The last time I set foot in the Dead Dog Saloon was the night the grinning Mongolian brought a fruit basket to the poker table. We eyed him warily. Some said he was a communist, others a murderer. I figured one increased the odds of the other. I’d heard from a reliable source that he’d hacked his father to bits back in Ulan Bator. But his money was good. We dealt him in.
I was only at the Dead Dog that night because of some misunderstandings at Seattle’s more reputable establishments. I’d lately been on the receiving end of a bad beat or two, and I owed a few people a small amount of money. There were also some malicious and completely unfounded rumors of cheating that forced me to avoid certain circles.
Regardless, I’d been coming to the Dead Dog for two weeks, slowly leeching cash from the unsavory lot who frequented that hellhole. No one there had heard of me. To them, I was just some old coot who kept getting lucky. How could they know I used to play VIP tables at the MGM Grand? I was Art “Badger” Delfino back then. Aggression was my game. I’d raise you with the nuts, and I’d raise you with nothing. You could hear teeth grinding around the table whenever I’d reach for my stack. I’d pull in a $3,000 pot, then flip my cards to show jack high.
But no one’s called me Badger in a long time. People don’t talk about you when the cards don’t fall your way. Or if they do, it’s a whisper behind your back. Every poker player has a bad run—it’s part of the game. They don’t last forever. Mine just happened to last two decades.
A twenty-year dry spell will make a man question his faith in himself and in the game. Believe it or not, at one point I actually started going to meetings. Can you imagine that—one of America’s greatest poker players sitting in a freezing church basement with a bunch of deadbeats who can’t pay their child support because they always bet on the Mariners? For the last two years my own daughter wouldn’t even talk to me due to some bitterness over an unpaid loan. And yet in the end I never gave up on myself, and I never gave up on poker. Lady luck may leave you for a while, but she always comes back.
I was telling you, though, about the Mongolian. He held the basket in his lap, heaped with fruit. He juggled kiwis while the dealer shuffled, sniffed a banana between hands, and folded every card dealt him for half an hour, grinning all the while. Then one hand he dropped the fruit, called the $2 blind, and sat motionless.
I’d been card dead all night. I was beginning to think the royal family was on vacation. But this hand I’d picked up a queen / jack, both clubs. The flop came ten of hearts / six of clubs / ace of diamonds.
10♥ 6♣ A◈
The action started on Estevez, a skinny Mexican who captained a harbor cruise boat and was always showing us naked pictures of his fat wife. Estevez checked to the Mongolian, who raised fifty, a massive over-bet. The table folded to me.
I looked over at the Mongolian. His grin couldn’t mask his anxiety. A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead. The ace on the board worried me a bit, but if he’d hit top pair he’d be slow-playing it, not chasing away action with a huge raise. He’d probably whiffed and was trying to steal the blinds. I needed a king for a straight or runner-runner clubs for a flush.
I made the call. Estevez folded, leaving me heads-up against the Mongolian.
A deuce of clubs fell on the turn.
10♥ 6♣ A◈ 2♣
The Mongolian bet a hundred before the card hit the table. I leaned back in my chair and thought about it. I’d already committed fifty-two bucks, and his aggressive bet said he was trying to scare me off. He sat completely still, looking down at the table with that deranged grin. A vein throbbed in his forehead. The bead of sweat had reached the tip of his nose. I was one card away from a straight or a flush. Hell, if he was on a stone cold bluff, my queen high might even be good. If I’m not a gambler, what am I? I made the call.
The last card came off the deck. The river. Over the years, she’s carried away the dreams of many men. She’s swept away more of this man’s dreams than I care to count. But every so often she’ll bring you what you’re looking for. On that night in the Dead Dog Saloon, she brought me an eight of clubs. Queen-high flush.
10♥ 6♣ A◈ 2♣ 8♣
The Mongolian closed his eyes and nodded. That could mean anything—he’d made his hand, he was accepting his fate, he was trying to psych me out. It didn’t matter. I knew I had him. I stared down at the cards, my heart nearly bursting. Thirty seconds passed. Then, with a small groan, the Mongolian pushed all his money to the middle of the table. Over eight hundred dollars. One of the younger players at the table gave a low whistle.
I checked my cards a final time. They hadn’t changed. For a minute I pretended to debate the call, letting the moment wash over me. I couldn’t remember the last time a pot this big had come my way. Must’ve been years ago. But now Badger Delfino was back. And this time I was going to savor it. I’d hold on to it and wouldn’t let it slip away.
When I made the call, I flipped over my cards so the Mongolian would know he was beat. He barely glanced at them. “Call?” he said, and looked at the dealer. The dealer nodded. The Mongolian gave a short laugh and his grin broke into a great beaming smile.
My heart plummeted into my stomach and nearly kept going to the exit. A higher flush, of course! I hadn’t even considered it. You blind old fool, I thought. The Mongolian turned over his cards with a triumphant flourish. We stared at them in stunned silence.
Ace of spades, ace of hearts. He’d hit a third ace on the flop to make three of a kind. But my flush was the better hand.
10♥ 6♣ A◈ 2♣ 8♣
(Q♣ J♣) (A♠ A♥)
For a moment, no one moved. Then, very slowly, Estevez leaned over and whispered in the Mongolian’s ear. He pointed to my cards and patted the man gently on the back. Ten long seconds passed. We all watched the Mongolian. He sat there still grinning, a ruined man. The bead of sweat fell from his nose and splashed on the table.
As if that was his cue, the Mongolian flailed back in his chair and overturned the fruit basket. Apples, pears, and peaches tumbled across the table, and behind the avalanche of fruit the Mongolian reared up with a bowie knife he’d stashed in the bottom of the basket. We could see in his eyes that he meant to kill us all.
A ruckus broke out in the bar. Everyone started hollering and clawing for the cash. Estevez reached too close to the Mongolian and left three of his fingers on the wood. The Mongolian waved his blade maniacally and grabbed an armful of bills.
I somehow ended up locked in the men’s room. My heart was churning like a steam engine. I peeked out to see Kulschlager, the bartender, giving chase with a bottle of Canadian Club in one hand and a rifle he’d pulled from behind the bar in the other. As soon as he was gone, half the bar rushed to the door to watch while the other half rushed for the liquor bottles and poured themselves free drinks. A few kind souls huddled around Estevez.
I stayed in the men’s room. A pain started to build in my chest, and I thought I might keel over by the urinal. For a moment I pictured my own funeral—lots of empty seats, my daughter in the front row prim and dry-eyed, knowing her thickheaded old man died the way he lived: pushing forward even when the odds were against him, hoping luck would bail him out. There in the men’s room, leaning on the sink and looking at my ghostly face in the mirror, I realized it was either fold forever or lose it all.
From the street came a gunshot, and after a pause, another. A minute later Kulschlager stumbled back in, soaked with rain and cursing in German. After regaining my composure, I came out of the men’s room and asked him what he was going to do about my nineteen-hundred dollars that just ran out the door. He gave me a hundred-dollar bill from the register and told me I could drink free the rest of the night. What else could I do? I took the cash, pulled up a seat, and ordered a whiskey sour.
Eventually an ambulance came and took away Estevez, his severed fingers on ice in a rocks glass. The police arrived soon after, but we all kept our mouths shut. I knew my money was gone.
And it might’ve been the nine whiskey sours, but by the time I left the bar that night, I didn’t care. I slammed the door on my way out and stared up at that sign with the rigor mortis dog, flat on its back with four paws pointing skyward.
Then I walked away.
© Robert Hinderliter
[This piece was selected by Dan Malakin. Read Robert’s interview]