A moment of trepidation

It’s Wednesday night, and I can’t help but fiddle with my growing hoard of chips. It’s one of the most basic poker rituals — take two even stacks of about five chips, use two fingers to lift up one stack and neatly slide the other into it. The effect is a kind of vertical shuffle that makes it appear as though you know what you’re doing at the table. I am furiously shuffling my chips as Evan deals the next hand. We’ve been at it for a while now, and the four of us have become more daring with our play as more and more beer bottles litter the table like artillery shells after a long siege.

Anxiously, I stop for a moment to peek at my cards. As is customary in baccarat, the protocol when checking one’s cards in Texas hold ‘em is to prolong the mystery as long as possible. To peel the card back exceedingly slowly is to invite Lady Luck to kiss you on the cheek and maybe go out to dinner with you.

The first card is the jack of clubs.

Not bad.

The other is the jack of hearts.

In Texas hold ‘em, pocket jacks is a very strong hand but a perilous one as well. There are only a few higher cards, but I’ve got to be on the lookout. Nevertheless, I am nonplussed. After so many nights spent playing poker with these guys, I have come to know them very well, and I think I have the read on them. Anthony throws his hand away, disgusted, and mutters some curse about Evan’s shuffling skills before slinking off to grab another drink.

James smirks and casually tosses a small handful of chips into the pot.

He’s got nothing. I think. I call and Evan does too, albeit begrudgingly.

Evan deals the flop, and it comes up seven of clubs, ace of spades and jack of diamonds. I believe the phrase, “Whoop, there it is,” is reserved for these situations. The rest of the hand will be an exercise in patience: I have to bait James and Evan without letting them know I’m baiting them.

At this point in the game, I’m tied for chip leader with James. I have around $7.50, and so does he, while Anthony has around two bucks and Evan four. This means I can leverage my larger stack against Evan and Anthony to coerce them into making worse decisions. However, the security of a large stack of chips, in my experience, is a double-edged sword. My excess wealth does not translate into a license for recklessness — one false move and I might double up Evan, who would replace me as chip leader.

So when James pushes $2 into the middle of the table, I am skeptical. In our circle of players, James is known as a big bluffer who will risk enormous sums for small stakes in the hopes of making a quick gain, not unlike certain Wall Street bankers. It’s an especially big gambit considering the cards on the table — some strong hands might be (and in this case, are) floating around, up to and including a straight. He also has no idea that Lady Luck is handfeeding me the grapes of victory as I weigh my decision.

Anthony cracks another beer in the background and changes the music on the sound system to some alt-rock I’ve never heard of. How dare he change it from Fats Waller to this nonsense?

But I must remain focused — it’s my call, and James is acting mighty suspicious. A raise in this situation would likely scare him off, and since the pressure rests mostly on Evan (the current bet is equal to his chip total), I decide to call and see what Evan does.

Evan simply says, “Fuck it,” and pushes his entire stack into the pot.

His play seems odd; either he’s got a great hand, or he really has to go to the bathroom. No matter — I’ve got three of a kind, and the only hands that beat it here are pocket rockets or two face cards, which means he has to catch runner-runner to hit a straight or an ace for a full house.

James is quick to call, and I follow suit. The next card will tell all.

It’s the king of spades.

I’m sweating. Now there’s a flush draw and a straight draw on the table. James thinks for a second and says the fateful words: “All in.” But no, he can’t — it’s impossible, there’s no way he — damn it, this is gambling, not trading mutual funds! My chips go flying, and the three of us bite our nails as Evan peels off the last card.

The ten of clubs! I’m a genius!

James flips his cards confidently.

Two pair, aces and kings. When I show double jacks his face crumples. But my mirth is short-lived as Evan jumps up and throws his cards on the table. Queen, nine. A straight.

Just as Lady Luck was unzipping my pants, Evan swooped in and serenaded her. He rakes the chips toward him as James shouts profanities into the rainy night. Anthony shrugs, pops the top on a can of Coors and starts shuffling for the next hand. I am crestfallen. How could I have miscalculated this badly? What did I do wrong?

I look down and see two new cards. Time to get lucky again.