Going for Broke

In the beginning, the poker game had been my idea. I invited a few guys from the army for a friendly game. No stakes, just a fun way for a few of us from our old unit to kill a Friday night.

At first it was just Pete, Daniel, Johnny, and me. We pretended we were playing in a big game like those guys in Atlantic City. But we spent most of the night eating and drinking as much as playing cards. Soon I invited a couple of the younger guys from the steel mill, Wyatt and James, to join in. The monthly game became more of a party.

Then James got sick and we were looking for a last-minute replacement to keep the numbers even.

“What about Nathan?” Johnny asked.

Nathan had been one of our crew, but he was also a bit of a blowhard. He’d been married to MaryAnn for about six months. Word was that he was looking for a reason to get out of the house. So we invited him to fill in.

He showed up early, a case of Iron City under his arm. I thought he was just glad to be away from MaryAnn, but when we started playing I could see he had something else in mind.

“What are these?” he asked, letting the chips fall through his fingers.

“Chips,” I said. “The whites are a penny, the reds are a dime, and the blues are a quarter.”

“Where’s the cash?”

“No money,” said Johnny. “I told you, it’s just a chance to hang out and have a few beers.”

I thought Nathan would let it go, but Wyatt said, “Maybe we could play for money. You know, just to make it interesting.”

I was no stranger to playing for money. In the service, when we weren’t marching or shooting we were playing cards. I had won and lost a fortune in foxholes. But since leaving the army, I didn’t gamble at all. With Molly and and Mark, Jr. back home, I wasn’t interested in throwing away my paycheck.

Less cool heads prevailed, though, and we each agreed to throw a fin into the pot. We decided that whoever ended up with the most chips would get the money. Top prize for the night was $25, half a week’s wage. I don’t want to brag, but that first night… well, to tell the truth, Nathan walked away with the money.

We wanted to win our money back, so we kept inviting Nathan to the game. He was the guy to beat. Every month, I was champing at the bit to get even. But I had a hard time hiding away five bucks a month. I thought for sure Molly would start to notice.

Before long, Nathan asked if he could invite some of his friends to join us. I didn’t know them, but they seemed like nice guys. One of them was MaryAnn’s sister’s boyfriend. The other was a guy from Nathan’s church. One by one, new players were added. More players meant another table.

That’s when things started to spin out of control.

We outgrew Daniel’s small apartment. Pete had a small bar on the west side of town. The upstairs area was relatively quiet and offered easy access to booze, so he offered to host the game. Two tables became three, then four. I barely knew any of the players. And as the number of players grew, so did the pot. Our monthly game had a grand prize as high as $150 — depending on the number of players.

By the end of the year, it had become Nathan’s game. He dictated the time and date, usually based on when his friends could make it. Other than Pete — who hosted the game — the original players were less and less of a consideration. James dropped out. Wyatt only made it on occasion. I stuck around because I had nothing better to do. And I was determined to beat Nathan.

After two years, I was down more than a hundred bucks. I figured if I could win one big game, I could take home the winnings to Molly and be her hero. And I could finally walk away.

Then Nathan took a job in New York. When he moved away, the game dried up. And with it, my chances at breaking even.

When Nathan came back to town for the holidays, Johnny suggested we get everyone together for one more game. We decided to meet between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and everyone agreed to double the pot. And because of the larger pot, we decided to split the money among the top three players.

I had never won a game, but on several occasions I had come close. One night in August, Nathan and I had been locked in a pitched battle until 3 a.m. He won, but I had made him work for it. And the game taught me a few things about Nathan that I planned to use to my advantage.

At Christmas, money was tight. Skimming ten bucks from our monthly budget was a bad idea during the best times. During the holidays, I felt like old Scrooge stealing the Christmas goose from Bob Cratchit. Filled with shame, I kissed Molly goodbye and made my way to Pete’s. He gave me a cold one as I entered the door, and I took my seat at a table.

It was a long night. I had never been a great player, because I tended to get antsy after a few hours. Looking for a big hand, I tended to make mistakes. I would overlook a straight draw when all I had was two pair. So, to keep myself in check, I decided to play a long game. I would play just enough to stay in the game, keep my bets small, and wait until enough players had been knocked out of the game. I wanted to play against Nathan, and I wouldn’t settle for anything less.

Luck placed me at a table with Wyatt. I liked the kid, but he was impulsive and not a very good poker player. He’d go on tilt after a bad hand, and try to bluff to regain his winnings. I knew when he was done, and I pushed him into betting everything he had. He thought he was scaring me off, but he was the one biting at the bait. I hooked him and reeled in the remainder of his chips.

By nine o’clock, Wyatt was downstairs drinking at the bar with the other losers. I had cleared one table, and moved to one of the two remaining tables. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the one Nathan was at. I needed to survive a little while longer.

For the next hour, I did nothing but limp in when I was on the blind. I watched the other guys play, and pretended to be distracted by the game on the radio. I acted as if I didn’t care about the game. Twice, someone had to get my attention after dealing the cards. When I bothered to play, I allowed a few chips to slip away. I still managed to win enough hands to keep me in the game.

By midnight, enough players had fallen out, and we decided to consolidate the two tables into one. There were five of us left. We colored up our chips, and took score. Nathan was in the lead. James was the small stack. And I was squarely in the middle.

“Let’s take a little break,” said Nathan. “I need to refuel before I take all your money.”

“Sounds good,” said Pete. “First round’s on the house.”

We made our way downstairs to the bar and had a round of Iron City’s finest. The beer was cold and refreshing, but it also reminded me how much money I had wasted on these monthly games. If I had kept that money instead of playing poker, I could have bought rounds for the rest of the night.

A half hour later, we headed up the steps to continue our game. Pete was leading the way. I was trailing behind, when I decided I needed to take a leak before sitting down again. I turned to go back to the bar, but I tripped over my own feet, crashed down the steps, and ended up in a heap at the bottom of the stairway.

“Holy!” yelled somebody.

“Mark! Are you alright?”

I don’t remember too much of what happened. I must have twisted my ankle on the stairway, causing the fall. On the way down, I broke my arm and ended up with a concussion.

After the ambulance hauled me off to the hospital, the guys didn’t think it was right to throw out my chips, so they convinced Wyatt to play with my winnings. The kid did pretty well. With the lead I had established, he managed to come in second place for the night.

The next night, Pete and Wyatt drove my car home from the bar. I was pretty banged up, but I managed to keep a straight face when the kid handed me the winnings. Second place was $100.

“This is yours,” I told him. “You earned it.”

“No, Mark,” said Wyatt, crumbling the bills into my good hand. “It’s yours. And there’s a little extra  there, too. The guys took a collection. We figured you might need some help with the medical bills.”

I opened my hand and looked down at the cash spilling onto the bed. I thought I was seeing double because of my concussion. There was easily $250 in front of me.

“You didn’t have to do this,” I said.

“We know,” said Pete. “It’s a loan. You can pay us back a little every month.”

“Five bucks at a time?” I asked.

“Five bucks at a time,” he said.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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