The Poker Champ, continued...

Thanks to my cautious drinking, I was one of the only dozen or so players not hungover the next day. Most of them hid it pretty well, but I noticed the game was a lot more subdued than yesterday. Several of the guys spent their breaks clutching their heads.

I was doing pretty well and beginning to build up some confidence until Mike Feng joined my table. Mike was at the final table last year and I knew he was a stellar player. If it came down to the two of us, he was far better.

And I was still dealing with my tell. I was trying to hide it the best I could. I kept my legs under the table so nobody would see if one of them started jumping. It wasn’t something that was easy to get under control. I tried massaging my knees between the hands. But I figured it was just a matter of time before somebody figured it out. Then I was dead.

“Don’t look so worried,” Mike said to me. “We can both survive this table.”

Mike and I had the largest chip stacks at the table, so we were each able to push players around. I came up head to head with Mike twice, but I quickly backed down both times. I wasn’t ready to deal with a player like Mike.

Until I got the suited ace and queen. It was a good hand and I bet before the flop. When the flop turned up an ace, ten, five, I decided I was ready for a break and wanted to end this quickly. I pushed all my chips into the pot. “I’m all in,” I said.

In order to be a good poker player, you can’t constantly be thinking about the money. You’ve got to be able to put ten-thousand dollars on the table, lose it all, and shrug your shoulders and walk away. I used to be able to do that. Even though I’ve made a lot of money from poker, I’ve also lost incredible amounts of money.

Mike was looking at my chips and looking down at his. “I call,” he said.

Our chip stacks were similar. Whoever lost this hand would be pushed out of the tournament.

Everyone else dropped out of the hand, and Mike and I dropped our cards. I had the better hand: he had a pair of kings that was trumped by the pair of aces I had so far. I deserved to win that hand... Mike took a chance that I didn’t have an ace and he lost the bet. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I knew there were still two cards left to come. As long as a king wasn’t turned up, giving Mike a three of a kind, I would win the hand.

Mike stood up and put his hand on my shoulder. “However this turns out,” he said, “it’s been great playing with you again, Riley.”

“You too,” I said.

The turn card came: a king.

Everyone at the table went crazy. Mike clapped his hands together as I stared at the king. A fucking king, I couldn’t believe it. I was as good as out of the game. But it wasn’t that bad—I had lasted a lot longer than I had expected and at least I lost to someone really good.

“You can still win if the river is a jack,” Mike reminded me. “You’ll have a straight.”

“Yeah, and I’m that lucky,” I said, trying to smile.

I was almost relieved. I knew I wasn’t going to win this thing anyway. I felt like I had just been waiting for that really bad hand and now that it had come, I could relax. I could go home to my sister’s house and back to trying to piece together my life.

I unlocked the brakes on my chair, preparing to make the rounds on the room to say goodbye to my friends. That was when the dealer turned over the river card: jack of diamonds. “Holy shit,” I said.

Five years ago, I remember dancing around like an idiot when I had a lucky hand like that. Now I just sat in my wheelchair, staring at the cards in disbelief. The chips were counted and it turned out I had a slight edge over Mike. I had officially pushed out Mike Feng. I couldn’t believe it.

“Nice hand, Haveson,” Mike said to me, holding out his hand for me to shake.

“It was an honor playing with you,” I said earnestly.

We broke for lunch after that. I wasn’t surprised when Marie Fallow caught me before the other guys did. She was wearing a tight red suit and looked amazing. “Nice work there, Riley,” she said. “Mike Feng was a heavy favorite to win.”

“What were his odds?” I asked.

“Around two point five,” she said.

“What are my odds?” I knew the answer to that question, but I still had to ask.

“Terrible,” Marie replied. “I’m going to make a bundle when you win.”

“You bet on me?”

“A thousand bucks, tiger.”

I suppressed the urge to tell Marie that she would have been better off flushing the thousand dollars down the toilet. Who am I to disparage gambling?

“How about that interview now?” she asked.

I followed Marie up in the elevator to her suite, which was set up like a television studio. She had more equipment in there than I had ever seen. I wheeled my chair over to the two stairs leading down to the “living room” area of the suite. “You need help getting down the stairs?” she asked.

“Nah,” I said. I held onto the railing and bounced down the two steps. I kept my free hand on my legs, to make sure they didn’t get knocked out of place. If you’re in a wheelchair, you’re going to run into problems if you can’t manage a step or two on your own.

“Nice,” Marie said and she grinned at me. She sat down on the couch and crossed her long legs. “Shall we begin?”

The initial questions she asked were not that interesting. She asked about my past, where I grew up, when I started playing poker. “Aren’t you going to ask anything interesting?” I finally said.

“You think this isn’t interesting?” Marie raised her eyebrow “What would you like me to ask about? How you got drunk and smashed your car into a tree, which is why you’re a paraplegic?”

I stared at her. “I get it. You already know all that stuff.”

“Common knowledge, Riley.”

I nodded at her video equipment. “You got it on tape?”

Marie nodded.

“Can I see?”

“You don’t want to see.”

“I’m asking, right?”

Marie stood up and found a videotape from a box on the table. She popped the tape in to the TV she had resting on the dresser. I watched as the snow turned into a picture.

In 1999, a new face emerged as a serious contender in the poker world. Twenty-two year old Riley Haveson advanced to the final table, defeating such big names as Cliff Morgen and Gerard Beckett. Haveson attracted viewers due to his looks and charisma, earning himself the nickname, The Heartbreaker. Despite all odds, Haveson became one of the last two players remaining in the ‘99 Championship, and was finally taken down by three-time winner Keith Tucker.

My “looks and charisma”... great. It made me sound like some kind of politician. I watched the clip of myself dancing around the table like a moron after a good hand, then a clip of me losing to Keith. It brought back memories, that was for sure. I looked so young back then. I didn’t know the meaning of the word “pain”.

Haveson vowed to return in 2000 to win the championship, but his own careless lifestyle got in the way of his dreams. After a night of heavy drinking, Haveson lost control of his car and slammed into a tree, throwing him thirty feet from the vehicle. He suffered a broken nose, a broken jaw, three broken ribs, and a broken back. Once again, Haveson beat the odds and survived, but he was left with a permanent spinal cord injury. He was paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, never to walk again.

I watched a virtual slide show of my ordeal five years ago. They showed pictures of my totaled car, then me in the hospital with my jaw wired shut and my two black eyes. When I saw an early picture of me in my wheelchair, I decided I had enough. “Shut this off,” I said. I stared at Marie. “Where did you get those pictures?”

“It’s the truth, isn’t it?” Marie said.

My heart was pounding. I decided I had enough of her acting coy. “Where did you get the fucking pictures, Marie?”

Marie smiled. “You’re really hot when you’re angry, Riley,” she said. “Of course, you’re really hot all the time... you heartbreaker, you...”

“Cut the bullshit, Marie.”

She began to unbutton her blouse and I could see she was serious. On my part, I just sat in my wheelchair and watched. She reached behind her chest and unhooked her bra to show me her breasts. I hadn’t seen naked breasts, except the ones in magazines, in... shit, years. Since before the turn of the century. She stood up, “I’ve wanted you since 1999. We’ve got twenty minutes. Fuck me, Riley.”

She undid the button on her red skirt and let it fall to the floor. Underneath, she was wearing a bright red thong. I swallowed hard. “I can’t fuck you. Didn’t you do your research, Fallow? I’m impotent now.”

“You can still lick carpet, can’t you?” she asked, fingering the strap on her thong.

I watched as Marie slowly pulled down her thong to reveal her cleanly waxed pussy. “Yeah, I can do that.”

I grabbed her by the waist and pushed her against the table. She squealed in delight as I lifted her up onto the table surface. She lay down on the table and spread her legs for me. She was so wet, I could see her skin glistening.

I ran my fingertip gently over her clit as she shuddered and gripped the edges of the table. I smiled at the sight of her trembling thighs. “So... what do you want me to do?”

“Eat me, you fucking cripple!” Marie screamed.

I laughed. The truth of the matter was that I had eaten a fair amount of pussy in my lifetime, but I preferred sucking dick. Avi’s dick, to be specific. A mouthful of pussy just can’t compare, in my opinion. But this Marie... she was not to be denied. And I won’t lie, I did want her. I would have preferred to fuck her, but since I couldn’t do that anymore, this was the only way.

I gripped her thighs and buried my face in her pussy. I tried to remember what I used to do that made women scream my name. It had really been a long time. I dug my tongue into her, then pulled out to play with her clit. Marie was pounding her fists on the table and when I came up for a breath, I could see her chest was covered with sweat. I began making circles around her clit and the taste began to change subtly. “Yes!” she screamed. “Keep doing that!” Ten seconds later, her ass lifted clear off the table as she came harder than I’ve ever seen a woman cum. She cried out so loudly, I thought someone might think I was raping her in here.

I wiped my mouth off and wheeled over to look at Marie’s flushed face. Her lips were bright red. “How was that?”

“Average,” Marie replied, sitting up.

“Average?” I repeated.

“Compared to the other poker players, yes.” Marie shrugged. “Lucky thing you’re so good looking, Riley.”

“Wait, how many...” Before I could ask my question, Marie had skipped up the stairs to the bathroom and slammed the door. My front wheels banged against the first step. The stairs were too steep for a wheelie. I considered lowering myself out of the chair and scootching up the steps the old fashioned way, but I decided to wait.

Marie emerged from the bathroom looking like she had just come out of a business meeting. She cleaned up fast... almost as if she did this all the time. “Little help?” I said, looking up at her.

Marie hauled my chair backwards up the two steps. “I hope I didn’t wear you out too much,” she said. “I wouldn’t want it to affect your game.”

“Not at all,” I said.

“Tell me, did you think about Avi the whole time?”

I ignored her question and asked one of my own: “So have you slept with all the players?”

“Only the cute ones, Riley,” she winked. “And you are the cutest...” She bent down and ran her hand up my thigh. “As well as the most intriguing.”

“I can’t feel that at all,” I said pleasantly.

“Yes, but you can see it.”

“Well, it’s not really the same, is it?” I looked up at Marie’s eyes, which were dark blue, almost violet. “Did you sleep with Green?”

Marie laughed. “That’s all you care about, isn’t it? No, I didn’t. He’s cute, but I know I won’t get anywhere with him.”

“Smart girl.”

Marie examined her face one last time in the mirror. “I have to know, why’d you dump him?”

“Who says I dumped him?”

“Please.” Marie shook her head. “The Heartbreaker versus Slider? That’s no mystery.” Slider was Avi’s nickname, or so I had heard on television. I had no idea how they came up with it and this was the first time I had heard someone use the name. Maybe it had something to do with his close calls, but it seemed like one of those stupid nicknames-because-everyone-has-to-have-a-nickname.

I wasn’t about to start telling Marie everything that went on between Avi and me. All I said was, “It had to end eventually.”

I got back to the tournament with minutes to spare. Before I got to the room, Avi stopped me at the door. He looked like he had been camped out, waiting for me. “I need to talk to you, Riley.”

He had his shades off and he was looking at me like he was going to die or something. “Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Later,” he said.

“Yeah, okay.” I was about to ask him if he was okay, but our conversation was interrupted by Benny Gomez, who was beaming like he had already taken our money.

“You fucked Marie, didn’t you, you bastard!” Benny cried. “I saw you sneaking off with her... am I right, Haveson?”

He said it loud enough for the whole room to hear. “Maybe,” I said.

Benny clapped me on the shoulder. “She’s something, right? She’s got some kind of poker fetish or something. When I did her—”

“You had sex with Marie Fallow?” Avi was staring at Benny. “You’re married.

“Yeah, it was, like... years ago,” Benny said irritably. “Back when she was a waitress. That girl can scream... am I right, Riley?”

“She sure can,” I said, looking at Avi.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” Benny said to me. “She wanted you back in ‘99. I told her to go for it, but she kept insisting you were involved with someone. I told her you weren’t.”

“I was,” I said. Suddenly, everything made sense. That’s why Marie knew about me and Avi—she liked me back then.

“Really?” Benny looked surprised. “I never saw you with a girl.”

If I had a camera, I would have liked to photograph the terrified look on Avi’s face. “Someone from back home,” I said.

“We better get inside,” Avi said.

“Lighten up, Green,” Benny said, glancing at his watch.

Benny and Avi exchanged hard looks, and I remembered what Keith said about taking Avi down if we had the chance. Nobody seemed to like Avi very much. The other guys were determined not to let him win again this year.

I didn’t know how to feel about it. Whether or not Avi and I were fucking, I considered him my friend. He was a good guy, I really believed that. Just a little uptight compared to the others. But he knew how to loosen up with me. I missed that about him.

I tried not to think about Avi as I played poker in the afternoon. We were playing until there were twenty of us left. When I got back to my table, I discovered that taking Mike’s chips put me at the number five spot. Comfortable that I would be in the top twenty, I held back in the afternoon. I made only safe bets. The morning had been too intense and I was getting shit cards anyway. I held onto most of my chips and by the end of the day, I was the eighth chipleader. Benny, Avi, Keith, and Jack were all ahead of me, but I knew from experience that everything could change in one hand.

To be continued...