At poker, Raff knew he could beat anyone. Now, he needed money badly. He walked into the Grand House Casino to find a challenger.
Level 4, Fantasy / Sci-Fi Short Story
Raff was an old-fashioned gambler. He didn’t like the fancy machines that were lined up in casinos. There were hundreds of slot machines with blinking lights and HD screens. There were 3D horse racing rooms that felt like virtual reality video games. But worst of all, there were hi-tech jackpot machines. Raff hated those the most because in the old days, the jackpot machines would drop real coins, cold to the touch. Nowadays, these machines only work on credit. Who would feel excited to win the “jackpot” and only see a number flashed on the screen? Instead of picking up piles of coins in your hands and feeling the heavy metal between your fingers, who would want to simply tap the “accept” button? Not Raff.
No. Raff was old school. He didn’t mess with the machines. He only dealt with poker. With other humans. With cash.
He stood in the doorway of the Grand House Casino. Behind him was darkness. That was the real world—dark, gloomy and hopeless. Even in the mid-morning, the sun couldn’t break through the smoggy skies. In front of him was the casino’s oasis. Bright lights, colorful cocktails, laughter and the ringing of the slot machines. The smell of fresh cash had faded over the years, of course, but there were still a few traditionalists that never made the full switch from cash to credit.
Raff waited in the doorway. He slid his hand into his pocket and touched the bulky roll of money. $10,000 worth of hundred-dollar bills. He had gone to the bank first thing this morning to withdraw all of his money. This was his last chance. He had to triple it, or else.
It had been a stupid mistake, really. Yesterday was the first time he had ever lost so badly.
Lee Walsh was the person that he owed the money to. Walsh was a big-time gambler. His face and neck were always red and pulsing from his high blood pressure. The only thing bigger than his bank account was his temper.
Raff was unbeatable at poker, but that time, Walsh had said, “Why don’t we play something that I like to play? All the time, we play your game. Poker, poker, poker. It’s my turn to choose.”
Raff was hesitant, but Walsh didn’t let up. “Let’s play a little game of Planet Spin, Raff. Just you and me. I’m tired of all this poker.”
“I don’t like Planet Spin. It’s a lousy game. All those flashing lights and sound effects. It’s more like virtual pinball than gambling.”
“What are you? A chicken?” Walsh taunted.
“Yeah. If you’re such a good gambler, why don’t you try to beat me at Planet Spin. Unless you’re a chicken.”
In hindsight, it was all quite stupid. But nevertheless, Raff had taken up the dare and played Walsh.
Raff had no chance. He was no good at machines. Walsh won game after game and cleaned him out. Raff let 30,000 credits slip away before he realized how hopeless it was. There was no way to make a comeback.
30,000 dollars was due, but he didn’t have the cash. The only had two choices: Go home, scrap up as much cash as he could and hand it over to Walsh. Or, he could get a one-way ticket out of the country and pray that Walsh’s gang lost track of him.
Raff decided the best thing to do was to try to get the cash. He only had 10,000 dollars (all that he had in the bank), and he had to gamble his way to 30,000 before noon today.
Poker was becoming an unpopular game these days. There were two reasons for it. One reason was that the new virtual gambling machines attracted people of all ages and were highly addicting. The other reason was that Raff had become so good at poker that it scared all the other gamblers away. He often had trouble rounding up players. As soon as he approached the poker tables, people would turn away and leave, as if they had just caught a whiff of a smelly animal.
That was why he went to a different casino today. The Grand House Casino. It was located on the 355th floor of the space station hotel. People staying here were frequent flyers to the moon and Mars, so they typically had a lot of money to play with. He was confident that he could find a competitor here. And even if he couldn’t, The Grand House Casino’s dealers were known to join in poker games. Of course, playing against a professional dealer was a last resort that he hoped to avoid.
He went to the back of the casino, which was decorated in the traditional style with green poker tables. He sat down and looked around. The area was completely deserted.
After a couple of minutes, an impeccably-dressed man in a tailored suit came over to him and smiled courteously.
“My name is Raff. I want to join a poker game. Are they are scheduled this morning?”
The man frowned slightly. “No. I’m afraid there aren’t any poker games scheduled all day, Mr. Raff. Would you like to play our new Roto, or Planet Spin, or Robot Roulette? We—“
“I want to play poker. I refuse to play anything else,” Raff said. He was in a desperate situation so he had to play the game he knew best.
“Well, I’ll see what I can do. Would you wait here, please?”
Raff waited while the man walked around the huge game room, whispering to someone here, someone over there. Every person he talked to had the same response: a shrug, a curious glance at Raff, and then a quick shake of the head.
No one wanted to play. Once in a while, Raff could find a foolish millionaire who was anxious to try a traditional poker game. Not today, though. Raff wondered if it was his look that was pushing people away. True. Today, his expression wasn’t cool and carefree. His face was hard and serious, like he was ready for a fight. He tried to relax his expression as people looked over.
But before long, the man walked back. “I’m sorry, Mr. Raff. I couldn’t seem to find any players. But the Planet Spin—“
“Poker,” Raff said again.
“Would you object to playing poker with one of our employees?” the man asked suddenly.
Raff hesitated. Raff was good a poker—excellent, in fact—but house dealers are professionals that rarely loose.
“He’ll play with the casino’s credits,” the man added.
Raff chewed at his lip. He needed the money, and there were no other players. If the house dealer was going to play with the casino’s money, then it was possible that Raff could make a ton of cash—even more than the 30,000 that he owed.
“Okay,” he grunted. “I’ll play him.”
The man led Raf to a small, polished card table in the furthest corner of the casino. He signaled to a man who was standing nearby.
“Mr. Steel, this is Mr. Raff,” the man introduced.
“Hello,” Raff said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” said Steel. His voice was like a soft purr, and his face was an expressionless mask.
Raff always sized up his opponents as soon as he met them. This Mr. Steel seemed like he was a good poker player. It’s possible he could be one of the best that Raff had ever faced.
“Chips?” A house girl had come by. She was dressed in a small uniform that exposed her legs and stomach. She held a tray of poker chips.
Rafferty casually handed her the roll of money from his pocket and accepted his stack of chips. She also gave him an unopened deck of cards.
“Care to shuffle?” Raff asked, offering the cards to his opponent.
“No. You go ahead,” said Steel.
Methodically, Raff broke the seal, spilled the cards out, flipped the jokers off to the side, and inspected the cards. There were exactly 52 cards, and there were no mistakes. He started to shuffle.
The first few deals ended quickly. This was typical when players were facing new opponents. You always have to study your opponent before deciding on your strategy.
Steel was a quiet, noncommittal player. He seemed to have a tremendous amount of calmness. But that’s not too surprising, thought Raff, because Steel isn’t playing with his personal money. But even so, a professional should be worried about their reputation.
Even though Raff played the first 3 warmup deals cautiously, he won twenty or thirty credits. Luck was with him tonight. He wondered how far he could push the dealer. If luck stayed with him, he could walk away with far more than 30,000 dollars. A million? The casino funds had no limit.
On the fourth deal, he decided to experiment with some offensive tactics.
Steel dealt, and Raff scooped up his cards and looked them over. His eyes took in the numbers first: Four, Seven, Eight, Ten, Jack. Then, the suits: Spade, Club, Spade, Heart, Diamond. It was trash. Not even a pair.
With a cool, relaxed expression, he put his cards face down, and pushed a hundred dollars worth of chips toward the middle of the table. His first bluff of the game.
“How many many do you want to discard?” Steel asked, with his hand on top of the deck, ready to pass over new cards.
“I’ll stand pat,” said Raff. In truth, he wanted to discard his whole hand and get a new set of cards, but he couldn’t back down from his bluff.
“So will I,” said Steel.
With neither of them switching out cards, Raff went forward with the next bet.
“Five hundred.” He pushed more chips out towards the center of the table.
“Five hundred, and I’ll raise it another two hundred.” Steel pushed his pile of chips out.
“Alright. And I’ll bump it up another hundred on top of that.”
“I call.” Steel matched his chips. “So what do you have?”
Without a flicker of emotion, Raff showed his hand of cards. “Jack high. You?”
“You beat me. You win the pot.”
Raff scooped up the pot which was worth nearly 2,000 dollars, but he felt conflicted. He had made a bluff, but Steel had been bluffing right along with him. It was only pure luck that the expressionless man hadn’t been holding a Queen.
For the next deal, Raff got another lousy hand. Jack high, again. He discarded 3 cards, but the 3 new cards that he got didn’t make even a pair. He didn’t want to bluff twice in a row, so he folded, and watched Steel pull in the small pot.
On the next deal, both men played cautiously. Raff had a pair of Tens, but lost 50 credits to Steel’s pair of Kings.
The next deal didn’t go Raff’s way, either. Raff silently cursed. His luck wasn’t as good as he had hoped.
He decided to bluff again to get a second chance at reading his opponent’s tactics. This time, he pushed the bet up to a thousand dollars.
It was Steel’s turn to reveal his hand first. “Three sevens,” Steel said.
“You beat me,” said Raff and he discarded his hand face down.
“Do you mind if I see your hand?” Steel asked.
“Yes, I mind,” said Raff roughly. He was surprised. Only an amateur would try such a trick. He’d never heard a house dealer ask to look at someone’s discarded cards. A professional should have more pride than that.
It took some time, but slowly Raff began to understand the way his opponent’s mind worked. And slowly, Raff’s skill started to shine. He began to win.
He had lost track of the number of deals by the time his pile of chips totaled nearly 50,000 dollars. It was enough to pay off Walsh, and still have a considerable amount left over.
He should have been happy to walk away at this point, but Raff didn’t want to quit. That’s not how he played poker. He decided to go for a killing. He figured out Steel’s mind, so now he could take a fortune from the house.
He sat, as expressionless as possible, with a killer hand: three Jacks, and a pair of Fours. He pushed the betting higher and higher.
Steel kept right with him. “3,000? Okay, I’ll call you and raise you another thousand.”
Without letting any expression cross his face, Raff pushed the bet even higher. 5,000 credits from each man was piled in the middle of the table.
That was the secret of poker: never let your opponent read your emotion. Keep your face blank, whether you have a good hand or a bad hand. That was Steel’s problem. His expression was readable.
Like right now, for example. Perhaps Steel didn’t realize it, but his right eyebrow was twitching. So far, every time Steel had bluffed, that eyebrow had twitched.
Raff had him now. Raff was holding 3-of-a-kind and a pair: a full house. Not many hands could beat a full house. And Steel was almost certainly bluffing.
“6,000,” said Raff.
It reached 9,000. Finally, Raff called.
“Okay. What do you have?”
Casually, Steel lowered his hand. Jack, Queen, Queen, Queen, Queen.
Four Queens. Steel hadn’t been bluffing. Raff lost 9,000 dollars in one deal.
He kept his composure, but inwardly he was disturbed. By everything that he had studied up until now, Steel must have been bluffing. But… the cards were on the table. Four Queens.
The game continued. A few curious spectators had gathered. By playing cautiously, Raff started winning chips again. He had well over 100,000 dollars worth of chips. This time, for sure, he had figured out Steel.
Raff sat, holding his strongest hand yet: a straight flush. Eight, Nine, Ten, Jack, Queen. All in Clubs.
Steel threw 5,000 dollars worth of chips down.
“I’ll call,” Raff said. “And I’ll raise you another thousand.” A straight flush with a Queen high. Only three hands could even beat that—and one of them was a royal flush. Incredibly unlikely. Besides, the lower corner of Steel’s mouth was pulled back. That meant that he had a somewhat good hand and he was betting large.
The chips flew out madly. Raff watched the pile grow and grow. Neither man would give up increasing the bet. Ten… eleven… twelve thousand credits now. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. In thirty years of playing poker, Raff had never bet 15,000 credits on one hand. But he was sure that he would win.
When the betting came to an end, Steel finally asked, “What are you holding?”
Raff kept his voice cool and confident, “Straight flush, Queen high.” He started to reach for the pot.
He was stopped by Steel’s mild, purring voice. “What suit?”
What suit? Why would he ask that? Unless…
For the first time that night, Raff lost his composure. “C-Clubs,” he stammered.
“I have Spades,” Steel said sweetly, and put down a straight flush of cards from Eight to Queen. It was identical to Raff’s hand, except that Steel’s Spades outranked his Clubs.
There was no way, Raff thought. First of all, there was a wild improbability of two straight flushes on the table at the same time. But he was even more annoyed that he had failed to guess Steel’s facial reaction properly. He had been dead wrong.
And he got even wronger. Steel sat calmly without saying anything except when necessary, and he gobbled in the chips. He won pot after pot. It was like Steel was reading Raff’s every move.
Raff held two pairs and bet big. Steel didn’t fold. In fact, he pushed the betting higher. When the betting ended, Steel revealed three Fours, and took the pot.
Why would Steel bet so bet so high holding a weak three-of-a-kind? It’s as if Steel knew that Raff had a weaker hand. Raff knew how to control his own expressions and become unreadable… but Steel just seemed to know. And as the game progressed, Steel became less and less readable. All of his quirks seemed to disappear or become random.
It was a strange reversal for Raff. He was accustomed to detecting his opponent’s idiosyncrasies within three deals. He was used to being in control of the poker table.
“Two kings,” Raff said.
“Two aces.” Steel took the pot. Again, they had both bet big on weak hands, but Steel won by just a hair.
Raff looked down at his pile of chips and counted them. Eight hundred credits left. 800 lousy credits.
It was just enough to book a flight out of the country. Raff slumped down in his chair. The gambler part of him wanted to keep going and win back his money. But the sensible part of him knew that it was impossible. Steel was getting sharper and sharper. Raff would inevitably loose the eight hundred if he kept going.
He stood up.
“Have you had enough?” Steel asked.
“I think so.”
“I hope I haven’t discouraged you. We can still play some more, if you like.”
“It’s no use,” Raff said in a hollow voice. “I can’t win. If I kept this money, at least I’ll be able to get out of the country before Walsh’s men come looking for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind.” Raff turned away, scooping up his remaining chips. He cashed them in and stumbled out of the casino. He still couldn’t understand how he had been beaten so badly, for the first time in his life, at poker.
After Raff was gone, the man in the suit went over to Steel, who was sitting patiently by the huge pile of chips.
“Did you clean him out?”
“Almost,” Steel said. “He held on to enough money for a flight.”
“It was looking bad for a while,” the man said. “At one point, he had over 100,000 credits in his pile, didn’t he?”
“Yes. It took me some time to detect his playing patterns,” Steel said. “He was very, very good. He’s the best player that I’ve ever encountered.”
“But he couldn’t beat you!”
“Hardly. Once I let him feel confident, I had complete control over him.” Steel stood up, smiling blandly. “I took 9,200 credits from him. It was a lot of work. Can I have a drink now?”
“Sure,” the man in the suit said. “Of course I can get a drink for the best house dealer that this casino has.”
He took out an oilcan from under the table and inserted it into the back of Steel’s neck. The robot’s silicone face stretched into a smile.
“I enjoy playing poker,” Steel said. “But someday, you must upgrade my A.I. system so that I can play Planet Spin, too. It looks like a very interesting game.”
About this story:
The original story, “House Operator,” was written in 1957 by S. M. Tenneshaw, and it is now in the public domain. Here, it is rewritten by Judy Shinohara so that advanced English students can enjoy the story.