you ignore the “responsible gambling” advertisements they themselves put out on TV and billboards. It didn’t so much impact me because I had only been up to Atlantic City twice, each time spending two days in the poker rooms where you don’t get many points anyway.

That is the interesting and, in my opinion, beautiful thing about playing poker in casinos. Every other game you play against the house. In blackjack, craps, roulette, and the like, you have your odds and the house has theirs. They vary in severity but the house’s odds are always better. And in those games the house takes your money directly off of it’s own gambles. Poker on the other hand is played against other players, so the casino does not control the game’s odds in any way and does not gamble itself. So why bother having poker tables in a casino you might ask? The answer is what is known as the Rake. At the beginning of each hand the house takes a portion of the antes and blinds. Also, players who win a hand, especially a big one, will often tip the dealer off of the winnings of that individual hand. The owners and operators of casinos may be a sleazy bunch, but you have to give them points for cleverness.

On the upside, in poker you can win as much as you want and they wont bat an eyelash. It isn’t luck, it’s skill, and the money you take comes from other players so they aren’t as interesting in protecting it. If you start winning heavy in blackjack you better believe every dealer, floor manager, pit boss, and security camera operator is going to have one eye on you to make sure you aren’t cheating. And even if you aren’t they will still kick you out sometimes. The crime: too much good fortune. Best of luck to you and we hope you win! Unless you actually do.

While I waited for a table, 2-4 no limit hold ‘em, I walked over to the cage and handed them $400 in real dollar bills for $400 in chips. If you want to know what the cage is, it is exactly what it sounds like. It is a well-protected room with bars coming down from the ceiling to the counter where the casino gives and redeems chips. Did I mention they take their money seriously?

When I returned the pit boss was in the middle of a smattering of poker tables, all of them filled with men and women in bright clothes, with free martinis and white russians sitting in cup holders, and short stacks of chips in front of them. What fools, I thought. They were breaking so many of my rules of poker I don’t know where to begin. Never drink while playing. You turn into an idiot. Never sit with less than 100 times the big blind. You lose your power. And never ever ever sit at a table where you can’t spot at least one sucker. If you can’t spot the sucker, that means it’s you.

He waved to me, pulling out an empty seat from one of the tables. I smiled and walked over. Before I even sat down I could tell that my table was populated by real sweethearts. Maw and Paw come to Atlantic City for a fun weekend and decided to learn a game of cards. They looked like mice dumped into the zoo’s snake exhibit; no idea what was about to happen.

Two hours later I was already up $300. For most of it I barely had to try. Those poor, unskilled people. They just can’t handle the check-raise. When I check I can see them leaning forward, excited that they are finally going to win one. They puff their chests and put out a few chips and then I come over the top with a big bet. Who knew watching a balloon deflate could be so satisfying? As soon as they see that raise they slump back in their chair, checking their cards two or three times as if they have forgotten what they held or hoping their cards will magically change in their hands if the look back to them often enough. Their confidently upturned lips turn to melancholy resignation and they throw their cards in. The dealer pushes the chips to me and I toss him a buck or two. Thanks for the effort.

One hand in particular does bear mentioning, though. Winning a hand when you have good cards is satisfying, but winning when you break your opponent’s will is even better.

I was in the big blind, so I put my $4 in and waited for the cards to come. You can always tell a seasoned player from and fish by looking to see when they check their cards. A fish will check his when the cards first come out. They are so eager. It’s almost cute. And while the fish does this, the seasoned player ignores his and watches the expression of the fish. The pro checks his when it is his turn to act. So I watched. Not much excitement around the table except for one lady. Platinum blonde in her fifties with big bug-eyed sunglasses she invariably wore because she watched a card game on ESPN and saw some of the pros wearing them. The pros do to conceal their pupil dilation, but when you wear tells like rings on your fingers they don’t do a whole lot of good. She leaned in and called. Maybe she was trying to play it slow, or maybe she just lacked good sense. Probably both. Two others called before the action got to me. I peeked at my cards. An Ace and a 10, both spades. I raised. Not a big raise, only $10. But enough to shoo away anyone who was sitting on the fence. The bug-eyed blonde was my only caller.

The flop came black. A King, 8, and 6, two spades and a club. I acted first. I bet another $10. Normally I would have either checked or bet larger, but if she missed she would go away for $10. She didn’t. Her call was quick. It was quick enough I knew what she hit. She was sitting with a pair of Kings. Nothing else made sense.

The turn came. 7 of hearts. A blank. Sure she could have just made her straight, but I doubted it. Still, if I didn’t bet I couldn’t win, and she twirled her ugly locks like she was feeling weaker than she probably should have. But she didn’t know that, and I did. They say the first level of card play is playing what you have. The second is playing what the other person has. And the third is playing what they think you have. I had shown strength for the first two rounds and now she was nervous. Time to take advantage.

I bet. $25 this time. I put the pressure on. She stopped twirling her hair and peaked at her cards as if she didn’t remember what she held. She knew what they were, but she had become unsure what to do with them. A few seconds passed. She fumbled with her chips ever so slightly. And then she did something unexpected. She raised me $25 on top. I paused, considering. Did she have a pair of Kings or did she actually make that straight? The flush was my best option. Drawing it was unlikely but not impossible, and if that came on the river I would take everything she had. Even if it didn’t I had shown strength until that point, and perhaps I could still get her off of what she was holding. I called.

The river came. A Deuce of clubs. It couldn’t possibly have helped me, but it couldn’t help her either. I checked. The way she had come over the top before I thought she might again. She wasn’t good by any means, I had been watching her for a while, but she did have balls. To wear those sunglasses out in public told me that. And my god, that hair. I didn’t give her the benefit of raising, but I let her bet. She did. $50.

No limit hold ‘em is the “Cadillac of poker,” Doyle Brunson once said. And it is true. It is true because in no other game can you force a person to decide, on one hand, on one turn of one card, the fate of all of their chips. When you can do that effectively, you’ve mastered it. And I am a master. What she had just done was give me two options. I could fold and give away $200 to this woman. That was the easy way out. No harm no foul and no one would know what I held. But there was another option.

“I’m all in,” I said looking her square in the eye and pushing all of my chips forward. That is, again, something I wouldn’t do against a good opponent. They could tell I was trying to bully them. But she wasn’t good, and she was intimidated.

If you’ve ever sat there waiting for a person to make a decision that could either make or break you, you know what I felt waiting for her. I tried not to move, my eyes affixed on the center of the table. The last thing I wanted was for her to start looking at me instead of staring meaninglessly at her cards, shuffling them around on the table. She looked once, then twice, then a third time. She took a deep sigh and tossed them into the center face down.

The dealer nodded, put them into the muck, and pushed the chips my way while I tried not to smile too wide. I tossed him a $10 chip for his efforts.

And then there was the man again. The man in the pinstripe suit and fedora. He was watching me from the rail where spectators are allowed to stand. I looked behind me and to each side. No, he was definitely looking at me. His eyes were small and his thin lips curled neither up nor down. He was just standing there staring.

“What did you have?” the lady asked, snapping me back. I shrugged. Never show your cards, win or lose, unless you have to. That is what I believe. Give the other players nothing but their imagination. Some people will show a bluff to try to get more action or show a winning hand to try and disguise their next bluff, but you never know what you are going to get next, so I prefer to let them guess.

But I didn’t gloat. Not there and not to her. I surprised myself with my tempered attitude toward what anyone watching on TV would consider my great play. Maybe I had grown up in the past twelve hours. Or maybe Lilly was right.

Lilly. I shouldn’t have left her the way I did. I should go back. I should take my winnings and buy her something to apologize. But maybe just stay a little longer. Get a room, get something to eat, call her in the morning. Home by tomorrow night. Just a little bit longer. It’s amazing how my mood changes playing this game. But enough for tonight. First a room, then meal, then phone call. Tomorrow sleep, wake, cards, home. Good plan.

I stood and told the dealer to deal me out. He nodded and handed me a plastic rack in which to stack my chips. I had far too many to carry in my hands, and even if I could I imagine the girl behind the cage would be annoyed if I dumped them on the counter in a pile. I organized them neatly into stacks of twenty, bade my fellow players fair well, and headed out. The second trip to the cage was more pleasant than the first. Mostly because this time I was exchanging clay for cold hard cash. It is a good feeling. And what should I buy for Lilly? I’ll find something.

I walked back toward the reception area. I took a different route this time and passed the food court. Any casino worth its salt has several restaurants of varying quality and variety. There will always be at least one buffet with prime rib. I don’t know why, but it’s always there and open 24 hours a day. Another of the fancier restaurants turned into a nightclub when the sun went down but it was almost eight in the morning and the young revelers who it attracted had mostly gone off to bed for one reason or another. There was also a little pizza joint nestled in the back behind the supersized buffet. I couldn’t make it past without stopping in for a slice. What can I say? The best laid plans, right? I ordered a slice of cheese pizza. That’s always been my favorite. Load it down with Parmesan cheese and crushed red pepper and I am a happy man. My stomach was almost too tired to growl as the smell wafted out from the over. Almost. But damned if when I sat down and devowered it that greasy, slimy slice of heaven didn’t taste like the finest cuisine from the heart of Rome. I mopped up the excess sauce and grease with the crust and tossed the paper plate away in seconds, shooting a wave to the three Mexicans who I had to thank for my Italian delight. Then I headed on to reception.

There was hardly any line so early in the morning and judging by the emptiness of the parking deck and gambling floor, I figured I could find a decent room for a decent price. Atlantic City has fallen on hard times as of late and I was ready to take full advantage. I’m sure you heard about that $2 billion shell of a potential casino that was condemned before it was finished being built. For those of us who still hoped to get some joy out of the city it was good news. Cheap rooms at the snap of a finger. Gotta love it. I was walking over to the reception desk when I heard someone addressing me.

“Hey Rick,” the voice said. “Rick.”

I turned. It was captain pinstripe speaking as he approached me. I can’t imagine what the look on my face was. He had to know I had noticed him before, whoever he was, and my surprise stemmed from that. That and the fact that I couldn’t figure out how he knew my name. “Yeah?” was all I could manage.

“You look tired, friend.” He said.

You’re not my friend and I’ll put my foot in your fucking shinebox. That was my natural reaction in an instance like that. What can I say? Lack of sleep makes me cranky, especially when it hits me all at once. And don’t ask me what a shinebox is. I don’t know. But I always enjoyed using it anyway. “I am,” I said. “Just about to get a room.”

“Why don’t you come up to my room and sleep the edge off?” he said.

“Sorry, buddy, but I don’t know you,” was my response. Quick and straightforward. I was in no mood to be my normal, flowery self. Especially when a stranger offered me his room key. He held it out to me. It must be a fancy room, I guessed, because it wasn’t the usual credit card key they give you to slide into the new locks. No, this one was a legitimate key, and it looked like an old one at that. The kind that fit into keyholes young boys were able to peer through and watch the babysitter undress in old movies.

“My name is Drake,” he said.

“Is that your first or last name?” I asked.

“And I am staying in the best room in this hotel, Rick. The bed has a feather mattress. You wouldn’t believe me how comfortable it is if I told you. It’s like sleeping on a bed made of tits.”

I know what you’re thinking, and I would have been too if I hadn’t been so tired. “Look, I don’t know if you’re some kind of queer or something, and I don’t know how you found my name, but I’m not interested. Thanks.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe I came on a little strong. But I’ve been around here a long time and I can see when a guy is having a rough time. I was just trying to help you out. What happened? Wife leave you?”

“The other way around,” I said, not knowing why I was telling him that. “I just needed to get away for a day, you know?”

“Boy do I know,” he said. “Look, just come upstairs. I am planning a little tournament so I will be gone most of the day. Call your wife and get some rest. When you wake up I want to talk to you. That’s all. How’s that?”

“You know you still never told me how you know my name,” I said.

“Funny that. I’d tell you but by your look I don’t think you’d remember. Come on then.” He said, pointing over to the elevator. He handed me his key. “Just punch floor number 56. That opens the only room. Sleep well.”

I knew accepting that kind of gift from a stranger was probably a bad move. Had it been any other time I never would have accepted. But at that moment all I could think of was his description of how comfortable the bed was, and I wanted it to carry me away for, oh, ten or twelve hours. So I took the key. I followed his instruction and got on the elevator, punching floor number 56.

My memory is hazy from the time I stepped onto the elevator, but I’ll do my best to compile what I was awake enough to remember. The bell dinged at my floor and I stepped off. There was a short hallway with one door at the end of it, no number on the front. I turned the key and walked inside. The lights were off and by that point I had had enough of lights, so I left it that way. I didn’t need them because the wall at the back of the living room was all glass through which the rising sun gave me a path to an open door past a long leather couch in the shape of a “C.” I could see a bed through it. It was a giant bed, immaculately made, with what could only be described as a wall of pillows at its head. I stripped off my clothes and fell over onto it. I turned my face to the sun and felt a brief moment of its warmth on my cheeks and the tip of my nose. Then nothing.

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