Summary: Cards and Humanity is an abstract fiction piece in which seven diverse characters engage in a thought-provoking poker game that means more than merely an ordinary game exploring life’s most profound questions.
“The goods are secured, losers.” Hayden rattles open the nearly unhinged door that separates the cramped pantry from the break room in the auto body shop.
“You’re to the left of JP. Sucks to be you.” Derrick nods to the one open seat at the table, a crusty chair unconfidently tasked with sustaining Hayden from collapse. The cards are already dealt, and the six other men are all sunk back into their chairs, still in their dark blue coverall work attire.
Hayden taps the knuckle of his index finger against the lightbulb, which delicately hangs from the ceiling, unsettled by each striking tick of the nearby wall clock.
“This still isn’t fixed?” he groans, shifting into his seat. The bulb barely shines enough light for the men to see each other and the cards in front of them. It made it harder to play, for sure, but it would be stupid – or unnatural, at least – not to play because of it. They were already at the table, after all.
“You want to go get us a new one?” Derrick scoffs, motioning to the shop’s exit door, which remains barricaded with furniture. Pounding the door with debris, the gusts of humid wind from outside threaten to make an unwelcomed entrance.
Niall, a tall man with dark, styled hair and a grandiose mustache, shrugs from across the table. “Maybe you should, Hayden. We don’t got a clue what’s really going on outside of here.”
“Too scary. Can’t we call the big man?”
JP smirks, knowing how often the men lazily want the shop owner to fix everything. “We’ve told you we can never reach him.” The men had tried texting, calling, and mailing letters to the owner whenever there was a concern, but had learned to never expect an answer.
“We can try telepathy, as if that’ll work,” Niall chuckles. A sense of dry sarcasm was one of the few things his father left him before ditching their family of three.
JP, Sidney, Derrick, and Marcus exchange a few laughs at the foolishness of the idea, accompanied by an uncomfortable smile from Pete.
“Alright, I guess we’re stuck in here with what we got. Don’t worry, these’ll make it all better.” With his eager toothy grin, Hayden passes around the beer bottles he had just fetched.
“Thank Jesus,” Niall exhales as he gets his. “As pathetic as it is, these poker nights with you idiots are the only much-needed distraction I get from everything. New week, same pointless BS.”
Upon catching his beer, Sidney promptly slides it back across the table. “I appreciate it, Hayden, but you know I do not have that. No beer for me.”
JP beams warmly at Sidney. “I respect your strong will, pal. You’re really sticking to that diet.”
Pete takes a sip of his cold beer to somewhat offset the room’s palpable taste of sweat. “With all the calories you’re saving for the rest of the world, you could feed all of Africa.”
The men at the table chuckle, but not even a wry smile comes from Pete. He could be making a joke or an earnest political statement and deliver it the same.
“Pete, you’d just love to brag about your little service trip to Kenya again. We know Sidney would rather feed his people back home in India,” Hayden jokes.
Often dismissed by Americans for his slight accent, Sidney was indeed raised in India, but it was commonly forgotten that he spent most of his adolescence in China.
“The diet can be tough,” Sidney continues, unbothered by the playful crudeness. “Here and there, I cannot stop thinking about the delightful food the chef of my family used to make back at home. But it is not the diet that I do not like to drink. Drinking makes me feel…distracted. That is not the way I want to be, especially in a game as important as poker.”
“Buddy, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” Hayden howls derisively, infamously pronouncing the word “talking” as “tawkkin” like the proud New Yorker he was. “As one of my good pals used to say when he was around, beer is like women – more is better.”
On that note, he downs the remaining half of his bottle. He fumbles for another one from the case by his leg, his American flag hat almost falling off his head in the process.
Sidney shakes his head vigorously, his long earlobes wiggling as he does so. “And then how do you get enough? Do you hopelessly keep drinking again and again, passing out before you can get as drunk as you would like to be?”
“Yeah. I just drink more each time,” Hayden retorts wryly.
“Hey, you gotta keep yourself busy somehow,” Niall laughs.
Sidney takes a deep breath and doesn’t say anything. It is best to avoid resistance, he thinks.
The men finally begin the betting, sitting with their legs tightly crossed and their cards closely guarded against their chests. Derrick shoots an untrusting glare at the light, which flickers seemingly every time a new hand is dealt.
In the first few pots, JP makes a couple of calculated moves, while Hayden bets heavily and tirelessly. Niall affords only sporadic concentration, and Sidney folds immediately for the fourth consecutive time.
JP peers up at Sidney. “My friend, you’re capable of winning this game.”
“If I bet into this pot, I am playing against six other people. I am getting invested into something I am going to lose. And let us say I do win. Great, then I go home and end up disappointed that I could have won more.”
“Are you crazy?” Hayden’s mouth hangs in disbelief. “How’s it disappointing if you win?”
“Yes, for a bit, the feeling is great,” Sidney concedes. “But then the money or the thrill you had get lost, and you go chasing for more. Instead of doing that, I am purely here to experience each hand for what it is.”
“That’s right. You have to take it one hand at a time,” Marcus adds. “Too many poker players try to plan out their strategy for the whole game when they don’t even know how many hands are left.”
Hayden shakes his head. “Forget about it, Sidney. I’m here to win as much as I can. If I win some big pots and got more bills in my pocket, I’m a happy man.”
“You’re a happy man because it feels good when you win big pots, or because you’re richer when you got more bills in your pocket?” Derrick prompts.
“I don’t know. It’s one and the same, isn’t it?”
The table is hushed contemplatively.
“You guys are overthinking a game where there’s nothing to be thought about,” Niall chimes in.
“I don’t think so. I agree with Sidney,” Marcus counters. “You can win a pot or even win on the night, but it’s fleeting. Plus, the money you make or the unjustified sense of success you get aren’t important. The thing is, Sidney, if you always fold, why do you play poker? Do you even like it?”
“I think it is not possible for anyone to like it if they play it the traditional way. It will always be filled with dissatisfaction.”
“I mean, if you really think that, you could…” Marcus’ words begin to draw off. “You could always quit playing and leave,” he finally finishes with a wince.
Sidney’s reflective eyes shine of understanding rather than insult. “I could. But I am here, and for that I am grateful. If I continue to fold, I still get to experience the game while not feeling a bother. Then I leave when the right time comes.”
Motivated to hone his poker ability, Marcus continues play by throwing chips into the pot. Despite doing so, he locks eyes with Sidney and sincerely nods in agreement.
Each of the seven players gets dealt a new hand, where Sidney, Marcus, and Niall fold promptly. As Derrick gets a promising flush draw, he battles to contain his amateur excitement and tosses in a heavy cluster of chips. Pete folds, and Hayden and JP both meet Derrick’s bet.
After the next card disappoints, Derrick declines to raise the stakes himself but reluctantly matches Hayden. The final reveal drops to no avail. Derrick groans audibly, defeatedly thrusting his cards at the table as JP’s pair of jacks beats Hayden’s bluff and Derrick’s fold.
“Had a flush draw on that one from the start. I swear, man, I get unlucky every time we play this dumb game,” Derrick complains.
JP, whose head barely stretches above the table, pushes his thick glasses higher upon his wrinkled nose. “Poker is not a game of luck, my friend,” he says, having played the longest out of the group.
“What do you mean? I had a good chance at winning with my hand. I did the right thing by betting a lot, and the community cards I needed didn’t come up. I got totally screwed.”
“It doesn’t matter which cards you get or whether the cards you want show up. That’s the biggest misconception about poker. It only matters that you play your cards well.”
“I did play them well. But I got unlucky.” Derrick drops into a slouch in his seat before continuing. “And you know what sucks the most? From the start, I was going to lose. No matter what I did, those two cards were always going to pop up and I wasn’t going to have a flush.”
“Look, you can’t choose how the cards get dealt. The thing is, you can always win with any hand, because the cards are as valuable as you make them. You missed your flush draw, but if you wanted to risk it to win at all costs, you could’ve bluffed me into folding.”
“Quit reading fairy tales, JP. You can win with any hand? You’re saying, oh, it doesn’t matter if you get a 2 and a 7 versus pocket aces, they’re all the same?”
JP puffs his cigar for a few seconds. “Maybe not. But they’re your cards. You have to play them, and you can play them well enough to win, or you can play them badly and lose.”
Derrick’s face lights up. “That’s the thing, man. The cards aren’t all worth the same. Soon as you sit down, specific cards are bound to show up and affect all the plays that come after. It’s dumb as hell to say that throughout the whole game, everybody’s got an equal chance of winning.”
“Just because it might be harder with your cards doesn’t mean that’s the reason you lose. The onus is on you to win with them.”
“No, no, no. The cards affect your decision-making. The cards are your decision-making. If I get screwed that play, it’s not my responsibility.” Derrick points to JP’s abundance of chips. “And you’re giving yourself way too much credit, saying it’s all about playing smart.”
“You know I’m not saying that to brag,” JP contends, offended at what he feels is a cheap jab by his comrade.
“I know you’re not. But why do you think you’re skilled, JP? You started playing poker as a teenager because you actually had the bucks for it. You’re the only one here who got to go to college and learn math and stuff that we don’t know. You –”
“Woah, I earned my gambling money and my college degree. That’s what you’re forgetting.”
“You think I didn’t want to earn those things? You think I wanted to drop out at 16? When my parents split, Jalen and Darius were still kids. My momma couldn’t support them alone.”
JP motions for Derrick to calm down. “Listen, you know I sympathize with you. But just because I started playing at a younger age or went to college or whatever, doesn’t mean you can discredit my hard work into getting good at this game.”
“For sure I can. Where did your hard work come from?”
“I don’t know. My own choice to work hard, my own drive to be good at something.”
“You’re overrating your impact on the game and on yourself, man. Even if you and I got the same cards, you were always better set up to play them.” Derrick sighs. “You won at poker before you even started playing.”
He collects the pot to marginally boost his small sum of chips.
Hayden rolls his eyes. “Alright already, youse guys are getting way too…philosophical over here. All that matters is that you win, yeah?” Before anyone has the chance to utter a sound, he scoops the cards and deals a new hand.
“Pocket sevens now,” Derrick immediately groans, unknowingly breaking the etiquette of keeping one’s cards to himself, even after a fold. “Clearly it would be too much to ask for an ace or a king here and there, like everybody else is getting.”
Half of the men – generally the older ones – simply puff their cigars, accustomed to players behaving this way. The other half is stunned into stillness.
“Why would you fold pocket sevens? That’s a good hand,” JP eventually asks amicably.
Derrick shakes his head. “Like I said, there are aces and kings out there. How can I say I got a good hand when there are better cards that’ll beat me?”
“It’s all relative, my friend. You have six other people at this table. You probably have a better starting hand than five of them, but you’re only thinking about the one hand that is maybe better.” JP sips his beer. “And sure, someone might have an ace or a king, but what if those never show up in the community cards? What if a seven shows up and helps you?”
“That’s a lot of ifs. No way I can be confident about pocket sevens if a high card might come up, or if a seven might never show up.”
Marcus bets a few chips, chuckling at Derrick’s ignorance of one of the most obvious yet neglected elements of poker. “Well, of course you can’t. Poker is a game where nothing is certain and nothing is permanent. You can have a ‘great hand’ get wiped out into nothing at any time, whether you see it coming or not.”
Derrick motions his hand towards Marcus, as if to confirm that Marcus’ point is backing his own argument. “Exactly. So how can I got any confidence in being happy about this hand until I know that it’s good?”
Marcus waves off the idea. “You sound like my son. You’ll never have that certainty you’re looking for, no matter which cards come and go. That’s how the game is, and you have to play by the game’s rules.”
“Alright, alright, I got you. Still, pair of sevens is straight up just not a good hand.”
JP abstains from reiterating his stance on the relative unimportance of the cards. “This is the problem with fellas like you.” He proceeds gently and pitifully, fixated on Derrick’s styled, non-graying hair and his uneasy twiddling with his restless smartphone. “You all complain you get dealt bad cards. The thing is, when you do get good cards, you never recognize them for what they are.”
“Are you now starting to understand why I play it in this way?” Sidney prods the table. “Every player wants the thing that is impossible – to have a better hand, not just one time, but every time.”
“I mean, Derrick’s got a point,” Hayden advocates. “Sometimes the cards you get simply suck. You gotta see it for what it is.”
A few murmurs of reluctant agreement are scattered across the table, while Marcus delivers a defiant eye roll.
JP resists, “We all get some cards that might be considered bad. In fact, I know plenty of folks that say most poker hands are bad. I’ll tell you what, though. You don’t see us getting those hands because we fold them, and you’re letting your hands that you don’t like stick out to you more.”
Derrick hunts for a middle ground in the dispute. “Maybe we’re all meant to perceive the cards differently. We each got different poker experiences, after all. There’s nothing with that.”
Sidney shifts in his seat and rubs his ears uncomfortably, internally disagreeing with Derrick yet not wanting to spark more debate.
Almost immediately after becoming the dealer, Niall stumbles over a leg of the table and the cards freefall out of his grasp. He gazes at the mess in front of him.
“Your arguments are all pointless,” he snickers, despite usually being distant from these discussions. “This is a nonsense game. Think about it – these cards are just a bunch of random colors and numbers and stupid looking faces. But then we come up with these silly little interpretations and throw money in based on things we don’t even freaking know. Nonsense.”
While the rest of the men exchange restrained grimaces of disagreement, JP shoots to the edge of his seat.
“Yeah, the cards are just a bunch of random colors and numbers and, granted, some stupid looking faces,” he laughs. He adjusts his glasses as he starts to pick up the cards from the floor, remembering that Niall can’t because of the alleged “back problem” he has had since childhood. “Yet when we’re able to look at all these cards and think about them, we can freely create a game for ourselves, and the game we choose is poker.”
“Oh, of course. It’s so wonderfully simple, you guys, we can create any game we want!” Niall mocks, twirling the curls of his mustache. “These cards can’t mean different things to different players, JP. If you can’t find one right way to use them – which, spoiler alert, you can’t – then all the games you come up with are equally nonsense.”
“There is no ‘right way’ to use them. If you think poker, or blackjack or rummy or whatever it might be, is the best way for you to personally play, then great. You’ve figured it all out.”
“No, you think you got it figured out. We don’t know squat about what we want in our game, about the cards, about anything. And how can we? We’re honestly lying to ourselves by making up some game to play.”
“You’re right that there’s a lot we don’t know. That doesn’t mean we don’t know anything.” JP’s comment is countered with a silent, doubtful eyebrow raise from Niall. “Niall, we have to make our best individual judgment on how we should play with the cards. It can take time for us to figure out which game is best for us, but eventually we get there.”
“Well then who’s to say that poker is any better than some mind-numbing game like war or go fish? These are not all equally good choices. They can’t all be the right choice.”
“You might not think war or go fish are worthy games, although they can be to someone else. It’s totally subjective.” With a shrug of his shoulders, JP continues, “Even if we never find the best way to spend our time at the table, the search is a worthwhile process we can embrace.”
Niall rubs his hands against his face. “You don’t get it, genius. It’s a process towards nothingness. We can make up these fun, happy games that make us feel good, but they’re meaningless ways of wasting our time. There’s no real use to these cards, JP.”
Suddenly, a gust of wind thrusts itself against a break room window, cracking the glass like a spider web as it seeps its way through.
Silently hopeful, Marcus sees his king and ten of diamonds become a flush draw as Niall deals two diamonds to the community cards. His unwavering facial expression, largely aided by his robust, curly beard, guards any entranceways into his inner emotions. Following his usual style, Marcus controls the play with an aggressive opening bet, which a couple of the other men match. By the time the final community card lands, he successfully hits his flush. He pushes half of his bountiful stack of chips into the middle and peers up at Derrick, the final opponent still left in the hand.
“I call.” Derrick flips over his cards to reveal a very unlikely ace flush – the only possible hand that could beat Marcus’.
Quickly subduing an emotional reaction, Marcus shrugs his broad, commanding shoulders. “It is what it is. Nothing I could do there.”
Derrick smiles, gleaming with confidence. “I’ve been telling y’all the whole time, it’s the cards that decide the game. You got wrecked by them, Marcus, the same way I have been all night.”
“Plays like that, they are unfortunately always going to happen at times,” Sidney contemplates, sipping an increasingly lukewarm water. “Accepting them for what they are is what you must do. Once you realize that you will eventually lose chips, you suddenly stop being so overly concerned about them.”
With his scarred left hand, Marcus wipes a few beads of sweat off his wrinkled brow and tips his military cap towards Sidney. “We may be from different sides of the world, Sid, but we sure have some things in common.”
“But doesn’t this make you angry?” Derrick interrupts. “The fact that you did all the right things and you happened to be the one who lost a ton of chips from the unlucky odd chance?”
“No, sir,” Marcus responds coolly. “It only matters if I let it matter. Before I even placed my bet, I came to terms with the possibility of an ace flush beating me. Anything can happen in poker, so nothing should come as a surprise.”
“Yeah, true. Anything can happen. I guess that’s what makes this such a cruel game.”
“I don’t think it’s cruel. It’s a zero-sum game. For all the money that’s lost, money is gained elsewhere. That’s just the cycle of how the game flows. And hey, if you think it’s cruel, it’ll end eventually.”
“Well, until the next one,” Sidney revises.
Marcus chuckles dismissively.
Pete protectively thrusts his hand onto Derrick’s shoulder. “No offense, Marcus, but I’m happy to see Derrick get those chips from you if you weren’t going to do the noble thing and give him some. He barely had any before that play.”
“No offense taken, although the chips don’t matter. Everyone is so focused on getting chips, like that’s what determines who’s a good poker player. People don’t even do it to try to please themselves anymore. It feels like they do it to prove that they’re better than everyone else at the table.”
“Isn’t the whole point of the game to get a lotta chips?” Hayden challenges. “How else would you even decide how good someone is?”
“No, the winnings don’t mean anything because they’re mostly down to the cards we get handed to us.” Marcus turns to Derrick. “Only part of the game is decided by the cards, but that part doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what we control, which is making the right decisions.”
Derrick bites his lip in thought. “I don’t know, man. Even if you’re right that we got control over our decisions, it seems really…idealistic to not be fazed by everything that happens in the game. All the cards that come up and the wins or losses they cause naturally make us feel good or bad. I don’t know how you can say those things don’t matter just because you didn’t cause them.”
Sidney replies, “You are no longer affected by the cards and the results once you build up a strong poker mentality. It is something that takes much time and practice.”
Marcus nods. “You can’t play poker freely until you surrender yourself as a hostage to the cards.”
“Alright Marcus, if your focus should only be on your own moves, how do you know which ones are good ones?” Derrick inquires.
“All it takes is some rational thinking, and bang, you have your uncompromisable principles on how to play. And because I know you gentlemen are curious, I’ll tell you one of mine – avoid bluffing.”
Mumbles of agreement buzz across the table.
“If you try to bluff your opponents, you’ll usually end up bluffing yourself even worse,” JP validates. “Only when you play authentically can you truly play the game your own way.”
Hayden’s glare darts across the table, failing to find anyone sharing his level of confusion. “Am I missin’ something here? Everybody bluffs in poker. Isn’t that one of the most basic parts of the game?”
“It does feel like everyone bluffs, especially in the modern poker,” Sidney admits. “I cannot figure out why. I feel like it is much better to play with the cards as they are.”
The men meditate on the idea for a moment.
“I think it’s because players chase the chips too aggressively. If they realized how many chips they were actually losing by playing that way, I don’t think they would do it,” JP suggests.
Hayden stretches his forearms out onto the table and hunches over to rest his chin on his arms. “Well, nobody wants to be seen as the clown with the dinkiest stack of chips.”
After a few more hands of reckless betting, Hayden’s collection of chips fades into nothingness. Conscious of Marcus’ earlier points, Hayden combats the urge to sneak a handful from Marcus’ nearby pile and reaches under the table for the chip set.
The lightbulb suddenly shuts down for about three seconds, imposing an awkward standstill of complete silence and darkness in the room before it revives itself.
“You won’t always get that lucky,” JP warns. “If you keep playing the way you do, you might not always get a chance to buy back in.”
Unconcerned, Hayden licks his lips and rubs the palms of his hands together before counting the additional chips he is buying. “It’s time for the king to win his money back.”
“There’s no such thing as winning money back,” Marcus assets in his deep, gruff voice. “The money you lost was in the past, and it’s gone forever now. Any money you make now is new money, a completely separate entity.”
Hayden fiddles with his glistening, incessantly ticking watch – a late birthday gift from his banker father. “If I make up for my screw ups, though, they don’t matter anymore, no?”
“I disagree, they do matter. For starters, instead of ‘making up’ for them, you could very well keep losing money. Even if you do regain the amount of money you lost, your losses are still there. There will always be a hole in your pocket compared to where you could’ve been.”
Hayden heaves out a sigh. “Well, that’s depressing. What am I supposed to do then? Just feel lousy about it?”
“Feeling bad about it isn’t the point. It’s about confronting the fact that whatever happened, happened.” Marcus looks at Derrick, remembering his failed flush draw, and adds, “Even when it’s not your fault.”
Marcus catches Hayden staring blankly into the floor.
“Listen, it goes the other way too,” he consoles. “All the good plays that you make can’t be undone, either. And while you can lose the money you make, you can’t lose the time you spent enjoying those earnings. Instead of focusing on the past plays, though, you should simply keep playing one hand at a time and use the lessons you learned to prevent mistakes.”
“I guess the only thing that’s permanent is the past,” Hayden mumbles.
“Roger that. And no matter how much you struggle, the only direction you can move in is forward,” Marcus comments, smiling sympathetically to confirm Hayden’s point.
Several hands later, Pete loses the rest of his chips as well. His opponents had squeezed a large sum of money out of him after he continued to frequently and generously call their bets.
“Well, that’s it for me, gang. I’ll hang around, but I played it how I wanted to play it, so I’m not going to buy back in,” Pete declares. He boasts a rich, euphonious voice and an enduringly fit body of tall stature, byproducts of his recent all-state choir and lifeguarding days in high school.
“Why not?” Hayden prods mischievously. “We’ll be here for a good while, you can still make your money back.”
Pete shakes his head. “I don’t really care about making the money back for myself. I actually get the most pleasure from seeing you all win, you know?”
“You serious?” Hayden grills. “If someone else wins money, sure, that’s good for them. You don’t get to feel or experience that yourself, though. There’s nothin’ wrong with trying to win for yourself, when that’s what feels the most real to you.”
“Don’t you think it’s the right thing to do to help someone build a good amount of chips for themselves? Especially if they’ve been playing well but got handed bad cards.”
“I think it’s a nice thing to do, Pete. I don’t think it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. Everybody at this table chose their own moves and got random cards just like I did. It’s not my responsibility to make up for either of those things going wrong.”
“Our sets of cards both might’ve been random,” Derrick interjects, “but yours were sure different than mine.”
“Yup,” Pete confirms. “It’s easy for you to say what you said, Hayden. I saw how many good hands you got and how many chips you blew through. You clearly have the money to buy yourself back in after your recklessness, and you won’t support someone who needs it more.”
“Again, it’s not my responsibility! For real, do I gotta pick up the slack for everybody who’s got a bad poker night?”
“I’m not saying you’re supposed to be the solution for everyone. I’m saying you’re supposed to play your part for the greater good of other people when the cost isn’t much to you.”
“Alright,” Hayden smiles snidely. “Do it yourself then. I’m sure you got some cash in your wallet, make somebody a handsome little donation.”
Frozen in his chair, Pete dodges the intrigued stares of the men at the table. He stuffs his hand into his pocket to silence his buzzing phone, most likely the weekly text message his younger brother sends to detail the progress of his therapy.
“Uhh…I mean, I really worked hard this week, I mean, most of my cash is tips from –”
Hayden lifts his hand to cut Pete off. “Listen, I’m not trying to say you’re purposely a hypocrite. But I’m sick of hearing people say that they play poker to help others win or because they like seeing others win.You might not be ticked off about your chips going to us, but every move you made was to build up your own stack.”
“You’re wrong,” Pete proclaims defiantly. He immediately begins to hesitate with his next words. “I didn’t want to tell you guys this, but throughout the game, I thought about who had fewer chips or faced bad luck, and I would sneak some of my chips into your stacks.”
“Hats off to you for doing a good thing,” Marcus compliments.
“Hold up there, pal,” Hayden demands. “Pete, even if you did that, you didn’t share the extra cash in your wallet. If your entire reason for playing poker is really about looking out for other players, you would’ve gone the full mile.”
Pete scratches his full head of hair and fidgets with his foot. “Fine. I’m not perfect. With that being said, my goal is more than just having a good time, racking up wins, and leaving. There must be something more, some sort of genuine fulfillment. And I honestly think there’s real pleasure in seeing someone with fewer chips build their way up, especially if you helped that happen.”
“That’s really cute,” Niall mocks, seemingly carefree about almost choking on his beer as he laughs.
Hayden challenges, “Listen to what you said, though. ‘There’s real pleasure.’ That’s the problem. It doesn’t matter if you try to get more chips for yourself or for somebody else. They both got the same selfish end goal of making yourself feel good.”
“You think I do it to make myself feel good?” Pete bellows before regaining his composure. “Sure, it’s a nice little perk, but it’s not the purpose. The fulfillment I get myself isn’t bigger than the value of the chips I sacrifice for others.”
“It has to be, even if you don’t realize it. The only thing that’s real and understandable to your game, big guy, is what you feel, not what anybody else feels. So be my guest – go ahead and help out the other guys, but it’s because it makes you feel good.”
Sidney shakes his head. “There is not a difference between your feelings and the feelings of somebody else. We are all part of the same interconnected poker game.”
“That’s right, you can’t stay narrow-minded like that, Hayden,” Pete validates. “Even if I do benefit from helping other players, I don’t think that matters. They still get the same results from the chips I’m slipping them.”
“Course it matters. It’s all about intention, not results. It doesn’t make you a good person if helping yourself is the goal, and whoopty-doo, helping others is conveniently the side effect.”
“It still would make you a good person.” Pete’s clear diction starts to stumble into an unconfident stutter. “You said that the things that matter are the ones that are real and tangible to us. Well, the chips that other players get from my help are real. The reasoning doesn’t affect anyone, so it doesn’t matter.”
Hayden leans back in his chair and starts to puff at his cigar. “You can keep telling yourself whatever you want to hear.”
Pete clenches his fists and his face begins to flush. “You know, you talk a lot of trash about my integrity for a guy whose only goal here is to make a ton of money.”
Setting the comment aside, Hayden bets a sizable chunk of chips. JP, who is the only other one still in the hand, matches the bet, falsely thinking it is a bluff.
As Hayden finishes scooping his winnings, he turns back to Pete. “Youse have all been reading me wrong this whole time. Poker is about having the most enjoyable experience you can. Making cash, enjoying the game, winning for the sake of winning – they’re all part of that. I’m sick and tired of being seen as the bad guy for playing that way, when all of youse listening are probably the same as me deep down.”
“Not any of the things that you said are going to bring you the happiness you think they will. You are leading yourself down a path with no reachable destination,” Sidney advises.
“Yeah,” Pete agrees. “Anyway, don’t you think it’s selfish to shoot for the best poker night for yourself if other people are losing out from it?”
“No, it’s 100% natural. The whole point of poker is to make the most for yourself. It doesn’t make any sense to try and change the fundamental roots of the game. That’s like pushing a boulder up a hill over and over again, when it’ll keep falling right back down.”
“That’s only because we as players decide to play that way. We don’t have to play in a self-maximizing way just because most people do.”
“Pete, there’s a reason why everybody plays for themselves. It’s –”
“Not everybody,” Pete interrupts.
Hayden continues his original thought. “It’s not because we purposely choose to or because we got some sorta pressure to follow everybody else. It’s because that’s the way poker is naturally made for us to play.”
Pete grumbles. “If that’s the case, then maybe there’s something seriously wrong with this game.”
The lightbulb begins to flicker at a steady rate every three seconds or so.
Hayden glares directly at it. “Guys, it’s doing that thing again.”
In his head, he begins to time each persisting flash. Every three seconds…no, is it every two seconds now? His heart begins to wrestle its way out of his chest at the realization.
“Guys,” he repeats to no avail. “Guys! Jesus Christ, is anybody freakin’ listening to me?” he screams, slamming both of his hands against the table and rattling the nearby chips and cards.
Every single head at the table turns to Hayden in complete unison, and they then follow his gaze upwards as Hayden’s anger molds into fear.
“This is nothing new,” Marcus contends after a few seconds of scratching his beard. “I’ve always said it’s a frail light. That should be obvious to anyone.”
“You don’t get it, Marcus,” Hayden snaps. “It’s happening soon.”
All the men dishearteningly return their fixation on the lightbulb as the loud silence of the room creeps upon them.
Suddenly, JP shoots out of his seat. “He’s right.” He reaches out to the bulb and starts rattling it, tapping it, mindlessly trying to stimulate it any way he can. “Oh, dear. We might’ve thought we were prepared because we recognized that this would eventually happen, but now that it’s really coming…oh, dear.”
Hayden looks down at his pathetic stack of chips. “No, this can’t be happening. I’m going out to get us another lightbulb, boys.”
He begins to dismantle the barricade of furniture by the shop’s exit, before an abrupt thrust of wind unhinges the door and hurls Hayden backwards.
“Are you crazy? The heat’s making my face feel on fire, shut it back up!” JP shrieks.
“Then look for a bulb in here, dammit!” Hayden shouts back, somewhat reassembling the shop’s protective barrier to hold up the door.
Pete and JP hurry to opposite ends of the room. Surprisingly, their search is accompanied by Derrick, who shakes his head profusely, and Niall, who trudges around sluggishly to begrudgingly help.
They look through the break room’s file cabinets – nothing. Inside a few cupboards and shelves – nothing. Under tables and chairs, in the adjacent pantry, even inside their own pockets – absolutely nothing.
“There has to be one somewhere,” JP pants. “I just, I just don’t know where it is. But there has to be one somewhere.” A few beads of sweat begin to race one another down his face.
“Call the owner of the shop! He’s the only one that can come fix the light!” Pete cries, an evident crack in his ordinarily dulcet voice.
“He won’t pick up anyone’s call, Pete,” Niall replies blankly, now retreating to his seat.
“There is no owner of the shop,” Niall declares slowly and adamantly. “He doesn’t exist. You guys never believed he did. Why can’t you come to terms with that now?”
Overcome with anxiety and fatigue, Pete slumps back against the wall. Derrick, Hayden, and JP continue to search the room, albeit with drained levels of enthusiasm.
“Friends,” Pete says optimistically. “I know that none of us, including me, really believed in him before, and I know that we can’t contact him. Yet maybe he simply has to exist. There’s no way that the game can just end like this.”
“Sure it can.” Despite the occasional fidget, Marcus is still the most composed of any of the men, having stayed put in his seat alongside Sidney the entire time. “You’re saying this because you’re now facing how uncomfortable the situation is. Don’t lose your rationality, believing in the owner is only a vain attempt to comfort yourself.”
“No, I’m trying to see it from the other perspective. Anyway, how does it make sense for our shop to not have an owner? We’re in this building that was made purely for us, we have all the tools we need right at our fingertips, and we have a ton of mind-blowing machinery around us that was made somehow – you guys are saying everything got here without any reason? We’re not working for anybody or for any purpose?”
“We all realize it doesn’t ‘make perfect sense,’ but the cold hard truth is that none of this does,” Niall retorts. “That’s the whole point.”
“Well, even if we haven’t gotten in touch with the owner, nobody can tell us for sure that he doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s equally crazy to say that we know he doesn’t exist as it is to say that we know he does.”
“Then why hasn’t he helped us?” Derrick snarls, stomping his way back to his chair. “This piece of garbage lightbulb has been dim ever since we started playing, and soon it’s going to stop working completely.”
“It’s a tough question to answer,” Pete admits. “You know, poker is a game about smart and righteous decision-making. Maybe it’s supposed to be hard, especially under dim light, so that people can truly earn the rewards they get if they play well.”
Derrick sighs. “This game doesn’t gotta be difficult, though. Look how cruel these conditions are, man. How can the owner seriously claim that this is the best way for us to play?”
“If it wasn’t difficult, it wouldn’t be worthwhile. A poker game where you’re winning every hand in a beautiful, shining room wouldn’t mean anything to you.”
Derrick looks at his chips and scoffs, unable to see how losing most of his buy-in would be any better than winning every pot.
“I think that an enriching game, it must have a balance of everything, both good and bad,” Sidney suggests.
“The bad doesn’t happen for any greater good or purpose,” Niall contests. “Why do people think everything has to have a reason or a meaning? Some things just are.”
Hayden gulps yet another swig of beer. “We also can’t forget that this ‘super kind’ owner sets us up to play something that’s naturally selfish.”
Pete scratches his head. “Maybe those selfish choices are a necessary part of our power to choose what we do each hand. Isn’t our full freedom of decision-making the most wonderful thing about poker?”
Derrick groans in fiery disagreement.
“Yeah, it’s great that we can make our own choices,” JP responds. “But I worry that if we believed in the owner, we’d avoid taking responsibility for ourselves, because we’d simply count on him to fix the light and the game.”
Pete starts to feel the heat from the group debating against him. “Guys, like I said, I personally don’t believe there’s an owner to this shop. That doesn’t mean we have to be closed-minded about it. This whole time, I’m not telling you all what to think – I’m just trying to get you to think for yourselves.”
With that, the men realize that even if the owner is out there somewhere, he will not come to save the light. Nor will they find another bulb on their own. In defeat, Pete, Hayden, and JP quietly march back to the table. Too prideful to admit it, the men all tremble in their seats, having never felt so pathetically small in a room so large.
The light will go out. There will be no more poker game. There will be no more joyous celebrations, no more heartbreaking losses, no more laughs, no more outbursts. There will be nothing left ahead, and soon nothing left behind. There will only be dark, inescapable, eternal nothingness.
At this very moment, the lightbulb begins to beam, almost blindingly bright. It’s still flickering, with unwavering certainty about its eventual end, and now shining more vibrantly than it ever had before.
The colors of the room start to come to life. The faces around the table now feel more human, and the game in front of them feels more like a real experience than an unconscious passing of the time. The room is comfortably warm and peaceful.
“Man, it’s funny,” Derrick chuckles. “I always thought the walls to this room were black. Well, now I see they’re simply…gray. It’s kinda nice.”
The others join him in light, communal laughter.
“Do you guys get what I’ve been saying now?” Marcus asks with a gentle smile. “Everything throughout the game that made you sad or worried – the bad cards, losing a lot of chips, a smart bet not working out – suddenly, it’s not so bad anymore.”
Hayden stares down at the table contemplatively. “This whole time, I was sure that there was some level of winnings that would finally make me happy, that would finally make everything feel complete. Well, there’s no such thing.”
Everyone goes quiet for a few moments, with moist, reflective eyes unabashedly exposed.
“I know nobody wants this to happen,” Marcus finally says with a sigh. “But it’s really the best way it can be. The only reason our poker game means anything is because we keep in mind that it’ll end at any random time.”
“But this…this doesn’t emotionally hurt you, Marcus?” Hayden inquires.
“I think it hurts us all,” he responds. “It’s not the game ending that’s necessarily beautiful. It’s the fact that the game will end.”
Pete struggles to force a smile. “Don’t you care about leaving a legacy, though? Being remembered for your influence on the game?”
Marcus shrugs, once more showing the strength of his shoulders. “When this ends, it’s over and out for me. I’m not going to uselessly try and make a finite game into an infinite one. That defies the whole point of accepting it for what it is.”
Sidney notices Pete’s discomfort and pats him on the back. “Your poker experience will end, but other people will continue to play, even when they have forgotten about you. The poker will always continue – which is a wonderful thing.”
“Does it even matter if our game ends then?” Niall probes. “I mean, this one game of ours is really no different than the boat load of other ones that people have played and will continue to play.”
“You’re not wrong, Niall.” Marcus puffs at his cigar deeply, taking in each speck of tobacco one at a time. “This is just the way it is. The end will catch you, so you might as well stop running away and confront it face to face. Once you do that, you will truly experience the beauty of this game.”
Together, the men had come to a beautiful insight – if only they could have done so before so much time had escaped them.
“Wow, fellas. This game really is short,” JP ruminates with a sigh.
“Is it?” Marcus disputes. “Or do we just waste most of the game by not actually focusing on it? I don’t think we’d treat it any differently if it was half as long or twice as long.”
“You could be right. Either way, I think we should take this chance to reflect on how we played.”
Niall shakes his head. “There’s no point. Soon it’ll all be said and done. Plus, how would we even know if we played well? Any way we evaluate good and bad is completely unfounded.”
“There’s no way in hell we’re doing this. I mean…” Hayden’s mouth hangs open for a few seconds. “What if we don’t like what we find?”
“We can’t be scared about looking back at our game because some plays didn’t go to plan,” JP says. “Part of the experience is being able to truthfully see things for what they are. Otherwise, how can you get any peace?”
“Right, we need to review our game to get that peace,” Pete affirms. “I want to be able to recognize that I did the right things, that this was all worthwhile.”
Hayden starts to tremble and breathe heavier. “No! We’re not doing this!” He wipes away a tear instantly after it shoots out of his eye. “Don’t you see that we only got one poker game? There’s only one game, one chance to do everything to experience this to the very max. And by the time you realize what you did wrong or didn’t do at all, it’s too late.”
“Hayden, I know you’re upset –” Marcus attempts to console.
“I don’t want to hear it. Is this stack all I got to show for myself? I’ll do better this time, just please, please let me go back a few turns!”
“Come on, trooper, we talked about this. You know we can’t do that.”
Hayden rummages through his assortment of beer bottles and chugs the only one still half-full. He then succumbs to a mournful sob, the flood of long held-back tears stinging his pale, aged face.
The men offer Hayden a few pats on the back. Sometimes it is hard to tell if a viewpoint is lacking much needed perspective, or if it is merely being seen through the painful lens of reality.
Sidney radiates a warm smile. “I think the peace comes from knowing that it is OK to not have done all the right things.”
Marcus agrees. “Yeah. You have to accept the way the game went. Everything you learn about yourself, the other players, and the cards is learned from mistakes. You can’t expect to have all the answers from the start.”
“Marcus, doesn’t it trouble you that your screw ups hold you back from your one chance at what could’ve been?” Hayden counters.
“Not when you realize that simply getting to play is an opportunity none of us are entitled to.”
Hayden’s weeping starts to simmer down.
“Honestly, there’s no way you can do some sorta ‘final review’ that gives you some ultimate peace with the game,” Derrick objects. “You usually either leave the table suddenly, or you get so drunk that your brain can’t think straight by the end. If it’s neither of those, you’re still probably judging the game more by the latest plays, not by the whole picture.”
“Yeah, the ending is overrated,” Niall replies. “I don’t know why people who think they can judge a poker game almost exclusively look at the end, when all the other parts are equally real.”
“The both of you are right. This is why you cannot wait for the peace to fully come together at the end,” Sidney supplements. “You must maintain it on a moment-by-moment basis.”
“Then regardless of how much time we have left,” JP prods, “let’s each reflect as we keep playing one hand at a time. No pity, no judgment. Only listening.”
The men vocalize their agreement and deal another hand.
“I will do this first,” Sidney announces, taking a deep, shaky breath. “To this moment, I feel like the right strategy was held by me to stay content and in control rather than get carried away with desire to pursue chips. It just worries me, perhaps folding each hand might have made the experience less meaningful. Then again, unlike you all, I believe there are infinitely more games ahead of me, so that gives me some comforting.”
The attentive men nod with compassion.
“I’ll get mine over with,” Hayden mumbles, beginning to slur his words. “I’m not a dummy, I knew I wasn’t going to play forever. So I thought, I thought I gotta make myself feel the best I could by having the most fun, and, and getting the most chips. But…I-I don’t know. Maybe there’s somethin’ more to this than chasing good old pleasure.”
Choosing to go next, Derrick laughs uncomfortably. “Man, I wish I didn’t see poker as a game outside of our control. The thing is, I can’t just decide to change what I truly believe in.” He goes quiet for a few seconds. “With that being said, I do wish I more gracefully gave up control to the game and appreciated more of the good stuff that happened.”
“Hmm. Derrick, it could be that the truth is somewhere between our views,” JP ponders. “I might’ve given myself too much credit for my wins and been a little ignorant of how much was out of my hands. At the same time, I’m glad I took responsibility for my moves and played with a strategy I decided for myself.”
The other players smile at the positivity of JP’s self-reflection.
Marcus clears his scratchy throat. “For me, I always found it most important to play poker in a fair, righteous way. I think I followed that well. I also think I played wisely and did a good job fully accepting whatever happened outside of my control. I’ll admit, maybe I was too idealistic. I thought that whatever happened with the cards wasn’t inherently good or bad and simply came down to interpretation.”
Pete smiles. “I guess I’ll give my two cents, too. Honestly, sometimes I ask myself if I helped other players for their good or for my own. At the end of the day, though, I genuinely made a difference, and that gives me more fulfillment than anything else possibly could. The unfortunate part is that I lost every single one of my chips. I might have tried so hard to save everyone else, that I didn’t end up saving myself.”
As Pete concludes, the wind commences an utter onslaught against the building. Fragments of the barricade begin to topple, while the heat crawls its way through gaps in the unhinged door that feebly separates the break room from the beyond. The wall clock, unbothered, continues to tick.
Amid the now spastic flashes of light, JP speaks up. “Alright, you’re up, Niall. Before you go, though…” He begins to pant desperately. “I mean, I think this might be it.”
“It’s OK,” Marcus whispers, patting JP on the back. He manages a half-smile. “This is what happens. Just let go.”
JP nods delicately. “Alright. Go ahead, Niall, and then we’re…well, finished.”
Niall stares into the abyss of his emptied beer bottle. “I want to say that none of this matters,” he croaks, lifting his head slightly to peek at his partners. “And yet, this is all I have ever known to matter.”
About the Author:
Toni Livakovic currently resides in New York City, where he works in the field of business. He is a graduate of Rutgers University – New Brunswick in his home state of New Jersey. Outside of writing, his passions include sports, playing guitar, traveling, and spending time with others.
“Cards and Humanity” is Toni’s debut work and first appeared in the magazine Bewildering Stories.