Western Short Story
The Game
Scott Harris


Western Short Story

It seems odd that in twenty years of traveling the Southwest—trapping, scouting or simply riding through the territory wondering what’s around the next bend—I’ve never been to Santa Fe before today. I’m tired after a long trip and happy to find what looks to be a quality livery. The owner, a man named Skip, promises to take good care of my horse, and I believe him. He also directs me to a hotel he assures me is the nicest in Santa Fe, and an easy walk from the livery, which is no small thing the way I’m feeling. The De Vargas does seem like a very nice hotel, and whether or not it’s the nicest in Santa Fe, if the rest of Santa Fe follows suit, it promises to be an enjoyable, restful—and hopefully profitable—visit.

I start with a refreshing nap, followed by a hot bath and a shave, all of which helps me to leave the trail behind and be ready for a good poker game tonight. I put on my second suit of clothes, sending my other one out to be cleaned. I’ve been assured by friends and players in Los Angeles that the Red Garter Saloon has a regular weekly game that will make the trip worthwhile. Since I’ve won enough in Los Angeles to begin to draw some unwanted attention, I think the timing might be perfect for me to spend a little time away from Los Angeles, and Santa Fe seems like a promising and pleasant option.

High-stakes poker games are typically not too hard to find. They are usually made up exclusively, or at least primarily, of regulars. In a town the size of Santa Fe, there is generally one such game in town, always at the nicest saloon, and almost always the players are the business leaders of the community. They invariably include a merchant, a banker, a lawyer, a rancher, maybe someone from the newspaper and perhaps one to two others who have managed to earn enough money that occasional, or even regular, losses in such a game won’t change their personal finances significantly or their standing in town at all. For many, it is playing in the game that brings the credibility they might be looking for.

The games are first and foremost social, followed closely by the chance to check in once a week with other community leaders, in a semiformal, semiprivate setting, and make sure nothing new is happening in town that one needs to be, or should be, aware of. It is also good to have the game in a public place, rather than a private residence, primarily to remind those not invited who’s running the town. As for the money, while it’s true that on any given night someone might win—or lose—what others would consider to be quite a bit of money, over the course of a year, if you subtract the cost of expensive whiskey, most players pretty much break even in these games, since rarely are any of the players much better than average card players. The same can be said of most smaller-stakes regular games—it’s just the cost of the whiskey that changes.

In one of life’s quirks, it is easier to be invited to join such a game when one is unknown, or perhaps only known by reputation. To invite a local to play is to grant him social standing and recognition that the regulars may not be ready to grant. But every once in a while, the regulars like to have an opportunity to match their skills against a professional card player. It’s just too much fun for most of them to pass up.

So, when I walk into the Red Garter Saloon, it takes me all of two minutes to spot “the game.” Now, one doesn’t just walk up and ask to play, unless their goal is to be turned down. Instead, the best place to start is at the bar because, while the players in the game think they run the town, and perhaps they do, it is quite often the owner of the bar who really does. And even if he doesn’t, he is always the first person you want to talk to when you want information. I’ve often thought that many a young newspaper reporter, instead of running around town trying to scratch up a story, would be better served by grabbing an apron and a bar rag and settling in behind a bar for a few weeks.

I walk to the slow side of the bar and order a bourbon, making sure to buy one for the barkeep, who appears to also be the owner. I drink quietly, watching the game a bit but surveying the entire saloon. The piano player’s decent, and the girls look nice enough. The bourbon doesn’t even taste too watered down. My kind of place. As I get close to finishing my second drink, about the same time as the barkeep, I figure it’s about time to ask, starting with introductions.

“Evening. My name’s Dusty Stevens.”

He sticks out his hand, which I take. “Hello. My name’s Lemmo, Rick Lemmo.”

“Your place?” Not surprisingly, he confirms that it is.

“Looks like the big game is the one against the back wall?”

Rick looks over at the table, probably already knowing what he’ll see, and looks back at me. “Yep. Same boys been playing for ’bout four or five years. Always Friday night, always the same table, always the same drinks. You here to play cards?”

He’s been around long enough to know that I am, so there’s no reason to be coy. “I am looking for a game.”

“A thousand dollars too rich for you?”

“Getting close, but I could do that, plus buy a bottle of whatever they’re drinking, and of course one for you, if you’d do the introductions.”

He looks at me again, knowing he only has to make a bad introduction once and he won’t be making another. He might not even be hosting the game if it goes real bad.

I’d noticed that they don’t use a dealer, just pass the deck and each takes his turn. Most people who cheat do so on their deal, so I figure he’ll understand what I mean when I say, “I play, and I’m good, but I don’t cheat. Happy to skip my deal if that makes everyone more comfortable.”

Thinking for only a moment and then making his decision, he says, “I’ll ask, but you’re out the bottles either way.”

Smiling back, I say, “Fair enough, but if I don’t play, we split the one I’m buying you.”

He smiles, picks up a bottle and walks over to the table. After a bit, the men turn, almost as one, to look at me. I think I might know now what it’s like to be one of the saloon girls when a new group of cowboys walks in. Anyway, I guess I passed the look test because Rick walks back and says, “You’re in. Good luck.”

I square up for the drinks and the bottles and head over to the table.

“Understand you might have room for one more? My name’s Dusty Stevens.”

Nobody gets up, but everyone seems friendly, and a couple of them nod at the sixth, and last open, seat. Introductions are made around the table, and I focus on each person’s name and what they do. Never hurts to remember during the game.

Jeremy Binns owns the two big general stores in town. Dan Pulos is a rancher—and I’m guessing by the way he carries himself, it’s a pretty big ranch. Francisco Chavez is also a rancher. Woody Woodburn runs the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper. Rob Wynner is an attorney, and unless I miss my guess, he represents most of the other men at the table.

A lot of these games are cash only, but here, they’re using chips. I see Rick is coming over with mine, $1,000 worth, so I reach for my wallet. Pulos, sitting on my right, leans over, smiles and whispers, “We square up after the game.” I thank him and leave my wallet in my pocket. I can see now why Rick put some thought into introducing me—he’s pretty much vouched for me having at least $1,000. There’s almost $1,500 in my wallet, which I’m sure he saw when I paid for the first drinks—barkeeps don’t miss much—and I’ve got a bit more tucked away if I need it, so I settle in to see what I’m up against.

The key to making a living playing cards is to not make too much money at any one time. Most men don’t mind losing a little bit in a game like this, even to a stranger, but no man likes to feel he’s been made a fool of, and there’s no quicker way to do that than to win too much too soon. When that happens, the first game is usually also the last. Word spreads quickly, and a card player can easily find himself unable to get into a second game anywhere in town and have to move on to the next town and the next game.

The first hour of a poker game with players you don’t know is a lot like the first round of a boxing match. Lots of little jabs and shifting footwork, just trying to see what your opponent is made of. It’s the same thing here. These guys have been playing together for a while, so they probably don’t think much about it. But for me, it’s my first time seeing all of them, so while I have a drink and a cigar and join in the friendly banter, I’m also looking to see how everyone plays—who’s aggressive, who’s conservative, who can be bluffed out and who will always chase early bad bets with later worse ones, even when the cards are screaming no.

When you’re playing poker, you can play your cards, you can play the other guy’s cards or you can play the other guy. The great ones, and I’m not there, at least yet, play the other guy. They almost don’t have to see the cards—theirs or their opponent’s. They are so good at reading faces, tendencies and tells that the actual cards can become secondary in importance.

We all have tells. You can’t be human and not have them. But, if you work at it long enough and hard enough, you can reduce them to where only an expert can find them. For guys who get together and play once a week, with socializing and business being higher priorities than the actual card game, they are almost always out there and easy to spot—if you know what to look for.

After an hour, I’ve won a few and lost a few and am sitting with just about what I started with. Except, I’ve learned a lot. Pulos is aggressive and tends to play with his chips when he’s got a good hand, like he can’t wait to get them in the pot. Wynner is almost the exact opposite. He plays tight and doesn’t bluff much, but when he does, he pulls his chips closer to him before he bets, like he hates to let them go. Binns has no discernable pattern, just enjoys playing, and it doesn’t seem to change his mood at all whether he wins or loses the hand. Woody is in over his head financially playing with these guys, so he never bluffs, going in rarely and only if he thinks he can win.

And Chavez cheats.

The only thing worse in poker than a man who cheats is a man who cheats his friends. And it’s clear to me that tonight is not the first time. It’s equally clear his friends have no idea.

First, he short pots. Not every time, and not a lot, but he does it. If the bet’s $100, he’ll throw in $90, splashing it into the middle of the pot and making it hard for anyone to count, even if they were paying attention, which they’re not. But over the course of the night, or a year, this can add up to quite a few dollars saved, or stolen.

Second, when the deal rolls around to him, he deals off the bottom. He’s not very good at it, and I’ve played in games where they would have called him on it on the first hand and it’d be iffy as to whether or not he’d see the next sunrise. But he is good enough for a casual game like this, among people who consider him their friend and can’t imagine a friend cheating at cards.

It won’t do me any good to point either of these things out. They won’t believe me because they won’t want to, they don’t have any reason to and I can’t prove it, unless I stop him in mid-deal and show everyone the bottom cards. That has quite a few ways of going bad—as many for me as for Chavez. But I don’t take much to cheating. I know enough to spot it and just enough to know not to try it. I hate to see a man cheating his friends though. So I decide to use it to my advantage and teach him a lesson, even if he won’t know he’s being taught. I admit that the possibility of making a lot of money is not a deterrent to my wanting to teach Chavez a lesson.

With the other four men, I’ve been playing like I would play any game with non-professionals. I’ve tried to win, though not too much. Normally with a game like this, a $1,000 buy-in, I would try and walk out with between $2,000 and $3,000 dollars. It’s never a guarantee—anyone can have a bad night—but it’s worked out that way more often than not and often enough to keep me coming back. Pulos, Wynner, Binns and Woody play pretty much like I thought they would, which allowed me to win a few pots by reading them, and avoid losses when I otherwise might not have. On a normal night, it would have turned out about like I hoped and planned. I would have gone back to the De Vargas with some cash. They’d have some good stories to tell on another night. And I could almost count on being invited back the following week.

But tonight is not a normal night. Because of Chavez.

I wasn’t worried about the short potting. At the most, that would add up to a few hundred dollars over the course of the night, and not all of it mine. But as the night wears on, I become angrier and angrier at what he’s doing. I’ve watched card sharks cheat at a table full of card sharks, and right or wrong, somehow that seems like part of the game. But not here. Not when he’s doing it to friends.

So I make it my goal to take as much as I can from him. Besides the fact that he cheats, he has two fairly classic and reliable tells. Chavez wears a beautiful gold ring on his right hand. It has a huge fire opal in the center, and when he has a good hand, he plays with the ring. He’s trying to hide his excitement about his hand and cover how anxious he is to bet. So he leans back in his chair, hands in front of him, and with the thumb and index finger of his left hand, he just keeps turning that ring round and round. He might as well turn his cards over and let everyone know he has a strong hand.

Over the course of the evening, you learn a lot about the men you’re playing with. Not just how they play poker, but in many ways, how they live their lives. When Woody loses a hand, you can tell it bothers him, but only because he can’t really afford to lose too many hands. The others, Pulos, Binns and Wynner, will often laugh and congratulate the winner, knowing it’s just part of poker, part of the night, part of the ongoing game. When Chavez loses a hand, he reacts physically. It’s subtle, but it’s there. If he were a wolf, his hackles would be up. If you’re watching for it, there is a flash of anger, even if it’s only momentary and only in the eyes. He is used to running his ranch, clearly with an iron fist, and used to getting his own way. He takes getting beat in poker as almost a personal attack.

And so, when Chavez is bluffing, he tries to intimidate. He stares at the raiser and is aggressive with his posture and the way he handles the chips, doing what he can to let you know not to cross him, not to bet. I don’t think he knows he does it, and the other guys don’t seem to pay much attention to it, maybe because they’ve played together for so long. But for me, it’s a sign that he’s bluffing, and if I have a decent hand, I’m going to push him.

Using all of the information I’ve gained, I start to make my move. I win a bit from the others, losing enough hands so as not to draw attention or raise eyebrows. I even drop out of a couple of hands and let Woody win, keeping him in the game and happy. But I start to take some money from Chavez. At the two-hour mark, he buys in for another $1,000, and an hour later, he’s buying in again, this time for an additional $1,500. It’s easy to tell by the reactions from the other players that for a man to be in for $3,500 is unusual. It’s also clear that Chavez is starting to take this personally.

It takes less than another hour and two big hands before Chavez is once again out of chips, though they’re all sitting right in front of me, if he wants to see them. I have quite a nice stack in front of me, with my original $1,000, Chavez’s $3,500 and maybe another $2,000 or so from the other players. We’re past the point where I’m not drawing attention to myself, but if I’m honest with myself, we’re past the point where I care. I haven’t cheated, and nothing in my play would indicate that I have, so I’m not sensing a “professional vs. casual” player conflict coming up. But with this much money moving around, some of the other tables have slowed down, or even stopped, their play to see what happens next.

Pulos, Wynner, Binns and even Woody still have chips in front of them. Not as many as they started with, but not so few as to be terribly upset. Someone’s gotta win, and so far, it’s been my night. Only Chavez has no chips of his own.

When the last hand cleared Chavez of his chips, I figured he might be done. He’s lost a lot of money and is starting to get visibly upset, and it’s close to midnight. But he isn’t done.

He looks around the table, at everyone except me, and with exaggerated politeness, says, “Gentlemen, that is all the cash I have with me this evening. May I assume my name is good for additional chips?” Based on the way he asked, I’m guessing this hasn’t come up, for any of them, in previous games. And based on his tone as he asked, I’m guessing he’s going to take it very personally if his request is even questioned, much less denied. Woody’s head is dropped, as he perhaps tries to imagine this much money being lost in a poker game. The other three take quick glances at each other, none at me, and quickly nod their approval.

Without a word of thanks, or any word, Chavez turns to the bar and signals for $2,000 in chips. Rick brings fifteen of them in $100 black chips, since so many of Chavez’s recent bets have been big.

There are a number of ways I can play now. I can keep pressing Chavez, but tension has clearly risen, and I have no desire for it to escalate. I can excuse myself from the game, citing the hour, but I know that won’t be well-received. I decide instead to take the next hour or so easy, avoiding large pots overall and any direct confrontations with Chavez. It might be best for everyone if when he leaves he still has a good portion of this most recent $2,000 with him. I’ve won plenty of money tonight, and I’ve seen too many men follow losing their money with losing their judgment and their temper. I would very much like to avoid that. Santa Fe seems like a nice town, and I wouldn’t mind staying for a while.

My plan works for about thirty minutes. Money moves around from man to man, but not too much. Chavez baits me, trying to draw me into a couple of decent-sized pots, but I drop out before the amount gets too high, laughing about how my luck seems to be changing. Woody wins a decent pot, gets close to breaking even and cashes in. But the newspaper man in him won’t let him leave, so he gives up his seat but stays and watches. Chavez is actually up a little over the $2,000 he bought in for, but it’s clear he’s gunning for me and the chips in front of me he still considers his.

Pulos is dealing five-card draw, which we’ve played most of the night. I always wait until all the cards are dealt before picking mine up. It gives me a chance to watch the others and see how they react to their cards. Usually in casual games the men pick them up as they are dealt, so I have five chances to learn something from their reactions. I notice Chavez is excited about his last card, so I’ll watch to see how many he draws. When I finally pick mine up and take a look, I’m pleased to find three aces looking back at me, a huge starting hand in five-card draw. The pre-draw betting is pretty tame, with Wynner dropping out. Pulos takes three cards, letting us know he has a pair. Binns takes four, letting me know he’s got my other ace, and I take two. Chavez takes a single card, signaling that he’s got four to a straight or a flush, or maybe two pair. He could have four of a kind, but the odds are astronomically high against that, so I play like it can’t happen.

We all take a look at our cards, and it’s not too hard to see that Chavez is happy with his fifth card. The good news for me is that means he didn’t have four of a kind, or he wouldn’t have cared about his last card. I look down and find a pair of threes to go with my triple aces, giving me a full house, almost unbeatable. If Chavez filled his flush or straight, he’s going to be feeling pretty good, and if he kept two pair and the draw card gave him the full boat, he’s going to be thinking he can’t be beat. The only thing he could have drawn that would beat me would be a straight flush, but the odds are too small for me to consider it, and if he did, he did.

Binns opens for $100, and Pulos quickly raises it to $300. Chavez looks at Binns and Pulos, glances at me and shoves everything he has, over $2,000, into the pot. I’m guessing this is the single biggest bet that’s been seen in this game since it started four or five years ago. Binns and Pulos don’t even wait for me to act, both throwing their cards in the middle, Pulos unable to stop a quick laugh.

Chavez turns and looks at me, a smile on his face, daring me to call him, hoping that I’ll call him.

I do.

He excitedly flips over his cards, a full boat, queens high—enough to believe, with good reason, that he’s won. He starts to reach for the pot, a little early, and only looks up when he sees that I’m not tossing my cards into the pot defeated, but rather turning them over. He sees the higher full house and, after a moment, realizes he’s lost again.

For the first time tonight, he curses and his anger flashes for more than a moment. I see a man who’s been sitting quietly at the next table all night suddenly stand up and move next to Chavez. I can tell right away he’s a gunhand. I’m disappointed in myself that I didn't recognize sooner that Chavez had brought some protection, though why he did, to what was scheduled to be a friendly game among friends, is not immediately clear. What is clear is that this man is waiting to be told what to do. I’m not wearing a gun belt—I never do when I’m playing—but I do have a Wells Fargo pocket gun strapped to my calf, and I let my right hand drop down to it.

In a moment, it’s over. Chavez catches his breath, gets control of his temper and quietly tells his man—I hear him called Diego—to sit back down. Nervous laughter breaks out all around, with the exception being Chavez, who’s still reeling from what is now a total of $5,500 lost, all of it sitting in front of me. Pulos, Binns and Wynner take this break as the perfect time to cash in and call it a night, though, like Woody, they do not head directly for the door.

As I start to rake in the chips, almost $6,000 total just from this hand, it’s just Chavez and I left seated. I figure the game is over and that in addition to winning quite a bit of money, I’ve also dodged a bullet, figuratively, if not literally. But on this one, for the first time all night, I’ve misread Chavez. He’s not done.

He looks at me. “Would you like to continue?”

I’m not sure what protocol here is. Chavez is asking me to play him head to head, at a time when he’s clearly angry and has already lost quite a bit of money. I look around the table, but none of the other men are any help, each as surprised as I am by the request. Chavez is already down $5,500 dollars, with $2,000 of that on credit, and is now asking for an additional $2,500 in credit to keep going.

When one makes his living playing cards, there are delicate moments that show up during a game. This is one of them. I could leave now, up more than $7,000, which is quite a night, and no one—except Chavez—would fault me for it. On the other hand, he would be angry, feeling deprived of one last chance to win at least some of “his” money back. And no small part of my thought process is the fact that I could push my winnings up to almost $10,000, assuming Chavez would pay what would then be a $4,500 debt. I figure in a town like this, with the men having readily agreed to the first $2,000, he’s both good for it and would pay. All of that runs quickly through my head before I make my decision.

“I’m tired. It’s been a long day. If you’d like to save this for another evening, when we’re all fresh, I plan on staying in town for a bit. However, if you’d really like to keep going tonight, I am willing to stay”—I pull out my pocket watch for emphasis—“for another hour, or until one of us is out of money.” This gives Chavez a way to back out with honor, while knowing I will play him again later. His friends will also remember, should I continue winning, that I did suggest we wait for another night.

Chavez politely thanks me. Diego and the others seem to relax, and without being asked, Rick brings him the $2,500.

I had set the one-hour limit, but it turns out not to be necessary. The first hand goes quickly. Chavez is dealt good cards and I’m not, so I happily fold and let him have my ante. The second hand turns out to be the last.

Chavez and I are both dealt good cards, a fact he confirms when he sits back and plays with his ring. I push him all-in. He quickly calls, and it’s over as soon as he sees that my spade flush beats his queen high straight. That means in the last three hands, taking a total of less than fifteen minutes, Chavez has lost more than $5,000. The ranch hands who work for Chavez are probably making $30 a month, and I don’t know how much Chavez is worth, or how big his ranch is, but $5,000 is a lot of money—for anyone. I also know that I’ve won more money than I’ve ever won a single card game, that any anonymity I was hoping for in this town is gone, that a man I’ve known for only a few hours owes me $4,500 and that I’m a little bit concerned about carrying around this much cash, especially now, when seemingly everyone in town knows I have it.

To Chavez’s credit, he stands up, shakes my hand, and asks where I’m staying and if having the money delivered in the morning would be satisfactory. I thank him and say yes.

Pulos, perhaps sensing my discomfort at having more than $5,000 cash and no friends in town, introduces me to one of those who had been watching the game, a man named Dennis Madden who turns out to be a banker. He generously offers to walk me across the street and allow me to put my money in his bank. I clear up the bar tab for the table, which does eat into my winnings, because these boys drink, and not cheap whiskey. I accept Dennis’s offer, and after shaking hands all around, walk across with Dennis to his bank. He congratulates me on my winnings and assures me that Chavez, a customer at the bank, is an honorable man and will pay his debt. He also lets me know that he would be happy to open up again in the morning so that I could make another deposit.

I feel better when the money, less a few hundred for me, is securely locked away in what appears to be a significant vault. I say goodnight to Dennis and walk slowly, exhausted, back to the De Vargas.

I collapse on the bed, removing only my hat, and am asleep in moments. I wake up late in the morning, what some might call early in the afternoon, and walk downstairs. The hotel clerk lets me know I’ve missed breakfast, but that the restaurant has a terrific lunch menu. At the same time, he hands me a leather pouch, which he says was dropped off at sunrise.

I open it up and find the $4,500, as promised. I also find a note…

See you next Friday.

Francisco Chavez