Opening of the novel “A Losing Hand”

Charlie Stein was sitting on a set of deuces. A two on the flop along with his pocket pair made him the favorite in the hand. The turn brought three and a possible straight so Charlie went all-in attempting to push out any drawing hands. He got one caller, a loose player who looked like he hadn’t slept in three days. A five on the river made a straight with his opponent’s ace and Charlie said, “Nice hand!” as he reached into his wallet for another three hundred dollars to buy more chips.

Despite his calm and polite demeanor Charlie thought the other player was an idiot for holding out for a five, one of only four cards that could help him. Try as he might bad luck seemed to follow Charlie around like a stray dog you fed once. All-in was the right move, but the caller had the luck. I’d rather be lucky than good, thought Charlie, as he looked at his hand. It was garbage so he tossed the cards in the muck.

Four hours later Charlie got up from the table two hundred and fifty dollars up. As he walked past the hundreds of poker tables packed with players at the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles he felt himself the consummate grinder, eking out a living playing a game that he at once loved and loathed. There was never lack of games at Commerce. Even at three in the morning you could find full tables of gamblers trying to win a fortune or at least break even. Charlie was proud that after twenty-five years of playing Hold’em he finally was able to earn a modest living from the game. It wasn’t every day he won two hundred and fifty, some days it was forty dollars and some days he lost hundreds. When he was running cold, which happened occasionally, he could lose a thousand dollars or more. Lady Luck was capricious at best and a stone cold bitch at her worst. Charlie just rode the wave and tried every trick and play he knew to win her over.

As he was cashing out his chips a couple of rail birds he knew by sight came up to him to borrow twenty or forty dollars so they could play. He never lent money to people in the card room: one, they never paid it back and two, they never won, and all it did was feed their bad luck. They can’t win with their own money, why would they win with yours? Charlie walked out the front door and toward the hotel where the valet parking attendants were stationed. Even though his 1998 black Honda Civic with the dented rear quarter panel was ten years old, he disliked the parking lot at Commerce. The spots were narrow and it was a long way from the building, and when you had just won it was a potentially dangerous walk back to the car. For two dollars he valet parked and was secure with his winnings. When his car pulled up he tipped the attendant a dollar and drove out of the parking lot onto the 5 going north to Los Feliz and his small studio apartment.

Arriving home Charlie took his medications, Zyprexa and Lexapro. The Zyprexa was for his bipolar disorder and the Lexapro for the depression he sometimes felt, even with his bipolar under control. The Zyprexa made him tired so he took it at night, but the side effects were more manageable than the illness. He had type II bipolar disorder, which meant he didn’t go to extremes when off his medications, he would sink into a miasmic depression that could last many months, or he could cycle rapidly and do impulsive and potentially dangerous things. He was diagnosed three years earlier, when he was forty-six, and he immediately noticed an improvement in his mood and his life after taking the drugs. He also gained twenty pounds and his cholesterol went from 185 to 695. There was also a chance of diabetes when taking Zyprexa, but all the bad things, all the side effects, didn’t matter when he was in control of himself and his life.

Playing poker became harder on the meds, most of his brilliance had disappeared and he played by rote. When cycling through his “manic” episodes his impulsiveness often made for daring poker plays that paid off big. One memorable incident happened when he was playing $3/$6 Limit Omaha Hi/Lo and decided to raise A233. You are dealt four cards in Omaha, and you must play two of them from your hand, unlike Hold’em where you can play two, one or no cards from your hand. It was raised to the betting ceiling, or “capped” as it’s called, with six players and a three flopped. After another round of capped betting the rest of the turn and the river gave him the best hand for a three hundred dollar pot. Meanwhile a crowd had formed around the table and they were shouting and laughing at the action. Charlie felt like he was putting on a performance so he took it to the limit, goading his opponents to cap the action and to come in since he had nothing. The next hand brought him A224 and the same kind of betting took place and again he won three hundred with a set of deuces. The next hand was KK33 and he capped it again. The flop again brought a three and he won another three hundred dollar pot. Charlie got lucky with his impulsive play. A set seldom holds up in Omaha Hi/Lo, let alone scoops the pot. He got up after that third hand and drove to Little Tokyo for a sushi dinner.

Charlie liked to give himself rewards for good play and winning sessions, sometimes blowing his entire winnings. He liked to drink, a way to self-medicate, and it fed his impulsiveness. When he was drunk he wasn’t as irritable, another symptom of bipolar disorder. So Charlie never saved any money. It went from the poker table to checking account for bills, rent, and partying. He loved cocaine, but mostly he drank. Cocaine cost too much, sixty dollars a gram. He could buy much more booze for that. When he was down, however, coke would pick him up and temporarily lift him out of his depression.

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