Luck

“It isn’t fair,” the man will say. He will be standing up, angry but not violent yet. His face will be flushed but his speech is still clear. It will always be a man, though there are many women who play in the Tropicana’s poker …

1.

“It isn’t fair,” the man will say. He will be standing up, angry but not violent yet. His face will be flushed but his speech is still clear. It will always be a man, though there are many women who play in the Tropicana’s poker room. Tonight, he’s dressed as a tourist: sweatshirt and jeans. Tomorrow, he’ll be wearing business casual. They never smoke. They always come in alone.

“It’s not fair.” There will be two people beside him: a manager, to explain why he is being ejected, and a security guard, to escort him out. These people will be male, too, and everything they say will be half-muttered, half-recited. What they say won’t matter to him. It will only matter if there is something weird happens, if there is a lawsuit later and they are asked to recount what they said.

“It’s not fair.” It happens at least once each night we play, but never at our table. We play low stakes. “It’s not fair.”

“Anyone can win.” That’s what the World Series of Poker promises us — and it’s easy to believe. Poker requires a bare minimum of skills to play. The rules of [Texas Hold 'Em][holdem] can be explained in about five minutes, and beyond that all you need is the ability to sit still and manipulate piles of clay chips with your hands.

There is no reason why a complete idiot cannot sit down at any poker table anywhere and win. But there are many reasons he does lose — all of them reasons that could be counted as fair. The truth is, luck doesn’t get you very far in poker. An idiot will sit down at a table and be dealt a royal flush, an unbeatable hand, [one in 649,739 times][odds]. The rest of the time, well… the complete idiot probably loses.

The way you stop being an idiot is by learning rules to follow in the absence of luck. They give you an idea if your two-pair can stand up to the rest of the table; they tell you if it’s worth seeing another card to complete a flush. Most of these rules are based in probability, and the rest in armchair psychology.

These rules don’t ensure that you will always win, but they promise that over time, you will win more than you lose. That’s fair enough.

But then sometimes you just lose. It doesn’t matter what rules you follow. You get dealt bad cards for an hour straight, and you start playing mediocre ones, because who knows — maybe it’ll take crappy cards to turn your luck around. They don’t, of course. The stack of chips in front of you is suddenly tiny. You have enough to maybe see two hands through. Finally it comes. A pair of aces in the hole. The best starting hand anyone could hope for. A complete idiot could win with this hand. You throw the rest of your chips onto the table.

You lose.

Is it fair?

The men who will stand up, the men who will tell anyone who will listen that it isn’t fair: they’re right. But I play the game anyway.

I stand up slowly, give my fellow players at the table a nod and murmur “good game” as I gather up my jacket, push in my chair, and remember my way to the exit. I do it because I know it isn’t fair.

I do it because I expected to lose when I sat down. It keeps my betting restrained and my voice polite; it keeps me from wanting too much, from trying to push a backdoor flush two steps too far. It keeps me seated on a couch at parties, sipping on a mixed drink in a plastic cup and thinking of three months ago; it keeps me smiling in the dark as I talk to someone for the last time; it keeps my hands still as the subway doors close.

2.

The boardwalk is silent; it stopped snowing hours ago. The wind has died down but the air is still cold. I’m looking at a sign mounted on the chain-link fence that separates us from the dunes; it lists all the rules that would make sense if it were summer and we were carrying towels. The only one that seems to apply is: closed at 10 pm. It’s something close to 2:30 in the morning.

“I’ve never been to the beach in the winter,” one of us says.

“I think I have, once,” I say. “Or maybe it was [a movie][sunshine] I saw…”

I look around, just to be sure. There isn’t anyone who would care about us breaking the rules, no one even close to police — but I [hesitate][halloween].

“What are they going to do?” the most impetuous of us finally says. “Take away our birthdays?”

She jumps off the boardwalk, onto the snow, and start walking up the dune. And I follow her, stepping in footprints already tracked. More than one set, overlapping. We aren’t the first to have this crazy idea tonight — why did I think of coming to the beach as soon as I lost? Why don’t I feel sleepy now? Why does everything feel so real still?

We cross the hump of the dune and the footsteps we are following end just before the beach begins. I stop and she asks why. I explain that I’ve never seen a beach covered in snow no one’s walked across yet.

It is beautiful. But the truth is, I’m still afraid.

“Do you think you can see the sand right where the water is?” one of us asks. “Or is it snow all the way?” It’s too far away to see from here.

I realize I don’t know the answer because I’ve never been to a beach during the winter. It _was_ just a movie. I’ve started to think of things I’ve seen as things I’ve done — of being the things I’ve watched happen. It scares me, the idea of it. It’s so easy to let it happen to you. To become — enculturated. To travel through postcard pictures.

“I don’t know,” I reply and start giggling. And then I run. Not looking back, not even knowing there was a point where I decided to run — just running. Snow’s crisp, easy to cross — much easier to run along than sand would be in the summer (summer was so long ago, and maybe you were happier then, when things were wrong but you didn’t mind anymore) — and now they’re running with me too. I can hear their footsteps. I can hear ourselves and nothing else.

We arrive at the sand, feet from the water. Seashells are frozen in its surface. Beautiful ones grown dull with seawater. It’s low tide and the air is misty. Waves are breaking everywhere.

“My favorite part of the beach is the waves,” one of us tells me.

“I like everything about it,” I reply, and I mean it.

[holdem]: http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=505994
[odds]: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Poker.html
[halloween]: /?p=163
[sunshine]: /?p=191

Article © 2005 by Chris Klimas