[Reader’s Note: this week’s mystery-thriller features Sam and Monica Sunborn, the main characters in my thriller novels, NOT SO DEAD and NOT SO GONE.]

“Bad beat, again,” I said and Neil raked the pot. It was Tuesday night at our weekly poker game. My wife, Monica, and Neil and his wife, Gloria, had a regular bridge game for years. When we decided to be more sociable, adding Steve and his wife, Marge, we had to switch games. As an avid poker player, I suggested Texas Holdem where anywhere from two to twenty-three people can play on a single deck of cards. They agreed and seemed eager to learn the game. They became pretty good at it too.

After I lost the third pot in a row, I remembered a saying from Amarillo Slim, the famous Texas road-gambler, and I said, “‘It’s not about results… it’s about decisions.’ If I make good decisions, I’ll win in the long run. You’ll see.”

Neil laughed and said, “How long is the long run?” He stacked his newly-acquired chips in nice, neat colorful towers. “Really, how long is that? I’d like to know.”

“We never really know, do we?” Gloria said.

“Yes, but we make assumptions, don’t we? Otherwise, why save for retirement or have a rainy day fund?” Monica asked.

Poker thriller by Charles Levin Author

“I’ll buy in for another fifty-dollars,” I said, handing a crisp Ulysses S. Grant to Monica. Since she’s so good with money, we all trust her to be the banker. 

This isn’t anything like the higher stakes I’ll play at a casino or at the World Series of Poker. Still, as Nick the Greek famously said, when caught playing a dollar-two-dollar game in his old age, “Action is action.” Playing for any kind of money tends to focus the mind and bring out the competitive spirit. At least, it does that for me.

Yet, whoever won on a particular night didn’t matter much. We all enjoyed playing regularly in Steve’s basement, which he remodeled as a game room. In addition to his well-stocked bar, the game room featured an official green-felted Texas Holdem table in the shape of a stretched oval. Since Steve is a serious smoker, he allows and even encourages smoking in his man cave. As a non-smoker, I put up with it, but would immediately throw my smoky clothes in the hamper upon as soon as I returned home from the games.

Steve dealt out the next hand. “I’m sorry Marge couldn’t make it. Bad cold. She didn’t want to pass it around. Cards and chips are the next best thing to bodily fluids for passing germs.”

“Well, I hope she gets better soon. Tell her we miss her… and her money.” I looked down at the two cards I was dealt–King of Hearts and King of Spades, second best-starting hand in Poker. I bet five dollars. Neil called the bet. Gloria, Monica, and Steve folded.

Gloria lit a cigarette and headed for the bar. “Neil, would you like a drink?”

“Yeah sure, get me a beer.” Neil looked at me and snickered, “You and me, again.”

Steve then dealt the flop, the first three of five community cards that we share to make our best five-card hand. King-Deuce-Deuce. A full-house for me, almost a perfect flop. It’s so strong that I didn’t want to lose Neil by betting. I rapped my fist on the felt, a check-no-bet gesture, passing the decision to Neil. “Twenty-bucks,” he said sliding a stack of twenty white chips into the pot.

Hmm, what could he have? I rechecked my cards, two kings’re still there. I scanned Neil’s blank face for tells. Nothing. Gloria handed Neil the beer and he took a big gulp.

Neil smacked his lips and said, “C’mon, Sam. Time for one of your great decisions.”

I hesitated, then shoved my chips into the middle, “All-in,” I said.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Neil said, “Call,” and counted out fifty in chips to match my all-in.

“Flip ‘em over. Let’s see,” Monica said.

I turned over my kings. “Full-house, kings over deuces,” I said.

Neil paused and silently showed his King of Clubs and Deuce of Diamonds. He had a full-house, but a lesser one. 

“Deuces over kings,” Steve said. “Still two cards to come. No more betting. Sam’s all-in.”

Steve dealt a harmless fourth card, the Queen of Clubs. Then it was time for the river, the final card. There was only one card out of thirty-eight left in the deck that could beat me. Steve and I both stood up, hovering over the table. Steve flipped the last card, a deuce of spades. “Quad deuces. Neil wins,” Steve said.

“Shit, shit, SHIT,” I blurted. I’m stunned, but I know poker. This happens. It’s just like in life. Everything’s going along swimmingly. Then, bam! Something totally unlikely, a black swan, a one-outer on the river, comes along and felts you.

“The long-run must be a really long time, “ Neil said, wrapping both arms around the pile of chips, pulling them in like they were his children.

Then the vibe in the room suddenly changed. I felt a chill. It wasn’t clear what triggered her outburst at that moment in front of us all, but Gloria’s face turned red and she said to Neil, “Talking about decisions and bodily fluids, I know about you and Marge. I can’t believe that after nineteen years you would do this to me, to us, to the kids.”

Neil stopped cold and stared at Gloria. He started to cough, choking on his own spit, “I’m… I’m sorry,” he muttered. His face turned as gray as his hair and he fell facedown into the stacks of chips.

“Call 911!” I shouted. Rushing to Neil, I pulled him from the chair to the floor and rolled him onto his back. Chips showered around us. I put my ear to his nose. Nothing, but I could smell the whiskey on his breath. Leaning over Neil, I started chest-compressions. 1… 2… 3… Stop, hold his nose. Breath into his mouth. Nothing. Repeat… over and over. After ten minutes, I fell back onto my butt and shook my head.

The EMTs rushed in. After checking for a pulse, they unraveled their AED paddles and, “Clear.” Again, “Clear.” Nothing. Again, nothing. They looked up at us. Nobody spoke or moved. Gloria slumped stone-faced back in her chair. The EMTs put Neil on a gurney and rolled him towards the door. “We’ll take him to Baxter Memorial just in case. Meet us there.”

Now that’s a bad beat, I thought but didn’t say it.

“Now what?” Steve asked into the air.

Gloria, as if in a trance, tapped a pack of cigarettes against her hand, pulled one out, and lit up. She blew a stream of blue-gray smoke towards the ceiling and said, “Deal.”


Author Note:
The idea in my story of poker players continuing a game after a player drops dead is inspired by World Champion Doyle Brunson’s true story in his My 50 Most Memorable Hands. In Hand #10, Doyle and the others were playing four days and nights straight when Virgil, who had been drinking and smoking heavily, keeled over and died at the table. Once he was taken away, the game resumed for another 24 hours.
For more Life and Poker Wisdom, check out the colorful stories of Amarillo Slim in a World of Fat People; The Memoir of the Greatest Gambler Who Ever Lived. Note: no fat-shaming involved – humble, he’s not.

Read for FREE some of my recent short stories:

Missing the Ghost in the Palace Theater
The Gift
The Science of Regret
Nirvana Soda
Moon Landing Memories
Zombie Phone
Word Drunk

P.S. My original fast-paced thriller NOT SO DEAD and the new techno-thriller, NOT SO GONE, are now available on Amazon. Read more about it. Better yet, buy a copy?
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