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Shuffle Up and Deal

Written by Denise McCune


I'm tired of hearing my good name slammed on national television, so let's get one thing clear up front: the panic wasn't a hoax, all right? Nobody planned anything. You all got the benefit of seeing the talking heads yap-yap-yapping alongside when you saw it televised. You got context. Me? I was just one of the dumb schlubs in the middle.

Story of my life. You've gotta understand: I went to Vegas thirty-nine years ago to play poker, and I never went home again. My only agenda had ever been to make enough money so I didn't have to, God forbid, get a Real Job. And I'm no Doyle or Hellmuth or Chan, but I got by. Cash games, mostly—up a little, down a little. Always having fun, and much better than working in an office somewhere.

Poker's changed a lot since the days when I started. I've played in every single World Series of Poker since Benny started it up in '70—never won, but I've come close a few times. I remember the days when it was just a bunch of guys in a smoky room. These days, the main event alone takes two weeks to finish playing, and they're up to fifty-something different minor events for you to play if the ten-thousand-dollar buy-in for the big one is too rich for your blood. The whole thing takes forever. There's thousands of people playing, and even more watching.

And not just on the casino floor, either. Never used to be you'd trip over a TV camera every time you turned around, and don't get me started on the question of whether it's a sport or not; we'll be here all day. These days, half the kids are more interested in being "poker celebrities" than they are in playing the game.

What I'm getting at is, I'm not the world's best poker player. Not by a long shot. Hell, you already know; ESPN's profile of me this year wasn't all that flattering, was it? Sour grapes; they're still pissed they were scooped by CNN. But I've gotten by for nearly forty years by being good enough to stay alive when there's blood in the water, smart enough to avoid pissing away chips chasing after something I'll never catch, and good-natured enough that nobody ever gets me in their sights at a table and specifically tries to gun me down.

This year at the World Series, though—well, it was just weird. First year we had a hand-to-God alien playing in the game. And that didn't bug me—no, really, it didn't; the good old boys' club is long gone. We let in women and we let in all those Internet players, we can let in an alien if his money's good.

But the Secret Service running over the entire damn hotel and casino made things interesting. You couldn't turn around without tripping over some punk in a black suit. The alien—we all called him Fred; you guys had the captioning at home, but on the floor, none of us could remember or even pronounce his real name—looked just like you and me. Hell, he looked like any one of the boys in black suits: tan skin, dark hair, dark glasses, blinding smile. Well, you know what they all look like, right? I hadn't seen a single news spot since they landed that didn't include something about them, some wild speculation about their technology (advanced) or their weaponry (impressive) or what the hell they wanted from us (your guess was as good as anybody's).

Fred, though, he was a character. Nice enough guy. As far as we could tell, at least. His translator kept throwing up her hands and saying that Fred either wanted to go all-in or order a cheese sandwich, she had no idea. Still, he had good poker manners—no temper tantrums, no unclear cues, no trash talk. Hell, no small talk, period; nobody could understand half the things he was trying to say. The suits had only managed to put together about half of Fred's language, and his translator was as much in the dark as the rest of us.

Sure, we were all nervous. Bunch of radically-advanced aliens touches down in Central Park and busts out the old "take me to your leader" line, you're going to want to know if you should bend over and kiss your rear goodbye. The Powers That Be were trying to give them anything they wanted, within reason of course. When Fred said he wanted to play in the main event of the Series, the government boys moved heaven and earth to make sure he'd have a good time. They even covered his buy-in.

The tournament organizers were thinking of trying to keep him isolated—a separate table in a separate room, with just the players Fred was facing—but Fred insisted that they treat him just like everyone else. So there he was, on the floor of the Rio, packed in like a sardine just like the rest of us.

The suits briefed every single one of us ahead of time, from the players down to the dealers and the cocktail waitresses. Don't move too fast around Fred (they'd lost a couple of bureaucrats before they realized that one; Fred's people don't take well to being startled). Don't offer him anything to eat or drink (mortal insult worthy of blood-feud; that one had knocked off a few more of Fred's minders). Don't say anything about your family, or your home, or anything that could give any kind of clue about Earth's defenses (they were still trying to keep Fred's people in the dark about how little we were prepared to hold off an invasion).

So you have to understand the atmosphere we were in. The Series is a madhouse to begin with, but by the time we all got down to the business of playing poker, we were scared silly. And here's this guy, this alien, wearing his black suit and his Hello Kitty tie (we thought product placement—it's pretty common these days—but no; Fred just liked it) and smiling. Constantly. It's enough to break anyone's nerve, no matter how much you like the guy. Give me a stone-faced thousand-yard-stare any day instead.

Insult to injury, nobody, and I mean nobody, could get a read on Fred. He didn't have a single tell anyone could figure out—a bunch of us got together and swapped notes—and he played like a pro half the time and like a fish the other half. Nobody knew how the hell he'd learned the game, but he obviously had. And the cards just goddamn loved him.

If any one of us had found ourselves in a cash game with Fred, we would have gotten up and walked away—fast. But you can't walk away from the Series, even if you're up against someone who can apparently break the laws of probability just by breathing. People at the tables around Fred started singing the Imperial Death March when a new player and his chip stack got moved to Fred's table, because chances were good those chips would be in Fred's hands within the hour. It made us cranky. Very cranky.

Cranky doesn't lead to good poker. I saw an entire table of grown men pitch a fit on day three—chips flying everywhere—when the tournament organizers moved Fred over to sit with them. Still, it was a matter of honor and pride to hold on as long as you could, and maybe the "Fred effect" did me some good, because for the first time in my entire life, I was not only in the money, but I made it to the final table.

Fred the alien, seven Internet and casual cash-game players, and me. It's a hell of a world.

I hadn't been expecting to get that far—of course—but I had most of the old boys pulling for me, and maybe their good wishes meant something. And hell, even the young kids, the ones who always call me "Dad," were cheering me on. I'd started right in the middle of the leaderboard that morning. Fred was chip leader, had been since day one, and that alone should tell you something, because nobody who's ever been chip leader at the end of the first day has made it to a final table.

I was in the zone, playing the best damn game I'd ever played of my life, and still, every single one of us was just pissing chips to Fred every chance we got. I managed to squeak by until four of the Internet kids had been knocked out, and sure, I might have been the short stack, but I was still hanging on. And no matter what happened, I was guaranteed to dine out on this story for the rest of my life.

That's when I noticed a certain, shall we say, agitation among the boys in suits thronging the rail. They were whispering back and forth to each other and trying—urgently—to get our attention. I tried to ignore them. I don't play well with distractions, but we'd been playing for a good eight hours at that point and it was hard to shut them out. The reason why they were fussing came clear when the next bathroom break rolled around. One of the guys caught me as I was headed back from the john and told me: we had a problem.

Yeah, you guys heard about it before I did—if you're watching the ESPN special, you can probably even tell when they told me. It's the hand where Fred's seven-deuce offsuit actually made the straight on the river to beat my pocket aces, while I'm sitting there looking like I'm about to pass out. And it had nothing to do with the fact that just shouldn't ever happen. No, it's because the United Nations Commissioner of Alien Affairs has just informed me that they're pretty sure—barring the usual translation errors, of course—that Fred's people think Fred's playing to settle who gets to own Earth: us or them.

I started playing a hell of a lot tighter after that one, let me tell you.

I think that's about when CNN picked up the story, which is where you probably came in. No matter how hard the government tried to hide it—don't ask me how they got a reporter on-scene that fast, because I don't know—it leaked. I'm sure you remember all of the panic and mayhem going on, with half the world stopped to glue themselves to the TV and the other half protesting in the streets.

I've seen a tape of the live coverage, and it is kind of funny—now—to see people who've never played poker in their lives trying to talk smart about it while being scared out of their minds. I still don't know why they didn't just grab one of the thousands of players who'd already been eliminated, slap a microphone in his hand, and tell him to go to town. The reporters just made it worse. I don't blame all of you guys for the riots. We would have done the same, except we were too busy watching the casino employees and the government boys pitching a fit at each other about whether or not they were going to call off the tournament and try to work it out through diplomacy, or whether doing that would be cause for Fred's people to declare war.

Anyway, I didn't know the whole world was watching at the time. All I knew was that there were suddenly a whole bunch of extra cameras pointed at the table, a whole lot of people alternating between staring at us and flipping out, and all of us—well, all of us except for Fred, who was still just sitting there smiling—staring blankly at each other and thinking: what the hell are we going to do?

There were five left at the table at that point. Me, Fred, and three of the kids. I'd seen all three of them around and about, even though they mostly play online. There was Jen Landers, who's good enough at a full table but always fades in the crunch. Brady Thanh, obnoxious and loudmouthed and full of ego and exactly the kind of guy all of us tried like hell not to be. Mike Jaffrey, enigmatic to the hilt with an impenetrable Mona Lisa smile, who'd been on a bad streak for the past hour and was starting to let it get to him. And we'd all just been told, each and every one of us and in all seriousness, that we were the only thing standing between Earth and the bad guys.

Now, people make a big deal about being able to read your opponent in poker, and it's true enough that you can pick up little bits and pieces—whether the guy you're facing has a hand or not, whether they're trying to bluff you out of the pot, whether they're hanging on and hoping for a miracle. The four of us, though, we were trying to have a conversation. Fast.

I've been at a few tables here and there where getting someone out of the running has become—for one reason or another—everyone's secondary goal. I'd never thought I'd be at a table where that goal was so important that it displaced everyone's primary goal of winning, but this one was it. Forget all the rules against collusion; forget all the rules against chip dumping and all of the gambler's honor code all of us knew as well as we knew odds and probabilities. These were real stakes, and we couldn't risk it. We were, suddenly and wordlessly, a team tighter than any team I'd ever seen before, and we had one common goal: to knock Fred the hell out of the game.

Didn't take long for us to figure out what we were saying to each other. Landers took herself out of the running as soon as the invisible question got thrown to her. She sat back and rested her hands on top of each other on the rail. The little flick of her bottom set of fingers said she'd throw her chips at whoever we agreed on, first chance she got.

Jaffrey cocked his head. Eyed his stack—third place—and tossed the look around the table. I saw his gears turning. He's not a bad player; woulda been my choice, really. He can run odds in his head as easy as breathing, and he's smart enough to know when he's in trouble and know when not to push it.

He looked at Thanh. Looked at me. Tapped the top of his chip stack, one rap of the palm, and looked at Thanh again. I saw him thinking that his luck was running cold—and don't listen to anyone who says that poker's a game of math and odds; luck's damn real, and there wasn't a person in the room who didn't believe it. Jaffrey was saying that he wasn't willing to gamble, not with stakes this high. He was backing Thanh.

Thanh, though, was quieter than I'd ever seen him be, and he was pale and sweaty. He'd been running his mouth the entire time we'd been at it, even talking smack at Fred. He's one of the new generation, all flash and bang, playing for the cameras. Well, the cameras were certainly on him now, and I would have sworn that nothing in the world could put a dent in his ego. I would have put money on him insisting he'd be able to do it. But his hands were shaking as he looked at me, looked at Fred. Looked back at me.

They got it on film, but in all the recordings I've seen, some talking head is yammering over him and you can't hear it. What he said was, "Gotta be you, Dad."

And that's how I found myself at the final table of the main event of the World Series of Poker, facing down an alien with the fate of Earth in the pot. Three other players behind me; a whole world watching and waiting and panicking. Talk about things you weren't expecting when you woke up that morning.

Landers was the first who managed to get her chips over to me, and it took half a miracle to do it, since Fred had position on me and he knew how to use it. He played out more hands than he folded, and it was a bitch to let the kids know when I had something I thought could get some play. Landers had to pull an idiot's trick to do it. An all-in re-raise, pre-flop, holding six-four offsuit, and the little twist of her lips as she showed her cards said that she knew how damn crazy it must look.

I remember thinking that her reputation was going to take a beating—her play style was conservative to the extreme, and that kind of move belonged to a madman—and I remember thinking I was going to have to make sure everyone knew why she'd done it. At that point I was still thinking that we were the only people who actually knew; the boys in the suits had told us to keep our mouths shut, and they were still trying to keep a lid on things.

Which was stupid of me. I should have realized everyone on the floor knew by then that we were playing for higher stakes than a winner's bracelet and a pot of money. Only thing faster than the speed of light is gossip. Well, gossip and Fred's people's ships.

So imagine it, okay? Whole huge room full of people, all hanging on the announcer's every word. Lights and cameras everywhere. Everyone's looking a little sick and a whole lot scared. The suits are all passing notes and whispering to each other, there's a throng of people all trying to get a closer look, and there's Fred, sitting pretty on his chip-stack and looking completely oblivious. When Thanh tried to throw his hand to me and the pot wound up getting sniped by Fred—I'd had a king-high straight; Fred was sitting on a club flush—I think I actually heard someone praying out loud.

Down to three. Fred held about eighty million in chips; I had thirty-six and change. Jaffrey's man-of-mystery smile was starting to crack. You got it? his eyes asked me, every time I checked my cards. And every time, I had to answer: nothing.

Jaffrey and I swapped some chips back and forth. Fred sat there, and, get this, the guy was still beaming. Okay, sure, I would've been too, if the cards loved me like they loved him, but he just kept smiling, like this was the best fun he'd ever had in his entire life. Full of compliments for both me and Jaffrey, every damn hand. His translator had some trouble with them. I will never believe, even if I live to be a hundred and twenty, that Fred actually said Jaffrey's left hand was like a dry fish.

Still, I managed to stop myself from playing stupid, and I'm going to be proud of that until the end of days. I was scared out of my head, of course. You try knowing that you're responsible for the fate of your whole damn planet; nobody had any clue what Fred's people could want out of Earth, but everyone knew damn well that they could blow us to Kingdom Come in half a heartbeat, and everybody had gotten horror stories up the wazoo about what Fred and his "diplomatic" team had done to somebody or another who'd pissed them off. It was a little like playing with a live grenade.

But if you look at the tape, I'm just sitting there, cool and collected as could be. Folding when Fred pushed me and I didn't have anything, playing it out if I thought I had a chance. Impossible to tell what Fred was holding by how he was betting, and we'd long since given up on any hope we could figure out his tells. Alien body language was a bitch to decipher.

By the time Fred folded pre-flop and Jaffrey grabbed the chance to go all-in on the turn—he had shit, I had shit, but it didn't matter, since I could tell my shit was better than Jaffrey's—the poker grapevine had spread through the hotel, and there were people practically shoving each other out of the way to watch the action. The suits had made a token effort to clear the room, but they'd abandoned it when they realized that if people were here watching, they weren't out fueling the panic. If the collective force of will of an entire armada of poker players could influence the cards, I would have been sitting pretty.

Maybe it could. I went into heads-up trailing four to one; after two hands, I'd doubled up and we were closer to even. The noise the entire room made, collectively, when Fred called me all-in was kind of like the noise you make when someone steps on your foot in the middle of a church service: a little muffled squeak followed by a hell of a lot of silent swearing.

I'd never seen anything sweeter than that second queen that came out on the river to match the pocket queens I was holding and the one already on the board. Fred said something full of vowels to his translator. She gave me a helpless look. "I think he said your mother will be killed with honor," she said. "Or maybe that your hair is very blue."

Since my hair wasn't blue, I was banking on the former. I hoped it was a compliment. The win kept me in the running, at least, and for the first time I was even ahead.

I'll spare you the gory details of the next three hours, since I'm pretty sure ESPN has the whole thing available on Pay-Per-View by now. Suffice it to say that it was the most nerve-wracking three hours of my life. You can see it in the final hand. I'm sitting there like a statue staring down at my chip stack—I'd just pulled ahead of Fred again; we'd been swapping back and forth—with my hand over my hole cards like I'm trying to keep them safe. Fred's tapping his fingers on the rail—first time he'd done that; I remember thinking it had to be a sign of something. We're both staring at the flop: nine of diamonds, ten of hearts, king of hearts.

I'm holding the ace of hearts and king of diamonds. You can see me thinking I'm in good shape, but you can also see me thinking that I've got no earthly clue what Fred's holding. If he were human, if he were predictable, I would have counted on the fact that he'd limped into the flop to tell me that he didn't have much. I had the top pair, top kicker. If I won, I'd have the tournament, If I lost, I'd have enough chips left to cover one more hand at best.

No guts, no glory. You can see my hands shaking on the tape, but my voice is steady: "All in," I said, and I put out my chips.

Never heard a poker room that quiet. You could have heard a pin drop. People halfway across the room could hear the chips clicking as Fred called, and god damn it if he wasn't holding the nine and ten of hearts.

Two pair beats top pair. The board had a straight draw, but if we hit it, my ace-king would mean my straight would beat his straight. If I made it. Fred had a flush draw. Flush beats straight. The cards loved Fred; my luck was running hot and cold.

Nothing more I could do but pray.

And pray I did. Out comes the jack of spades on fourth street, and I'm praying to any God that's listening now and probably all the gods who've ever existed since the dawn of time. You can see me; I've got my knuckles white on the rail and my lips are moving over and over again. Please, please, please. The dealer looks at me. Looks at Fred. Pulls off the burn card, takes a deep breath, and turns over the queen of diamonds on the river to make my straight.

Look, I didn't pass out, all right? No matter what the damn reporters said. I closed my eyes. For a minute. A long minute. I think I was entitled. I'd just won my first World Series bracelet, won a hell of a lot of money, and—you know, as an afterthought—won Earth.

That's the point where the reporters cut away. I've seen both sets of tapes, the real-time one that CNN was running and the special that ESPN aired later, and neither one of them kept going. CNN had cut back to all the talking heads, discussing what this could mean for alien-human relations, and ESPN, well, when they aired it, they were too busy mocking the hell out of me, the State Department, everybody at that final table, CNN, and, I don't know, probably God Himself for good measure. I think there's some amateur footage or outtakes floating around on the Internet, but most of you haven't seen it.

So you didn't get to see the part where I managed to stand up without falling over. I was pretty proud of that. You didn't get to see the part where Fred came bounding over to wave his hands at me, chattering a mile a minute. He grabbed my hand and pumped it up and down—they'd figured out that gesture pretty quickly—and said a lot of things with a lot of long broad sounds in them.

I looked at the translator, who looked a little green around the gills. It had been a long day for her, too.

"He, ah, says that—" She frowned. Said something back to Fred, halting and hesitant.

Fred tapped his closed fist against his chest and said something else. "Um," the translator said. "He says that you played with strength and without fear." Burst of words from Fred. "And that you'll make a good—wait, what?"

The boys in the suits were thronging us, all of them chattering away, and there was a whole room of poker players shouting and laughing and trying to get close enough to pat me on the back. The translator turned to Fred. Said something. He said something back. She said something again. I didn't like her tone, and I didn't like the look of panic in her eyes. I was having visions of some kind of alien sacrifice or something, which, I can tell you, was not what I'd signed up for. They went back and forth like that for about five, six volleys, with me getting more and more nervous the whole way, while the noise around us only got worse.

Finally, she turned back to face me. Looked like she was going to faint, the poor thing. "He says you'll make a very good ruler," she said.

It took one hell of a long time for us to straighten it all out. You know now, but you've gotta remember, we didn't, right? We'd thought we'd been playing to decide whether Earth was going to be a smoking radioactive crater or something.

It wasn't the translators' fault that Fred's language is a little fuzzy on nouns. And the whole disaster and panic started because one of the members of Fred's delegation said something when he shouldn't have—they usually don't mention the whole contest of sport thing until they've already gotten it settled. They say it makes people too nervous to play their best. It's easier for them to play the game and then take the time to clear up the confusion afterwards, even if it might take a little longer for the message to sink in.

So you know now that Fred's people aren't just a single race of aliens, they're a whole consortium. And you know that they're all hopeless gamblers and fierce fighters all at once. And you know that they'd spent centuries tearing each other all to hell and gone over who was going to get to rule the whole dog and pony show, until someone hit on the idea of holding a tournament every few years—grand prize being control of the whole empire.

Fred had won the past six tournaments running. The cards—okay, they don't use cards in their favorite game, but you know what I mean—really do love him.

Except they think it's not fair for new races they encounter to have to wait until the next tournament to get a chance to join the Empire. Whenever they meet up with a new race, the emperor plays in whatever kind of organized gambling event he can find—makes me curious about what they'd do if they found a race that didn't gamble, but Fred says they never have. If he wins, great, no problem. If he loses, well, luck comes and luck goes, and he can always try again next time.

So, that's how I wound up as the Emperor of Known Space. I've only been doing it for about six months, but it's not a bad job, really. All I have to do is make a few decisions every now and then. The Empire runs itself, for the most part. Once you learn the cultural differences, everyone's perfectly friendly, and they don't want to take up too much of my time. It's a point of pride for people to be able to say that they played in a game with the emperor, and if governing took too long, I wouldn't have time to play along.

It's been leaving me with plenty of time to learn their version of poker. It's got six racks of eighty-nine tiles each, the rule book is thicker than my thumb, and I'm still not positive, but I think the winning hands change based not only on the time of day, but also the positions of the stars. It's giving me fits, but I'm not going to give up on it yet. I've got a title to defend.

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