Dark sunglasses hide his eyes. He has a mustache and a goatee. Viktor has a suit pocket yellow handkerchief and a white rose bud boutonnière. He goes by nick, with an italic lowercase ‘n’ to make the name look as though it has been nicked. It is also short for nickname. He has people guessing, keeping the double pun to himself. Not only does he look incongruous at a poker tournament, nobody recognizes him. But he gets what he wants: attention and mystery, distracting players from his game.
He looks for Andea. Although her name is not on the participants’ list, his legal name isn’t either. She may be there incognito.
The previous year he was caught off guard after the first round by The River, the famous old timer:
“You’re new here.”
“You play well.”
“But, like most players, you’re missing a key part of the game.”
“And what’s that?”
“You’ll have to respect me, first. You’re too self-confident. See you around.”
That was Viktor’s first lesson from a pro gambler. He wasn’t sure it wasn’t bluff on his part, a way to throw him off balance. Viktor knew that little bit of doubt the old man had planted in him could cost him dearly. Poker is a game of probabilities. He knew them all, no matter what the hand, without effort. The old man had noticed. That’s why he had talked to him. It wasn’t because of his tie-dyed bandana with an explosion of yellow and white expertly placed at the level of his third eye. And it’s a game of self projection. Any doubt can weaken one’s act.
Viktor had trouble sleeping that night. He thought about his response to the old man in order to reestablish the confidence balance between them. In the end, he decided to ignore him and let his game speak for itself. Don’t let yourself be intimidated, he told himself, breathing more freely and feeling himself smiling inside.
But The River had gotten the better of him and he could not help but think about what he could be missing from the game.
This year, he wants the upper hand. He perfected his act, as nick, and his effect. He is ready. But Andea’s absence affects him. He can’t shake it off. They were going to keep in touch after the previous year’s tournament. He must have called her five or six times in the beginning and one more time just prior to this tournament, but she never returned his calls. He’d looked her up at other poker venues. A talent like hers would show up again. But she didn’t.
He ordered a burrito for dinner that previous year and, while taking a stroll, had a sudden revelation about the old man’s poke. What if the old man was right? he thought, it would make the game quite exciting if it still held a secret from me. He slept much better that night.
As a player, he observed other players and kept track of their words and body language. He looked for changes: the way they held their cards and played absentmindedly with their chips, their facial expressions, the expression in their eyes, and the words they chose, especially what came through unconsciously. He acted the part he wanted other players to believe. It was all about observing and about delivery. He loved surprising people by handing them some of their own medicine.
In addition, he planned to observe himself observing, from an objective perspective, all seeing and unattached to outcome. It took a mental juggling act to be present to the two levels of observing at the same time. He could imagine it, but he was not able to do both simultaneously. As a result, he made obvious mistakes.
He got to the next round by reverting back to his usual play.
~ ~ ~
Round one, nick is called to the table next that of the old man. The River ignores him completely.
nick knows his act and he plays it to perfection. His suit is flashy, yet he plays conservatively. Even though he has the same probability figures and the same knowledge of combinations as the previous year, he does not play his chips the same way. That’s his genius. He’s not predictable. And no one recognizes him.
~ ~ ~
A year earlier, after he wasn’t able to play both levels of observing at the same time, he went for a stroll and replayed every single game of the day in his mind. He could then distance himself from the playing and be the objective observer he’d imagined.
Those who had not made it to the next round, and some who had, were carousing oblivious to the mysterious secret of the game Viktor was studying. The old man was either right, most players missed a key part of the game, or … there was nothing to be missed.
Dismissing that last thought, he went back to his objective observer. He thought of beginners and their notorious luck. Beginners are known to do well on the whole at any game, at least the very first time they play. Could he access a beginner’s kind of luck as a professional player? He had never tried. It was a part of the game he had missed. Was it a key part? Was it possible to play with a beginner’s mind as well as with all his calculating knowledge? And was it possible to do that in professional games?
“Do you think all the time?”
The question came from a young woman, suddenly at his side.
“I like thinking?” he said, “What are you doing here?”
“Same as you.”
“Are you in the tournament too?”
“Yes! But people talk about you, not about me.”
“It’s my first time. They pay attention to new players who survive a few rounds.”
“It’s my first time too.”
“How have you been able to pass under the radar screen?”
“I play dumb. It’s probably easier for a woman than for a man.”