A fast-paced work of fiction that invites readers into the card-shark infested waters of Neal “Shakespeare” Benjamin and the almost legendary Deke Hutchins…
by: Alan Swyer
Many years later, having been indicted in Las Vegas on charges of racketeering and skimming, instead of debating whether to fight in court or use one of his foreign passports with assumed names to fly to a country with no extradition, casino magnate Neil Benjamin found himself thinking about a trip on the New York Thruway during what, in retrospect, he considered to be his apprenticeship.
The adventure started in the summer of 1968 in the area around Lake George. Billed then as the Prince of Prestidigitation, Neil, with the long hair and attitude of the era, was the opening act at a small club when he was first observed by bird dogs known as Stan and Ollie because of their fun-house mirror resemblance to Laurel and Hardy. Only after doing diligence on Neil’s skill level, then on his intelligence and character, did they suggest that the almost legendary Deke Hutchins stop over and view with his own eyes their new prospect. Deke arrived a couple of days later and did some watching and checking before nodding his approval.
But when Stan asked if they should approach Neil officially, silver-haired Deke demurred.
“In case he’s onto us, let him stew.”
“For a couple of days?” asked Ollie.
“At least a week.”
The bird dogs heeded, heading to the Catskills for six days before accosting Neil outside the club on a Wednesday. “Interested in a proposition?” Stan asked.
“You mean the way I handle ’em, I can go in and—”
“Lose your fuckin’ shirt,” said Ollie.
“Or get your goddamn head blown off,” added Stan. “No way you a kid like you gets thrown right into the action.”
“You’re smart enough.” stated Ollie, “to know that playing for real is a shitload different than wowing tourists.”
“Or are you?” asked Stan.
“Was that the Deacon who was in the other night?” asked Neil.
“Don’t change the fucking subject,” Ollie said.
Neil eyed the two bird dogs. “What exactly do you want me to do?”
“Learn,” said Ollie.
The following afternoon, while zooming south on the New York Thruway, always inscrutable Deke Hutchins swung his willfully nondescript Buick toward a rest area. Then out jumped Neil, who had just been given a handle: Shakespeare. Returning from the bathroom, Neil found Deke standing on a patch of grass. “You part camel or something? No, don’t tell me. Practice, right?”
Instead of answering, Deke took out a deck of playing cards, rifled it, and offered it to Neil. “Do the Erdnase shift that I showed you,” he said, referring to the stock shuffle first described in a 1902 book by a gambler writing under a pseudonym.
Neil started the move, but Deke held up a hand to stop him. “Not the SWE,” he said, again referring to S.W. Erdnase. “The one-hand hop.”
Confidently, Neil performed an elegant one-hand shuffle. “Nice, huh?”
Instead of answering, Deke took the cards, then held them near his knees. “Try it here.”
“C’mon! What in hell for?”
“Because I said so.”
With a flamboyance that paid insufficient heed to the degree of difficulty, Neil tried the move down low with no success.
Not bothering to gloat, Deke headed toward the car while Neil played 52 pick-up.
Forty minutes later, while practicing the move in the speeding Buick, Neil glanced at Deke. “How come you don’t play anymore?”
“How come your mother doesn’t have more kids?”
A moment passed, then Neil again broke the silence. “The stories true?”
“Deacon stories. I can’t figure out what’s true and what’s not.”
“Doesn’t matter. If I say George? Or start bitching about George? Or tell a story about some guy named George?”
“But if it’s Tom I’m talking about?
“Somebody made me. Or is onto something.”
“And if I say, Company’s coming?”
“Someone else is moving in on the game. This mean what I think it means?
“That maybe, just maybe, I’m going to play?
“Let’s see the move.”
Neil did the move with practiced precision, then smiled proudly. “Pretty, huh?”
“Now do it righty.”
“You don’t do shifts with the right hand. You deal with the right hand.”
“So don’t do it.”
Neil frowned. “What’s next, standing on my fuckin’ head?
“Could be. If I say, What it is?”
“Now you’re James Brown, Soul Brother #1?”
“Did the other guys you turned out have to do this?”
“It means go for the jugular,” said Neil. “Take the money and run. Get it and get the hell out. That enough?”
“What do you think?
Neil winced. “Righty, huh?”
With a groan, Neil tried the move with his right hand, and the result was yet another a wipeout.
Later that afternoon, with Neil feeling pretzeled and grimy from the ride, the two of them stepped into a two-bedroom apartment in Jersey City that was devoid of all personality. “The lap of luxury,” Neil commented.
“You’re welcome to leave.”
“How long you figure for the training?”
“Long as it takes. Any other questions?”
“Not that they’d matter, huh?
“Let me see it righty again.”
Neil started to say something, then put down his suitcase. Taking out a deck of cards, he proudly did the move he’d been practicing with his right hand.
That evening, with empty Chinese take-out food containers piled on the kitchen counter, the two men were seated at a bridge table with Deke dealing hands of 5-Card Stud. “So?” he suddenly asked. “You’re dealing bottoms.”
Neil pointed to a hand. “There?”
“Don’t ask. Tell me.”
Deke gathered the cards and tossed them toward Neil. “You do it.”
“Who gets the good hand?”
“The guy on second base — and you.”
Instead of answering, Deke reached for the cards, shuffled, riffled them, then dealt five draw hands face down. “Turn ’em over.”
Neil studied Deke for a moment, then did as told. The first hand was a bust. The second held three Jacks. Deke had three Kings. The other two hands were worthless.
“It’s not just what you have,” Deke stated. “It’s who else thinks he’s a winner. And none of that magician’s 4-Aces shit, unless you want the joint to heat up like a goddamn pizza oven. All you want is just enough to win.”
Two hours later, Neil hit the bathroom to relieve himself, then stared at his weary reflection in the mirror. Dousing his face with water in a futile effort to wake up, he headed back to Deke, who still looked cool, calm, and collected.
“Gonna tell me you’re not tired and you don’t need to take a leak?”
“Okay, I’ll bite,” said Neil. “What’s the secret?
“Just like playing cards.”
“Not like playing cards. It’s part of playing cards.”
Deke handed the cards to Neil, then pointed around the table. “Deal around.”
“Tops. You’ve got to work on rhythm.”
“Tops for a half hour, then alternate: top card, top card — second, second — top, top — second, second. And freeze that left hand. It looks like you’re some jerk trying to hail a cab.”
Neil fought back a yawn, shuffled, then started to deal.
Ten long, seemingly endless days later, the sun was beginning to peek through the shades when Neil, still in bed, ran through a series of moves. Thanks to time and hard work, he could feel a new-found fluidity — and with it, a new and different kind of self-assurance — to the cuts, shuffles, and deals.
But what he felt above all was a sense of quiet determination.
After four more days which seemed to alternate between periods of drudgery and elation, Neil found himself trudging through a desolate part of the Brooklyn that had largely been abandoned by the heavy industry that once made it vital, when Deke spoke. “If I say George?”
“Everything’s fine. Keep it up.”
“This guy’s trouble. Or somebody made me. Or I’m drawing heat. So how’d you get into this?”
“I wanted to be a jockey, but I grew.”
“But where’re you from?”
“My father was a Bengal Lancer who met my mother near Kathmandu. They had me, they set sail for the South Seas, then came the pirates. I was orphaned and needed to survive.”
“If I say, Expecting company?”
“Someone else is moving in on the game. You mean—”
“If I mention butterflies?”
“It means the guy’s playing a glim,” stated Deke. “A shiner. Maybe he’s using a high-polished cigarette lighter, or a mirror in his pipe. Every once in a while the mirror catches the light and dances on the ceiling, so the old-timers called it butterflies.”
“And,” said Deke, “if I say, What it is?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Correct,” said Deke. “I’m waiting –”
Neil shrugged. “Go for the fucking jugular.”
The next night, Deke stepped out of his bedroom and headed toward the john, then stopped in his tracks at an unexpected sight in the living room. Seated at the bridge table, Neil was dealing rounds of cards.
Deke checked the time — 4 A.M. — then looked on silently. Though not one for showing emotion, there was no hiding the fact that he was decidedly not unpleased.
Two evenings later, armed with a bag of Chinese take-out, Deke stepped into the training apartment to find Neil sprawled out on the living room sofa, fast asleep, with a book spread across his chest.
Quietly, Deke tiptoed over, peeked at the book — Thomas Pynchon’s V — then held the bag of food in front of Neil’s nose. Neil twitched, sniffed, then woke with a start.
“Chow time, Shakespeare.”
Still the lessons continued.
“You’re in a game with a guy who’s loose as a two-dollar hooker,” announced Deke the next morning. “Do you try to sit over him, or under?”
“Give me that again?”
“The motherfucker’s in every single hand. Do you want to play before him, or after?”
“Thought I was supposed to be dealing seconds.”
“The best two dealer I ever saw — hell, the best mechanic — would lose money half the time ’cause he didn’t use his head. Half the hustlers I know would cheat you blind, then think it’s not kosher to sandbag a bet. You’ve got know how to play, and most importantly play right. How’re you going to set a cooler if you don’t know how to read the other guys at the table? And besides, there’s nothing in the world better than playing straight, so you don’t have to move at all. So where you sit is no joke. Do anything — I mean anything you can come up with — to get some yo-yo who’s plays loosey-goosey to play before you.”
Deke studied Neil a moment before speaking. “If the seat’s not open, tell the schmuck who’s in it that trading’ll improve his rotten luck. If he won’t trade, offer him cash. Or stare at him and say you need to sit on the south side of the room. He’ll think you’re crazy, which is fine and dandy. Drawing this guy into hands will wind up making you money. It’ll keep other guys in a hand with 4-to-the-Straight or 4-Flushes. If you raise, you can sucker him further. But if you raise in the seat before the loose player — bingo, you drive him out.”
Deke let Neil absorb that in before continuing. “This is all part of your business. And I’m not just talking poker or blackjack. You’ve got to know how to play — and above all, how to think — whether it’s Gin, Pinochle, Casino, Canasta, or Tiddlywinks. Get the fucking money. That’s your job, your mission, what the French call your raison d’etre. Now let’s eat.”
Early the next morning, Neil’s indoctrination continued as Deke led him through a commercial district in Lower Manhattan. “Is war a game?” Deke asked rhetorically. “Or the stock market? Not a chance. Know why?”
Neil answered with a shrug. “A game’s something you play for fun,” Deke went on. “Where luck counts. When you’re playing poker, you’re not playing at all. No more than the Super Bowl’s a game. Or the World Series. Or the NBA Finals. We’re talking skill. Stamina. Preparation. And hard fucking work.”
“How come you’re not playing?”
“Who says I’m not?”
“You wouldn’t be spending this kind of time with me.”
“I like that,” said Deke with a rare smile. “You’re thinking. Now if—”
“You didn’t answer me.”
“Why you’re not playing.”
Deke stopped and faced Neil. “You’re right. But it looks like we’re here.
Puzzled, Neil looked around. “A barber shop?”
Taking Neil by the arm, Deke led his surprised pupil inside.
A half-hour later, surrounded by a thick pile of hair on the floor, Neil gazed at his clean-cut reflection in the mirror.
“I look like some kid going off to college.”
Neil gulped. “What’s that mean…?”
The next stop was a men’s store, where Neil’s uniform of t-shirt and jeans gave way to a button-down shirt, a crew neck Shetland, and a pair of chinos. “We done?” Neil asked hopefully.
“Not quite,” said Deke.
Shortly thereafter the two of them were at an optometrist’s place, where Neil was being fitted with glasses.
“Since my eyes are fine,” he said as they were leaving, “can I possibly get an explanation?”
“First and foremost, this is about image. Makes you look like a schnook.”
“But they’re also great for shade.”
“What magic guys call misdirection. It helps cover moves even better than a cigar. And we’ll get you a notebook to write in, especially after big hands. Lots of numbers. And make sure that once in a while you start mumbling about probabilities. Notebooks and talk about probabilities intimidate. When you win a few big hands, it’ll scare the bozoz even more, which’ll help you control the game.”
They continued down the street in silence for a couple of minutes, then Neil turned toward Deke. “Can I ask why now?”
“Let’s say you just finished your freshman year in college.”
“Time for a class trip.”
Two days later, teacher and pupil were on a flight to Las Vegas. Landed, they climbed into a cab, then headed toward a sea of neon at the sight of which Neil went wide-eyed. “I am ready for bear!” he exclaimed.
“Only if I give the word.”
“But I thought—”
“But you said I graduated.”
“From high school. You’re here to observe.”
“That’s English for to watch.”
“But when do I get to play?”
“When I say so. And when I do, you play straight. No deuces, no bottoms, no hops.”
At 9 PM, into a casino stepped Deke, together with Neil, who was clearly dazzled by the action everywhere he looked. Deke waited a moment before speaking softly. “What do you see?”
“Guys nowhere near as ready as me.”
“Lots of money changing hands.”
“And you’d like to feel some of that money?” offered Deke.
“Now that you mention it—”
To Neil’s dismay, Deke pulled out a roll, then started peeling off bills.
“What’re you talking about?”
“Handle it. Sniff it. Let it sit in your pocket for a while. See if it makes you feel like a different kind of person.”
“Call it a graduation present. Or an advance against future earnings.”
Self-conscious, Neil took the cash, stared at it, then stashed it in his pocket. Together, the two of them continued to watch the poker action in silence until a guy in a dark suit approached Deke. “Just happen to be in the neighborhood?”
Despite the absence of a handshake or a hug, it wasn’t hard for Neil to discern that Deke and the man, whose name he would later learn was Merrill, went back a long way. Making no effort to introduce him, Deke leaned toward Neil.
“I’ll be back,” he said.
As Deke and Merrill started to walk away, Neil was able to make out the beginning of their conversation.
“So how’s Phil?” Deke said softly.
“Maybe he’ll surprise us.”
Less than an hour later, Neil unlocked the door to his hotel room, then was surprised to find Deke already there.
“My first night in ‘The Town That Never Sleeps,’ and you’re telling me to sleep.”
“So don’t sleep. Read. Watch a movie. Call a hooker. Call a dozen hookers.”
“Long as I’m ready tomorrow morning?”
“You got it,” said Deke. “But only to observe.”
Paying no attention to Neil’s frown, Deke left the room without another word.
At midnight there was still considerable action in the casino when Neil ambled in. He quickly scanned the room to make sure that Deke was nowhere in sight, then approached a poker table where he stopped to observe, but not in the same way as before. He watched one hand play out, then another, after which a heavyset guy chucked in his cards, grabbed his chips, and stormed away.
Purposefully, Neil strode toward the open spot, sat down, then placed in front of him the roll of bills given to him by Deke.
Two hours later, Neil was looking decidedly the worse for wear: edgy, insecure, and monumentally frustrated. Not surprisingly, he was also a whole lot poorer, his stake having significantly dwindled. But not for a moment did that mean he was ready to call it quits. Not with the hope that the next hand would be his salvation. Or the one after that. Or maybe the one that followed. Tired, dejected, and filled with the bitter taste of defeat, Neil trudged into his hotel room, then winced at the sunlight that taunted him. Swiftly, he closed the shades and kicked off his shoes, then collapsed on the bed without making any effort to disrobe. Instantly he was on his way to dreamland when a noise roused him from his sleep. Disoriented, Neil tried to determine where he was, who he was, and what in hell the racket was about.
Stumbling over to the door, he opened it to find Deke standing there, smiling and rested.
“Ready?” Deke asked.
“Give me ten minutes to jump in the shower.”
“I’ll be in the coffee shop.”
On a noon flight, Neil and Deke sat in strained silence until Neil finally spoke. “Okay, I blew it,” he acknowledged. “And lost the cash.”
“Because I’m hopeless, shiftless, and rotten to the core?”
“You blew it ’cause you didn’t know who you were playing against.”
“You know something I don’t know?”
“I know tons and tons you don’t know.”
Neil waited for some revelation, some special piece of illumination, but Deke simply leaned back in his seat.
At dusk, silence reigned as Deke pulled the Buick out of the airport parking lot. “You didn’t lose ’cause you can’t play cards.”
“Is that good or bad?
“I can teach a monkey to play cards. I can teach him everything you know, and more. But that doesn’t make him a card player. Just a banana-eating technician.”
“So what makes a card player?”
“I’ll tell you what doesn’t. You hear some guy bitching and moaning about the cards, he’s not a card player. Sure, the cards are a factor. But no more than whether some guy’s tired. Or worried that his wife’s fucking the next-door neighbor. Or on some self-destruct kick. We’re talking about how you read other people, and how they read you. That’s why I’ve got you looking like Joe College. Confuse ’em. Give ’em something they don’t understand. There was no way you were gonna win in Vegas except through dumb luck. And when you’re playing for real, all luck’s got to do with it is how much you win, or how much you lose. Is that sinking into your thick head?”
“All right, Shakespeare. Now’s your chance to start showing me how smart you are.”
That night at the training apartment, Deke and Neil were once again at the table with cards and chips in front of them. “I still want you to put in a few hours a day dealing,” Deke said. “But it’s time to get into practical things.”
Deke shuffled the cards and placed them in front of Neil with a tiny edge of one card visible near the center of the deck. “Cut at the brief.”
Neil did as told, then Deke shuffled and repeated the action. “Again, but this time instead of looking, feel it.”
Neil did as directed, then Deke set the brief again. “Now talk to me while you do it.”
“You ante yet?” Neil asked while cutting.
“Good. Now sit back in your chair till it tips over.”
Neil started to lean back but could not quite bring himself to tip over. Then, suddenly, Deke was on the floor.
“You lean back and relax. Make sure your butt’s far enough back in the seat so that the chair cushions the fall.”
“What am I doing? Trying out for the circus?”
“You’re causing a disturbance so someone can come in with a cooler and bust out a game. A little melodramatic for your refined, novel-reading collegiate taste maybe, but I’ve seen it work where nothing else does. But instead of learning, you think your life is tough because you’re stuck here cutting to a crimp all day and all night. Right?”
Neil said nothing.
“But if you think it’s about spending a few months with me, then walking into a game Single-O, culling 3 Aces to the bottom, hopping a cut, and dealing yourself three-of-a-kind from the subway, you’re one naive and hopeless motherfucker.”
The first rays of sunlight at dawn found Neil and Deke still at work at the poker table. For Neil it was a fight to keep his eyes open and not to appear tired. But Deke remained unflappable, and seemingly indefatigable, as he handed the deck of cards to Neil. “Deal.”
When a kid delivered a pizza at noon, Deke was already shaved, showered, and ready for more. Quietly, he stepped into Neil’s room, where Neil was fast asleep. Opening the pizza box, he put it near Neil’s nose, causing him to wake up with a start.
“You’ve got a hand where you can either draw to a Flush or to a 12-way Straight,” said Deke. “One player asks for cards after you. What do you do?”
“Figure out who I am, and where I am.”
“If it’s a 12-way Straight, it’s got to be in, say, Gardena or someplace down south where they use a Joker.”
“Good. Do you draw to the Straight, or to the Flush?”
“I’ve got more ways to make the Straight. But if he takes just one, I’m better off trying to fill the Flush.”
“So how do you get the edge?”
“What?” asked Neil.
“You ask for one card, but don’t set your discard on the table. Try to get him to ask for cards. If he asks for two, play to the Straight. If he asks for one, play to the Flush. Get it? Try to get him to commit first, even though it’s your turn.”
At dusk, Deke and Neil were walking on a stretch overlooking a Brooklyn containerport, talking as always.
“A guy bitches and moans all night about the cards,” said Deke. “What’s that mean?”
“Probably that he’s there to lose.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you told me.”
“But,” said Deke, “what if he’s setting you up?”
“Give me that in English?
“You say I’m never tired. I sit there and never yawn, never rub my eyes. How do you know it’s not an act?”
“Let’s say a guy starts to get reckless if he thinks I’m nodding out. I’ll nod out like nothing you’ve ever seen. Or play drunk. Or curse out the cards. Or do anything it takes. Somebody’s being loud and obnoxious, is it because he’s a pig? Or because it rattles the guys he’s playing with? Somebody’s a sloppy drunk. Is he really? Or does it let him come in with a cooler, Somebody’s stretching all the time. Is it because of arthritis? Or because he’s giving the office? We’re talking people. Observation. Knowledge. With me?”
“Then there’s performance. What do I mean by that? When you do what we do, you don’t wear your feelings. You keep ’em inside and wear what you want others to see. Got it?
Again Neil nodded.
“Here’s your chance to prove it,” said Deke, leading Neil toward a waterfront dive bar.
Entering the place, Neil understood instantly that it was lowlife heaven. There were pimps in fur coats and cowboy hats, bikers and boosters, junkies and thieves.
Because Deke was watching him, as was everyone else, Neil fought hard to play it cool as the two men approached the bar, where the tattooed bartender nodded. “Chivas,” said Deke.
“Same,” said Neil.
With his new haircut and attire, there was no way Neil was going to fit in, but he did his best to play it nonchalant as the drinks were poured. Nonchalance, however, became harder to maintain when a huge dude came over toward him, staring menacingly. “What you looking at?”
“You heard me, motherfucker. I said what you looking at?”
Forcing himself not to panic, Neil substituted resourcefulness for firepower.
“At this knife,” Neil replied. “You did lose a red-handled knife, didn’t you?”
“What the fuck you talkin’ ’bout?”
As if from nowhere, Neil produced a red-handled knife, which startled the dude to the point where he reached into his jacket pocket, which to his dismay was empty.
“Or maybe you lost a white-handled knife.”
As Neil ran the knife through his hand, it turned from red to white, causing the dude, and others, to gape.
“Hold out your hand,” said Neil.
Neil took the dude’s massive mitt, opened it, put the white-handled knife inside, then closed the dude’s fingers over it.
“Say A cappella.”
Egged on by others, the dude reluctantly spoke. “A cappella.”
Neil responded by singing the first two lines of “Gloria,” then tapped on the dude’s hand.
The dude did as told, and was startled to see that the knife handle was red again.
Not long afterward, Deke and Neil stepped out of the bar. Together they walked in silence until Neil finally spoke. “What if that didn’t work?”
“What’s that mean?”
“What if it didn’t stop him?”
Deke shrugged. “Occupational hazard.”
“Tell me the truth,” demanded Neil. “Are you packing? Or do you just know the guy?”
Deke shook his head.
“What does that mean?” Neil asked.
“What if,” said Deke, “the story is that there is no story?”
Not for the first time, Neil found himself at a loss for words.
That night, after a foray for Indian food, Deke and Neil returned to the apartment and turned on the light. Immediately Neil pulled out a deck of cards. “Time for another marathon?”
“Get some rest.”
“So you can wake me at dawn?”
“Sleep as late as you want.”
“What language are you speaking?”
“Time for you to take some time off.”
“Why the change?”
“Maybe you earned it.”
“And maybe I’ll wake up 6’7″ and play in the NBA.”
“Maybe,” said Deke, “I want you rested when you play tomorrow night.”
Too pumped to sleep, the night found Neil lying on top of his bed with a paperback copy of Sometimes A Great Notion. Then he closed the book and reached for a deck of cards.
While practicing some moves, a sound in the hallway caught his attention. Stepping quietly through the dark toward the living room, he turned on the light to find Deke looking not the least bit unflappable or inscrutable. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m sure. And it’s none of your goddamn business.”
Neil studied Deke, who looked almost strung-out. With a shrug, he then turned and headed back toward his room.
The next evening, in a North Jersey neighborhood gone to seed, Deke and Neil walked past a storefront church, a rough gin mill, and a laundromat filled with lonely souls, then up toward a candy store.
At the door, Deke hesitated. “Sure you’re up to this?” he asked Neil.
“I am, but what about you?”
Deke’s only response was a sour look.
Once inside, the candy store, with its soda fountain, its magazines and newspapers, and some kids hanging out, seemed to Neil like many he’d seen before. Until, that is, Deke nodded to the bald-headed bruiser behind the counter, then led Neil past the “Playboys” and racing forms, then on past the vintage pinball machine, until they reached a door marked Private. The bald-headed guy hit a button behind the soda fountain, and the door swung open.
One look at the smoky and scary scene inside was all it took for Neil to understood much of what Deke had been putting him through.
Those assembled were hardly Ph.D’s, social workers, or Boy Scout leaders. There was a rough garment district type, a racketeer, an older guy who looked like he could have a Saturday Night Special next to his pile of chips, a Puerto Rican wearing lots of gold, a big fellow in a lumberjack shirt, and an official from the New York stagehands’ union. These were not folks for whom poker was a social event. They took in Neil, with his youthful collegiate look, with the same familiarity and understanding as if he were from Mars. But Neil, because of the turning-out process, remained surprisingly calm.
“My friend Shakespeare,” announced Deke, “would like to play a little cards.”
“As long as Daddy gave him a nice allowance,” said the racketeer.
Pulling out a significant roll of bills, Neil took a seat at the table, trying his best to appear ill-at-ease and awkward while using all his powers of observation as he was dealt in.
By midnight, the players were no longer as alert as before, with the exception of Neil. Having learned his lessons well, he was full of vim and vigor, or at least appeared to be. And there was a nice pile of chips in front of him. The garment district guy shuffled effortlessly while gabbing away. “Guy here in town on business calls his house in Beverly Hills, and the maid answers. ‘Maria.’ ‘Si, Senor?’ ‘Get mywife, willya?’ ‘She’s in the bedroom, Senor, and the door is locked.'”
“Shut up and deal,” interjected the Puerto Rican.
“I want to hear this,” protested the racketeer.
“‘Maria,’ says the guy, ‘why’s that door locked?’ ‘Because, Senor, she in there with the tennis teacher.'”
“Deal, for Chrissake,” grumbled the Puerto Rican.
The garment district guy set the cards in front of Neil, who was startled to find what seemed to be a neatly placed brief.
Holding back a smile, Neil cut perfectly, then watched as the garment district guy dealt a hand of Draw, talking all the while. “‘Maria, I want you to go to my study, open the desk drawer, and get my gun.’ ‘Pero, Senor.’ ‘Want me to call Immigration?’ A minute goes by, then the maid says, “I have it, Senor.’ ‘Good. Get the spare key from the kitchen drawer, unlock the bedroom door, and shoot both of ’em. Got it?’ ‘Pero, Senor!’ ‘Immigration, Maria.’ The maid takes a deep breath, then a minute later, he hears: Bam! Bam!”
“Thought we were fucking playing cards,” protested the Puerto Rican.
Neil picked up the hand he was dealt and did his best to show no emotion as he gazed at three Aces.
“To you,” the Puerto Rican guy said to him.
“Then I open for fifty.”
“By me,” said the union official.
“Me, too,” added the fat guy.
“Let’s say plus a hundred,” said the racketeer.
“Not for me,” said the old guy.
“And another hundred,” said the garment district guy. Then it was back to Neil.
“I call,” he said.
“Me, too,” the Puerto Rican chimed in.
“So do I,” said the racketeer.
Neil studied his cards even though it was unnecessary, then did his best to create the impression he was drawing to a Flush.
“One,” he said.
The card was dealt, and Neil picked it up to find himself with a Full House.
“Gimme two,” ordered the Puerto Rican.
“And two here,” said the racketeer.
Once the cards were dealt and examined, the fat guy spoke. “Do I get to hear the rest of the story?”
“After the fuckin’ hand,” insisted the Puerto Rican.
“A hundred,” said Neil, kicking off the next round of betting.
“A hundred, my ass!” stated the Puerto Rican. “Two-fifty!”
“Five!” cried the racketeer, who then turned for Neil’s response.
“Why not an even thou?” said Neil.
The others gulped, then put in their chips.
“Let’s see your Flush,” insisted the Puerto Rican.
Without gloating, Neil turned over his cards to show the Full Boat.
“Fuck me!” screamed the Puerto Rican.
But the garment district guy defused the moment by returning to his joke. “‘Now what, Senor’ asked the maid. ‘Take the gun and throw it in the pool.’ ‘Pero, Senor, we have no pool.’
‘Tell me,” the guy says, ‘is this Crestview 6-6267?'”
At dawn there was not much activity outside the candy store, just trucks getting a head start on the day, plus morning clean-up crews beginning their efforts. Then out came the Puerto Rican, who climbed into a Caddy. A moment later, out stepped Deke together with Neil. In silence they got into the Buick, then drove off.
Forty minutes later, Neil was demolishing an order of lox, eggs, and onions at a deli when Deke’s continued silence finally got to him. “Not going to say a thing?”
“The money I won.”
“Why’d you call when the Fat Guy had you beat on board?”
“I win over two grand, and the first words out of your mouth are why did I blow one hand?”
“Three Queens, you over-raised and drove out two guys.”
“Not really, my ass. Flush to the King you didn’t raise enough.”
“You are really weird.”
“Plus, how much of it do you think was your doing?”
“I wiped those guys from here to their mothers’ houses,” complained Neil, “and you play Monday Morning Quarterback? What’re you trying to get me to do?”
That evening, Neil was lying on top of his bed reading Leonard Cohen’s The Favorite Game when in stepped Deke. “Whatcha up to?” Deke asked.
“Contemplating the human condition.”
“Feel like contemplating something else?”
“There’s another game tomorrow night. So if His Majesty feels like working—”
Ten minutes later the two men took their places at the poker table, then Deke shuffled the cards. As he began to deal, Neil spoke. “Thought you were pissed at me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“This is business.”
Neil started to seethe, then channeled his fury by grabbing his cards. “Okay, talk,” he insisted.
“We’re gonna work on more 2-man moves. Guys who go Single-O have short life expediencies. I’m the dealer, and you’re on my left. Let me know what you’ve got.”
Deke dealt seven hands.
“How?” asked Neil.
“You can use the office, signaling with hand signs, or verbally, or with toothpicks. Or your chips. But in this case, you can probably get away with flashing your cards. Whatcha got?”
Neil flashed a pair of Kings and three odd cards.
“I’ve got a King,” said Deke. “Watch.”
Deke tossed in his hand with the other discards, then picked up the deck. “How many?”
Deke dealt three cards, one of which proved to be the King that was previously in his own hand.
“I’m impressed,” acknowledged Neil.
“Forget impressed. It’s a good play that won’t draw much heat.” As Deke continued to speak, he demonstrated the actions. “I hold out the King when I throw in my hand, using the pile of discards to make it tough to see how many I throw in. Then I cap the deck. Since you’re on my left, I deal the King to you, though I could just as well deal you a pair, or fill in a Flush, a Straight, or even a Boat. Like I said, it’s good, but the tough part is the break-off. I’ll show you a couple of ways to do it.”
Deke demonstrated, then Neil gave it a try, proving again that he was a very quick study.
At 3 A.M., Neil was tossing and turning in bed when sounds in the hallway woke him. On tiptoes, he headed toward the living room, where he found Deke hunched over with obvious respiratory problems. “Don’t tell me this is none of my business,” Neil stated forcefully.
When Deke failed to answer, Neil persisted. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Yeah,” replied Deke. “Play like you’re supposed to.”
That evening, a cab pulled up in front of a Manhattan brownstone. As Deke paid the bill, out stepped Neil, who gazed at a plaque that read: NEW AMSTERDAM CLUB.
“Ready?” Deke asked.
“Thought you said it was tough.”
Deke buzzed, then stated his name. A moment later the door was opened by a uniformed guard who gestured for them to enter.
Before following the guard, Deke turned to Neil, who looked uneasy. “Nervous?” the older man whispered.
“What do you think?”
“I think you can kick the shit out of ’em.”
With an uncharacteristic pat on the back, Deke ushered Neil into an ornate waiting room, where a dissipated man with a patrician bearing approached.
“Deacon, good to see you!,” said the man, who seemed to have fallen from money, grace, or both. “You needn’t dawdle,” he then said to Deke. “I’ll take charge.”
Watching the patrician, whose name he would later learn was Rutherford, head for the stairs, Neil turned to Deke. “You’re leaving?”
“I’ll see you after the game.”
Radiating old money, the card room was a world few civilians ever entered. Yet among the captains of industry and scions of prominent families sat Neil, who seemed to be perceived by the others as somehow less than human.
With an ever-growing pile of chips in front of him, Neil, after roughly an hour, found himself faced off against an aging Yalie with a haughty manner.
“I suspect, dear boy,” said the new foe superciliously, “that you’re bluffing.”
“In fact, I think everything about you is a bluff.”
Instead of letting himself get hot under the collar, Neil simply smiled. “So what do you propose to do?”
“I propose to watch you squirm. How does $1,500 sound?
“Insignificant,” responded Neil. “Let’s double it.” Tossing in $3,000 worth of chips, he faced his adversary. “So am I still bluffing?”
With the issue having become face as well as money, the Yalie squirmed. “I-I believe you are.” Taking a moment to study Neil, then another to glance at his fellow club members, he fingered some chips, then tossed in his hand.
Neil chose not to gloat.
At dawn, Neil and Rutherford entered a 24-hour diner. Seeing Deke, Neil could barely hold back his enthusiasm. “$5,100 and feeling fine.”
Instead of responding, Deke turned to Rutherford. “How’d he do?”
“Could have been significantly more.”
“Now I get shit from a guy I barely know?”
“He’s dealt a pat Straight against one guy he’s got coming out of his shoes, and another who’s so loose you could hang him out as laundry. Instead of passing and sandbagging, your boy opens, costing himself two units, minimum. Large units. Then—”
“I don’t want to hear this,” stated Neil.
“You’re here to listen,” said Deke.
“Then maybe I shouldn’t be here.”
“Think this is some kind of summer job where you can do what you want? Or just walk away?”
“Watch me,” said Neil, starting for the exit.
That night, in a cheap East Village apartment filled with incense and patchouli, posters Lenny Bruce and Che, plus Tim Hardin on a little stereo, Neil and a naked girl were in the process of getting stoned when suddenly there was a knock on the door. The girl started to get up, but Neil dissuaded her with both a kiss and the new joint he’d just finished rolling from the stash beside the bed.
Each took a toke, then the girl shrieked as the door to the apartment was smashed open. In stepped a big guy with gun drawn. “Freeze!” he yelled.
Minutes later, still yanking on his clothes, Neil was led out of the apartment. “L-look,” he mumbled. “M-maybe we can work this out.”
“Sure, possession…resisting arrest…”
“Let me make one call. I know there’s something…”
Less than an hour later, Neil and Deke climbed into the Buick. Off they went, with Neil waiting for Deke to scold or lecture him.
When neither scolding nor lecturing came, it was Neil who broke the silence. “You own me now?”
When no response was forthcoming, Neil spoke again. “I suppose I should say thanks.”
Again, Deke’s response was nothing more than a glance.
“All right,” Neil admitted. “I blew it. I’m an ungrateful little shit whose ass you saved even though you probably shouldn’t have. That make you happy?”
“Only one thing’ll make me happy.”
“Some time in the sun.”
That, Neil discovered, meant Miami Beach.
Two days later, on the sand behind their Art Deco hotel, Neil was soaking up some rays when Deke approached. “Relaxed?”
“Sure,” Neil said sarcastically. “Who needs action?”
“Your time’ll come.”
At 8 P.M. Neil was lying on top of his bed reading One Hundred Years Of Solitude when he heard a knock on the door. Opening it, he was far from surprised to see Deke.
“Hungry?” Deke asked.
“Yeah, for action.”
“Then maybe you ought to get dressed.”
Ten minutes later, as they got out of the elevator in the lobby, Deke turned to Neil. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Tonight I win big.”
“Win just enough to show you’re smart but reckless, with lots left to learn. Kind of what you pulled at the New Amsterdam, but this time on purpose.”
“When you win, I want you to gloat like a fucking idiot. Can handle that?”
Neil did his best to take in the sights as a cab led Deke and him through the Miami suburbs, then up toward a slightly garish country club, where a liveried doorman opened the rear door for the passengers.
Neil started to get out, then realized that Deke had not budged. “Coming?”
“You’re a big boy now. Ask for Schechter.”
“What about you?”
“Maybe I’ll head to Paris for the evening. Go on. Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for?”
Neil didn’t argue.
In a room done in faux Louis XIV, a group of well-heeled but decidedly tough characters — a New York Italian, a Cuban, an older man, an Englishman, plus Neil — were seated around a poker table playing table-stakes, mostly 5-Card-Draw, while the laconic guy running the game — Schechter — stood near a spread of cold cuts and fruit.
The Englishman glanced at a hand, then watch as the Cuban, with three Queens, bet. Others dropped out until it was just Neil, the Cuban, and the older man remaining. “How does $200 sound?” asked the older man.
“Not quite as nice as $500,” responded the Cuban.
Following Deke’s instructions, peeked at his cards, then grinned. “Only $500? “Let’s make this big league. $1,000? $1,500? Nah, show some testosterone. Two large.”
“Too rich for me,” said the older man.
The Cuban tossed in his hand, not even deigning to speak. But speechlessness was not a problem for the Englishman. “Lucky tonight, are we?”
“Or maybe good.”
Neil watched through the corner of his eye as the Englishman put the cards they’d been using aside, then opened a new deck. Ostensibly busying himself with other things — arranging his chips…taking a healthy drink — Neil used peripheral vision to monitor the Englishman, who executed a series of false shuffles.
Neil cut the cards when they were offered to him, and when he hit a crimp, he cut the deck like a rube, setting himself up to be the recipient of a cold-deck: one prepared by the guy running the game, then false-shuffled by the dealer. The goal, Neil understood, was to distribute good hands around the table, with the dealer, not surprisingly, getting the best. The players examined their hands, then betting began, starting with the New York Italian.
“$1,500,” he offered.
The Older Man put his cards face down on the table. “Night, night.”
The Cuban, however, behaved differently. “Double that.”
Then Neil nodded. “I’m in.”
“Me, too.,” said the Englishman, who turned to face the New York Italian.
“Two,” said the New Yorker.
The Cuban also tossed in two, then it was up to Neil.
“Just one,” said Neil. “And make it pretty.”
The Englishman dealt him a card, then put in one of his own. “Dealer also takes one.”
Dealing himself a card, he eyeballed the New York Italian.
“I check,” was the response.
The Cuban then pushed in a pile of chips. “Another three.”
Recognizing that he had no chance of winning, Neil chose to raise anyway rather than let the dealer know he’s been made. “Make it four.”
“Why not five?” teased the Englishman, throwing in more chips.
When the New York Italian folded, the Cuban pushed in the requisite number of chips.
“I’ll see,” he said.
Studying the Englishman, Neil tossed in more chips than he’d ever bet before. “I call, too.”
He then displayed his hand: five Diamonds with a Queen high. “Hail to the Queen, matey.”
“Noble sentiment,” said the Englishman, “but you lose.”
Enjoying the moment, the Englishman smugly turned over his hand to reveal five Hearts, with an Ace high.
Two hours later a waiter arrived with a tray of drinks. While the others, showing the effects of strain, sipped their beverages, the Englishman once again put the cards aside, then took a new deck handed to him by Schechter. He performed another false shuffle that only Neil seemed to notice, though once more without comment. When the cards were handed to him for a cut, Neil seemed again to be the dupe, cutting at the crimp. In completing the cut, however, Neil brought his carefully honed skills into use by palming the top card, thus subtly altering the order of each hand. Unaware that anything was different, the Englishman started dealing.
With people tired and nerves frayed, there was a significant increase in the intensity level as the players checked out their hands. The New York Italian opened aggressively. “A thousand big ones.”
The older man upped the bet to $2,000. Eyeing three Kings, the Old Man puts $2,000 into the pot, causing the Cuban to fold.
Neil smiled. “Four thou.”
“Five,” said the Englishman, causing the New York Italian to toss in his cards.
The older man put in in the appropriate chips, then Neil did the same.
“Cards,” announced the Englishman.
The Englishman watched the older man toss in two cards, so he dealt two new ones. Then he turned to Neil.
“I’ll play these,” Neil stated.
“Oh, will we, huh? Dealer takes one.”
The Englishman dealt himself a card, then he and Neil eyed the older man, who shook his head. “Pasadena,” he muttered.
“Five do you?” Neil asked the Brit.
“Ten does me better.”
Wordlessly the old man folded, which made it Neil’s turn. “Make it fifteen.”
The Englishman watched Neil put in the chips, then glanced at Neil’s diminished pile.
“How much do you have in front of you?”
“Sixteen thousand and change.”
“Then here’s your fifteen, plus sixteen thousand and change.”
Confidently, the Englishman watched his putative mark put in all his remaining chips.
“Sorry, my friend,” he then said. “Four-of-a-kind beats a Full House or a Flush.” Smugly he displayed his hand, revealing four Jacks.
“But not a Straight Flush,” Neil corrected, turning over his cards to display what was clearly the winning hand.
The sun was just beginning to rise over the Atlantic when Deke and Neil strolled along the water’s edge.
“I let ’em put in the cooler,” said Neil. “then I cut to the crimp like a mook. Could’ve driven a truck through it. Then, a couple of hours later, they try it again. I play the sap and cut perfectly, then look the guy in the eye. As I complete his cut, I cop the top card. Guess who winds up with his hand.”
“Maybe it’s time for a return on our investment. There’s a game we’re shooting for.”
Less than a week later, Neil was swimming morning laps in a hotel pool in San Juan, Puerto Rico when he spotted Deke talking with a white-haired man. Climbing out, he wrapped a towel around his waist, then headed in their direction.
“Shakespeare,” said Deke as Neil approached, “say hello to Mr. Harris.”
“Call me Carl. Play tennis?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Since I pulled a tendon, mind hitting a bit with my wife?”
That afternoon, while Neil rallied on the tennis court with Carl’s attractive wife on one of the hotel’s splendid tennis courts, Deke strolled toward the bench where Carl was watching.
“You ought to relax more,” Carl said.
“I’ll work on that.”
“Yeah, the same time you take cooking lessons and start sewing. I can just see you with a hobby.”
“Someday I may fool you.”
“Smart kid you’ve got. Charlene likes him.”
“We’ll talk about it.”
At 8:30 that evening, Deke ambled into the hotel restaurant where Neil was finishing a meal with Carl and his wife Charlene.
“Sorry you didn’t join us,” Carl said upon seeing him. “Coffee? Espresso?”
“Your buddy here as some interesting thoughts,” Carl stated before turning toward Neil.
“Tell him what you were saying.”
“It was nothing.”
“Nothing, my ass. Sit, Deke.”
“We should be going,” protested Deke.
“It’ll wait,” asserted Carl.
Begrudgingly, Deke took a seat. Only then did Carl turn again toward Neil. “Tell him.”
“Well—” said Neil hesitantly.
“I was complaining that people look at Vegas now as passe’,” Carl interjected. “Yesterday’s news. And your boy here came up with some great ideas.”
“Tennis,” Charlene explained. “And boxing. And Rock ‘n Roll.”
“People will come to see tennis and boxing?” Deke asked.
“If we give ’em championship bouts and matches with giant purses? Abso-fucking-lutely.
“Plus you’ve got the TV tie-ins,” added Neil.
“Great, huh?” said Carl.
“Direct from Vegas, Muhammad Ali vs. so-and-so,” said Neil. “Jimmy Connors vs. Bjorn Borg.”
“We make back our expenses while getting advertising worldwide,” explained Carl.
“Making Vegas a place to vacation as well as gamble,” added Neil. “And where you can bring your whole family.”
“Instead of a fading dinosaur or an old age home,” said Charlene. “Which is why rock ‘n Roll.”
“It’s everything our guys out there were never able to grasp,” stated Carl. “We’ll still comp the high rollers who come for the action, but we’ll add a whole new demographic. Tell him,” Carl said to Neil, who was clearly feeling his oats.
“It’s middle America we’re talking about.”
“We?” interrupted Deke.
“Let the kid talk,” insisted Carl.
“People with RV’s.,” said Neil. “Honeymooners. Conventioneers.”
“A whole new image,” said Charlene.
“And tourists,” added Neil.
“From Japan,” stated Carl. “And Europe. And South America.”
“All the places where they want to see fights, tennis matches, and other events,” said Neil.
At 7 the next morning, Deke was putting on his shoes when he heard a knock on his door. Opening it, he was surprised to find Carl standing there.
“Want some company?” Carl asked.
“You look like shit,” grumbled Deke.
“Never felt better. And at my age that’s something, after staying up all night. Pissed?”
“Should I be?”
“Abso-fuckin’-lutely. I like the kid. And I know you put a lot of time into him.”
“Yeah, and what’s effort? And while we’re on the subject, what’s emotion?”
“Who’s talking about emotion?” asked Deke.
“The kid. You should hear him talk about you. You know I’m taking him.”
“What’s doing with the Greek?” wondered Carl.
“I’ll know today,” answered Deke.
“Once he chews up the Greek, he’s mine.”
“How do you know he’ll chew him up?”
“I know the motherfucker who turned him out.”
Wrapped in towels, Carl was sitting alone in the steam room when in stepped Deke. “Any update?” asked Carl.
“You’re good on reading people. What do I envision for the kid?”
“An idea guy you can bring along and groom.”
“As in turn out?” teased Carl.
“I get the feeling you’re headed somewhere.”
“He’s got it, Deke.”
“No news to me.”
“I can’t afford to wait, so I’m giving him the nod.”
“Phil’s job,” Carl announced.
“In Vegas? As of?”
“Right this fuckin’ second.”
“He can make us a lot of money.”
“Sooner than you think.
“So I cancel the game?” demanded Deke.
“Tell the Greek there’s a replacement.”
“How do I find a guy who can make him happy?”
“By looking in the mirror,” stated Carl, causing Deke to freeze.
That evening, the elevator door opened in the hotel lobby, then and out stepped Neil, whose eyes lit up at the sight of Deke. “Hear the news?”
“Yeah,” said Deke.
Instead of elaborating, Deke stepped inside the elevator. An instant later, the door closed behind him.
In the hotel restaurant an hour later, Neil dialed a number on a house phone, then waited while it rang and rang. Hanging up, he walked over to where Carl and Charlene were seated.
“Maybe he went for a walk,” Carl offered.
“No, he’s there. Excuse me, will you?”
Approaching Deke’s room, Neil knocked, waited, then knocked again. “I know you’re in there!”
Neil knocked even harder, but still got no response. “If you don’t want to open the door, I’ll have the fire department knock it down!” Neil kicked the door and turned away, then was surprised to hear Deke’s voice. “Go fuck yourself!”
“I understand what you’re going through.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“You busted your ass turning me out, and now I’m off in another direction.”
“Go on,” said Deke. “Your friends are waiting.”
“It’s not the skills that go,” replied Neil. “It’s the nerves.”
“No clue what you’re talking about.”
“Guess who saw you when you could hardly even breathe,” stated Neil. “And the way you look now.”
“I don’t need this.”
“Then,” added Neil, “there’s the talk on the street.”
“The word’s flukey, right?”
“An exhibition player. Great at demonstrating. But when it comes to a game—”
“Get out of my face!”
“Fine,” said Neil. “Who needs you anyway!” Neil started to turn away, then again faced Deke. “I’m not leaving,” he stated.
Deke shrugged, then stepped into his hotel room. Neil followed, closing the door behind him.
Ninety minutes later, Neil watched Deke, who had been pacing relentlessly, come to a stop.
“You see it happen to others,” Deke said softly. “They win big, get a reputation. Then one day, they’re suddenly afraid to lose. They try not to think about it, but the fear — the fucking fear is there. It starts to grow, and grow, then one day it devours. You see it happen, but like getting old, you don’t believe it can happen to you. Then suddenly it’s there. It’s who you are.”
“It’s only how you see yourself,” insisted Neil.
Deke sighed. “You don’t know shit about me.”
“Want me to talk about the night you broke Dudek?” asked Neil. “Or destroyed Jimmy Chesare? Or turned out Silverman? Or would you rather I talk about Maureen?”
“So you did your fucking homework.”
“No more than you guys did on me,” stated Neil. “What if I say we can change things?”
“What if I want to help?”
“I’m not real good at taking help,” argued Deke.
“No shit. Deke, listen. Despite yourself, you’re a great guy.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Okay,” said Neil. “Sometimes you’re a world-class shithead. But you didn’t just turn me out. You made me.”
“Look what it got me.”
“Trust me, okay? Forget the way you see yourself and feel.”
“Somebody took a psych course and thinks he’s fucking Freud.”
“I’m not leaving this room until I get you to see that you’ve still got it,” insisted Neil.
“Even if I have to beat it into that thick skull of yours.”
“Gimme a break.”
“Forget it,” said Neil, shaking his head. “Why? Because somebody once told me that in the midst of all the bullshit, sometimes life comes down to four words: Shut up and deal!”
The next evening a taxi pulled up at a marina lined with breathtaking boats, then out stepped Deke and Neil.
Despite his trepidation, Deke looked surprisingly confident. But as the two of them approached a venerable 65 foot wooden yawl, Deke suddenly faltered, only to be caught by Neil, who took his arm.
“Through my eyes,” Neil whispered. “See yourself through my eyes.”
As Deke braced himself, down the gangplank came a distinguished-looking man exuding superiority and radiating prosperity. “Mr. Hutchins.”
Neil watched from the dock as the two men strolled on-board. Ten minutes later, off to sea it sailed. Dawn found Neil standing on the dock, coffee cup in hand, as the splendid 65-foot yawl returned toward shore. As the boat reached land, then was secured by deckhands, Neil watched several high-rollers emerge from the cabin.
Still in suspense, Neil saw the gangplank lowered while the card players shaking hands. Then, surreptitiously, Deke shot him the office. Weary but exhilarated, Deke ambled down the gangplank with a Chinese guy and a Swede. But while the others headed off toward the street, Deke approached Neil.
Not a word was spoken until Neil broke the silence. “So the Deacon’s back?”
“That’s just one more rumor card players like to tell.”
With that, the two of them climbed into a cab.
As they headed toward their hotel, Neil faced Deke. “One last question?”
“All that stuff—”
“Losing in Vegas. Getting busted. The bar on the waterfront.”
“What about it?
“Was it all a set-up?”
“What gives you that idea?” Deke answered enigmatically.
It was still Deke who was on Neil’s mind when he boarded a private plane at a small airport outside of Vegas.
In the days that followed, there were reports that his destination was Morocco, while others heard or claimed that he found refuge in a country that had a no-extradition policy toward the US. Vietnam was suggested by some, while others insisted it was Cambodia, Tunisia, or perhaps even Brunei.
As days turned to weeks, then weeks to months, Neil, aka Shakespeare, became part of gambling lore, together with the Deacon, the Professor, and Charlie Miller, and a handful of others.
But as time went on, there were fewer people who knew about him, and ultimately even fewer who cared.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.” In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.