Chapter 12

This entry is part 13 of 44 in the series Smile

Chapter Twelve — The Poker Game

Chase, Jock, the Judge, and I put up at the Hotel López. I will never forget that night.

We had walked about town looking it over. About a block from the hotel a bingo game was going on. Jock and Chase got themselves a seat and began to play. I didn’t care much for bingo, neither did the Judge, so we wandered back to the hotel. It was getting dark and suddenly the lights came on. In these towns back in the jungle there is no electric power in the daytime. A diesel power plant is turned on at dusk and shut off at ten o’clock in the evening. The few refrigerators here are run by kerosene.

In the lobby of the hotel there was a serious game in session. Five guys sat around a table, playing draw poker. I watched and got interested. Here was a game that Joe Parker knew how to play! The game was much the same as ours in the States, but with a few exceptions. The dealer starts dealing first to himself then to the man on his right and on around the table; but instead of dealing from the top of the deck, he deals from the bottom. In this game each player had a handful of buttons, some beans and a few cordobas on the table before him. I asked the Judge how big the stakes were, and he said that to me they would seem very small. The buttons were worth half a cord and the beans were ten cents in their money. To me, the stakes were small all right, but to these people it was a pretty stiff game. Anyway, I seldom pass up a chance to join a poker game.

I said to the Judge, “ask them if they would mind if I sat in for a while.”

He talked to them in Spanish — none of them could speak English.

They all looked up at me and smiled in friendly fashion.

I had begun to understand a little Spanish, and the looks on their faces were plain to read. Between their chattering and expressions they had only one thing in mind, “Get the North Americano’s money.”

I bought in for five cord, and soon this was gone. I bought ten more. The men still were all smiles. When the ten cord was gone, I put down a fifty cordoba note. These guys were lousy poker players, each one trying to win every hand by bluffing, drawing to inside straights and betting on lady luck. I don’t play that way. Surely, soon I would get a hand, so I kept enough money in front of me at all times to cover all the money on the table. It only takes one hand, and eventually that hand would come, I thought.

It came sooner than I expected. The big guy on my right was dealing, and I was watching him closely. So far he was the big winner. He was a wicked looking guy with his left ear missing, and a big scar running from where the ear had been, up over an eye. This old boy had been in a few machete fights all right.

I picked up the hand he had dealt me. There was an ace, king, queen, jack of diamonds, and another card. The Judge was sitting behind me and I showed him the hand. The big guy on my right opened the pot with a sizable bet. Almost everyone called. I could make a flush, straight, a straight flush or a royal flush. I called and drew one card, and it was the ten of diamonds. For the first time in my life I held a royal flush! Now, I thought, I hope someone else has a good hand. The big guy was smiling and had drawn two cards. He pushed in several cordobas. Two of the men called. The others dropped out. I called and tossed in the fifty cord note.

“I raise,” I said.

The big guy had about fifty cord in front of him. There was an evil smile on his face now. He put the money in and the others dropped out. He turned up four fours and reached for the pot.

“Four fours is a good hand, buddy,” I said, “but not good enough!” I laid down my royal flush.

It was my turn to smile.

A look of disbelief was on each of their faces. Probably none of them had ever held such a hand. The scar over the big guy’s eye had turned white, and there was a malicious gleam in his eyes.

On the wall was a little blackboard with something written on it in Spanish. I couldn’t read it but noticed that these fellows kept glancing at it. “What’s the writing on the blackboard,” I asked the Judge.

“It says,” he read, “that to anyone holding a royal flush, each player must pay him fifty cordobas.”

I had hit the jackpot all right. “Well, tell them to dig up. Let’s follow the rules.”

Many vicious looks were given me as they paid off. This was quite a bit of money to them. In fact it was a lot of money. They borrowed from each other and they borrowed from the bartender. At last they had me paid off, and I had a stack in front of me that would choke a cow.

I ordered a bottle of Flor de Caña. I would buy them a drink to show them that I was a good sport.

None of them would drink with me.

I poured drinks for the Judge and me, and the game started again. No more draw poker. They would play stud. The deal would not be passed around the table. One of the fellows would do all the dealing.

I grinned at the Judge. I was really having a fine time. These guys were out to get my money! Everything had been great when they were winning, and they had been all smiles, but they were not smiling now.

“Judge,” I said, “I’m doing all right, eh?”

The Judge had his solemn look. “No, Señor Joe, you are in very grave trouble. They are saying among themselves that you are very fast with the cards. They are saying that you have cheated. Besides, they have lost much more money than they can afford. You will not leave here with all of that money. They will kill you!”

I looked them over and they were an evil looking bunch of characters. Five big machetes stood in the corner, all with three foot blades. Some or them had a hook on the end. I shuddered.

“You can play here, but don’t win. Is that it, Judge?”

“You have won far too much. Money is hard to come by here and life is very cheap.”

A cold trickle of sweat started down my back.

“Well, hell, Judge, I didn’t mean to win so much. I don’t intend to hurt anyone. If this will work a hardship on them I will give them their money back.”

He shook his head. “No, if you did that it would be admitting that you have cheated them, and they would kill you for sure.”

“What shall I do?”

“Lose the money back to them,” said the Judge. “Lose it back to them gracefully, then you might live.”

I looked at the clock on the wall — it was nine o’clock in the evening. At ten o’clock the lights go out and mine would go out with them if I didn’t lose. So for the first time in my life I played poker to lose. I could not lose! Almost every time I was being dealt a winning hand. My pile was getting larger. Here they play so that you must show your hole card, so I couldn’t lie and throw away the better hand.

The hands of the clock were winding around to nine-thirty.

I felt cold but the weather was hot.

I looked at the players and they looked like a pack of wolves ready to pounce on me.

I had no weapon. The Judge with only a little pistol at his side — and no shells — wouldn’t be much help. God, I had to do something, and do it fast! Then a thought came to me.

“Judge,” I said, “I must go to the rest room. Will you play for me for a few minutes?”

The Judge nodded. I was careful. I left all the money on the table, and went out the back door as the rest room was outside.

The fresh air felt good, and I kept going. I walked down to where we had left Jock and Chase. They were still there and I told them what had happened, and that in a few minutes the lights would go out and the Judge was taking my place. He would get his head clobbered off unless we got back there fast. I wouldn’t run out on him. Jock carried a .22 pistol, Chase had a knife with a six inch blade, I had my fists and we would give them a fight. Yes, that night Jock, Chase and the Judge had proved to be true friends. If I were going to die, they would die with me.

At five minutes to ten, Jock, Chase and I walked into the lobby of the Hotel López, over to the card table and looked down. The natives were all smiling. My big stack of cordobas, the beans and the buttons had diminished. Only a small amount was left. Each player had a pile in front of him. Somehow the Judge had managed to lose it back.

The game was breaking up, and he counted out to me what was left of my pile — sixty-five cordobas. Exactly what I had bought in with.

That night as I lay on my bunk I couldn’t sleep. Bill had said, “Go to Nicaragua, Joe. Go down and find the gold. I know you can do it.” Bill had made it sound very easy. I had come here to find gold and it wasn’t going to be easy but I must find gold for brother Bill and Maria. Yes, I would find gold for Maria. I had promised her. Tomorrow we would go back to Managua and from there we would fly to Siuna.

“Life is a game,” Bill had said, “like a game of cards. When you learn to play the game of life like you play poker then you will find happiness.”

There was one thing for sure, the Judge knew how to play the game — the game of life, also the game of poker.

I guess I finally drifted off to sleep.

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