This Is My Game
Nobody says it. Every new person I bump into in the chaotic, colorful atmospheres in which I circulate ignores it. Or avoids it.
But I can see it in their eyes anyway. The thought ricochets from one person’s amused eyes to the next. To me, it bounces off the walls and echoes a million times, silently. Perhaps it burrows deeper, I don’t know.
When I was little my mother used to take my face in her hands and say, “Whatever you may lack in height, ma p’tit, you make up for in spirit.” Even as a small child I had that fierce, competitive recklessness that I still possess today.
I always ensure that the second thing people notice about me--after my stature--is something quite different. That I am not somebody to be messed with.
Because I always win. Whatever I have to do, I do it. Gambling isn’t about taking only chances you know you can make. It’s about taking ALL the chances. And making them.
Tiny Maria de Vries can finally have control over something.
From the way I casually entered the Paresse de Luxe and paid the entrance fee (insisting that I was, in fact, old enough), no one would guess that I have never been there before.
Tonight is the night I up my game. I’m dressed accordingly--a little black dress and a shy, demure expression. It’s starkly opposite to the loud clothes and attitude of most of the inmates of this club, and in contrast to the noisy ease and brightly-coloured clothes I usually wear. In short, my appearance is misleading.
The interior is brightly, colorfully lit. Jazzy music is blared and the lounges scattered around are littered with cushions. The floor is dark gray tile and the round poker tables are surrounded by semi-circular booths which have smooth, fake leather seats.
I sauntered over to a table of six. I slid into a seat, eyes averted, but rather than overdo the part, after a minute I looked up and glanced around the table at my opponents.
Across from me were the only other two females at the table- two girls in tight blouses, with cigarettes balanced between garishly painted fingernails. Their thick eyeliner and short, sleek haircuts accentuated the differences between us.
The other occupants of the table included a middle-aged, large and rather seedy English gentleman with a tumbler of port, a gray-haired, lean Italian with a weary face and jaded eyes, and a young man to my left who couldn’t possibly be more than nineteen.
The round was dealt and the game began. While the young one may have silk neckties, he didn’t have the motivation I had at his age. He dropped out and ordered a drink.
A few minutes later I guessed that a high bid by one of the girls across from me was a rather weak attempt at a bluff and raised her. She glanced nervously over her cigarette at the others, but when they all folded she turned her sleek head and stared at me with her bold black eyes. She goes all in.
I laughed inwardly. She’s much larger than me and obviously thinks I’m not brave enough to challenge her. I delay for a minute, head down, toppling over my stack of chips and then rebuilding it. My frowning concentration must have fooled the table quite well, because the girl in the tight blouse across from me puffed from her cigarette and relaxed her elbows onto the table.
Finally I lifted my head up, and with a childish air of defiance slid my pile into the center. Glancing around the table I saw raised eyebrows, but the girl’s face fell.
Le grande flip—I smiled quietly and gathered the chips, moving on to the next table. My hand wasn’t great, but it beat my opponent’s pair of threes. I could feel her glaring insolently at my back.
I’m older than you, I thought.
The next game took longer, but I endured. And I got my reward—triumphantly I moved on to the next table and allowed myself to order my favorite drink, a pineapple juice. At this table there were higher stakes and more competitive players.
One of them I noticed in particular.
He sat across from me, and even if his pile of chips wasn’t quite as large as some of the others, he is no one to be messed with. In fact, I could see in his face that he plays like I do. All the chances. Accepting each new win, but barely glancing at it before moving on to the next. Greedy for opportunity.
I also had an uncanny suspicion that he saw right through my little act….and furtively studying him, I wondered if all that I can see of him is also only a mask….
He had a noticeable face and dark, tousled hair. He didn’t have the reckless all-or-nothing air that so many gamblers do, and he twirled a cigarette between his shapely fingers but never lighted it.
The game began. Carefully I examined my cards, but dread settled in the bottom of my stomach. Why did I have to have such terrible cards? On this round? For some reason this round felt significant. I raised my eyes from my hand and found him watching me from across the table.
My face is impenetrable, I told myself.
It was my turn. No need to look at my cards again, they were imprinted in my mind. Gosh, they’re terrible.
Did I dare? He’s the person I was worried about….for once in my life, I was scared to take a chance. I thought that if I tried to bluff my way through, he’d check it, and I didn’t want to lose everything! I remembered what it felt like to have no more chances. The grief of a gambler.
But I’ve never been good at quitting--I’m a fighter. So I hung in there, paying minimum, until finally it was down to me and him. He won, but I folded with enough to make the top two, and thankfully two people could move on.
I think he was surprised behind that mask of indifference. Why do I care about what he thinks? I shook my shoulders. If I wanted to win I needed to have no inhibitions, no restrictions….certainly no confining ‘charm’ cast on me. But the game was over, and I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. After all, I had another chance.
I pushed my empty glass away from me and stood up. It wasn’t over yet, no, not by a long shot.
Half an hour passed slowly. I had played no one at this table before, and there was a particularly vocal person this time, a youngish man sitting to my left with light, curly hair and a handsome, open face. Quietly I called bid after bid, and he muttered something quite audible and ordered another drink.
As the game progressed and the stakes rose, I began to sweat internally. The young man to my left might be rather intoxicated, but he knew his game, and seemed to have excellent cards. I got more and more nervous, breathing quickly and edgily tapping the seat with my fingertips. I was his biggest threat now.
“Look at her,” he jeered, the words rather slurred. “She looks like a li-ittle child. But she can play poker.” I didn’t respond. He took another sip of his beverage.
I raised his bid again. Quite annoyed but apparently undaunted, he raised mine. I raised it. More frustrated than thinking clearly, he went all-in.
I took a deep breath and did likewise.
This was it. If I won, I had another chance. If I lost, I was done for the night. We flipped.
I gasped audibly with relief. I had only just beaten him, a three-of-a-kind to a two-pair. But he was angry. Half drunk, he lunged for the pile of chips and was forcibly extricated from the table by two waiters. He left calling out jeering insults intermingled with curses.
I ignored him and placidly continued clearing the chips before moving on. But internally I was shaky--that had been way too close.
Only one more game to go before the head table. For me, the whole night felt as if it were leading up to that moment when I could finally be there. So I finished the game as if I had come to the club a million times and done this very thing-- I was getting so comfortable, so used to the atmosphere that I had almost forgotten that it was my first night here. Only my heart raced as I finally took my place at the head table.
But he was there too.
There was no one else at the table yet, all the others were either temporarily up at the bar or still playing other games. He looked up when I slid into my seat but then kept his eyes thoughtfully on the table. After a minute he took the now lighted cigarette out of his mouth and spoke.
“I know you cheat.” He spoke the four words quietly, as a statement. I squirmed inside but outside I was rigidly still.
“I know you do.” I didn’t speak defensively, but calmly as he had, as if we were exchanging a sort of mutual confidence. A silent moment passed, rich and yet strangely still with thoughts. He smoked, staring at a fixed point on the table as I drew idly on it with my finger.
He took the cigarette out of his mouth, an amused smile spreading across his face. “How do you live with it?”
After a moment I said slowly, “It’s all a game, isn’t it? Everyone can--influence--if they don’t get caught. So, it’s fair play.”
“Is that how you see everything?” he asked. “As a game?”
“No!” I said, almost sharply. “Just poker.” But even so I wondered--was it all a game to me? Would I take chances--not staking shiny plastic chips but lives? Fortunes?
Life is a scarier game. I can’t control my opportunities.
“Fair play,” I repeated slowly, “Within the game.”
“Then let’s see your game,” he said smoothly…., “Maria.”
I stared at him numbly. So he did remember. But there was no more time for words as the other players began to take their seats.
The cards were dealt. I looked at mine. They’re okay, not great. I could work with them, but I avoided looking across the table.
The game progressed……and by the turn card, I knew I was not okay. At all.
He had good cards. I knew it.
I started to panic. What if I was wrong? What if to me life wasn’t a game…….but the game was life?
I glanced up at the tiny chandelier above the table and watched the tiny flickers of flame waver and shimmer. The cards were lying there so perfectly under them, and a thin cord held the fragile structure up. A wild thought flashed through my mind. Would the sharp edge of an expertly flicked card be enough to bring it down? I remembered all the times my uncle had thrown cards and sliced through cucumbers as if they were made of butter…..Calculating, I weighed the card in my hand, curling my fingers around the edge and mentally flicking my wrist. I glanced around the table.
All the players but him were, miraculously, preoccupied.
Suddenly I knew I would do anything to avoid being hopeless. Chanceless. Useless. Small. The word echoed through my head, a whisper as thin and harsh as an icy, biting wind.
Fair play within the game. What counted as within the game? I looked across the table. He was watching me, that same hint of amusement in his eyes but something else too….something dangerous….
I lifted my arm and sharply flicked my wrist.
The crash and shatter of glass rang throughout the large room.
This is MY game.