The Poker Champ, continued...

I returned to my table and made quick work of the other players at the table. I was moved to another table to continue the process. My tell didn’t give me away again—my legs stayed still for the rest of the morning. If anything, I thought the wheelchair was working to my advantage. People saw me as vulnerable, this young guy who couldn’t even walk, and they were more likely to believe my bluffs. I think people also found it disconcerting when I did weight shifts in my chair—for a while, it seemed like every weight shift I did pushed someone out of the hand. If I had realized this back when I was 21, I might have got myself a chair back then and gone to casinos as a fake para. I used to have a lot of balls when it came to stuff like that.

By lunchtime, most of the people at the second table had been eliminated and I was ready for a break. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Avi standing up from his table and I considered asking him if he wanted to go to lunch. There was just as good a chance that it would be really awkward, but I wanted to talk to Avi again. While I was debating, I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Riley Haveson!”

I unlocked the brakes on my chair and wheeled around to see who had said my name. Right away, I recognized the heart-shaped face of Marie Fallow from ESPN. I had always thought Marie was the hottest girl on television and she looked about ten times better up close. She was wearing a blouse that strained over her large breasts and her skirt gave me more than a glimpse of her good legs. “I’m Marie Fallow,” she said, cheerfully holding out her hand to me.

I took my right hand off my wheel to shake her hand. I tried not to stare at her breasts, but it was hard. “I know who you are.”

“That makes us even,” Marie said as she winked at me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been winked at. Not a lot of action since I’ve had the chair. “You look different with your hair so short, all cleaned up. I almost didn’t recognize you.”

“Yeah? What gave me away?” I said sarcastically. I was the only player in the room who was in a wheelchair.

Marie pretended that my question was serious. “Your eyes. I always thought you had the nicest blue eyes.”

“Well, thanks.”

Marie shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m talking to the Heartbreaker himself.”

I groaned. I was hoping everyone had forgotten that stupid nickname. They started calling me that five years ago after I landed a spot at the final table by knocking off the last year’s champion with a hearts flush. I had been waiting to get nicknamed and I had been pissed off when that was the name I got stuck with. “I... nobody calls me that,” I said.

“Well, I thought it was a good name for you,” Marie said. “You were so cute back in ‘99. I had quite a crush on you when you were going up against Tucker. All the girls at the station did. Tucker isn’t exactly attractive.”

“I lost.”

“He got lucky,” Marie said. She folded her arms against her chest. “Riley, may I take you out to lunch? I’d love to ask you some questions.”

I glanced across the room and saw that Avi was already gone. “Sure.”

Marie took me to one of the nicer restaurants in the casino, but I could see right away that it seemed cramped and crowded. I hesitated at the entrance—I didn’t want to eat in a place where my chair was going to be a problem. “It doesn’t look accessible,” I said to Marie.

Marie frowned. “Are you sure?”

“I’m not sure. It looks crowded though.”

“Let me talk to them,” Marie said. She went into the restaurant and a few minutes later, the maitre d’ himself came out and gave us a table near the entrance to the restaurant. It saved me the trouble of navigating through the crowded restaurant.

“Anything for the famous Riley Haveson,” Marie said. She winked again.

“I’m not famous,” I mumbled. It was true. Nobody recognized me around here and I didn’t expect them to.

“You’re a heavy favorite to get to the final table,” Marie told me.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that. Marie wouldn’t have been wasting her time with me if she didn’t think I had at least a decent chance of making the final table. And I had been doing pretty well so far.

“If you don’t mind my asking, why did you stay away so long?” Marie asked.

I looked at her like she was crazy and gestured down at my legs. “Why do you think?”

“But five years?” Marie shook her head. “You could have come back sooner.”

“I wasn’t ready.”

“Maybe you were waiting for everyone to forget you.”

I stared at her. “What is this? Psychoanalysis?”

Marie just smiled. “I could never forget someone as cute as you. You’re still the Heartbreaker.”

I didn’t think Marie was hitting on me. What I thought was that she was flirting with me to get a story and I didn’t appreciate it. Back in the old days, when I was the only computer science major in my college who wasn’t socially awkward, I thought it was great flirting with girls. Now it bothered me. I didn’t want her to think I could be manipulated easily just because I was a paraplegic.

“Don’t worry,” Marie said, after we placed our orders, “I know you’re not interested in me, Riley.”

“Why would you say that?” I was surprised she had figured out what I was thinking. Maybe the woman was smarter than I had thought.

Marie shrugged. “Come on, Riley. You’re the poker player, always psyching out the bluffs. I know I can’t get anything past you. We both know I’m here for a story.”

“What story?”

“Are you kidding? You’ve got a great story. You practically died and now you’re back to win the championship.”

Win the championship. I thought it was unlikely I’d even make it to the final table, but now it seemed like there were people out there who thought otherwise. Somebody believed in me, even if I didn’t.

“The Heartbreaker is back,” Marie said with a smile.

“I’m not the Heartbreaker,” I mumbled. If she called me that again, I thought I was going to snap.

Marie pursed her lips. “Avi Green might disagree with that.”

I stared at her. “What?”

“You heard me.” Marie was staring right into my eyes.

My heart was pounding. She knew about me and Avi. How did she know? Nobody knew.

Before I even asked the question, Marie replied, “Please. You think you two were discreet? You slept in his apartment every night. We all knew about it five years ago. Maybe you weren’t aware of this, but on day three of the competition, you wore the same shirt Green wore on day one.”

Oh shit, I thought.

Marie crossed her arms. “Of course, back then you were both nobodies. Now he’s last year’s champion, he’s married, and you’re making a comeback. Kind of an interesting story that you two hooked up, isn’t it?”

“Fuck,” I said. I stared at Marie’s face. “What do you want?”

“Are you still in love with him?” Marie asked.

“No!” I snapped. “Look, I’m not gay and neither is Avi. It was just a one time thing. You can’t air it on TV.”

“I’m not threatening you, Riley,” Marie said calmly. “I don’t want to destroy Green’s marriage. But he’s been very difficult about giving an interview and I thought maybe you could... influence him.”

“Fine,” I said. It was pointless to try to explain to Marie that I didn’t have any influence over Avi Green anymore. I was lucky he was even speaking to me.

“And I’d like an interview with you, as well,” Marie said. “Although, to be perfectly honest, Green is favored to win. We’re hoping you get to the final table though, because we’ve got a great story on you.”

Obviously. “I guess you know all about what happened to me five years ago,” I said.

Marie nodded. No big surprise there.

I finished out the day as the eleventh place chip leader. All in all, it wasn’t too bad for my first day back after five years. Only the top ten players would make it to the final table, so I knew I had to do better. In no limit Hold ‘em, things can change very fast. Avi was ahead of me and so was Keith Tucker, but that was no guarantee that either of them would make it to the final table. It was still anyone’s game.

To be continued...