One poker player.
One million zombies.
Not the best of odds.
Eight years after the Zombocalypse, former poker pro Chris Newman is just trying to make it through the day with his wits and his skills on the felt.
But now somebody powerful wants a game with Chris, and the stakes couldn’t be higher:
If he wins, he gets to stay within the gates of Dos Vegas, the last zombie-free city in America, maybe in the world.
But if he loses …
Reviva Las Vegas!
I always swore a hundred-dollar deck of playing cards could get you through anything, and mine just about had. Made of self-repairing nanovinyl, they had been curled over, smeared with everything from shit to blood to barbeque sauce, on more than one occasion bitten, and carried from dusty town to zombie-infested settlement in my own back pocket, and here they were, looking as new as they did when I first grabbed them on the way out of a poker tourney invaded by the living dead, when that was still enough to throw everybody into a panic, before people really knew what to do.
So quite a while now these cards had lasted. Nobody had to worry that they were marked, since these couldn’t be scored, written on, or tampered with. If my erstwhile opponents had their own cards that could pass muster—and they usually didn’t—I was more than happy to play with those. I was always a guest at these tables, having been called there by someone wanting a little action in the long, dark times between outbreaks. So I was happy to oblige my hosts, because I would—nine times out of ten—be walking away the winner anyway. The pot may have been food or sex or cigarettes—or pot, for that matter—but whatever it was, I was usually the winner.
I was a poker player before the end of the world, and that’s what I was still. Let others build new roads or reinvent the flush toilet or whatever—I’m the one who got the call when rebuilding the world became too damned monotonous, or the realization of that dream too impossible. When people needed a little action. When people thought they were the magically lucky player who would get me that one time out of ten and get to brag to their fellow survivors.
The longer the war between the living and the formerly living went on, though, the hungrier we all got. For everything. And that made the action all the more fierce, both in desire and in how the games played out. I may have been a poker force in the old days, but the zombocalypse proved that it’s better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. I was the best, and I loved it.
I was the best—and almost always the winner—at and away from the card table more than eight years after the end of the world, because I lived my life by poker rules. I lived by poker rules before the zombies came, and I kept doing it even as most people ended up dead or undead or wishing they were dead. (Not too many people wished they were undead, I would imagine, but it wouldn’t be a difficult wish to fulfill.) Remember that movie from back when there were movies, where the kid with the Jew-fro rattled off his “rules” for surviving the undead apocalypse? Cute stuff, but cardio and double-tapping and all that shit weren’t part of the heuristics (poker players can be more than just gambling smart, okay? Don’t act so surprised) that have gotten me through this far.
So before I tell you the story of my first trip to Las Vegas since Corn Nuts became more valuable than gold, let me get you up to speed on
MY TOP TEN RULES FOR POKER LIFE
because that’s why I’m still here writing this and that’s why you’re wherever you are reading this instead of foraging like a sensible survivor for desiccated or water-damaged Kool-Aid packets or such that fell behind a shelf at the long-ago-looted Safeway.
One: Anyone could be holding anything.
I was in a heads-up game at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida. Was it sunny? Was it hot? I don’t remember—and actually, I doubt if I ever knew in the first place. This is where Diamond Don Delaney and I spent eight hours going back and forth, getting ahead, falling behind, each trying to psych out the other. This was pure paradise for celebrity-level grinders like Triple-D and myself, but our marathon was getting to the point where mental mistakes start occurring just from fatigue. (In heads-up, you never get to sit back and watch the action like you do when you fold early in a nine-person game.)
So I said to my brain—we have a close relationship—“Let’s get crazy.” This meant that I would throw in huge raises on pure-shit pocket cards like the famous 7-2 offsuit, or even just random 3s and 4s. I did not go in big on any hands with good cards unless they were the very best—A-A or K-K—and I was statistically likely to win. This way Diamond Don couldn’t figure out what I had and thus had to assume that when I was going in big, I had something big, and when I checked or folded or otherwise held back, I had nothing.
He would work with that for a while, losing hands when my random cards filled in for random straights or pairs or full houses or whatever. Then he would figure out my strategy and bet correctly against me, at which time I would reverse back to the normal practice of big bets for big hands and so on. My trigger to switch back and forth was whenever the crowd at the craps table out in the main lobby screamed for joy. It was totally random as far as anyone else could tell.
I loved Diamond Don, and I still miss him after what happened at that compromised shelter in Atlantic City, but at this table I was fucking with his head and having a great time doing it. This kept me fresh in the game and only magnified his fatigue and frustration. What happened is that he was spending all of his time now trying to figure out what I was holding by the way I was betting—which is exactly what good poker players normally do. But I was doing things entirely randomly, and he should have just been figuring the odds on his own cards instead of trying to figure out what I was holding. I could have been holding absolutely anything from one round to another, and that blew his circuits that fine day.
So now I take that rule from the card table into post-zomboc life and I remember: Someone who looks perfectly fine—or at least no worse than anyone else—could have a bite taken out of the back of a leg and will be changing into a hungry new ghoul within minutes. Someone who looks like complete hell may have suffered lacerations and contusions getting some vital information or resource and hasn’t been bitten at all. And as my curly-haired pal from that zombie movie found out, even cute young girls can just be angling to get your weapons, your food, and probably will take your life just for the thrill of winning. (That’s another rule from my poker life—never trust attractive young women. Or anybody else. Not when it matters.)
Poker is like life, except when it isn’t. One way it isn’t like life is that if you don’t win in life, life may still have some value. Friendship, love, happiness—all are obvious rewards of winning, but oftentimes even a loser in life can count on some lesser version of these (at least until his losses become too heavy for the people in his life to bear. You gotta win occasionally, if only to keep the railbirds  watching your progress).
In poker—and I don’t care if you’re playing for matchsticks, cans of food, a WSOP bracelet and its attendant ten million dollars, or what—winning is the only experience with any value. You don’t agree? Allow me to illustrate.
Back in the days of infrastructure and an economy, maybe you could think playing at a friend’s table for 25¢/50¢ stakes was mostly about the friendship and the bonding and all that. Well, all you had to do back in the day to test that theory was beat the shit out of every other player at the table, beat them early and often, and leave that suburban split-level with every last dime of everyone’s buy-in.
Now, ask yourself: Did everyone at the table have a nice time? All that fun-lovin’ camaraderie and bein’ pals and all that shit? No, they did not. One person had a great time, and that was the winner. Usually in real life Bob would win a hand and then Leon maybe pulled down two pots in a row and so on and so forth, most everybody winning something, even if they end up down for the evening as a whole. But give each guy a survey at the end of the night and you can plot how much “fun” he just had on a graph that perfectly correlates with a graph of how much and how often he won, whether the stakes were matchsticks or meatballs or Maseratis, that evening.
As it is in life, so is it in poker. In both places, you must win. That happy horseshit I included above about life still having value if you’re not a winner? Just kidding. I actually laughed out loud when I wrote that. The only time in poker when you don’t have to win is when it is utterly impossible, with impossible meaning mathematically, psychologically, financially, whatever. That’s when you fold and get the fuck out of that hand before it eats your chips. People who acknowledge those limits, people who accept there are times when it’s impossible to win, when you don’t have to win but keep playing anyway, are known as “losers.”
There is one big difference between being a loser in life and being a loser in poker, however. When you’re a loser in life, nobody wants to know you, be near you, or even be reminded of your pathetic existence. When you’re a loser in poker, however, other players will never tire of your company.
Three: Use every bit of information available.
Every twitch, every pause, every shift in his seat a poker player makes can scream volumes about what you need to know. Sometimes you have to play the same opponent numerous times to pick up on every tell, reverse-tell, real bluff, bluffing bluff, and hint about what cards they’ve got in the hole. Other times, what they’ve got is as plain as the nose rotting off of a zombie’s face. The way they bet, how many times they look at their pocket cards, everything is them either telling you something or acting like they want you to think they’re telling you something, which in fact is telling you something in itself. Ignore nothing. Observe everything.
And just as important, bend over backwards not to give anyone at the table even the slightest morsel of a tell yourself, because those guys and gals around the table surely are watching as closely as a zombie tracking fresh meat who’s gotten lost in the stygian darkness of a post-apocalyptic nighttime.
And maybe most important of all, don’t go insane trying to escape the Jedi mind tricks of players who you believe are more skilled than you are. This can happen pretty easily, because at the same time, you’re trying to ensnare into your web of lies and deceit any player you believe is less skilled than you. This double-dutch of feeling you’re the best but also the worst and who knows? and what does it matter anyway? and FUCK IT ALL IN can make you forget that what you’re doing is playing poker, not trying to fool the Nazis into defending the wrong beach in France. Thinking of your game in D-Day terms will make you lose your shit. Completely. And losing one’s shit completely is known in the poker world as “going on TILT.”
Four: Never, ever go on TILT.
Remember those old-school pinball machines that would sometimes get a ball jammed, and when you shook the machine or otherwise went crazy to get it dislodged, the display would light up with the message TILT until an attendant could come and reset it? TILT meant something had gone haywire and nothing good would happen until a reset occurred.
TILT was a phrase that gamblers used to signify when Juan Valdez fucks, strangles, and then eats his donkey and wears its head around town for a hat, all because his big shipment of coffee … got fucked up, I don’t know, whatever bad thing happens to coffee shipments. It’s when a player with pocket aces loses his shit after getting beat by some idiot’s 3-8 offsuit because the flop, Turn, and River give a magical A-K-3-8-8 because some people never, ever fold and luck into these situations. They’re called fish, donks, and all manner of other unkind names, but they will have the “W” in their column that time and the poker PhD will not.
When you’ve got the absolute nuts on a hand, it’s a great time to start teasing fellow players, trying to make them angry and annoyed, do anything you can put them on TILT and off their game. Occasionally it’s a great idea to stay in a hand with shit cards (like that 3-8 off) on the slight chance that you can catch weird pairs or a straight and make your opponent lose his mind. The difference is that the fish just does this because that’s how a fish plays, not knowing a thing about pot odds or when to stay in a hand or fold—the poker pro is playing a completely different kind of game in addition to hold’em. The poker pro knows that this will transform otherwise excellent players into gibbering, furious balls of impulsivity.
TILT is what makes that pushed-to-the-limit cardsharp go all-in on every single hand until he loses everything, then go out and get drunk and land in jail for DUI as well as for trying to punch the arresting officer in her Kevlar-protected tits because the winning 3-8 fish was also a woman and GODDAMNIT WOMEN.
That’s TILT. It is invariably fatal, either to your poker game or in what passes these days for “real life.”
Example: Couple of years ago, I was compadres with a self-styled zombie hunter calling himself “Dildo ‘B.B.’ Daggins.” (Yes, a nickname within a pseudonym. I didn’t say he was any good at self-styling. And why not “D.D.”? You’ll find out soon.) If you’re old enough to remember reality TV, you’d remember his real name in two seconds from the sharpshooter show he hosted on ManTV, making straight women swoon and straight men rethink their orientation. He was absolutely the greatest shooter I ever saw. I witnessed that son of a motherless goat shoot more than a few wobbly shamblers right between their empty eyes. He did this, time and time again, from more than fifty feet away. While we were running the opposite direction. The guy was unflappable when it came to knocking down revenants like they were undead tin ducks at a county fair shooting gallery.
His other interest was pussy.
Dil said that the only reasons he bothered surviving were shooting zombies and getting laid. It was hard to argue with this viewpoint, or really find any fault with the chisel-featured Dildo (other than maybe his moniker, but whatever). I saw him as the most rock-solid, coolest cat ever to come down from Chillsville. Nothing threw this guy is what I’m trying to say, okay?
This was when I still, even after years of living in an undead world, might piss myself over seeing more than two zombies together at one time. So Dildo usually had the added distraction of me muttering in terror not too far from his ear while he was trying to cap the walkers, too. He had nerves of absolute steel, fibers which were cooled by blood composed entirely of iced vodka, and this was back when most cities had already fallen, with nine out of ten “people” you encountered being of the species mortuo homine ambulans, but out in the California mountains it was pretty clear. Hell, by the time we happened upon that camper settlement at Big Bear Lake, I hadn’t actually seen a free-range walker in more than a year and occasionally allowed myself to hope that humanity had somehow beaten back the undead, that somehow we had gone and won this World War Weird.
Then we’d stop to play cards or trade at some little encampment and learn that our species hadn’t won a damned thing. Solar-powered or hand-crank radios still picked up nothing but static. Tribe members looking to trade for supplies or just get information either came back with bad news or didn’t come back at all. If these little enclaves were lucky and their envoy did make it back, much of the time the poor bastard was stripped naked, relieved of any trading materials, and sometimes abused so viciously he walked sideways and dripped a trail of blood. (That might be considered in itself an example of “bad news,” by the way.)
Anyway, young Dildo and I were kind of trading services in those days, with me playing cards and getting us food and whatnot and Dil providing us protection with his two holstered pistols, one slung rifle, one fully-stocked bandolier, and these velcro leg-pack things stuffed full of ammo that made walking easier than a backpack full of ordnance would have. (Also, his backpack had juggling balls and porn and such in it already. Not all trading materials had to be what economist types used to call “intrinsically valuable.”)
Dil and my own bad self tracked through some forest roads—hard for zoms to notice you through the trees, and they don’t give a shit about Deer—and ended up at Big Bear Lake, me looking for a game and him looking for a young lady upon whom he could express his appreciation of and enthusiasm for life in general and the female form in particular. Mountain lake enclaves were always iffy—on the one hand, they were beautiful and offered relative shelter from zombies thanks to their “vacation getaway” isolation and those trees; but on the other, if some undead pals did somehow manage to stumble down the access road, you’d better be a fantastic climber or a damned good swimmer if you wanted to keep your “survivor” status, because it’s up the mountain or into the drink with you.
Undead danger notwithstanding, the RVs and little lake homes that comprised this particular encampment made for the perfect place for Dildo and me to while away a little bit of the end of the world. There was one young nubile thing walking around in lake de rigeur bikini top and cutoffs, with her shiny brown hair and slight tan making her look like she was at summer camp instead of waiting for ghouls to come and eat everyone she loved. However, she didn’t look quite old enough for me to do anything but gaze wistfully—I kept a strict over-18 policy that had served me well after countless poker tourneys, since only gambling-age and older were allowed to hang out at casinos anyway. But by not dipping my wick into minors—even though the legal niceties of statutory rape no longer applied in this lawless new world—I helped myself avoid awkwardness with any well-heeled parents I was trying to keep in a good mood so I could beat them senseless at an evening’s game. Since there were middle-aged men in a fifth-wheel RV who were starving for a challenge at the dining-slash-card table after playing for matchsticks with the same three people for years on end, getting laid was not high on my agenda that evening anyway.
Dildo, on the other hand, would take to bed any girl who had hit puberty—if she had actual tits or anything even approaching an hourglass shape, even if she was essentially still a string bean, he was right there with his underwear-model good looks and a libido more ravenous than any ten zombies. So he zeroed in immediately on the bikini-and-cutoffs girl, who with her dimples had to have one of the sweetest faces I’d ever seen, like something out of Petticoat Junction. She was making out with Dil right there in the middle of the road before they said two words to each other. Darkness was falling, but you could see their hands running up and down and around each other like they thought this might be the last shot at sex with a hottie for either of them.
I was ensconced in the fifth-wheel RV already when two of the three gentleman with whom I was seated and about to pokerate craned their necks to gander at the pheromone-drenched sight outside. The girl’s name was Caroline, and her father was Mack, the third gentleman I sat with and the only one of us not watching. He shook his head ruefully as he looked up just in time to see my handsome-but-obviously-dog-horny friend get led by young Caroline into one of those little pop-up campers, no doubt headed right for the full-size bed that took up one entire side.
For a few seconds Mack stared into the encroaching gloom—the white pop-up wouldn’t be visible in a few more minutes—but his face was utterly blank, without the slightest sign of what was going on in his mind. (If that poker face was his actual poker face, I was in trouble.)
Finally, Mack removed his gaze from the window, returning to us with a sad shake of his head, and said to me, “Zombies changed that girl.”
Then he shrugged, motioned for me to hand over my plastic cards (which I did—he wouldn’t run far with that beefy frame jammed in between the bolted-down table and curved bench seat). Like an old Vegas hand, he riffle-shuffled the deck three times quick, burned a card off the top, and shot us each two cards face-down. He obviously knew his way around a deck of cards, which was a refreshing change from the half-wits I sometimes had to let deal, but it also put me on guard against bottom-dealing or other advantage shenanigans. Remember, folks: No gambler is too holy to cheat if he feels the need.
Zombies changed that girl. To me, the sentence lingered there like a noxious fart that only got worse the more you tried to wave it away. However, the two other middle-agers, both remaining chunky-style like Mack despite the deprivations others may have been suffering (which bode well for any food prizes I might collect), just peeked at their hole cards and waited for the flop.
So I said to Mack, equal parts anxious for Dil’s safety and trying to be polite, “The, um, zombies … ? They didn’t get to her, did they? Like, recently?” It wasn’t really a question so much as a request for reassurance. “She didn’t just take my friend back for a last romp as a human before she turns, did she? I’ve seen girls who are desperate to have an experience before they—”
Mack chuckled mirthlessly. “No, nothing like that. She’s no virgin, far from it. Your boy isn’t gonna get bit or anything, although he could’ve bought her dinner or shook my hand before he went back to tap her.”
At this the other two men, one with a big red beard and the other with salt-and-pepper hair that looked like it was cut using a bowl and a sharp rock, exchanged a look and a little laugh, probably less out of mirth and more out of politeness to their friend, whose daughter was at that moment experiencing how appropriately Dildo had nicknamed himself. (Note to the post-zomboc reader: Back when manufacturing artificial penii was still a going concern, they didn’t bother making a lot of small ones.)
“I, uh … hell, man,” I said, and it didn’t sound half as coherent as it may seem written here. I lifted the corner of my plastic hole cards—everybody always wanted to use my beauties once they were convinced they weren’t marked (which they weren’t)—and saw the suited K-Q. Quite the nice open—against three opponents, I already stood a 35% chance of winning the round. But I pushed my cards toward the center, even though I was in position and had those excellent cards. “I fold.”
All three of my new buddies looked distressed, then apologetic. “Hey, Chris, you don’t need to feel bad about Caroline,” Mack said. “She fucks absolutely everyone who comes through Big Bear Lake.”
“Or who lives here,” the red-bearded guy said.
“That, too,” Mack added, shooting Redbeard a look. “Not me, of course. Zombies or no zombies, I’m a father first.”
“Not a lot of men with hot daughters can say that,” the gray-haired guy said in a supportive tone, apparently unabashed about making lusty appraisals of Mack’s daughter or noting the fact that everybody for miles around had apparently sampled her wares, “not after the undead assholes ruined everything. Some men just gave up and started taking advantage any way they could, even of their own families. People got changed, even if they never got bit.”
“Yeah, that’s a fact,” Mack said to me. “Everybody changed, families changed, friends changed. And my little Caroline sure changed. Don’t feel like you got to make up for it.” He slid back the cards I had just folded. “She’s done every man come through here over the past three years after what happened to her in the lake.”
That sat there like a sandbag, so I said, “What, um, was it that happened?”
“Fucking underwater zombies,” Redbeard muttered. “One year after the dead decide not to stay dead anymore and start pulling their shit—so three years ago now&mdasha 14-year-old girl can’t even take a goddamn swim in her Daddy’s lake. ”
Alarmed, I couldn’t help shooting a look out to the waterline, which was visible through the RV window behind Redbeard.
“Nah, don’t worry about them now, man,” Grayhair said. “We trawled the whole fucking thing with nets after. Threw back all the fish—they wouldn’t keep anyway, not without power—and did a backwoods trepanning on every goddamn soggy walker we dragged up.
“What happened was one tried to get Caroline—the fucker grabbed her ankle as she tried to pull herself up into the rowboat. By reflex and panic, since she was still half in the water and could feel it was a hand and not a fish mouth or drifting plant, she kicked out hard at whatever had clamped onto her ankle. She said that as soon as she kicked out blindly with the heel of her foot, she could still feel the rotten hand gripping her tight but the pulling stopped. She hauled herself into the dinghy and there it was around her ankle—a rotted hand attached to a rotted arm that wasn’t attached to anything anymore.”
“She kicked the zom so hard it ripped his stinking arm off,” Redbeard added with a chuckle, but the laugh died on his lips almost immediately. “We went down and ended that fucker’s suffering, but after that incident, Caroline never was right in the head again. Started drinking and acting … well, maybe a bit overly friendly to the men in our little camp here.”
“Overly friendly, huh? Like you weren’t the first in line to stick your cock in her,” Mack spat out with a murderous stare at Redbeard, and everything froze. Was there going to be a throwdown right here before the first hand had even been played? Then Mack’s stern look broke into a smile and he laughed, which released nervous laughter from the rest of us at the table. “Hell, I’m just glad she’s still alive, that she’s got a way to cope with all this End of Days shit. Her mom …” he said, and choked a little.
The two other guys nodded somberly and gave Mack some manly bops in the arm and thoroughly masculine supportive claps on the shoulder. I took it that his wife—Caroline’s mother—had not found a way to cope with the 24/7 horror show of the zombocalypse and thus had taken it upon herself to check out early.
“I got my fishing,” he continued, “these guys have their vices like drinking and fucking their friends’ teenage daughters, but my wife lost her mind—I mean, her whole brain clocked out and never came back for another shift the first time she got cornered by the walking dead bodies of her vacation lake friends and had to bash in one of their heads from two feet away. That was in the first wave, three years ago. We had come up for a quick dip and cookout, just like a dozen other families. All of them are dead or undead or whatever now. Since that day I’ve never left Bear Lake except on supply runs. My wife, Caroline’s mom, she never ate or drank anything voluntarily again. We forced it on her as much as we could, but within a couple of months she was dead.”
Everyone sat at the little table, looking at the backs of their two cards, nobody speaking or moving. Through the window behind me I could hear the pop-up squeaking in rhythm.
To be honest, I have been present at even less fun poker tables.
“So you can see where Caroline got it from, the losing her mind thing. Like her mom when she had to kill her book club friends, after Caroline got grabbed in the lake she just said fuck the world and then proceeded to do exactly that,” Mack finished, and looked at each of us in turn.
“Can I ask a question?” I asked, a question.
Mack nodded in a way not unlike a cat sniffing its own fresh feces.
“How is she not pregnant? Or, like, sexually infected?” See, I was unable not to think about what teenagers did when they realized the zombies’ march was not going to stop and we were all going to die, or worse. I had seen so many in LA want to go out in a blaze of glory and so put on their headphones, cranked up something suitably metal, and went surfing on their skateboards into the biggest undead cluster of rotting teeth and jagged nails they could find. Might as well get eaten while I can still choose it myself, maybe they thought. And maybe sweet Caroline thought, Hell, I might as well get every fucking flavor of VD I can and get knocked up before I die horribly anyway or go nuts like Mom. Why not?
I could almost hear her despair. It was beyond me to contradict her. At least she was bringing happiness to the men she took to bed, right? But after registering what I had just asked, first Mack started shaking with laughter, and then Redbeard and Grayhair caught the giggles, all three of them laughing hard, eyes squeezed shut and streaming tears of hilarity, in a matter of seconds.
“What?” I said, smiling despite myself, despite the horror. “Why are you—”
“She’s hotter with the clap than a Gold Rush whore!” Mack managed to squeeze out between titanic guffaws. “These guys’ll tell ya—they’ve been oozing and itching and boiling for years—they got to go in the lake to try to get some relief! Ha ha! Ha ha HA! HA! Oh Jesus, HAHAHAHA!”
Ouch, but that took the wind out of their sails. The men who had fucked young Caroline tried to force out a couple of more laughs, but they had both visibly paled and shared a miserable glance. They both, as subtly as possible, were scratching themselves, something I hadn’t noticed earlier but would have to see if I could use as a tell if we ever actually, you know, started playing poker. Mack wasn’t lying about the venereal diseases ravaging his daughter, then, and now he was having the greatest revenge paroxysm in the history of bitterness as he watched two of her lovers’ faces fall.
My own eyes grew wide as I turned in my chair and looked out at the little camper where Typhoid Caroline had just taken the resolutely horny B.B. Dildo for his Big Bear Lake roll in the hay. It was only a couple of minutes, I thought, so maybe they were still on foreplay? Did 17-year-old girls even require foreplay? Either way, Dildo had joked with me long before that the “B.B.” in his moniker stood for “bareback.”
Oh, no. I had to get over there and stop him before he—
“Haw haw ha ha ha!” Mack’s butcher-block face turned purple as he laughed and cried and tried to breathe and also kept looking at his poor infected friends who had fucked his darling daughter again and again from the time she was 14 to now, when she was 17. “And pregnant? No, sir—she hasn’t had a period in two years, how’s she gonna get pregnant with all that sickness in her lady parts!”
The proud papa practically screamed this last part and had to slap the table to control his laughter and try to coax at least a little bit of oxygen into his lungs.
“Okay, Mack, why don’t we play some cards, huh? We get the … um … joke …”
Grayhair trailed off as he noticed that the beefy RV owner who’d been laughing so hard wasn’t laughing anymore—but his face wasn’t getting any less purple and his eyes were bulging in exactly the way you hope your own never will.
“Aw, fuck!” Redbeard said, and tried to scoot around the little built-in RV kitchen table to get out and over to his friend. “He’s having a goddamn heart attack!”
I don’t know what Red was trying to do, but as soon as he tugged on Mack’s arm to get him up from the table and maybe onto the floor for CPR or something, Mack stopped struggling against his own asphyxiation, cocked his head up at his standing friend and then at his sitting friend, and let out one final, awful, brutal “HA!” At the end of that horrible sound, vomit mixed with black bile mixed with arterial blood projected all the way across the table and full into Grayhair’s shocked face, and Mack’s face smashed down onto the laminate. You could see the man was stone-cold dead even before the black blood started pooling in his ears.
The two men jumped around the kitchenette screaming “Oh, fuck! Oh, FUCK!” again and again while I hit the RV’s door running to get down to the little pop-up camper where Dildo and Caroline hopefully hadn’t yet gotten 100% busy.
I banged on the little metal half-door and the curtain almost instantly parted, Dildo sticking his sweaty red face (oh, fuck) out to look at me.
“What the hell’s going on in there?” Dil said with his usual casual amusement. “You hand them the all-time bad beat or what?”
“Did you guys fuck?”
Dil laughed and I could hear Caroline do the same. “Well, we didn’t come in here to do jigsaw puzzles.”
“But did you guys already fuck?”
Now Dil could see the fear on my face and dropped his smile. “Well, yeah, man. You get the easy one out of the way and then—”
“Let me in,” I said. “Pop the latch.”
I saw Dil look back at his camper partner and she said, “We can all party, baby.” He sort of smiled at that and let the curtain drop, then crawled over and opened the door for me to come inside.
“Dude, what is up with you?” he said with a little grin, a thin camping blanket around his waist. “You usually don’t go for the younger hotties.”
“Did you use a condom?”
“Me? B.B.? Man, don’t you remember what that means? Besides, there’s not exactly a CVS on every—”
“Did you use a fucking condom?”
His grin was gone. “No, I did not, Mister Sexual Hygiene.”
“Flick on the light in there,” I said, motioning toward the half of the pop-up with the bed in it. It was twilight outside but damned dark inside the camper.
“No!” Caroline squealed.
“What in the hell is going on?” Dildo whined in perfect confusion. He pulled the switch on the solar-battery LED lamp and motioned me to come into the “bedroom.” Caroline swathed herself in a second camping blanket now, shy for maybe the first time since the zombies took her mother and then her sanity three years earlier.
I wasn’t proud of myself or happy, but Dil needed to know what we had just … well, gotten himself into. “Look at her cooch,” I said. “Take off the blanket and look at her cooch.”
“Dude, we just fucked for like ten minutes—I don’t think Caroline is a guy, okay? It’s dark, not—”
“Do it. Do it now.”
Caroline started panicking as Dil turned to her and started to remove the only thing hiding her genitals. “Hey, no, that’s not cool! Stay away from me! You don’t get to—stop—!”
He swept the blanket off of her naked body and saw just what I was afraid of but expecting—a raw, pustule-mottled, angry red delta around and inside her entire pubic area and into the folds of her vagina.
“You said those were piercings!” Dil shouted, betrayal in his voice. “What the fuck do you have? WHAT DID YOU JUST DO TO ME?!?”
Still obviously freaked but suddenly also defiant, Caroline jutted out her dimpled face at my friend and said icily, “You got what you wanted, I got what I wanted.”
“What you wanted? You wanted to infect me with … all that?” he shrieked, pointing at her pestilent, pustulent pussy, and when Caroline let out a bitter laugh—looking a lot like her father in that moment, actually—Dildo hauled back and unloaded a punch to the face that bloodied her nose and instantly knocked her unconscious as she fell back onto the bed against the window screen of the pop-up. He looked like he wanted to do more, but I got an arm around him and held him back before he could do something I’d really regret. We stepped outside into the forest darkness. He had let go of the blanket and stood there naked and fuming.
“Dil, she’s sick, her mind’s gone, it’s not her fault—”
“NOT HER FAULT? Dude, I live to fuck! Now I’m gonna have pus dripping out of my dick, I won’t even be able to get it up—if it doesn’t just turn black and fall off—fuck! I … I just …” He slowed mid-rant and then stopped, fixing me with a look that burrowed right into my soul, and said, “Wait, how did you know she was all VD’ed?”
Oh, hell. “It came up while we were playing poker, that’s all.”
Dil shot a look up at the RV, in which Redbeard and Grayhair were still stomping around and shouting, still trying to process that their pal just literally died laughing at their misfortune in a world without antibiotics or soothing ointments. (Goddamn lack of CVS again.)
“They knew?” he said to me with all the energy gone from his voice. Then he turned toward the RV and his rage resurfaced. “They knew. They knew! Motherfuckers knew she was a bag of disease, set me up to get my dick rotted off. Thought it was funny!”
“Man, listen, it wasn’t like that. I didn’t—”
“Not you, Chris. You tried to save me. They thought it was funny.” He stood stock-still for a few seconds, acid in his stare at the two men pacing inside the RV, alternately shouting at each other and embracing in manful support.
Then he ducked back into the pop-up, pulled out his trusty Winchester Model 70 rifle, and marched barefoot (and still bareback) to the fifth-wheel, swung open the door, and unloaded four impossibly loud and concussive shots, I assumed two (double-tapping?) for each man. Then, sprayed with blood, my zombocalypse compadre stepped out of the vehicle, tramped down its three metal steps and then over to me, where I remained standing by the pop-up, utterly shocked and still. He stood maybe five feet from me, the LED from the camper behind me illuminating his face. He stared at me, maybe contemplating all that had just happened.
Then he said, “Fuck this,” swung the barrel of the Winchester under his chin and blew out the top of his own head. As brains, bone, and blood misted down onto me, his body remained standing for a couple of seconds and then collapsed to the ground in a heap of meat and gristle.
So, yeah … that’s TILT.
Try to avoid it.
Five: You aren’t going to win just because you’re you.
We’re all the heroes of our own little stories, I get that. But in everybody else’s movie, you’re at most a minor character and in all likelihood an extra whose two seconds of screen time ends up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe you just won the last three pots with extraordinarily unlikely hands which came together on the very last card. You were lucky, very lucky, but that doesn’t mean the next round won’t be a disaster that’ll leave you joining the railbirds watching the action. The card you desperately need to finish a straight on the Turn or fill in a flush on the River is going to come to you but once out of every twelve times or so. It’s not going to magically become your card because you are you, because you’re the golden child, the anointed one—why else have you always seen the world from your perspective? You must be special!
You are not special in the big or any other size scheme of things. You’re not the hero of anyone’s story but your own, and that doesn’t count for shit. You aren’t guaranteed to win, place, or even show. Play smart and know the odds at all times.
Same thing with the zombie menace. You’ve survived almost a decade after the dead rose and started inviting everyone to their big tent revival? (Get it? They’re revived, so they have a revival. Them’s the jokes, people—you want a comedian, go see if there are any still barricaded inside the Laugh Factory in Encino.) You’re still human after all these years? Congratulations, you have been truly, astoundingly lucky.
That’s the good news, and it is in the past.
The bad news, and this is for right now and on into the endless future, is that you are probably not going to make it to old age as a human. You are most likely not going to stumble upon a cache of nonperishable food and potable water right before you would have died of hunger or thirst. And no matter how many times it’s happened by sheer chance before, you won’t always choose the correct fork in the road to escape the hordes who want to lunch you long time. I mean, it may happen, it certainly could happen, but you will not get lucky again just because you’re you.
And it probably goes without saying that you can just about always know the odds in poker, but the odds of surviving the zombocalypse—or even what that might mean—is something nobody knows.
Six: Don’t chase your losses.
Remember TILT? One way of going on TILT and completely wrecking your hard-earned chip stack is to double up or otherwise get insanely aggressive after a bad beat. Okay, yeah, that guy sucked you out with a River and got quad deuces. But you can’t by sheer will make your next hand be the monster that gets all that money back. Just let it go. Breathe. Play solid and tight, which is how you win in poker. You never want to depend on luck in poker, which is what you’re doing when you chase those losses. Luck? That shit’s for gamblers.
In real life, or what passes for it these days, let’s say a desperate survivor somehow snuck into your camp while you were asleep and hauled off the pillowcase full of canned goods and jerky you’d spent a month collecting. You want to go right out and hunt that asshole down and maybe kill him or maybe not, but either way get your stuff back and maybe even take some of his stuff (should he have any). You’ll end up rushing away from a relatively safe spot right into god-knows-what, an ambush or a pack of zombies or something else to make the situation much worse than it would’ve been if you had not chased those losses.
No, bad, stop. What’s gone is gone. What you need to do now is start rebuilding your stock however you first did it, by playing poker or going back to prostitution or stealing other people’s shit yourself (that last is bad karma, but it’s your call). And if you come across the son of a bitch who stole your stuff—say, you recognize his Hello Kitty pillowcase, exactly the kind in which you kept your cans of beans—then kick him in the kidneys with your steel-toed boot, strip him naked and leave him in the desert sun, then take every last thing he has.
Exact your revenge if providence lays it on the table, but don’t chase your losses. That way leads only to more losses.
Seven: Trust no one at the table.
This may seem like a pretty obvious piece of advice either at the card table—where everybody, even your otherwise best buddy in the world, is looking to fool you and get your chips. It’s obvious, but a lot of players make the mistake of thinking their friend, lover, crush, relative, or anyone else is in the game for any reason other than to win and to crush you if possible. For lots of people, that makes it even more fun, because people are shitheels who want to make you cry.
If my (hypothetical) twin brother was playing at a table with me and I knew he had gotten the bad luck of losing an eye in one of these brushfire wars; and his wife had left him because his PTSD made him scream out in the night; and he had a severely impacted wisdom tooth which made his every breath a sharp and jagged dagger of pain; and I had 6-4 offsuit and I somehow knew he had a pair of kings and was about to make a killing, I would fuck him with quadruple raises until he believed in his heart that I must have a pair of aces. Then, when he finally folded his excellent hand, I’d flip over my trash cards and laugh in his fucking face.
I’m a bad man? Maybe, but he’d do the exact same thing to me—if he didn’t, I’d say he wasn’t a real poker player. Because real poker makes you dance on the fresh graves of those who would hold you back.
I had a friend in L.A. after hell broke loose. I played poker with him in a guarded warehouse and we bonded like two kindred souls. And then the zombies got past the machine-gun–toting muy machos and attacked us. We were completely defenseless and I alone survived. How? I’ll bet you can guess how. And if you’re an idiot with a heart of gold and don’t know, you’ll find out soon, since it’s part of the story I need to tell.
Eight: You can’t think of money as money.
I have been out in the zombocalypse wilderness for a long time now, playing cards with a lot of different people, at first in L.A. and then in various encampments in the High Desert of California and Utah, sometimes if I happened that way in the northern part of Nevada, which was virtually free of roaming zombies because of the combination of mountainous terrain and a very small population to get turned in the first place.
In so many places I’ve played, however, someone wants to put up money as their stakes. Sometimes cash, sometimes gold or silver pieces, something Deeds or other legal documents giving me the whole enchilada if (when) I win against the holder. Every now and then, when my food supply is topped off and I don’t have any clothing desperately in need of repair or replacement and I don’t feel especially horny for somebody’s wife or adult daughter (the Dildo Daggins fiasco had me asking for ID before fucking for more than a year), I’ll let them put up cash or precious metals or what have you. The stakes that I then put up—usually some weapon of Dildo’s that I kept and scarcely knew how to use, or maybe his ammo, or maybe some trinkets and shit I pick up along the way—are things that mean jack shit to me.
Usually what I have in these situations is cash and gold that I picked up from an earlier game using this same rule: The other players can put up half their bets as money, but the other half has to be something useful to me, like medicine or books or toilet paper. I just put up whatever worthless money I have, and whether I win or lose I haven’t lost anything except some weight in my pack.
This was mostly in the early years. After enough people had starved or gone insane from unsafe food and drink, nobody really wanted to play for Deeds to land no one had any use for, or legal tender in a world without banks, or precious metals that gleamed nicely but wouldn’t help you live one extra day once your necessities ran out.
And in poker, you don’t think of money as money because that messes with how you play the game. You’re just figuring odds and reading people’s faces—you never have to think if it’s too much money or not enough money because it’s no longer money at all. Decades before the zomboc dropped, casinos made gamblers exchange their cash money for clay chips, because people were a lot readier to part with markers than with their hard-earned money. As the wag said, “Whoever invented poker was smart. But whoever invented chips was a genius.”
Nine: Listen to your brain, not your heart.
You know what used to be funny, back in the day? Zombie movies, zombie books and magazines, zombie jokes, all of them with the poor undead asshole shambling around and moaning for BRAINNNNS. You what was a lot less funny once somehow, somewhere, someone created a virus or a magic spell or maybe a prayer to the dark lord Dagon to make the dead rise and convert others through bites and scratches? All that shit about brains.
Zombies don’t eat brains. Zombies don’t eat at all, really, unless they can get at your intestines and liver—they go crazy for that. Otherwise, they bite and rend and slash just to get their blood into your blood, not to fill their non-working bellies.
Zombies’ brains are important, though. Those diseased three-pound lumps are the manual override to the rest of the body being perfectly happy dead and unmoving. As The Second Gospel of George and the works of the prophet Max make clear, these undead brains are the key to everything a revenant does, where all the unnatural action takes place that keeps that fucker walking and stalking. This is why zombie brains are vitally important to those humans who would rather not join the undead ranks of 99% of the world. The brain is the only weak point of a zombie, and to damage it even slightly is to put that ghoul down for good.
All that said, however, I’m talking about the brains that living, breathing humans still have in their heads. And I mean “brains” not only as in the organ of cogitation, but also to signify common goddamn sense. There were survival guides out there that bookstores put in the humor section. Gun shops and survivalist retailers played up the zombie menace for fun, never thinking that five thousand scientists pounding on five thousand chemistry sets might eventually produce a world-killing virus.
If that’s even what caused this. Personally, I think it was a pissed-off deity, whether that means the Judeo-Christian white-haired old man and his punk kid or it means something called up from other dimensions to make humankind an ex-species.
In poker, as in zomboc survival, if you play with your hunches and your heart, you will get eaten alive. Rely on your brain and your brain alone—know your pot odds, know your zom urban-grid attack patterns, know what to expect when you’re expecting something horrible. The minute you fall in love with a person, an idea, or a can’t-miss hand that mathematically could very well miss, you’re in great danger, if not completely doomed.
Final thing about brains, and most top players I know have some version of this, so don’t think I’ve been out in the sun too long (even though I probably have), but I have conversations with my brain. Something my brain starts the conversation, sometimes I ask it a rhetorical or perhaps not-so-rhetorical question. It points out the obvious that I just did not see, and I tell it to shut the hell up when it’s being an unhelpful jackass. My brain and I talk to each other. Together we see things at the baize or out in zombieland that individually we would probably miss.
Ten: Remember to have FUN!
That’s advice for you, not for me. I hope you’ll just have as much fun as you can in this wacky apocalypse of ours. Scavenge resources for fun, not worrying too much about what you find or don’t find. When it’s a nice evening, sleep out in the open, under the stars; don’t worry yourself about climbing up a tree or making sure someone is standing guard if two or more people are in an exposed area—that takes away from the pure fun of survival, amirite?
Same thing with your poker game. For goodness’ sake, just have fun with it. Bluff against the odds. Follow hunches. Go all-in when you’ve got absolutely nothing and see if luck will be a lady tonight.
I emphasize this last tip the most because I want the food you don’t find. I want the zombies to eat you, not me. And I want to take everything you have at the poker table. I’ll go ahead and let you have all the “fun.” My zomboc scorecard doesn’t have a column for that, anyway—it only has a space for wins, every “W” marking another day survived after the end of the world.
All right, advice time is over. Now here’s what happened.
After Dildo Daggins went on TILT, I never found anyone to partner up with again. Times had gotten too desperate, with pockets of humanity shrinking and also people just withdrawing from the world of other people. Four or five years after that unfortunate incident at Big Bear Lake, I was vagabonding near Victorville in California, getting recognized from the old days and picking up a game here (televised high-stakes poker was on ESPN or Spike TV every night of the week when civilization went down), being asked for by name and sitting down to a barrel full of fish there, my 52-shell howitzer locked and loaded.
A kid maybe ten years old walked up the dusty street, eyes twitching to check every corner but definitely with me as his destination. He looked hungry and dirty, even by zomboc standards; whomever he was messenger for—I knew he was a messenger because kids, being without much in the way of zombie-killing skills and requiring more food and attention than older survivors, were always used as messengers—didn’t take much care of his charges. I hated that. Still, I hoped the long-haired boy was a maltreated messenger and not a random starving kid begging for scraps, because I wasn’t in a position to be giving hands out or up.
His lips cracked as he said to me, “You’re Christopher Newman.” Not a question, really. The messenger kid must have been given a good description, or maybe even had been shown an old photo.
“You don’t say.”
“Sir, Mister Victor”—a dry cough seized the boy, not enough moisture in the air to make more than a wretched hack—“requests a game.”
I liked the high-dudgeon way the kid said it, and despite myself I felt bad at how he had choked as the words came out, so I broke my own rule and gave him my third-to-last square of chewing gum. His eyes widened and his mouth cracked into a grateful smile. The gum wouldn’t provide the nutrition this walking skeleton needed, but I only had what I had and at least it would help him wet his whistle some.
He chewed quickly, then slowly, his eyes closing as he relished the flavor and the feeling of something other than grit in his mouth. Then, after thirty seconds or so, he remembered himself and repeated with a better voice, “Mister Victor requests a game with you.”
“Mister Victor? As in Victorville?” Very cute. Very Lex Luthor.
The kid gave a little smile and shrug and chewed his gum, waiting for an answer.
“What game? Five-card draw? Seven-card stud? Omaha Hi-Lo? Badugi?”
“Texas hold’em,” the kid said, all business.
“I know, I know,” I said, and motioned for him to lead the way. “That’s what they always want.”
You may be wondering how the messenger boy found me in order to request a game for his boss. I had been quite lax in checking my voicemail since the grid popped off about three months into the zombocalypse, and no point in having my snail mail forwarded since the postman hadn’t shown up the past eight years or so. Guys like me, guys who wanted to be found because it was the only way we were going to eat, restarted the old Roman technique of the “trivia”: We posted notices at crossroads (the Roman one had three intersecting avenues, hence the “three ways,” tri via in Latin).
I had no idea why so few zombies frequented the crossroads in the West. Maybe they were too exposed and those with weapons could easily take them down? It was like you had, like, Fresno. Zombies out the ass in Fresno. But when you got out of the city and were walking the empty highways, there were almost no undead between the larger cities. This meant that near the crossroads—just as has always been the case from the routes between the very earliest places on the map—little settlements arose, taking advantage of the “traffic” between occupied areas. (I put that word in irony quotes because I’ve lived in L.A., come on. Ten people a week shuffling by a collection of corrugated tin huts doesn’t really seem to be worth the compliment.)
Anyway, these little ten-to-thirty-person communities not only were passed by any travelers going anywhere in Southern California (and maybe elsewhere—I wouldn’t know), but they also were all too happy to post notices on their wooden signs constructed for that purpose. I put up flyers (hand-written, of course) with where I was going and where I expected to be if anyone wanted to play poker. I had posted my expectation of being near Victorville, and someone must have relayed that information to “Mister Victor,” who was apparently quite the hold’em enthusiast, to hear the kid tell it. He had sent the messenger as soon as he heard that a WSOP player was not only not dead and zombified, but looking for a game.
It was a couple of miles through empty sun-bleached streets to get to where “Mister Victor” had set up what the kid called Victor’s “palace.” Apparently he had converted the old Roy Rogers Museum, probably the nicest place in town even before the zombies moved in and ruined property values for everyone.
“How old are you?” I asked the kid, just to have something to say.
“Eleven, I think.”
He shrugged, which seemed to be his response to everything, and said, “My parents stopped my birthday parties after they got turned.”
He shrugged again.
“You got a name?”
Now the boy stopped and eyed me. “Just leave me alone, Mister.”
I blanched. “Jeez, kid, I didn’t … mean to …”
The boy started walking again without listening to the rest of what I had to say. We marched the rest of the way in silence.
Turned out “Mister Victor” actually was a guy named Victor. About fifty, wearing clean denims and plaid shirt that had to stretch over a little bit of middle-age paunch, a little stubble but not enough to make a beard—all the signs of what passed for wealth these days. Especially the mini-army of malnourished child messengers and heavily armed militia. I remembered the old signs: “Will Work For Food.” Nobody worked for any other reason now. Not even the ones who considered themselves rich.
He met me inside the old Roy Rogers Museum—the “palace” of Victorville, I guessed. We shook hands, just like diplomats in the old days, showing we didn’t have weapons in our hands or cards stashed up our sleeves. For all his well-fed status by zomboc standards, Mister Victor didn’t have cards other than shitty cardboard ones that were no good for serious play. I fished out my pack and handed them over for his inspection.
(You might be wondering why I would trust Mister Victor with handling my cards. I mean, he had armed soldiers and the town was his—if we wanted to keep them, he certainly had the means to do it. But remember, this man desperately wanted to play some poker against someone who was a challenge. If I started telling the little bands of gamblers who roamed the Southwest that Mister Victor was a cheat and a thief, any potential games the bigshot wanted to play in the future would instantly dry up. So I felt comfortable handing over my precious nanovinyl cards.)
Victor whistled, which made me think of his parched and dirty minion. “I haven’t seen any like this since things happened,” he said. He nodded his approval to me and to the AK-47–toting soldier overseeing the table, then handed them back. “It’s a pleasure to have the greatest player in California here at my own table. I’ve beaten everyone else I can find.”
I smiled. “Actually, I prefer Greatest Player in the World.”
He gave a little chuckle. “I’ve heard about your travels and triumphs, Mister Newman. You’re great indeed, but you’re no Phil Ivey.”
“Phil Ivey is dead.”
“Your lucky break, huh?” I could tell by Victor’s taunting tone that he was getting into game mode already. Which was how I liked it. “Nobody could beat Ivey. Not regular.”
“Good for him. What’s the stakes?”
Victor motioned to the soldier, who called to one of the urchins, who immediately carried over a steel case that everyone followed with their eyes. Without another word, Victor popped the latches on the case and opened it.
“Are those what I think they are?” I said as calmly as I could, trying for poker-face indifference and utterly failing.
“InDeed they are, Chris. Not very nutritious, but what the hell.”
Sitting nestled in foam inside the steel case was something I hadn’t seen in years, and hadn’t fully appreciated even before that—jelly beans.
A full, unopened, undamaged bag of jelly beans.
I couldn’t help it: I literally licked my lips. My stomach growled and my mouth watered. Goddamnit.
“I see that’s acceptable to you,” Victor said with quite the superior chuckle.
I nodded. “And what would you like me to put up?” This was an important—and, since resources had become more and more scarce, increasingly hard-to-answer—question. When I played small-stakes against fellow traveling gamblers, we would play for literal peanuts or even, if one or more of us was feeling lucky or especially well-stocked, for a can of food. But rich men usually put up more than I even could, since they had stores and henchpersons and all the rest. Just having my poker head up on their wall to brag about bagging (in front of witnesses) was often good enough for the wealthiest of the post-zombocalypse.
But not this time. Victor smiled very slowly and very widely and said, “I want those cards.”
“For a bag of jelly beans? Not likely, my friend, sorry.” He had to be out of his mind—these cards were my entire livelihood. But maybe that was the idea.
“No problem. Have a nice day,” Victor said rapidly, and even more rapidly grabbed the bag full of garishly, beautifully colored candy and dug a thick finger right through the plastic of the bag, ripping a hole.
“Whoa! Now, I—”
He hooked a single jelly bean out of the violated wrapping and slipped it into his mouth, chewing with obscene slowness, visibility, and volume.
My stomach twisted. How long had it been since I—the self-crowned World’s Greatest Poker Player—had actually eaten anything but canned food and legumes? I wanted that candy more than I had wanted to escape the undead chick who once tried to bite through my wrist but instead got a hard mouthful of World Series of Poker bracelet. (More than once has this game saved my life.)
But my cards, my precious indestructible plastic cards? Put them up against a bag of goddamned jelly beans? No, no, no, no.
Mister Victor fished out another piece and popped it in his mouth like it was the day after Halloween. “Such a treat,” he said.
He had called my bluff. I sighed. “All right. I agree to the stakes.”
He smiled once again and motioned to the soldier, who motioned to another and so on. In seconds another steel case was brought up and opened. Inside was another, slightly bigger, utterly unmolested bag of jelly beans.
Holy, holy shit.
“I play fair, Chris. Heads-up, no-limit Texas hold’em—you win, you win the big bag,” he said, and shoved another delicious sugar bullet into his mouth. “You lose, I get those cards and I’m the Greatest Player in the World.”
He dumped the opened bag of candy onto the felt of the small table and waited until my eyes had taken them in and looked back up at his smirking face.
“Must’ve misplaced my poker chips,” Victor said. “Let’s use these.”
Fine, I would play for jelly beans. I didn’t carry clay chips on me anyway, since they were too heavy and the high stakes of playing for actual food put directly on the table with no mediating currency like poker chips or seashells or rocks was often good to psych out my opponents. I always kept enough of my old winnings—rabbit jerky, occasionally a precious can of beer—to get a few antes in, and that was usually all I needed to start the cascade of food coming my way, enough to get me a little farther down the road and on to my next game, my next meal.
Mister Victor poured out the rest of the ripped bag of jelly beans and split them with me for our opening “stacks.” We wouldn’t play by color, like they were poker chips (red for $5, green for $25, and so on), but instead bet them like they were pennies or peanuts. My half, twenty-six brightly colored little footballs, sat on the shiny table right in front of me, taunting me with their sweet, chewy—
I shook myself out of it. Any candy I ate now would be less that I could use to ruin this tinpot titan. Why was it that the biggest asshole of any town left in America became its new king? Was that just the way of the world now, zombies to the left of me and former car-dealership-and-wing-restaurant–owning mini-Mussolinis to the right? Leave it to The Pestilence That Destroyed Mankind to allow the turds of the world to float right to the top.
“No TV cameras here, Chris, just you and me,” Victor said. Was that a taunt? Was that supposed to bother me, after I had watched my parents get their faces chewed off when the zoms busted in at a taping of World Tour Poker in Tunica? That clusterfuck put me off television in a big way, not that television was around that much longer anyway. An entire state without an international airport, the godforsaken shithole known as Mississippi was allegedly zom-free for a long time following the onset of all this shit, but the virus finally arrived there inside the bloodstreams of a couple of high-rolling L.A. douchebags who were bitten and got on a plane in the days before the TSA started demanding blood tests in addition to boarding passes. The sick assholes died watching from the rails but a few minutes later—
Son of a bitch. Victor had driven me to distraction with that TV crack, exactly as he had intended.
“What’s the matter, Mister Newman? Off your game?”
This asswipe was my host and that meant I had to be courteous to the point of swallowing my pride if I wanted to later be swallowing any of that precious candy, so I fake-smiled and said, “Let’s find out. Shuffle up and deal.”
His point scored, Victor smirked and motioned to his chrome-domed, handlebar-moustache–sporting lackey to start the game. Card to me, card to Victor, card to me, card to Victor, an initial couple of beans tossed in as blinds  to get us started, then the flop: three cards dealt to the middle of the table, face up.
As usual, I didn’t look at my hole cards until the flop was dealt—this was because until I looked at my cards, there was literally nothing for me to react to, nothing for my opponent to read on my face. If I had two aces in the hole—also known as “American Airlines,” a joke (A-A, get it?) with perhaps more punch when there were still airplanes flying; or as “bullets,” hyperbole probably a bit more salient before it was kill-or-be-killed every day of your frickin’ life—it would make my eyes dilate a bit and probably cause a little hitch in my breath, but those things wouldn’t give my hand away in themselves. If there were an ace on the flop, however, and now I had three aces, any opponent worth playing against would put it all together and know I had a practically unbeatable hand. Then whatever value I could bluff out of it would be lost, so it was better not to know what I was already holding when the flop came down. Also, I could sharpen my observation of the player across the table, in case he did the normal thing and peeked at his hole cards. Which he did. But no tell, dammit.
The flop came down 7-3-3 rainbow . If Victor had a combined hand containing two sevens, two threes, or a seven and a three, he didn’t show it, didn’t sit up straighter, didn’t take in a sharp breath, didn’t blink three times real fast. No, he did something much more interesting: He smirked. Again.
My brain, which worked autonomously more of the time than I feel comfortable with, whispered to me: the 1982 World Series of Poker. The masterful Jack Strauss pulled off one of the great bluffs in poker history with hole cards of a seven and a two, offsuit—the absolute worst, most valueless pocket cards possible in hold’em—and with the exact same flop we now had here, the 7-3-3. Strauss had two pair, sure, but that didn’t mean much because one of the pairs (the sevens) was on the table and so was shared by all players. Any hand with a pocket pair higher than sevens, let alone a 7 and a 3, would beat Strauss’s hand. Strauss actually meant to fold, but, in a glorious accident, instead automatically—and unintentionally—called the opening bet, which with his hand of 7-2 offsuit  usually would’ve been money down the toilet.
But when his opponent, “Gentleman Pete” Perry, raised by five thousand dollars, instead of doing the smart thing and cutting his losses, Strauss called the additional five grand. With the two most worthless hole cards possible in the game. Insane.
The Turn card—that is, the fourth of five community cards—was a deuce, giving Strauss a pair, but the least valuable pair possible. There was nothing there. Strauss knew it, and Perry knew it. The only hole cards that would form playable hands with a 7-3-3-2 would be shitty cards that no one have stayed in the game with in the first place—we’re talking pairs of 3s or 7s , or a 7-2 whether it was suited or not, crap no one would waste five-dollar antes on, let alone match a five-grand raise.
So Strauss, impossibly, raised again—by eighteen thousand goddamn dollars—leading Gentleman Pete to a true come-to-Jesus moment. Pete put Strauss on a pocket pair of deuces or threes, meaning Jack now had to have four of a kind or, at the very least, a full house.
Strauss—and God, I guess?—had created a perfect, unreadable shitstorm for Pete by accidentally calling a big bet, having the flop coming down with low-value cards, and holding onto a hand no one in their right mind would play when fifty dollars was on the line, let alone $520,000.
Let me stress once again: Nobody—certainly no professional—would ever, ever play 7-2 offsuit at the Goddamned World Goddamned Series of Goddamn Poker. Not if they wanted to win, anyway. Even if you were planning to bluff for some idiotic reason, a pair of 8s would beat just about anything you could possibly have for real, and so there would have to be a hell of a lucky flop to even allow you to bluff effectively.
Anyway, knowing he had Gentleman Pete dazed and confused, Strauss pulled perhaps the single greatest mind-fuck in the history of the World Series of Poker: Jack told his opponent that for one of his $25 chips, Strauss would show him either of his hole cards, and Pete could choose which one. Instead of smelling a rat, the Gentleman went with what any of us would assume, that Strauss would make that offer only if he had a pair—meaning that both cards were the same and so it didn’t matter which card Pete picked. Why else would you give information like that away? (Because you’re an evil freaking genius, that’s why, but I digress.)
So when Pete chose one and Strauss showed that it was a deuce, that told everyone in the house that Jack must have had POCKET TWOS, and so was definitely in possession of a full house with the deuce and a pair of 7s already on the felt. A full house is to two low-value pairs like 2s and 7s as a rabid doberman is to a grumpy dachshund—both can bite, but only one can really be considered dangerous.
In the face of a certain full house, the third-most-powerful hand possible, Perry folded. Gentleman Pete would be forever remembered as the guy who fell for the most insane bluff ever made at the WSOP. And when I say “forever,” I mean until there were no more poker players to remember it, a time that feels closer every undead day.
All this is to say that when our flop went down 7-3-3, Mister Victor and I met eyes and he smirked and I knew he (a) had a 7-2 off or something nearly as bad and was going to attempt bluff me, or (b) he had a pair of deuces or a pair of threes and so had four of a kind or, at the very least, a full house.
Hmm. That sounded familiar.
In other words, like Gentleman Pete with Jack Strauss, I had no idea what Victor might actually have. This was the first hand we’d ever played together, so I knew nothing about his playing style—if he tended to bluff, or play it straight, or mix it up somehow depending on the circumstances. On the other hand, since he had asked for me by name, he had probably seen me play live or on TV back in the day—hell, his taunt practically guaranteed it—and so he probably knew something of my style.
Which was to call bluffs. Aggressively. Sure, I’d lose a stack now and again because of a reverse bluff, but more often than that—and I wasn’t facing a lot of fellow pros these days, TV revenue having dropped off a bit since the end of the world—I broke my opponents’ self-confidence to the point where they would bet heavily on surefire pot-odds losers … at which time I would fold and keep my stake out of their stack. No-limit was often a blitzkrieg shoving match , but when I played now against the starstruck or the cocksure (hello, Mister Victor), a war of attrition following a campaign of intimidation was the surest way to canned food, cigarettes, vermin jerky, and, I hoped, jelly beans.
“If you offer to show me a card for one of my candies, I won’t accept,” Victor said with that same smirk on his face. All right, so he was taking the role of Gentleman Pete—which meant that he was indirectly claiming to have a solid hand rather than a bluffing one. But would the corollary of that be that if he had offered to show me a card for one of my jelly beans, then he was tipping his hand and had shit for hole cards? “Check,” he added at last and rapped a knuckle on the table, not adding anything to the pot but not folding either. The move didn’t tell me anything about what he held. It’s exactly what I would have done.
I gave him something between a nod and a grimace. I shouldn’t even have done that, because he obviously knew his poker history—Strauss’s bluff is known even to shitty poker players—and now he knew that I knew mine as well. I was giving him more valuable information with every passing second of indecision.
Or was I? His comment had thrown me so much that I hadn’t yet even looked at my own pocket cards. The only information I could have given him so far was that I knew he was trying to rattle me, that I knew he wanted me to wonder if he was going to bluff or play it straight or fold or what. This was still information that, if he were any good at all, he would file away for use in the next hand, and the next, and the next. If I lasted that long. (But at least it wouldn’t help him during this hand.)
Victor was waiting for me to look at my cards so he could know what move to make in return. Everybody was waiting for me to look at my cards, the two hole cards that would tell me whether I had struck gold or dug up shit or done something in between. What you did after your opponent looked at his hole cards and made his bet was look at your own hole cards. This was all usually done before the flop. Not looking at one’s own cards to figure out your betting strategy was bizarre behavior, to say the least. (Which, if you haven’t picked up on by now, was exactly why I was doing it with a brand-new opponent.)
So I didn’t look at mine. The ante had been two jelly beans, so I rolled four into the pot. “Raise,” I said, unnecessarily but fuck it.
Here at the Roy Rogers Museum in glorious Victorville, California, there weren’t a lot of railbirds watching the action, just lackeys that Mister Victor no doubt told to be there to see his inevitable victory, but even the dozen or so people nearby created a sudden verbal rumble, everyone asking everyone else what in the hell was going on here. I’m sure I heard somebody mutter “crazy bastard,” and that suited me just fine.
“You didn’t look at your cards,” Mister Victor said, looking shaken.
“You can’t bluff someone who doesn’t know what he’s got.” I nodded at the pot. “You gonna see my raise or not?”
He looked at his cards again, now in a different light since he had to calculate what they might be worth against a truly random hand, and shoved two black jelly beans into the middle of the table.
Two black beans, specifically chosen from his little pile. Interesting.
The Turn card came down. In the 1982 WSOP game, it was a deuce—leading the 7-2-offsuit–holding Strauss to make his famous offer and leading Gentleman Pete to think Jack had a full house—but here it was instead a jack of spades.
“And thus endeth our history lesson,” I said. Victor already seemed a bit rattled, so it was best to keep up my annoying patter. I pushed in the two jelly beans closest to the pot, a red and a yellow. “Raise.” I still hadn’t looked at my cards.
“Raise,” he echoed, and put in all three of his remaining black jelly beans, sliding them around other, differently colored ones that were closer to the middle of the table.
“Call.” I slid in a black one, matching Victor’s re-raise—but not re-re-raising—to see what he would do.
Which was nothing. (That was interesting as well—remember, all information is trying to tell you something.) “Check,” he said.
The pot was pretty big in comparison to our stacks—or piles, more accurately—now: 14 jelly beans of varying colors, but almost half of them were Victor’s blacks, picked out very deliberately and put in the pot after the ante.
I looked again at Victor’s outfit: Black chinos, black shoes, black shirt with open collar. Even with the desert heat and the lack of air-conditioning available without the power grid, “badass in black” was clearly Victor’s motif of choice. Did that explain the black jelly beans? Not necessarily … if he just loved black so much, he could’ve just taken all those beans for himself and used them for his ante as well. No, he was trying to send me a message: Black was his color, and it was a badass color. (Also, him having a stash of jelly beans suddenly made sense of his paunchy belly.)
I wondered if I should say, “I’ll give you one of my black jelly beans if you show me one of your hole cards?” but knew it was too early to speculate on Mister Victor’s game plan, if he even had one. The best thing to do was experiment.
No matter what the fifth community card—the River—was, I had already decided what I was going to do.
The skinny dealer placed the River. It was the 10 of hearts. The community cards were garbage in themselves, nothing there except the practically worthless pair of 3s.
The dealer looked at me. Mister Victor looked at me. Everybody in the joint looked at me. So I looked at the dealer, then at Victor, then scanned the gaunt, smudgy faces of the railbirds, and then I lifted up just the corner of my cards and finally peeked at what I had under there.
Which was utter shit, not even a pair.
“All in,” I said, and shoved. The crowd let out a collective oooh.
Oh, yes. End of civilization or no, railbirds still loved them a reckless card sharp.
Victor stiffened in his seat and looked Deeply into my eyes, which I kept as empty as the heart of a man who would let starve people under his supposed protection. He drew in a double-lungful of air, then let it out slowly and loudly, never taking his gaze from my face.
I did my part, which was to do nothing at all. It’s not as easy as you might think.
After thirty seconds of staring and breathing, Victor pushed his cards into the dealer’s discard pile without showing them to the room—and in so doing making it impossible to tell which had been his—but that was his prerogative since he hadn’t gone all-in. So he had been bluffing with the black jelly beans. Those seemed to be his “tell,” the (possibly, but who could say for sure?) unconscious signal he gave off when he was pretending to have something he didn’t really hold. I had his tell after one hand. Yes.
Since I had committed my whole stack, I was required to show my cards now, which I did. And which had not magically changed from utter shit into diamond dust.
I smiled, the audience murmured, and Victor did the last thing I was expecting. He laughed and said, “Nice one, Chris,” and deftly retracted two cards from the discard “muck” pile and held them for all to see.
An ace and a king, both of clubs. A suited Big Slick—an ace and a king of the same suit, therefore deadly in forming flushes, straights, or pairs and was the most valuable opening hand in hold’em after A-A and K-K. If those had really been his cards, by the River he wouldn’t have had much of a hand—just a high card in the ace and a high kicker in the king—but it wouldn’t have been a bluff per se, since he had good cards. They just didn’t end up creating a winning hand with the community cards.
If the A-K had really been his cards. Not I nor anyone else in the room could tell if they were the same two that he had just slid over into the muck pile or if he had selected two at random, or two from the muck that he somehow knew were an ace and a king. So he either hadn’t been bluffing and those really were his cards, or he had been bluffing and they weren’t. The entire round was a mind-fuck. I won this pot, but Victor had prevented me from learning anything of value.
I admired that greatly. But it still sucked.
Next hand. I looked at my cards this time, and had a Royal Couple, a king and queen in the hole, not suited but still pretty fine. The Man in Black there across the table from me didn’t get cute and abstain from looking at his cards (something that had happened to me before with amateurs aping my shtick, and which usually ended up with them unable to calculate their pot odds and wildly misbetting). He snuck a quick peek and replaced them on the felt, looking me in the eyes for a fraction of a second and then down at the table, just as you’re supposed to do.
We went back and forth, back and forth, Victor winning a hand, me winning a hand, me winning another hand, nothing terribly exciting or unusual. My stack gradually grew, as we all knew it must. I didn’t take any bait and Victor also generally avoided falling into any obvious traps. This was what fans of televised poker never saw, the back-and-forth, luck-of-the-cards stuff that makes up 90% of the game, even at the highest stakes. A quick bluff here, a little reverse bluff there, but Victor was actually quite good and largely kept pace with me.
That said, I was definitely winning. Feeling good, I let my mind wander a bit to a leggy railbird who looked as curvy and healthy as anyone I’d seen since the dead started walking. Unlike just about every other person in the room, she seemed well-nourished indeed with her round tits and her smooth skin. Not just well-fed but also exfoliated, shampooed, and conditioned. She had to be Victor’s woman, the hot June Carter to his post-apocalyptic Johnny Cash. Lord, her thighs in those denim cutoffs were something I—
“Gotcha!” Victor cried, and slapped his cards face-up onto the table. We both had flushes, but his was A-Q-10-9-6 and mine was K-J-10-9-6. The ace-high flush took the pot.
Shit. I was lost in lusty mental adventures over the curves of Victor’s gal pal, not paying attention, and had bet heavily on my flush—forgetting that there could be two non-straight flushes in one hand between two people—and now our stacks were just about equal. Quickly I counted the number of jelly beans in front of Victor and the ones in front of me.
The first hand after my screwup gave me pocket jacks with a flop of Q-10-2 rainbow. Second-to-top pair. Not that good, but not too bad.
And definitely not as good as what Victor seemed to have. He couldn’t or didn’t want to hide a little shiver of excitement when the flop came down, and he put in a hefty bet, which said to me he had a real shot at an open-ended straight. I matched him, but his straight possibility kept me from raising. He had to have either pocket queens—giving him three ladies—or a jack and a 9, a much more probable hand. That would give him 9-10-J-Q before the fourth card, then any 8 or any king for either remaining community card would give him the straight, and most likely the win.
And me? I had a pair of jacks, which was nice, but unless either the Turn or the River formed a pair on the board, I was looking at about a 67% chance of winning and Victor at about 30%. And any pair on the board would mean that Victor shared that pair with me. This told me that maybe he had pocket queens and then he would have either a full house or four of a kind. Whatever Victor held, he had confidence in his hand, and I had to get myself some insurance.
The Turn was another deuce. So now it was Q-10-2-2. That rocketed my up to an 82% chance of victory. No help for Victor, really (unless he had trips  with a third 2, highly unlikely in a hand he would stay in on) since the pair of twos was on the table and thus we both had that pair. More importantly for me, it wouldn’t help him with his chances at a straight—
“All in,” Victor said with a smirk, and pushed his twenty or so remaining jelly beans, black and red and blue and green, into the middle.
“Hmm,” I said out loud, and after a few seconds of pretending to think (during which time my brain helped me out by reciting the first couple of bars of “Yellow Rose of Texas” so I looked mentally occupied even though I knew exactly what I was going to do), I pushed my stack into the middle as well.
Victor let out a guffaw that sounded like the sound a lumberjack makes when a tree falls on him and forces all the air out. Then he flipped over his cards, as you customarily do when going all in and the betting is done for that hand.
He had pocket 10s. With the 10 and the pair of deuces already on the board, that gave him a full house, 10s full of 2s, and a 95% chance of winning this hand. (How fickle the poker table is.) There were only a few hands that could beat that full house with the cards presently on the table. If I had been holding pocket deuces, of course, four of a kind would beat that full house, but I had J-J, not 2-2. A straight flush would also beat a full house, but the rainbow nature of the community cards made that impossible now. There was only one card that could come on the River that would allow me to beat Victor’s full house, and that was either of the two jacks remaining in the deck.
“Haw! Whatcha got?” Victor said with a broad, taunting smile. He seemed to cherish the suspense when he had a less-than-5% chance of losing, which was the probability that one of those gorgeous knaves would turn up on the River.
“I’d rather play mine close to the vest.”
His jaw sawed back and forth. “You have to show your cards—you’re all-in!”
“I never said that, Mister Victor.” I held up what had been concealed under my palm: a single jelly bean. A black one, as it happened.
“Wha—” Victor said, and looked to the bald-headed and ostentatiously moustachioed dealer lackey, who didn’t seem fazed in the least.
“It’s true, sir. He never actually said all in.” The dealer looked at me and then back at his boss with great insouciance, and said, “Like that matters, right?” Which was quite true—it was Victor’s table and his game and his town, and things could be made quite unpleasant for me if I didn’t play it his way.
I think the dealer really thought Mister Victor was going to call on his Master of the Stead privileges and tell me that I was all-in whether I had one jelly bean or not and whether I goddamn liked it or not. There’s no way the dealer would have said what he said if he had taken into consideration that he just called the Big Man a cheat in front of a room full of railbirds.
Victor took all of this in, giving the dealer a look that could burn a hole, then let out a breath and waved his hand. “You’re right, Mel. It doesn’t matter. All-in or not, it doesn’t really make any difference anyway, does it, Chris? You’ve got what you’ve got,” he said, but I could see he was (literally) sweating it, trying to look like a good sport in front of the crowd. Ironic, really, because from what I had seen about the starving population of the Roy Rogers Museum, Victor could probably not care less about these people, but a gambler’s reputation is everything. That’s true even when ninety-nine out of a hundred people in the world are dead or undead and the single person left alive doesn’t give a shit who plays fair and who doesn’t as long as he gets his rations and a chance to live another day.
Victor was right, too: It really didn’t make any difference, except that I would survive to play another hand. It would be a long road back from one single chip—or jelly bean, whatever—but it’s not like I’d never done it before. And the more important difference it made was that I fucked with my opponent’s head. I had long since learned the inestimable value of doing that as much as humanly possible.
Mister Victor could wave it off, because he had taken this hand—and so just about 99% of the total jelly beans we had split. That’s why it hardly seemed to make any difference when the River came down a jack.
It hardly mattered, hardly mattered at all … except now I could glibly flip over my hole cards, showing my pocket jacks. I gave Mister Victor a moment to let it sink in, as he stared right at my cards and the community cards but didn’t realize what had happened until his royal subjects started oooh-ing once again.
What had happened was that River card, which had a 4.55% chance of being a jack before it was dealt, now had a 100% chance of being a jack—for you math majors, that’s because it was a jack—and that gave me a full house, jacks full of twos, which just beat his full house, tens full of twos.
Bronze tan notwithstanding, Victor’s face went five shades paler.
I scooped over the hill of beans in the middle of the table, which I could eat, and I got the big bag, too. Win-win-WIN.
“Thank you for the game, Mister Victor,” I said as I gave my opponent a little bow and slipped the candy we used for betting—and my plastic cards—into my satchel. “It was a pleasure. Now the big bag, s’il vous plait.”
He answered that with an annoyed wave. The problem with insisting on having your big win in front of witnesses is that you might also suffer a devastating loss in front of them. “Mel, go to the back and fetch Mister Newman a brand-new bag.”
“Sir?” Mel the dealer said, going ghostly white. “There’s a bag in the case right here—”
“I want you to go to the back and get a new one.”
Mel looked helplessly at me, but I made no expression back since I had exactly no idea what was going on here. Finally I said, “Mister Victor, I’d be glad to take this one, no problem.”
“No,” he said sharply, talking to me but looking at his scared-shitless poker dealer. “To the back—now.”
I wasn’t sure if Mel nodded or if that was just his sweating bald head shaking like the rest of his extremities, his moustache vibrating at the curly ends, but he turned and walked very quietly through a door that I assumed led into the “back” of the museum, where fresh jelly beans were kept?
After the dealer had disappeared, I said, “What was that all about?”
Victor was suddenly all innocence and light, not the thundering potential of violence he had seemed seconds earlier. “Nothing at all, hotshot. I need strict obedience to keep my charges safe.”
“From what, obesity?”
The crowd, still lining the rails, let out a collective chuckle that immediately silenced when they saw how wide Victor’s eyes immediately grew. Then he calmed himself and forced a reptilian smile onto his tanned face as he looked at his watch. (He had a watch after all this time. That is wealth in the zombocalypse, my friend.) Finally he said, “You can find your own way out.”
“What about the jelly beans?”
He reached over to the case and flipped the locks, grabbed the big bag, and tossed it to me. “Take this one. I guess Mel got lost back there. So you—out. And … well, just try to stay safe out there. Heh.”
If it hadn’t been for this last sound, uttered with the same little smirk that I had already learned meant he was turning his asshole setting up to eleven, I might not have been on my guard when five zombies, one of them extremely fresh, came after me not fifty feet outside the door of the Roy Rogers Museum, right beside the statue of Trigger.
That’s the end of the sample, but now read the rest!