The Poker Champ

The first time I ever went to Vegas was the best time of my life. I had slipped into casinos before, but I didn’t make the trip to Nevada until my 21st birthday. I remember it was the middle of the summer, so it was hot as hell. That was also the same summer I graduated from college and I was supposed to be attending grad school in computer science the next year in Southern California. (What can I say? I’m a smart guy.) Las Vegas was en route to school from home, so it seemed like I had to stop—it was fate.

Poker was like breathing to me. I had been playing since I was a kid. I organized games back in middle school and by high school, it wasn’t even a challenge anymore to take my friends’ money. I spent a week in Vegas that summer and I made enough money to cover my first year’s tuition (had I not been on scholarship).

Every weekend that next year, I was making the drive to Vegas. Sometimes I came back a loser, but usually I won. I was lucky in that I never lost the shirt off my back. I started to get interested in poker competitions and before I knew it, I had won myself an admission to the Vegas Poker Championship. I didn’t even know what the hell was going on, but I knew I had to play. I also knew that if the cards were on my side, I had a good shot at winning.

I didn’t win though. I came in second, going home with over a quarter of a million dollars.

I was 22 years old and nobody saw me coming. I got good cards, but it wasn’t about the cards. It never is. I knew the reason I did well was that I outplayed the other guys. Everyone expected a lot from me after that. So did I. When I was interviewed after the championship, I was very cocky and said that next year I was going to come back and win it all.

That was the last time I was in Vegas for five years.

And now I was back. Except instead of driving over in my old Pinto, I had to fly in from my older sister Grace’s house in New Jersey, where I had lived ever since the accident. I had been too dumb to invest in health insurance, so all the money I made in Vegas was sunk into paying my hospital bills, then I went on Medicaid. I never thought I’d be on Medicaid at age 22. I broke half the bones in my body. I was in rehab for over a year, one of the hardest years of my life.

Even after all that rehab, I was still left with the wheelchair. I was going to be in a wheelchair the rest of my life, but I knew that from the start. They told me when I first gained consciousness that I’d never walk again—my spinal cord was completely crushed and destroyed. I couldn’t walk at all, not even one fucking step. But at least after the bones in my arms healed up, I was able to start wheeling my own chair. Eventually, you start to appreciate little things like giving up the power chair for the manual one that’s easier to maneuver.

It was a tough flight into Vegas. I hadn’t flown much since my accident and I hated dealing with the aisle chairs and getting my wheelchair stored during the flight. Most of my gambling these days was done in Atlantic City, which was within easy driving distance of Grace’s house in Jersey. There were lots of crips playing in Atlantic City, although most of them were just elderly. But when I looked around the Vegas casino, I didn’t see another soul in a chair. And I was having a lot of trouble wheeling myself around with all the carpeting.

Five years ago, I had strode into the casino on my own two feet and sauntered into the competition like I was real hot shit. Now I was lost. There were signs everywhere, but they were all useless. I was making circles, bumping into all the waitresses carrying free drinks. I finally had to ask a security guard for directions.

“The poker championship?” the guard raised his eyebrows at me. “That’s invitation only, you know.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m invited.”

He stared down at me, not believing it. “What’s your name?”

“Riley Haveson,” I said. Half of me was hoping he might recognize the name from five years ago, but it didn’t seem to register. I hadn’t won and people only remember the winner. Even if he had watched the match on television, he probably wouldn’t have recognized me now. I used to wear my hair longer, on the shaggy side, and now it was cut short. And I was clean-shaven for a change, instead of the three-day stubble on my face I always used to sport in the old days. But those differences seemed small compared to the chair I was sitting in. There had never been a crip who won the championship.

The guard grudgingly gave me directions, although I got lost one more time before I finally found the room. The person at the door gave me the same skeptical look as the guard until he took my name, scrutinized my ID, and verified I was supposed to be there. “You’re at table 6, Mr. Haveson.”

At the entryway, I saw the picture posted of the winner of last year’s competition: Avi Green. He had won over a million dollars. I stared into the dark eyes in the photograph and knew that I didn’t have what it took to beat him. Not anymore.

I had qualified for the competition by winning a championship in my region. After the accident, I gave up poker for a while. Even though I had the skills, poker was always a gamble and I couldn’t afford to take those kinds of risks anymore, now that I was disabled and my job prospects were limited. And more importantly, poker reminded me too much of my old life, of everything I used to have before I fucked it all up. It had been Grace who pushed me to enter the local competition, even though I was more focused on trying to finish my degree in computer science so I could get a real job. She knew poker was my passion. The more I played, the more I felt that I was getting my groove back and I started to really enjoy myself. But I was still a long way from the guy who beat out all the professionals five years ago. I didn’t know if I’d ever be that guy again. I figured I might last a day or two in this competition, but probably not more than that.

I found table 6 and I was a little relieved to see that I didn’t recognize anyone at the table. Most of the guys were pretty young and probably hadn’t been around when I was at the final table five years ago. Even so, I purposely introduced myself just as Riley, omitting my last name. I didn’t want any attention focused on me.

I sat patiently in my chair, waiting for the game to begin. I had worn loose, comfortable clothing, because I knew how long these days lasted and I didn’t want to get a pressure sore. I couldn’t feel my legs at all and I knew from experience that even a few coins in my back pocket could cause an angry red swelling on my skin. I nearly showed up in sweatpants, but I thought that was going too far. The truth was, I didn’t expect to be around that long.

“Riley!” I heard the voice from behind me. “Riley Haveson! Where have you been, you son of a bitch?”

Before I even turned around, I knew it was Keith Tucker, the son of a bitch who had beaten me five years ago. I unlocked the brakes on my chair and turned to face him. He stared down at my legs, which were positioned in the legrests, and he shook his head. I felt really self-conscious all of a sudden. “Oh fuck, Riley. The rumors are true.”

“It’s no big deal.” I shrugged to emphasize that it was no big deal.

Keith frowned, still looking down at my legs. He was a big, loud poker pro who cursed like a sailor. We had become friends and I didn’t have any bad feelings toward him for taking me down with a flush on the river five years ago. “Is it permanent?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Fuck, Riley,” Keith sighed. He shook his head at me. “But hey, your arms still work. You didn’t have to give up the game.”

“I’m here, right?” I said.

Keith smiled slowly and shook his head. “Fuck! It’s great to see you, Riley!” He turned to the other people at the table. “You folks know who this is? This is Riley fucking Haveson. I almost lost to him at the final table five years ago.”

“Keith,” I muttered. I hated to explain to him that I was trying to keep a low profile.

Keith nudged me. “Hey, did you hear that fucker Green won it all last year?”

I didn’t need Keith to remind me of this fact. I watched the game and even if I hadn’t, there was that large photo of him at the door. Avi Green, aka Avi Greenberg, hadn’t been a major contender back when I had played, but I had known him well. It killed me to think of Avi winning it all last year while I was living in my sister’s downstairs bedroom.

“Avi Green plays like shit,” Keith announced. “If he even winds up at the final table this year, I’m going to fucking cry. Riley, you’ve got to make the final table.” Before I could say anything, Keith threw up his hands. “Yeah, don’t tell me, you’re out of practice. Be a fucking man, Riley.”

With those words, Keith disappeared to his own table. I immediately turned my chair back around. I didn’t want to risk anyone else here recognizing me. I didn’t think I could endure another “where the fuck you been, Riley?” conversation.

The game of the championship is no limit Texas Hold’em. Each player receives two cards of their own and there are five cards on the table. You bet after you get your two cards, then you bet again after the first three cards on the table (called the flop), then again after one more table card (the turn), and then again after the last table card (the river). In these competitions, the betting is usually over before the river card is turned, especially if you’re playing with the professionals. The trick is to force people out before they get a hand worth betting on.

They say a good player can beat his opponents without even looking at his own hand. You have to look at the other players, study their moves, when they bet on certain hands. By five or six hands with a table of amateurs, I could usually tell exactly what everyone else had in their hands just by a quick glance at their face and their opening bet. I knew I could win at this table without a problem.

There was only one thing that weakened me. Since my accident, I had developed a tell. I was getting better at controlling it, but something like that can kill you in poker. That’s why most guys wear dark shades, so that their eyes didn’t give them away. My tell was my left leg. When I was bluffing, sometimes (not all the time) it would start jumping.

It didn’t make any sense. When my spinal cord was destroyed, my legs lost their connection to my brain. So how did my legs know when I was lying? I even went to the doctor to tell him about this problem and he reassured me that it didn’t make any sense. But that didn’t solve the problem.

An hour in, I found myself with a nine and a four in my hand—not a very impressive hand. I knew the players pretty well at that point and I wasn’t too worried. I was ready to finish them off. I was right after the large blind bet, so I pushed a bunch of money into the pot, hoping to drive people out before the flop. I had the largest pot by far, so I was able to use it to push people around. But as I was shoving money into the pot, I could see my left leg starting to jump.

It’s the craziest thing to see your leg move like that, without your control at all. The first time it ever happened, I could only stare, baffled. My doctor said it’s normal with my injury. I have no feeling at all in my legs and anywhere below the waist, which is why I need a belt to sit up straight in my chair. When my legs really start jumping, it’s very hard to calm them down. I tried massaging and even smacking them with my fist, but they really just need time.

I was lucky in that hand, because the other players backed down quickly after my large bet. After it was over, I told the dealer I needed a bathroom break and hurried away. In the bathroom, I went into the handicapped stall and rubbed my leg for about ten minutes until it calmed down. It was good timing because it was time for me to empty my bladder now anyway. I can’t tell when I have to pee at all anymore, so I avoid accidents by inserting a catheter up my penis at regular intervals. My routine works pretty well at preventing me from wetting my pants.

I was washing my hands at the handicapped sink when I saw in the mirror that someone else had entered the bathroom. It took me half a second to recognize the face of Avi Green. I quickly looked down, hoping he didn’t recognize me. But he stopped and it was obvious he did.


I wheeled my chair around and immediately a felt a flash of deja vu. Avi looked the same as he did five years ago, right down to that fucking Yankees cap and the shades to hide his eyes. I never needed shades to play. I could look anyone right in the eyes and bluff. He pulled off the shades and I could see his brown eyes. He looked tired.

“Wow,” Avi said. “Where have you been, Riley?” It was the question of the day, apparently.

“Not winning the championship like some people.” I meant to sound like I was joking around, but I think I sounded bitter.

Avi smiled. “I got lucky.”

That wasn’t an exaggeration. Last year, people were saying Avi Green had a fucking horseshoe up his ass. He played very erratically, but his luck saved him time and again. Either one of us could push around some amateurs, but when it came down to the final table, you had to have the cards to back it up too.

“I heard you got married,” I said.

“Yeah, yeah,” Avi muttered. “Last year.”

“Nice Jewish girl?”

“What do you think?”

“I think you haven’t gotten head since last year.”

Avi smiled wryly. “More like I haven’t gotten laid this calendar year.”

I knew what we were both thinking, but I wasn’t going to be the one to bring it up. Avi Green and I met at a poker table six years ago, back when he was still Avi Greenberg. Avi denies it, but I took him down in that game, big time. He lost his shirt to me, but it wouldn’t be the last time. Neither of us had ever fucked another guy before, but we started shacking up together after about a week. I’m the first to admit it was great. Before Avi, I had been with a good amount of women and none of them could come close.

I think what attracted me to Avi initially was that he was so conservative. He came from a religious Jewish family in Brooklyn and he kept them in the dark about his nightly poker games. He was slim with thick dark curly hair that he always covered with his Yankee cap. I could tell right away that he wanted me, even though I had never sensed that about another guy before. And I knew I wanted him back. At first we were just friends, but I think we both knew that was just a pretense from day one. I used the excuse of coming up to Avi’s apartment to show him some “tricks of the trade” but I think we both knew what was going to happen.

Avi lived and worked in Vegas, so I stayed with him during my frequent trips. We fucked frequently and when we weren’t fucking, we were talking about poker. I couldn’t imagine a better relationship than that. I remember glancing across a poker table at him and imagining the feel of his dick in my throat. Then later that night, I’d turn it into a reality. To our buddies, we were just good friends. They all thought I was crashing on Avi’s couch.

I was the one who ended it. I did it right after I got second place in the championship. The reason I gave him was that it was obvious that Avi’s family would never approve of us any more than they would approve of his gambling, and I was sick of living a lie. The reason I gave myself was that I wasn’t that into Avi and I needed to focus on poker. Avi was a decent player but he hadn’t even made the final table—I was much better.

Looking back, I didn’t even know what the hell the reason was. Maybe I had been afraid things were getting too serious with Avi. If I hadn’t broken it off, I wondered if we’d still be together now. I really doubt it. When I got into my accident, Avi didn’t even come see me in the hospital, and I didn’t blame him. I’m sure he hated me for a while.

“You look okay,” Avi said to me. He seemed a little surprised.

I guess Avi heard how my face got smashed up in the accident. I broke my nose, my left cheekbone, and my jaw was shattered and had to be wired. I looked like a mess and I could see it in the reactions of the people who came into the room. I do look okay now. All that’s left is a light scar below my left eye and one along lower edge of my jawline that’s barely visible. I swear I notice a difference when I look in the mirror, but most people tell me I’m crazy and I look the same. I know Avi always thought I was very good looking—that was what initially attracted him to me. “A lot of plastic surgery,” I replied. I didn’t get into the fact that I had scars all over my body that were a lot more visible than the ones on my face. Avi wasn’t going to see those. Not now that he was married and living in the suburbs.

Avi just stood there, like he wasn’t sure what to do. He was never what you’d call “suave”. I remembered watching Avi on TV when he won the championship last year. He was the chip leader by a small amount and he had pushed all his chips in on a weak hand (a two and a seven) to bluff his opponent out of the hand. Unfortunately for him, his opponent had a pair of kings, one of the strongest hands, and had pushed all his chips in as well. Avi had taken a gamble and it hadn’t worked. Everyone watched as the flop revealed a single seven, then nothing on the turn, then another seven on the river. It was the surprise of the year: Avi won the hand with three sevens.

What had amazed me was Avi’s reaction to the whole thing. Most guys would have been jumping around like an idiot, but Avi just nodded and smiled. He had always been so reserved in public. I knew Avi worked at suppressing his emotions, because it helped him to bluff. The only time when he ever let himself go was when we got into bed. Avi was passionate as hell when we were fucking. It was one of the things I missed about him. I brought it up to him one time and he just shrugged and grinned at me, What can I say? You make me crazy, Riley.

I got this feeling that the woman Avi had married didn’t “make him crazy.” Honestly, I wasn’t sure if any woman could do it for him.

Avi slipped his dark glasses back over his eyes. “Good luck to you, Riley. Not that you need it.”

If not for the accident, Avi Green and all his luck wouldn’t have had a chance against me. But I wasn’t the same person I had been back then.

To be continued...