Matton plays poker – Late Nite Tony complains – Harvey Bumpback explains
Matton Header, round, pale, bespectacled – a kind of tenure track albino pumpkin professor – was thinking. Pondering. Wondering. Pausing. Reflecting. Worrying. Calculating. Hesitating. In other words he was doing what poker players call tanking. Thinking.
Deep in the tank. Not sure he’s coming out. Beyond the buoys. Surprising canoers. In the drowning end.
Late Nite Tony Singleton dropped one five dollar chip onto another. Clack. “You know what?”
“I call time.”
“Only players in the hand can call time, Tony.”
“But dealers can repeat themselves endlessly? My life is so unfair.”
Pinched and purple, Linda didn’t even bother to look at Late Nite. “You’ve called for time three times now. ”
“So unimaginative, this lady. Oh, what, wait… My. God. I am in the hand! I can call time… wait….TIME!”
“You’re not in the hand, Tony!” Still not a glance at him.
“Well that’s too bad, because Harvey is obviously BLUFFING! Now I’m in the right in the middle of this hand! AM I RIGHT????”
Well, that one worked: Uproar, table seven. Late Nite Tony just broke the rules by speaking about the river action between Matton and Harvery Bumpback, and possibly influencing it. Verboten. Yet why not ? A man in the prime of old age, still vital, sharp, and probably capable of any bodily function with the right pills, Late Nite Tony did not have to worry about, prove, or otherwise hide anything. The race to retire and enjoy life at its end is a misunderstood one, but if you went down that path, if you were good and put aside the right assets, had a little help, your children aren’t completely terrible and everything went your way, Late Nite is what you might look like: Bald, handsome, mustachioed, with an wide asinine grin and a nearly shut, indifferent eyelids.
“That’s so out of line!” “Floor!” “Tony shut up!”
The players, the lumpy, grumpy, thin, fat, bright, stupid, colored in every possible way, of every age, religious denomination – poker being a smear of American diversity wiped from the palate – were used to being lulled to sleep by Matton Header. He always took his time, it’s just a known thing.
Now, with Matton facing a river bet from Harvey Bumpback
Apparently everyone, including Late Nite Tony, has their limits. “Wow, my mother taught me early on that my name is Tony Shuddup. Are you my mommy? Can I suck your giant man tits, Harvey?”
Harvey Bumpback sat upright in his chair while he waited for Matton to respond to bet and for Tony to shaddap. If a Cabbage Patch doll could grow up in a teetotaller’s home, live on club sandwiches and TAB soda, all while mastering the time honored trade of public auctions, there is little else you would need to know about Harvey. His puffy Irish face, now red from a lifetime of arterial pressure and rouged one degree more from Late Nite’s needling, was bulbous and topped with a greasy mop of grey curls. Garrulous and likeable, Harvey had simply run over the world to make his fortune, barely noticing anyone, including himself. He was not a subtle man. He wanted what he liked and wanted more of it.
Harvey was no slouch; unlike Matton, his giant body was sheathed in muscle from a full sporting life and a business conducted on the golf course. He benefitted from regular workouts moving and hustling the stuff he bought at auctions: cars, trucks, motorcycles, property, the remnants of a small dam, eight hundred defunct computers, boats, small airplanes and even three hot air balloons abandoned by a disappointed heiress. Harvey was, above all things, a doer and a man of profoundly local entrepreneurship.
The dealer tapped the table in front of Matton. There are almost bizarrely arcane formalities to live poker, and they all serve purpose – this one was the polite reminder to act. Of course Late Night Tony was at fault, but as an uncontrollable force, a gale wind, warningless but expected. Linda the dealer did not blame him. Harvey or Tony might rant and cry, sing and dance, flip out and flop down all night, but her expectation for Matton, however, was much higher. The oily skinned, sunken faced dealer, suffering worse health conditions than mere aggravation, had learned to expect more from all the winning players, and above all from Matton. The kid was both the most cordial but also the most frugal when tipping. Some work to to there.
“I’m going to have to call the floor, Matt.” She said it gently.
No response. Time was passing slowly in Matton’s mind. This delay in making a decision was no act, however, and he percieved, no doubt, that this period of contemplation was actually very short. Maybe no one had enough patience, he would ask himself later. After all, when had he ever called time on anyone, despite having the right to do so?
The requested floor manager, had scarcely arrived when Matton pushed his cards forward, signifying his surrender – almost as if he had been waiting for the official countdown to begin.
Fold. Pass. Anticlimax. The true lull of poker – a competition without the busybody activity of a sport – is the true heartbeat of the game. Time, poker takes. It eats time. It devours time.
Matton wasn’t upset with Tony ( well, he was too repressed to ever get angry at anyone but himself), but stared at Late Night Tony with new eyes. No master of observation was Matton, quite unlike the clihed public perception of poker players, a public that doesn’t understand that math and logic and strategy compose almost all of poker. For the first time, mildly provoked, Matton saw the almost regal Late Nite with new eyes. That head. Trim. Augustly bald. That chipper, fuck-you smile.
If the poker room had mirrors – none do, naturally, and if you go to game with some, you need to leave – Matton would see none of these things in his present and probably not in his future, either. You’ve have never guessed that what Matton was feeling was quite the opposite of anger – it was jealousy.
Matton, unlike Tony, was fat. Not cereal fat or milk fat or relaxed muscle fat, but tacos and hamburgers and cookies fat. Smelly fat. Statistics fat. Victim fat. He had been raised in a broken home by his mother and taught nothing about life. He had basically moved from his mother’s breast to a series of pacifiers. The little rubber kind. The candy bar kind. The eggs and bacon kind. The video game kind. The Magic the Gathering kind. He felt a need and he gratified it. Without a father’s discipline, and abandoned to endless hours of self-amusement, he never discovered the intense relationship between self-discipline and reward. Because of this, there were literally no accomplishments or activities he could point to.
Matton Header knew how to play poker. Which was pretty damn convenient, because now, at the ripe age of 28, he had nothing else going for him. No job. No girl. No family (Dad never reappeared, mom died last year.)
All those hours playing video games, Dungeons and Dragons, and the trail of RPGs one “graduates” to now were his consolation and his trap. He had flunked out of community college, never able to pay attention, starcrossed by the great, fake Attention Deficit Disorder panic of recent years. (Amazing how he could play online RPGs for seven hours, wonder how the browbeaten quacks made sense of that?)
Matton was young.
And sullen. It started early and did not get better. What did the world owe him? He did not know, but was sure there was something. Until this cleared up, he planned, more or less, since planning was actually beyond him, to play poker.
He had stumbled onto online poker, where he found not only his calling but companionship and solidarity with ten thousand other bewildered and spoiled teens. When the online economy collapsed, his beloved and favorite site taken over by the U.S. government for gross tax violations, he had stared at the FBI shield while trying to find some button to click past it, like the easter eggs in a video game. He cried, like the day the tit was finally taken away at age one and three quarters. For a few months he retreated back to the role playing games. He even made a little money in a tournament, but they were too far away to make sense.
What was nearby was the local the card rooms. He had expected to hate it. He had heard about the slow games. The foul play. The gambling temptations. He’d heard stories of how awful it was, getting only a few hands per hour, how bad everyone was and illogically everything happened. He was advised to leave home and head to Canada or Mexico. That, for shy Matton, was close to suggesting he taken up opera singing. He went to the casino, ready to bail at any moment.
Instead, he found his people.
“Jesus, Matton, couldn’t you just hurry it up for once? At least pretend you have a date?” Harvey flicked his cards while Linda kept close watch on them.
“Shamu is single now, I hear.”
“Maybe she’d take some bites out of you. Be a good idea.”
Wiseasses. Matton didn’t like it, at first. He didn’t want to be fat. He didn’t understand it. It just happened and he couldn’t seem to stop it. When he needed to urinate, he went to the toilet. When he needed sexual relief, he masturbated. When he was hungry, he ate. The password to the secret meeting of interior revolutionaries that change a man’s life was still unknown to him.
What was not beyond him was this thing he had. Here is where all his discipline and character resided. Matton in the field of battle was no longer himself. He was Hector, proud and powerful. It would take a God to defeat him. He would take the money, the funds and lifeblood of his tormentors. He would stay until he had all of it (there was no where else for him to go, after all.)
The poker room is his arena. No… it’s more than that. The poker room arena is where you go to prove yourself, to conquer and be hailed, or die nobly, stripped to your mortal nakedness under a thousand eyes.
Matton had started to like the abuse: it felt like something real. What was it?
Poker was, above all, Matton’s dream, because he had no plan for his life. None.
No really… none.
Without a plan, the mind goes to work for you. It takes the pieces you give it and forms a monster from the detritus you feed it.
That doesn’t mean he lacks dreams, oh no. Matton absolutely dreamed of poker conquest. Of big games. Big money. Fame. A revenge he didn’t even know he wanted. And the field was full of characters to fill these dreams. In fact, he loved all these guys, his coworkers, his victims, his antagonists.
The abuse he took, he began to realize, wasn’t entirely mean-spirited. It wasn’t elementary school, middle school and high school. The abuse he took was tinged with something that was a little resentful, a little kind, and just a little humorous.
What he was suffering was respect.
Now, respect won’t make a life. Matton had no blueprint, no clear ambition. This is a problem, a real one that is going to hurt in a while. The dreams of those without a plan are someone else’s nightmare.
Yet for all his faults and all his flab, Matton was living the poker dream.
His life, in other words, was a nightmare. An endless bout of REM sleep, an illusory (the cover of the hold’em thing), maze where every correct decision brought him back to the beginning, not the end.
Matton had folded to Harvey. Another good decision, perhaps. Another blink. Another dream. Another poker hand begins.
The table had been anxious. They didn’t want trouble. And they actually didn’t want to trouble Matton, because they knew he was about to make another right decision.
Harvey Bumpback had already inhaled so that he could fill up the next conversational space. He waved his unseen hand in the air. Linda reached to grab the cards, then realized what was going on. She’d seen it all.
“See, that’s what a professional does, lays it down. That’s how it’s done. Me, I’m never folding there. Especially to myself!”
“You never fold to anyone, Harvey.” Late Night Tony was ready to start the fuss all over again.
Tony has a point, thought Matton. But, he said nothing – he rarely did.
“Listen, you,” Harvey began,” I’m going to explain poker to you, ‘cause I may never fold, but you never win…“
“…Even a donkey’s gotta get some hay, sometime. We are gambling, here, and anyone who thinks differently is a fool-“
“Poker is all skill, Harvey.”
“There You Go Again. We are gambling, and I am gonna have the best hand sometimes and worst hand other times, and I’m not gonna be folding away when I can find out, like some sort of wormy little good for nothing, no gamble bitch nit.”
“-and when I’m betting, sometimes I am not going to have it, yep, I’m going to bluff out the Tony Singleton’s of the world… oh, huh – that’s easy.”
“You can’t bluff me.”
The table laughed. Even bewildered Matton seemed perky.
“See?” Harvery, sharp as ever, had his crowd under control. “Even they know. But you know what’s hard to do, Tony? What’s really tough?”
Harvey looked around for an answer to his question, but for once… silence.
“That’s to bluff out Matton here, which I just did.” And with that, Harvey tossed his cards in the center, some raggedy piece of trash, half a gutterball that he had just pushed past Matton. Linda immediately pushed the pot to Harvey.
The table turned to the fat and feared young expert, looking for an exciting response. They would not be disappointed, not exactly, even though you should have bet against it, because, finally, after a day of poker, Matton said his first words to his table companions. They leaned forward, subconsciously, just to hear him.
“Good one,” said Matton.
Harvey Bumpback laughed. The cards were finally mucked and already being reshuffled by the amused dealer. She was not indifferent. For a poker dealer, as exasperated as one can be with the behavior of gambling degenerates, away from the supervision of their wives and girlfriends (and husbands and boyfriends), they were more than customers, but quite coworkers. Dealers are like waiters who never leave the table and share the meal. They loved the players, in spite of themselves, which is why they could afford to hate the awful ones.
Harvey never stopped. “Good one? Good One? I bluffed you, big guy! And that, Tony, is what this game is all about!”
Matton smiled, another first for the day. Harvey was a player, but what he didn’t understand, what was the basis of the young, well, “professional’s,” gift and talent, was knowing that it didn’t matter. The game was a deep, deep rabbit hole, and giving up his hand in that spot was part of a long term strategy that kept Matt in the black.
Right? (Matton felt an itch on some part of his stretched skin he just couldn’t reach.)
Never mind, Matton forced upon himself. Harvey danced and strutted upon the stage, fine, but Matton was the director. He would cede the field to the actor, let that prancing fool shine. Matton knew, instinctively, that Harvey needed the attention, and that just like an actor, he was a kind of reverse cockroach who disappeared as soon as the lights faded.
No, Matton was not arrogant; he simply knew, for certain, a few things. Matton wanted Harvey there, because all that hustle and bustle and work and sweat put money on the table for him to win. He would accede to Harvey as long as he needed him to.
After all, Matton had a pretty serious problem.
He was broke.