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That was my first thought when I woke. I rubbed my eyes and looked out the window. I couldn’t see the sun. I didn’t know what time it was but I remembered I could see it when I fell asleep and I couldn’t see it now. There was a nightstand next to the bed I was in which had a phone but no clock. And, come to think of it, I only had a vague memory of getting to the bed in the first place. I was alarmed. I ran my hands along the lower part of my back. No stitches. I guess that guy wasn’t planning on stealing my kidneys after all. Who was he again? What was his name? D-something. Darren? Darrick? No, no. But the second one was closer. Drake. It was Drake. And the phone on the nightstand. I swear I was supposed to use it. To call…Lilly. Shit, I didn’t call Lilly. She must be beside herself. I hoped she hadn’t changed the locks on me. I needed to call her and smooth things over. I sat up quickly and grabbed the phone.

Before I could dial it I noticed my clothes. They were stacked neatly in a pile on the windowsill. But they weren’t the ones I had been wearing the night before. They were from my overnight bag which was on the floor. What the hell? And I could smell something. It was a cigarette. I could see the trail of smoke drifting in from the living room. I put the phone back on the receiver and leapt out of bed, throwing on my pants and only half buttoning my shirt on the way out the door.

Drake was sitting, smoking his cigarette, on a bench next to the shimmering black grand piano in the opposite corner. Behind him was a kitchen that looked like it was straight out of a Michelin Star restaurant. It had immaculately kept refrigerators, ovens, a gas range, and a large island with every knife a master chef could ever need. Pots and pans hung from racks on the ceiling and fine china plates were stacked neatly behind glass doors on shelves. Paintings adorned the walls.

“I see you finally decided to wake up,” Drake said as he took a drag off of his cigarette. “Good. I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Now, wait a second,” I said. “I…I…hey, are you aloud to smoke in here?”

Drake took a long drag off of his cigarette and blew it deliberately into the air. He was a small man and thin with large feet if his black suede loafers were any indication. His skin was hung loosely across his face, betraying the age lines across his forehead and around his small mouth. And those eyes. Those tiny, black eyes to match his suit. “I promise you no one is going to stop me,” he said. “Do you feel better today?”

“What time is it?” I asked.

“Nearly six o’clock,” he said.

“Shit. I’m sorry but I need to get going,” I told him.

I turned to run back into the bedroom and gather my bag. I still wasn’t sure how it had gotten there but I needed to leave if I had any hope of getting home before Lilly fell asleep. There were so many things I needed to say. I would call her before I left. But Drake stopped me. “Relax there,” he said. “First I want to talk to you.”

“I’m in a bit of a hurry,” I said.

“I can see that,” he said, “But the future of your relationship with the little lady isn’t going to rest on the next ten minutes.”

“Now, you say that,” I said. “But it might after all. I need to go. Thanks for everything.”

“Oh, come now,” he said. “You were perfectly willing to leave her last night. And why? Because you wanted to prove something to yourself. You wanted to satisfy your ego. I am about to give you that opportunity in the biggest way and you’re just going to up and leave?”

I stopped. How did he know all that? I know I told him about Lilly, or I at least hinted that she was what I had needed to escape. But I never mentioned anything about my ego, my pride, or my need to get that winning fix. At least, I don’t think I had. Still, he had my attention.

“Wait,” I said. “How did you…”

He laughed, puffing away on his smoke and looking me up and down. “How did I know that’s why you were here?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Have a seat,” he said. “As I said, I need to talk to you.”

I went over to the couch and sat. He needed to talk to me and yet he seemed to already know everything about me. I should have run. I should have left all of my things and run for the door. But curiosity got the better of me. Just like my pride had the night before. I sat down on the couch that was just as plush and comfortable as the bed. I leaned forward and looked at him. “Go ahead,” I said.

He laughed. “Good. Where should I begin? Tell me, Rick. Have you ever heard of a guy named Les Sinclair?”

I nodded. Of course I had heard of him. He was a Legend, the best card player of the fifties. Maybe the best card player of all time. He took stacks of cash off of chumps everywhere from riverboats paddling their way up and down the Mississippi to the first mobsters ever to see the potential in that ugly strip of desert in Nevada. A hand he played against a visiting dignitary from Russia in which he took $2.1 million in a single brilliant play was among the best-known hands of poker in history. He flopped the nut full house. The best possible hand on that given deal. Aces over 10s. The dignitary had a straight draw. Les checked. The dignitary checked. On the turn the dignitary made his straight. Les checked again. The dignitary bet. Les, the slick bastard, smooth-called. When the river card came Les bet small. The dignitary came over the top and Les froze. He gave a concerned look to the crowd of people who had gathered around the table to see what would happen. He said, “You ain’t bluffing me this time,” and pushed all-in. The dignitary called and Les flipped his cards. $2.1 million in one hand of poker, and that was 1956 money.

And not only was he a legendary card player, he was a legendary gambler all around. I heard a story once of him betting a pool hall champion a thousand bucks that he could beat the guy at snooker with one hand tied behind his back as long as he got his choice of cues. The champion agreed and they set a date for three days later. The three days came and went. When the game was supposed to take place the champ asked him to pick his cues. He pointed to the rack next to the table, but Les walked straight past him into the kitchen, coming back with a pair of steak knives, handing one to his unbelieving opponent. It turned out that Les had spent the three days learning to play snooker with one hand using a steak knife, and sure enough he won that thousand dollars in ten minutes.

“Les was a good friend of mine back in the day,” Drake continued. “And as good of a friend as he was, he was better at hold ‘em. He was the best ever. Take any of the greats from Brunson to Chan to Ivey and Les could beat them.”

I had no doubt that this was true, or that Drake believed it was true. But it didn’t matter much. “I bet you’re right,” I said. “It’s a shame he died in 1964.”

“Then you do know him!” Drake said. “Good. Because he and I know what you’ve been saying and doing. He and I know you think you’re the best ever. And it just so happens he wants a game.”

I was befuddled. I didn’t know what to say. I had taken an invitation to come to the room of a crazy person. Les Sinclair had been dead for fifty years. And come to think of it, how could Drake, who is alive and kicking today, have been friends with such a guy. He didn’t look much older than those fifty years that Les had spent rotting in the ground. I thought for a second, trying to decide on the most polite way to tell him I was leaving and never coming back, when Drake stuck his cigarette between his lips and played a painfully discordant E on the piano.

And there he was. Les Sinclair opened the door to the apartment and walked through. I knew it was he. I had seen any number of pictures of him in the books on poker I had read while I should have been studying for finals. And, as if to further ram home the point, there was a painting of him on the wall next to which he was standing. He and it looked exactly the same. The same round face, the same thick eyebrows, and the same green visor which you would expect to see on an old bookie running down the betting list of a night’s horse race.

I had the overwhelming desire to run again. To leave my things and take off. To head back to my house and to Lilly and to pretend the whole experience was just the nightmare of a fool who lost control for a night. But something stopped me and it wasn’t Drake or the ghost that stood in front of me. It came from inside. Still, I couldn’t speak.

“So, you’re the one who thinks he is the best ever,” Les said.

I looked from Les to Drake, who was still sitting on his bench and puffing away at a cigarette that I now noticed didn’t burn down as he dragged. He smiled at me.

“Rick, I’d like to introduce you to Les Sinclair.”

For his introduction Les took a bow, although he couldn’t bend very far. His considerable belly wouldn’t permit it. He lifted his arms out around him, seeming to take in some imaginary ringing applause. He popped back up and gave me a toothy grin.

“Well? Shall we get to it?” he said.

“G..G…Get to what?” I managed.

“The tournament!” He said.

“Let me handle this,” Drake told him. He turned back to me. “Rick, do you remember last night when I told you I was organizing a tournament?”

I nodded.

“I probably should have been more specific. You see, I brought you up here to decide one thing. I wanted to find out if you really are what you say you are. That is to say, I want to know if you are the best ever. And now here he is, the one who is actually the best ever. All ready to play against you. Don’t tell me you’re going to turn down that kind of an opportunity.”

I still couldn’t speak. I dragged a hand down my face and across my jaw. Then I rubbed my eyes again. I was still in that room and Les Sinclair and his friend Drake were in front of me. Yet, for the third time, I didn’t run. I couldn’t, and it wasn’t because I was paralyzed with fear. Whether I wanted to admit it or not this was exactly what Drake said it was. It was an opportunity. It was make or break time. I had gone on and on to myself in my own head about how good I was. I knew it deep down. Proving it on suckers was old news to me, so many had come and gone, eager at first and depressed as they walked out. But this was different. I had a proper opponent. The proper opponent. The circumstances were strange and terrifying, that much was sure, but I couldn’t walk out on them. I just couldn’t. Lilly was miles away from my thoughts when I stood up and looked Les square in the eye.

“No. I’ll play,” I said.

I know a lot of this sounds delusional. It should. These are not the actions of a rational man. But I never claimed to be rational. There was reason behind everything that I did, sure. Maybe not the best reason, but reason just the same. Imagine yourself in that situation if you can. Imagine you are a pianist and one day find yourself playing before Claude Debussy. Would you get up and run away? Maybe. But you will never know until it happens. I never would have thought I would be in the situation I was in, but the day it happened I couldn’t leave. Not without knowing for sure the extent of my skill. I just couldn’t. And so I followed Drake and Les into the parlor of the suite.

The parlor had been transformed into a card room. There was a proper felt poker table in the center, surrounded by wood paneled walls. A bar stocked with whiskey stood in the corner. Three chairs were placed at the table, one on either side with one between them. That one was the dealer’s seat. In front of each players chair there were three stacks of chips in different denominations. In front of the dealers seat were two decks of cards, on red backed and one blue. One to shuffle while the other was in play.

Les waved me over to the far end of the table. I sat as he took the chair opposite me. Drake sat between us and picked up the red deck. He began to shuffle, skillfully I might add. He passed it to Les who cut it. He put the plastic “shoe” on the bottom of the deck so neither of us could see the bottom card. It also prevented me from having to worry about him base-dealing to help Les. He placed the deck back neatly in front of himself. “I’m read when you are,” he said.

“Alright,” I said. “Let’s rage.”

Les and Drake exchanged a quizzical glance. Drake shrugged. Les looked at me and smiled. “Take it easy there, we have plenty of time. Isn’t there something we should discuss before we begin?”


“This is a card game is it not?” He said. “There’s no such thing as a card game with nothing at stake.”

I couldn’t argue. That was another one of my rules. Never play a game of poker for nothing. It just isn’t fun. It’s like playing a game of baseball where runs don’t count. “I don’t know. What do you suggest? I don’t know what a ghost plays cards for.”

“How about $1 million?” Les said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a cigar tin. He took out a long double-corona cigar and clipped the end off. Placing it between his lips he struck a match against the table and puffed away until the end had a nice char. It smelled like oak with hints leather. A very fine one.

“Money?” I asked. “You…want to play for money?”

“Of course!” he said. “Why wouldn’t I? I don’t play just for fun.”

“Right…but what could you possibly need with money? And as it happens I don’t have $1 million to use for gambling either. If I had that kind of change to throw around I would’ve been playing more than 2-4 no limit.”

“Oh come now,” he said. “I thought you were of the impression you were the best ever. If that’s the case, why worry?”

“Because poker requires luck!” I said. “It is a skill game…and when it comes to skills I have them in spades…but it still takes some luck.”

“Well in that case,” Les said. “The door is right over there. You can walk on out of it and this can all be over. Go back home to your wife. Just never bellyache again that you are the best ever even though you can’t prove it.”

Les stood up from the table and pushed his chair back. I looked at the door, thinking. I could leave. I could leave and head straight home. I could still make it before Lilly goes to bed. I could still apologize to her, cuddle up next to her, and kiss her goodnight. But…I looked up at Les Sinclair, short arms crossed over his belly, looking down at me. It was a once in a lifetime shot to prove myself. If I could do this I could do anything, beat anyone. We could be rich. If my wife could do without me for one more night she could have everything she ever dreamed of and more. $1 million would just be the start. Next stop the World Series of Poker main event. Top prize eight million big ones.

“So kid,” Les said. “What’s it gonna be?”

I stood up and put one palm on the table, leaning towards him. I extended my other hand. “$1 million. Shake on it.” He took my hand in a firm grip.

“Dealer,” Les said, glancing at Drake. “Shuffle up and deal.”

“Each player starts with 10,000 in chips,” Drake said. “Whites are 100, Reds 500, Blues 1000. Blinds start at 100-200 and double every hour. High card determines dealer.”

Drake flipped the top card in front of Les and the next in front of me. I had a Queen, Les a 9. My deal first. I tossed out my two white chips and Les added his one. Drake passed the blue deck to me and I cut. He put the shoe underneath the cut and stacked the other half on top. “Good luck gentlemen,” Drake said. “Here we go.”

Our two cards were dealt and the game was on. Les was in the small blind so he was first to act. He turned up the corners of his cards. I wasn’t surprised to find watching him did me no good. He didn’t so much as twitch. All of his motions were smooth and considered. He took a red chip and one more white, stacking them and laying them in front of his cards. “Let’s start out easy,” he said. “500 on top.”

I checked my cards. Q-J off-suit. I considered raising but I wanted to see how he played first. I wanted to get a feel for him. I called. The flop came K-J-6. No chance for a flush or a straight just yet. I had middle pair. When it’s two people playing that’s not a bad hand. He was first to act.

“Let’s do 800,” he said throwing his chips in the pot.

“Let’s,” I replied after brief consideration. I matched his bet.

The turn came. It was a 9. The possibility of a straight now existed. Also he might have the King. He did raise pre-flop. Or maybe he was just fucking with me.

“1,500 this time,” he said. I was unsure. I don’t know why. I am usually the most confident person at the table, but it was becoming clear that that was no longer the case. Les was stone cold. When two men used to duel some men preferred to shoot first and not give the other guy a chance. Others would let their opponent shoot and, if me missed, were then granted time to take careful aim. Les was the first kind of duelist.

“I fold,” I said. He had the strength and momentum in that hand. He was going to keep raising if I called and while I wanted to see the final card I was fairly certain it would have to be a miracle for me to pull that one out. I decided to protect my stack. I pushed my cards into the muck. He began to, then paused. He put his two cards side by side. “Pick one,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“Pick one,” he said. “I’ll let you see one but not both. Pick which one it will be.”

He was fucking with me. He was trying to ruffle my feathers, and if I’m honest, he was succeeding. I thought for a moment, as if my consideration would make any difference. I pointed to the one on the left and he flipped it. It was a 10 of hearts. Shit. All the possibilities flowed through my mind at once. He could have made his straight. Or he could have been playing K-10 and had top pair. Or he could have had pocket 10s, strong pre-flop and weak once it came. If he had that it would make sense why he only let me pick one. They were both the same. Or it could have been a stone cold bluff. Picking a card was stupid. All it made me do was get into my own head. I won’t make that mistake again.

I tried to shake it off. Harder said than done. He had me on the defensive and he knew it. Over the next hour I won a few hands and so did he. But he took down all of the small ones that never got past the flop. Slowly but surely he was nickel-and-diming me. When it was time for the blinds to go up he was at 14,000 and I was at 6,000. That was his plan. If he could keep taking blinds it would cripple me before I got a chance to crush him on a hand I was so patiently waiting for. I knew what I was doing but it was become clear he was the real professional. My hand had to come soon or I would have to find another way. I just wasn’t sure if there was one.

Drake dealt us each two cards. Les acted, calling the big blind but not raising. It was a strange move for him to make as he had made a living up to that point with raising. I looked at my hand. 8-9 of spades. Suited connecters. Not a great hand pre-flop but once more cards came the possibilities were endless. I checked.

The flop came 7,7, 10. No spades, but my straight was more possible than ever. Les checked. I checked. The turn came Jack. There it was. My straight. I had finally made it. There was still the possibility of a full house beating me, but I didn’t suspect it. He would have needed either 10-7 or pocket 10s. Either way it was unlikely. And the impatience was getting the best of me. Impatience is a card players worst nightmare. That is when you start making stupid decisions out of boredom. But I hit my straight and it was time. He checked. I raised. “1000 on top,” I said. He pondered for a second, then called.

The river came 6. It couldn’t have helped either of us. He checked again. I reached for my chips then stopped. I knew what he was doing. He was slow-playing me. He was treating me just like he treated the dignitary. That son-of-a-bitch. “You know what?” I said. “I check, too. Show me the boat.”

Les Sinclair grimaced and turned over his cards. A pair of tens in the pocket. He had a full house, 10s over 7s. “You made your straight,” he said.

I said nothing.

“You were supposed to pay me off there.” He said.

I still stayed silent.

He slammed his fists down on the table. “This game should be over! I was supposed to finish you! You had the straight. I know you did. You had it, didn’t you?”

I shrugged at him and posted my next blind.

I had lost the hand but finally the mentality of the game was on my side. He had a three to one chip advantage over me, and I was the one with the upper hand. Over the next half an hour I chipped away at his stack until we were back to even. And then I kept chipping. Hand after hand passed with me taking down more than him. My lead grew until I had the three to one advantage. 15,000 to 5,000 and blinds were about to go up. They would be 300-600 and he would be hurting with every new hand. His stone cold demeanor was mostly in tact, at least on the outside. But I saw what I was waiting for. A single trickle of sweat dropped down from underneath his green bookie visor.

Two more cards came. This time K-J. It was my turn to act. I called the blind. It was clear by the look on his face he had had enough. He raised me 1000. I called.

And there it was. The flop came down Q, 10, 9. It was my straight. The nut straight. The hand I had been waiting for the whole time and it was my turn to act. I thought about checking. I really did. I almost couldn’t resist the allure of playing his trap right back at him. But he was too smart for that, and if he was too smart for it then so was I. I put out a big bet. 2000. Half of what he had remaining. I didn’t put him all in but if he was going to play he had to do it himself. He looked at me, then at Drake, who was sitting motionless staring at the table, then back at me.

“You’re a fucker, you know that?” He said. “You’re a cocky fucker and you think you can bully me. Is that it?”

I didn’t move, at least on the outside. I stared at the cards on the board. Inside my stomach churned and I could feel cramps taking hold of my sides. I tried to ignore them. I could give this man nothing.

“Yep, you think you have the best of me and you think you can bully me,” Les said. “But nobody bullies me. Nobody pushes me around a card table. This is my game! I’m all in. Pay up, asshole.”

“You’re wrong,” I said. “Not about the cocky fucker thing. That I am. But no. I’m not trying to bully you.”

I turned my cards. His eyes were big. He saw the straight. He turned over his top pair with an Ace kicker. Drake didn’t miss a beat in turning over the next card. It was a 7. I began to shake. He couldn’t win. I had played the best ever and beaten him. I was right all along. I really was the best. And now $1 million richer. I couldn’t wait to tell my wife. She would forgive me now. She would have to. I shook Drakes hand and walked over to Les who was slumped down in his chair, visor pulled low over his eyes. I tapped him on the shoulder and reached down for his hand.

He took it and looked up. He was…smiling. It wasn’t an overjoyed smile. It was the smile of relief. The smile a lawyer gives when he’s won a difficult case after months and months of effort. The smile a woman gives to her husband while she lies exhausted in her hospital bed as the doctor takes her newborn to be cleaned.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You beat me.”

“It was an honor,” I said, trying to be magnanimous.

“Was it? Give it a couple years. See how you feel then.”

I didn’t understand what he meant. I was about to say something when he waved his hand. “Don’t worry kid. You’ll see what I mean.” With that he stood and nodded at Drake, then walked out of the parlor door, shutting it behind him. I gave a confused look to Drake and ran out of the parlor after him.

“Wait!” I yelled as I burst into the living room. “You still owe…”

Then I stopped. He wasn’t there. He was gone. I looked over into the kitchen and then through the opposite door into the bedroom. He had disappeared as quickly as he had come. I stood dumbfounded, only returning to reality when Drake laid a hand on my shoulder.

“You alright there, kid?” Drake asked.

“No.” I said. “He owes me…”

“Yes, I know. $1 million. Don’t worry. It’s already in your bank account.”

“How?” I asked.

“I took care of it,” Drake said. “Your wife does have access to the account, does she not?”

“Well, yes,” I said, taking a moment to register the question. “We have a joint account. Why?”

Drake lifted his never-ending cigarette to his lips and took a long drag. “Well,” he said. “I would hate for it to go to waist.”

“Oh don’t worry,” I said. “I have plans for it already. What, you think my wife will make better use of it then I will? Oh, shit. Speaking of…I need to call her!”

I jumped over the “C” shaped couch, nearly falling as I tried to click my heels to make it more joyful. I pranced into the bedroom and fell down on the bed, propping my head up with one hand like a teenage boy getting ready to call his crush and ask her for a date. I took the phone off the receiver and put it to my ear. It was a grey blur with how fast my hand was shaking. I pressed in six digits of my home’s number before I noticed there was no dial tone. I sat up and clicked the receiver several times. Still nothing. It must be broken. I’ll just run on down to the front desk.

I put it down and got up, heading back out of the bedroom to the front door. “Rick,” Drake said as I headed over and grabbed the handle.

“I just need to run down to the front desk and use their phone. I’ll be right back.” I smiled at him and turned the handle. It wouldn’t turn. It was locked, but…from the outside?”

“Rick,” Drake said again.

“Just a second,” I said. I pulled on the handle. Still nothing. I turned to Drake. “Hey, why can’t I open this?”

Drake took a deep breath. “Rick, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. You can’t call your wife.”

“What do you mean I can’t call my wife? She needs to know what just happened. Seriously, let me out of here.”

“You can’t call your wife,” he said, “Because you can’t leave.”

I stopped. My hands were shaking, but this time not from excitement. Was he pissed that I had beaten the champ? If so, why would he trap me here? Is this a weird sort of kidnapping? Am I drugged?

“Look,” I finally managed, “I need to go. I need to get back to Lilly.”

“As I said,” replied Drake, “You can’t go.”

“Hey, man,” I said. “If you’re sore about the money just…just take it back. It’s fine. I won’t tell anyone what happened. Just let me go.”

“Again,” Drake said with the same stoic face he always wore, “You can’t. Not until somebody beats you. You’re the best now.”

I turned and grabbed the doorknob. I shook it, twisted it, pushed and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. I pulled back and rammed my shoulder into it. Three times I tried. Nothing gave. I banged on it, first with one fist and then both. “Hey! Someone! Will someone open this door! Please! Please someone open this fucking door so I can get the fuck out of here!”

“No one can hear you,” Drake said.

“The fuck they can’t,” I replied, turning and resuming pounding. “Anyone! Is anyone out there?”

“No, they aren’t,” Drake said.

“Of course they are. This is the Taj! There are thousands of people here.”

Drake took a long slender finger and pointed down at the floor. “That is the Taj.” He said. “Down there. And yes, down there there are people. But up here. This is something else. And it’s just you and me.”

My fists hurt and my heart throbbed. My legs gave out from underneath me and I slammed my back into the door behind me, sliding down onto the floor in a heap. “Wh…Wh…”

“You won,” Drake said. “Don’t you see? You’re the best card player that has ever lived now. You’re the newest Legend. It is exactly what you wanted. Isn’t it?”

I said nothing. I just looked at him. My face was long and heavy.

“Now,” Drake said, “If you will excuse me I can hear them calling and I need to attend to them.”

“Who?” I asked.

“All those people who want to be the best ever.” He said. “All those would-be Legends.”

He walked over to me and leaned over. I thought he was going to pat me on the shoulder but instead he pushed me over onto my side. I went easily. I had nothing left to fight with, or at least, in my mind I didn’t. I couldn’t believe what he had said. That I can’t leave? It didn’t make sense. He opened the door with no trouble and walked out, closing it behind him with a metallic “click.” I don’t know how long I stayed in that position. I must have passed out because I woke in a puddle of spit and tears.

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