poker faces

There must be a poker tournament going on in the casino across the street. When I bought lunch in the hotel coffee shop, a group of four men, all dressed in combinations of denim and stressed brown leather, played Texas Hold ‘Em at one of the tables. A case of chips lay open on the short ledge separating the coffee shop from the rest of the lobby, yellow- and red-jacketed chips held in green felt.

Poker, like drinking in public, is an activity that looks unseemly and maybe dangerous before noon. Your instinct is to sweep around them in deep orbit, avoid that gravity well of sorrow and threat. But these guys didn’t have that menacing aura. They had a golf buddy aura, a Sport Utility aura, with twangy accents that placed them somewhere on that landlocked strip that runs down the centre of the continental United States. One man with a pencil moustache and a mockneck shirt the colour of an old bruise seemed to be on the losing end of the hands; I couldn’t see the distribution of chips from my vantage point, but from the man’s agitated glances to the side and his occasional slumping back into his chair, I could tell that the cards were aligned against him.

My favourite of the bunch was the all-denim man, a hefty guy in his mid-forties with a nap of light beard and a brightly reflective skull. I don’t know if he was winning, but he had an alternative language for poker that suggested either extreme confidence or pure assholery, or maybe both. A couple of times he would raise extravagantly or go all in, intoning, “Fire in hole, ladies and gentlemen… fire in the hole”. More than once he declared to another player that “he was going to teach [him] a lesson”. Maybe he was a professional Texas Hold ‘Em instructor, but I’m placing my chips on Amateur Asshole.

Fifteen minutes in, a couple of young guys in the early twenties spotted the game from the down escalator in the lobby. Until this morning, I did not know that the sight of a poker game in progress can trigger fits of stadium-intensity screams. “That’s what I’m talking about!” yells one of the young guys on the escalator. “Here’s where the action is, right here in the Roasting Bean!” Amazingly, the guy remembered the name of the coffee shop, even in the throes of Hold ‘Em ecstasy. He continued to shout and whoop at high volume, not caring that each second conveyed him closer to the people he was shouting at.

Then they all stood up and donned hooded robes. “We are the damned,” intoned the bearded man. “We are the damned,” repeated the rest of the table. The young guy tried to run back up the escalator, but the uncaring risers escorted him down towards the players, waiting in their ceremonial garb, waiting with long curved blades. “May this sacrifice please All-Hold’em,” said the bearded man as they grabbed the young man and methodically cut out his heart. “May we be worthy in His sight,” agreed the players as they adorned themselves with parts of their victim’s body: a scalp, a flayed face, ears on a string of beads, and from his very chaps an intestinal loop drawn out for a belt.

When the cops arrived, all they could say was “He wouldn’t shut up”.