by Craig Rondinone
Samantha Aybar cleared the gravy-laden plates and stained silverware from the dining room table in one swoop and hauled them into the kitchen. She slotted everything in their rightful places inside the dishwasher and swiftly slammed the door shut. Bradley, her husband of nearly a decade, noticed her furious pace as he calmly wrapped leftovers in aluminum foil.
“It’s not like the first hand is being dealt at 7:15,” Bradley said with a raised eyebrow.
“I’m pumped to play,” Samantha replied as she turned on the sink faucet and soaped her hands. “You know how I get.”
“Oh, I know. I know that when you’re this anxious you’re about to pull a Bill Russell and have a pre-game throw-up.”
“No, no. Not this time.”
“I wasn’t sure if you’d be more amped up or less amped up about tonight’s contest,” Bradley said while depositing the leftovers inside their refrigerator.
“No comment,” Samantha said as she switched off the sink after a brisk skin rinse and dried her hands. She turned to eye Bradley. “Stop trying to get inside my pretty head.”
“My motives are pure, but your head is indeed pretty.”
“Grab the cards. I’ll get the chips.”
Samantha arranged the dining room chairs to her liking, positioning one at each head of the table while moving the rest into the living room, away from the action. She took her place at the far end and started stacking chips of assorted colors. It did not take her long to count out the required $10,000 worth for her opponent and slide the stacks towards Bradley’s end as he sat down. He did not look at the chips when they arrived. He knew they were all there.
Bradley ripped a pack of cards from his pants pocket and tossed them into the middle of the table. Samantha opened the box, inspected the deck and quickly complained. “I’m not using this pack. The cards are too flimsy.” When Bradley silently shot her a look, Samantha defended her position. “It’ll take three hands before there’s a crease in a corner or a misdeal.”
Bradley begrudgingly gave into Samantha’s demands and pulled out a deck that was special to both of them. As soon as Samantha spotted the design on the box she smiled widely. “Yup,” Bradley said as he noticed her happiness. “The pack from the Atlantic City Invitational.”
“No worries about those flipping over if we wing them too hard,” Samantha said. “Shuffle up and deal!”
Bradley and Samantha Aybar were two of the most renowned professional poker players
in the world. Their styles and attitudes were polar opposites. Bradley was all about the numbers. He knew the exact amount to bet into any size pot, when it was mathematically correct to fold and when it made good business sense to call a bet even though he knew he was an underdog in the hand. He could stare at an opponent’s stack for less than 10 seconds and immediately calculate how much money he or she had left. Bradley’s photographic memory helped him remember hand histories, opponents’ tendencies and the odds of winning in every preflop all-in situation. He even constructed poker-related charts and used them like flash cards for his six-year-old daughter, Avery. While most kids learn about square roots and multiplication tables during their elementary school years, Avery soaked up those math basics plus was also taught about pot odds, chip stack organization and bankroll management.
Samantha was not as clinical or cerebral as Bradley. She referred to her husband as a “poker nerd.” She relied on her instincts, guile, guts and charm. Where Bradley was calculated and played poker by the book, Samantha was fearless and played poker by the seat of her slacks. She used everything to her advantage, including the looks God, her parents and countless hours of jogging gave her. She was often labeled as “The Attractive Aybar”, although it was more plain fact than a knock against her husband. And Samantha was 120 pounds of pure bully, although she stole much more than lunch money at the poker tables.
Bradley earned his living the hard way, logging long hours in multiple-day tournaments, outlasting hundreds of competitors with his brainpower and mental stamina. He made virtually no mistakes. When he lost crucial hands and pricey pots it was mostly because of the cards, not because he made tactical errors. He could instantly decipher which players at his table were sharks and deserved respect and which were fish and primed to be his personal ATM machines. Bradley did not confine himself to just the poker darling, Texas Hold ‘Em. He played Omaha, Razz, Seven-Card Stud, Pineapple and other assorted games favored more by older gamblers and foreign players.
Samantha earned her living the more dangerous and exciting way, participating in the highest-level cash games she could stick her high heels into. She would bring upwards of $100,000 to the table, half in chips, half in rolls of $100 bills wrapped tightly in purple rubber bands, and build an intimidating fortress in front of herself. Very rarely did an opponent dent it, and on more nights than not the fortress would expand by the conclusion of the game. Samantha’s aggressive style, mouthy demeanor and perfectly-packaged physical attributes kept opponents uneasy. Their eyes would shift from their cards to her gorgeously-colored ash-blonde hair. Their ears would shy away from picking up tells and listen to Samantha’s trash talk. Her table image was that of a loose player, but she played more solidly then her enemies realized, which paid off in thousands of dollars when opponents assumed she was bluffing when in reality she held the winning hands.
Bradley kept to himself at the table, staying silent except to mutter something small like “Nice hand” or “You’re the big blind.” Samantha never kept quiet, rattling off constant compliments or unsettling insults, rarely remaining mute two hands in a row. Opponents found Bradley mysterious, never sure of what he was thinking because of his lack of communication and expression. Opponents found Samantha unnerving, never sure what to do when she was badmouthing pros to get them off their games or being cordial to newcomers so they would take it easy on her. No matter their techniques, both Aybars were extremely difficult to play against because of their respective ways of gaining — and containing — information.
“I said shuffle up and deal.”
“We can put this off for another couple nights if you want,” Bradley said as he handed over the shuffled deck. “We can scrap the whole idea altogether, if you prefer.”
“Nope,” Samantha replied as she cut the cards.
Even though Bradley and Samantha had faced-off countless times, playing for minor prizes like who would have to wash the dishes and who would deejay at their wedding, they still cautiously felt each other out for the first 10 minutes of their match. Neither wanted to leave himself/herself vulnerable. Bradley was a counter-puncher who set well-timed traps. Samantha knew this, so she steered clear of any grenades by treading softly with her preflop and postflop plays. Bradley usually played ultra-tight, particularly early on. Samantha was always aggressive, many times kicking off contests with a reckless re-raise or a bawdy bluff. But neither knew for sure what strategies the other might employ in this bout, and Samantha especially dialed her attacking style down a few notches during the opening stanzas.
The pace picked up as the couple stopped playing conservatively. Samantha was the one to push the action, no surprise considering her offense-first mentality. She raised and/or re-raised before the flop for three consecutive hands. Bradley folded after times one and two.
“I’m all-in,” he said after time three. Samantha swiftly discarded her cards. She sometimes couldn’t help but stick her hand in the blender even when she knew it was on.
The chip lead was traded back and forth between the two competitors numerous times. Neither held an advantage for longer than seven hands. When Bradley began building a sturdy house of chips, Samantha tore it down with a brilliant bluff. When Samantha thought she was taking control of the contest, Bradley brought her back to reality by calling one of her mistimed moves with a weak but winning hand.
After an hour-plus of even play, Samantha and Bradley were back to the original $10,000 stacks they had initially. The stalemate returned them to square one.
“The offer still stands,” Bradley said. “We’re basically starting from scratch. Good time to call it and pick it up again at a later date.”
”We’re playing it out,” Samantha stated as she shuffled and dealt while keeping her eyes lowered. “There must be a winner, and it must be tonight.”
“There have been a few stoppages in our games over the years, you know.”
“Yes, on the occasions I had you so riled up you’d muck your cards blind and either storm out of the house or bang me on the table. Well, neither is happening tonight.”
“The latter could if you showed me a little leg,” Bradley said with a smirk as he eyed his hand. Samantha ignored his advances and peeked at her cards. Bradley cut out a stack of his chips and pushed them forwards. “Raise to 650.”
“Call,” Samantha snapped as she ushered an equal amount of chips towards the pot. She burned a card and sprayed the flop across the middle of the table. 6-7-9, all hearts. Bradley was first to act.
Samantha turned over a 10 of clubs. Bradley waited for a full minute before knocking his knuckles on the table to signal he was checking. Samantha stared at him for two full minutes before announcing her intentions.
“Check is good,” she said softly. She flipped over a 10 of spades for the river card. Bradley studied the board like a mathematician solving an intricate calculus equation. He did not fiddle with his chips while he deliberately thought out his move. Samantha juggled one green chip through her fingers, back and forth from thumb to pinky. Her powder blue eyes never strayed from her husband. She intently waited for one tick, inflection, or eyebrow raise that would set off an alarm.
“5,000,” Bradley said. He meticulously stacked his chips so each stack was the same height. Samantha knew Bradley was preying on her impatience with the way he was counting out his bet so she made certain not to show any agitation. She was stunned that Bradley bet over half of his remaining chips. If she went over the top and put him all-in he would be pot committed and forced to call, unless this was a total bluff and he had nothing but air. But on a board with consecutive cards that could lead to a straight, three hearts that could lead to a flush and two tens that could lead to a full house, Bradley had to have something. The question was the size of his something, as Samantha had something of her own, but it was beatable.
As Samantha pondered her predicament, she sensed a presence leering over her shoulder. “Stop sweating me, Avery.”
Samantha and Bradley’s precocious six-year-old daughter giggled as she skipped between the two players/parents from the side of the table. Her smile beamed brightly as she thoroughly enjoyed watching her folks compete in the game the family loved. “What are you guys doing?” Avery asked as she plopped her elbows on the table.
“Daddy and I are playing a heads-up hold ‘em match,” Samantha replied as she continued studying the five shown cards and the pot. “The loser will be up to tuck you in within the hour. The blinds are about to increase, and you know how antsy Mommy gets.”
“Do I get to play the loser in the game of my choice before bedtime?”
“As long as it’s something quick like Uno or War or Night Baseball, then yes,” Bradley said.
“Okay, have fun!” Avery said. “The loser can then lose to me and be a two-time loser!”
Avery scurried away, the sound of her footsteps fading as she charged up the staircase to the second floor. Samantha grinned and Bradley sighed after Avery was out of range.
“She has inherited your cockiness,” Bradley said to his wife as he relaxed in his chair.
“Don’t get too jealous. I caught her watching Phil Hellmuth videos earlier when she was supposed to be cleaning her room,” Samantha said as she leafed through her chip stacks with her fingers. “If I go all in here, you call, right?” Bradley shut up and stayed stoic. He knew better than to fall victim to Samantha’s interrogation tactics. But she kept pressing. “Your play makes no sense. You did this on purpose. You saved this for me, for tonight. Have you been fine-tuning it on the circuit the past few weeks?”
“Hmm,” was Bradley’s response.
“Maybe Avery is going to play against one of us sooner than I predicted. I’m ruling out four of a kind or a straight flush, but everything else is plausible. Did you bet so much because you think I’m weak and you’re repping strong? Did you think I was just floating? Or do you think I missed my draw?”
“I have an early flight to L.A. tomorrow morning to play in that private tourney with the Qatar businessmen, remember?”
“If you call a clock on me I swear you’re not getting a handy for a month,” Samantha warned as she stacked more chips at the imaginary betting line. Bradley leaned forward, cupped his hands, dug his elbows into the table and rested his chin on his ball of knuckles. His glare, not obscured by sunglasses since they were prohibited during Aybar family matches, was more absent than steely, yet it still normally sent shivers down the spines of most poker players. Not Samantha’s spine, though. After three more minutes of thinking, Samantha decided on her action. “Screw it, I’m all-in.”
Bradley did not snap-call. Samantha was relieved. It meant he did not have “the nuts,” the best hand possible. But Samantha was not cartwheeling around the dining room table because he did not instantly fold his hand, either. Now Bradley was the one with the decision, although in Samantha’s mind it was not a difficult one, and she could not understand why he was not acting immediately. He had the bulk of his bankroll in the pot. Bradley had invested too much into the hand not to call. The only way he could fold was if he had zero, zilch. Or because…
“Turn over your hand.”
“Making my play for me?”
“Turn it over right now!” Samantha demanded as she pounded her fist on the table.
“Stop it, Sammy,” Bradley said, dumbfounded. “You’re way out of line! This flare-up would be worthy of a penalty at any tournament.”
“There’s only one reason you’d be taking more than a couple seconds here,” Samantha said stridently as she lifted herself from her chair. “You’re not slowrolling me. You never slowroll anybody, plus you love me too much. There’s no way you’re bluffing, but if you were and you were beat you would have mucked as soon as I shoved instead of Hollywooding. And if you had a decent hand you would have called and shown it by now. There’s only one reason!”
“You’re a second away from getting disqualified and this game being ruled a no-contest.”
“Because you’re thinking about throwing the game.”
“That’s preposterous,” Bradley said. “The ploys you use to try to win are unimaginable.”
“What do you think I’m holding?” Samantha asked. Bradley paused before answering, recounting the present hand, and other past similar hands he had played with Samantha over their tenure together, so he could sure up his read.
“Ace of hearts. And something.”
Samantha closed her eyes and nodded as she turned her cards face up. Ace of hearts, seven of spades. Left her with two pair, tens and sevens. “The betting pattern was familiar, I know. Thought you would have checked on one of those streets. My turn.”
“It’s over,” Bradley said solemnly as he began shoveling his cards towards the middle with the palm of his hand. Samantha slapped the top of the table, causing chips to scatter, with some falling onto the carpet. Bradley ceased and glared at her, but his mood softened when he saw his wife’s face. Tears were streaming down her raspberry cheeks.
“You have me beat. You have a higher two pair. You were betting big to push me off my draw. You didn’t know if I had the ace of hearts or an eight. You knew on the river I didn’t get there. You have queens or kings, and maybe you have a heart in your hand,” Samantha laid out. She then played Bradley’s hand for him. “You call.”
Bradley rolled his eyes and displayed his two cards. Pocket kings. King of clubs, king of hearts. Samantha and Bradley were motionless for a minute. The game was over, and the air was sucked out of the room.
Samantha slumped into her chair and placed her elbows on the armrests. She batted her eyes and mildly shook her head as she reflected on what went wrong. Bradley did not collect his chips from the center of the table. There was no need. Every chip was his.
“If you ever want a rematch, I’ll gladly grant you one,” Bradley said as he looked across the table at his deflated, defeated opponent. “We’ll even out the stakes somehow. Just have to wait until the two-year window passes like we agreed.”
“You were going to let me win,” Samantha said as she wiped a spare tear off her face. “Because you love me, not because you wanted me to win.”
“I’ll clean up here. You have to play Avery in something and tuck her in.”
“Right,” Samantha acknowledged as she climbed out of her chair and adjusted her jeans. “Tonight is not the night for our darling daughter to think she’s going to make me a two-time loser. Even if she chooses open-face Chinese poker as our game.”
Samantha pushed her chair underneath the table roughly enough that the Egyptian-carved back collided with the maroon border of the table’s top. She curled around the table and was about to pass by her husband when Bradley reached for her right hand with his. She stopped as they interlocked fingers. Bradley rose from his seat and wrapped his arms around his downtrodden wife.
“Good game,” Bradley whispered tepidly as he pulled Samantha into his body.
”Good game, bad outcome,” Samantha replied as she nodded her head, which planted her chin into Bradley’s shoulder. “Sometimes I cannot believe what we will risk on a game of cards. We’re sick action junkies.”
“Saturday night we’ll bring things back to normal. We’ll play for who gets the aisle seat on the next trip to Biloxi.”
Samantha and Bradley kissed and embraced for a few seconds before Samantha parted Bradley’s arms and trooped towards the staircase. Bradley stuck his hands in his pockets and kept an eye on his wife’s body language because he was concerned about her state.
“You still don’t think it would be irresponsible to bring another one into this world of degenerates and debauchery?” Bradley asked as Samantha placed one foot on the first step.
“It’s a world you and I love and would never trade for any other world,” Samantha said as she draped her left arm over the stairway railing. “Avery loves it, too. And who’s better equipped to help another one assimilate into it?”
“So what are we going to tell Avery the next time she brings the subject up?” Bradley asked.
“That she’s going to have to go it alone,” Samantha said while she trudged up the stairs.
Craig Rondinone has written two books — Ten Tales To Make Your Head Explode (short story collection recently featured on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon) and Jeepers (children’s book) — and has had short stories and poems published in various literary journals and anthologies such as The Timber Creek Review, Clever, Mobius, Writer’s Bloc, Third Wednesday, Cantaraville, Oracle, Storied Crossings, Snail Mail Review, Watching Time, The Rose and Thorn Journal, Evening Street Review, Muse, Cooweescoowee, Dream Quest One, Riverrun, The Broken Plate, SF Peace and Hope, De La Mancha, KYSO Flash, Decasp, Penumbra, Trajectory, Sport Literate, and The Pink Chameleon.