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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Anthony R Mackie

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Poker is not everybody's game, but it was certainly Derek Walsh's game, especially the Texas Hold 'Em variety. Derek, or Del Boy as he was more affectionately known, had been bitten by the bug around 1992 when he was an eighteen year old student and it had quickly become an obsession. It had afforded him a good living at times, but more commonly had been responsible for his bouts of manic depression when up to his neck in debt to various clubs and casinos. No matter though; he had always been able to dig himself out of any particular hole he happened to be in at the time, and the poker was as important to Del Boy as breathing.

If there was one thing that Del Boy was, it was a worker, because after leaving university at the age of twenty, with what is commonly known as "jack shit" qualification- wise, he had needed to graft to survive. After moving around from job to job for the first few years, he could now boast (at the age of thirty-four) ten years' service for his current employers, the small but highly successful Pembery Haulage Ltd. Del loved his job and the firm were based in Enfield Town which was perfect being a two minute walk from his small, but cosy, bachelor pad. Overtime work was plentiful at Pembery, so much so that if you chose to, you could work twelve hours a day, seven days a week - and at times when Del Boy needed a tournament stake, that's exactly what he did.

For the past three months he had worked his nuts off in order to get together a £5,000 stake for an up and coming tournament at the Empire Casino in the city. He had already booked his time off from work and reserved himself a room at the reasonably priced Shaftesbury Hotel on the Avenue of the same name which was just five minutes away from the Casino, which in turn was situated just off Leicester Square. This would be the biggest game Del Boy had ever been involved in and even now, a few days away from the tournament, he had constant butterflies in his stomach; this was his chance to win some serious dough.

Fifty-four players would begin the game, split into six tables of nine people and gradually they would be whittled down to a final nine table; of which the last three standing would split the £250,000 prize fund (150k, 70k and 30k respectively). Del Boy knew his game could get him into the final shootout and these were life-changing sums of money to a guy like him.

Just after lunchtime on the Thursday, Del made his way into London and checked into his hotel. Once unpacked, he lay down on the bed and started to plan his strategy for the first round of the tournament that evening, when the first eighteen players to lose their chips would be eliminated. Del Boy was determined not to be among that first group or the next eighteen who would join them the following evening; if he could just make it to the Saturday when two tables would become the final table, he would back himself against anybody.

Around 6pm after enjoying a short unplanned snooze, Del Boy showered and changed before wandering down to the hotel bar and ordering a pot of coffee and a sandwich; nothing heavy to drink just yet, as there was serious work to be done.

Judging by the snippets of conversation he overheard, there seemed to be quite a lot of the other "tourney" players also staying at the Shaftesbury, and a few of them he noticed appeared to be already hitting the hard stuff. This could work two ways in a poker game; it could either impair a player's judgement making them easy pickings, or it could make them dangerous opponents through playing mediocre hands with a tad too much of the old "Dutch courage". It is very much a personal thing, but Del Boy preferred to keep his wits about him, thank you very much.

The tournament started on the dot at 9pm and things went much as Del Boy had hoped they would. He stayed pretty much out of the action, folding anything other than a high pair, and conserving his chips whilst allowing the self styled "big shots" to take each other out of the game. Barely two hours later, the first round was finished and they were down to the thirty-six players who would do it all again the following evening, with Del Boy being one of them. He knew he would have to play a little more aggressively in the next round in an effort to build up his chip stack and to avoid being tagged as a weak player who would then be targeted by the "chip bullies" and hounded out of the game.

No matter, the first evening had gone to plan and after a couple of vodkas in the Casino bar, he took a steady stroll back to the hotel and slept soundly. It was 11am before Del Boy awoke the next morning, which was extremely late for him as he usually got by on five or six hours a night. "Must be the mental strain of the poker taking it out of me," he thought to himself as he started to run a hot bath. No point rushing now he thought, as he had already missed breakfast and may as well have a large lunch a little later; he might even give the hotel restaurant a try.

A couple of hours later, as he made his way into the surprisingly quiet restaurant, a huge and shall we say a well-rounded guy whom he recognised from the tournament, waved him over and invited him to join him at his table. This was not really Del Boy's scene as he preferred to keep himself to himself but on this occasion he wasn't sharp enough to think up a plausible excuse and just found himself having to accept the offer and sit down. Just to make matters worse, the big guy was French (not Del's favourite race of people) and introduced himself as François before beginning to make small talk in what was annoyingly bad English even for a Frenchman. "The day can only get better," thought Del Boy as he began to survey the menu.

Having ordered sirloin steak, chips and peas, which arrived in record time probably due to the lack of punters, Del Boy began to tuck in hungrily whilst trying to make sense of what "Fats" (Del's new nickname for his French friend) at the other side of the table was talking about.

François didn't order any food, although by the amount of empty plates on the table it looked like he had already consumed about half of the dishes on the menu, so he was just sat nursing a coffee and a huge glass of brandy.

The tournament was touched upon in conversation and it sounded to Del as if "Fats" fancied his chances of picking up some money. Having said this, he did mention being wary of a couple of the Yanks who were involved; for his part, Del Boy just kept quiet on how he thought his own chances were. It was always better to keep them guessing...

Eventually, François excused himself and left to "see some people" - but not before inviting Del to a drink that evening after the game. Del Boy decided immediately that he would do everything in his power to body swerve that particular invitation as he figured he had already spent more than enough time listening to François's "Frenglish" for one day.

That evening, the poker was more intense as a few nerves began to show and Del Boy thanked his luck as he picked up some great hands which, but for on the odd occasion, he played perfectly. After around three and a half hours, it was over and Del had made it. He was mentally drained but he was into the final evening and now he began to fancy his chances a little bit.

As Del sat at the table and tried to calm himself, down came a huge chubby hand which slapped him on the back and a voice said, "Come about and join le gang for the drink mon ami." François! Del Boy wondered what he had done so wrong in a past life to deserve this. At the bar, it seemed as though most of the players through to the last 18 had gathered to celebrate, save for the obligatory few loners of which he would have preferred to be one at this present moment in time. Instead, he drank his vodka while listening to "Fats" trying to converse with some German guy who, although possessing good English seemed to think he was some kind of comedian; Del Boy personally found him about as funny as toothache. Fatigue hit him after his second drink so he intended to put his glass down and just sort of slope off but François was too quick for him and suggested that they wander back to the hotel together.

Del Boy had to suffer the Frenchman right up to the point when he opened the door to his room because as luck would have it, François's room was on the same floor and only two doors away. Even so by the time Del closed his door, he had already developed a pounding headache and couldn't wait to fall into bed.

The next morning at 10.30am, Del Boy popped his head into the hotel breakfast room and on spotting François, popped it quickly out again before deciding to have a wander around and find himself a nice little "greasy spoon café" where he could eat without interruption. After enjoying a full English at the somewhat cornily named "Eatwell Café", Del thought he may as well do a bit of sightseeing for a few hours as his visits into the capital these days were limited; and if nothing else, it would keep him out of the Frenchman's way until later.

Arriving back at the hotel mid-afternoon, Del was relieved to see no sign of "Fats" and made his way to his room for a "siesta" as it could be a long night later; at least he hoped it would be.

Rested, showered and feeling refreshed, Del Boy headed down to the restaurant around 6.30pm. François was there but was holding court at a table with three other guys, so Del simply returned the Frenchman's wave and chose himself a table as far away as possible. Not being superstitious, he surprised himself by ordering exactly the same meal as the previous afternoon but supposed it couldn't do any harm - what the hell, maybe he just liked steak, chips and peas. Unfortunately for him though, just as Del Boy swallowed his last mouthful of food, "Fats" appeared - already sweating with excitement - and informed him that they may as well make their way to the casino together. Del just nodded in agreement; there was no point doing otherwise.

A while later once they had arrived at the casino; you could feel the tension in the air. This was the big one and Del Boy couldn't wait to get started. He and "Fats" had been drawn to start on different tables so at least that was a result for Del, for now. Play began on time as usual and about an hour in, Del Boy's table was down to six players - the other table having lost two men, one of them being the German guy. Unfortunately, the other eliminated player wasn't "Fats" who was still there, now sweating profusely and drinking Jack Daniels like it was going out of fashion. Things had gone well for Del Boy up to this point and comparing his chip stack to others around him, he was a favourite to make the final table; he just needed to keep it tight and concentrate. Finally, after another nervous forty-five minutes or so, the counter on the wall clicked down from ten to nine as another player bit the dust and Del had made the final table. He was delighted and looking forward to the half hour break, while the officials set up the last table including the £250k stack of cash in bundles of crisp £20 notes.

As the nine men gathered at the final table and seating order was decided, Del Boy looked around and surveyed the opposition. Besides himself and François, who by now looked shattered, there were two Americans, a couple of shady-looking Chinese and three others who were probably British or maybe Scandinavian, he couldn't be sure. Chip stacks were carried forward from previously and as they were seated, Del Boy couldn't help but notice that his stack looked pretty healthy; all he needed now were the cards to play it with.

As midnight came and went, they were down to six players; having lost one of the Chinese, one American and another guy who turned out to be Swedish. The very next hand took out two more when the remaining Yank went "all in" before the river card and was called by another Scandinavian and an English fellow. The Yank had been holding a straight flush which was enough to clean out the other two and also gave him a massive chip advantage over the three remaining players, Del Boy, François and the Chinese guy.

Half an hour later came Del's moment of truth. He was dealt a pair of kings and after a round of betting, the first three table cards (the Flop) were jack, seven and king. Del Boy raised the stakes - he only needed another jack from the final two cards (the Turn and the River) and he would have a full house. Whatever happened, he felt pretty confident about the three of kind he was already holding.

"USA" folded, followed by "China", but "Fats" called Del and so the Turn card was dealt: a five - no use to Del Boy but by the same token he figured, it was probably no use to François either. Del Boy "checked" which signified no bet and "Fats" did the same. "He's got nothing," Del thought to himself as the River card was turned, a jack! A full house for Del Boy and so, as quick as a flash, he bet "all in" but to his amazement, François called him and as the Frenchman turned over his cards, Del's world collapsed; a pair of jacks had given "Fats" four of a kind, which is virtually unbeatable and so was certainly too good for his full house.

Del Boy instinctively had wanted to kill the fat Frenchmen but deep down, he knew he had made the mistake of totally overlooking the chance of four of a kind being on the table. After playing so well all week, he had made a classic schoolboy error and so it had cost him £5k and the chance of winning a hell of a lot more. As he stood up and left the game he glared at "Fats" but the Frenchman to his credit was certainly not gloating. Del couldn't even watch the conclusion of the game and just headed off to the bar to drown his sorrows.

A short time later the game was over; the American took first place with François finishing second and the Frenchman headed straight to where Del Boy was standing and insisted on buying him a drink. Del had imagined that should this happen, he would tell "Fats" to "go f*** himself". However, a couple of vodkas and time to think had calmed him down and confirmed to him that he only had himself to blame, so he accepted the Frenchman's offer and congratulated him on his new-found wealth. Del Boy wondered how he had managed to do so well, as it seemed to him that the Frenchman was extremely drunk. This was proved around half an hour later when "Fats" fell over and had to be bundled into a cab and despatched back to the hotel. "Some lucky cabbie is in for the tip of his life tonight," thought Del as he returned to his drink.

It was well into the early hours before Del Boy finished up drinking and wandered the short distance back to the Shaftesbury . As he made his way along the landing towards his room, Del Boy noticed that the door to "Fats" room was slightly ajar. "Probably too rat-arsed to close it," thought Del as he tapped lightly on the door and called out the Frenchman's name. There was no reply even to his second knock, so Del Boy gingerly pushed open the heavy door and to his relief there was the fat man slumped on the bed surrounded by his winnings. The initial relief soon left him though as he realised something was not quite right and then it hit him. It was far too quiet; a drunken man snores and that's a fact of life but this one wasn't snoring - in fact, as Del Boy approached the bed, he discovered he wasn't even breathing.

As reality dawned on Del Boy, he started to smile. There was no sign of any foul play whatsoever; "Fats" had simply overdone it and had suffered a heart attack he reckoned so was now laying in front of him, dead as a dodo amongst all that lovely money. Del moved swiftly as it dawned on him that no one would ever know he had been in this room, so he grabbed an empty carrier bag from the floor, stuffing it full of the wonderful bundles of cash. Once he had gathered up every single banknote, Del Boy decided he may as well just check "Fats'" pockets as well, seeing as nothing was of any use to him anymore. This little exercise turned up some more cash and a solid gold "Dunhill" cigarette lighter which Del Boy decided was a "nice little bonus" before finally slipping the nice chunky Rolex watch from the Frenchman's nice chunky wrist.

Del Boy stopped short of pilfering François's diamond rings, mainly because they looked like they had been put on before he became so bloated, and the only way they were coming off now would be with fingers attached.

As he was about to exit from the door, Del Boy turned to survey the scene; it was just an overweight Frenchman who had collapsed and died when his overstressed heart had given up on him, perfect. He gently clicked the door closed and genuinely hoped it would not be too late the following day before "Fats" was discovered. He meanwhile, would be long gone.

Del Boy was shaking as he made the few steps to his own room, with excitement more than anything, as the events of the last half an hour or so were going to change his life for the better and it was all thanks to a Frenchman too; what a turn up for the books that was. He quietly unlocked the door to his room and stepped inside closing it behind him, before tipping out the contents of the grubby plastic supermarket bag onto the bed. Del Boy poured himself a drink from the mini bar, made himself comfortable and started to count.

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