By Jennifer Goodwin
You may think you’re a good bluff, but how do you know someone else isn’t pulling the same wool over your own eyes? From the pocket cards to the showdown, all’s fair in love and poker.
I don’t know how to go about becoming the other woman. The mistress. The home wrecker. I honestly wouldn’t know where to start or where to even go once I had the start figured out. I’m just not that kind of girl.
So when I tell you that I’ve found myself in the position of the other woman on more than one occasion, don’t think I know anything about the process of getting there. Don’t for a second assume that I could even begin to explain what goes into the job. I couldn’t. The rules, the games, the flirtations, the code of conduct — I can’t, and don’t, understand the lot of it. What I do know is how to play poker.
It starts with a 52-card deck and enough chips to go around. The dealer deals, first one card to every one at the table, then a second, face down. These are your pocket cards. They are your own, and they’re the only advantage you’ve got, the only things separating you from the other players. Well, them and how good you are at keeping a straight face.
“Now we bet.” He said it to every one, but he was looking at me. He’d been looking at me pretty much all night, but I was doing my damndest not to think anything of it. James had been a little weird ever since I’d first met him, about a month before, and he was especially weird where I was concerned.
His stare continued. I let it slide, though I secretly reveled in the attention. I blushed all over the inside of my cheeks; God knows I’d had a crush on James since we’d first spoken, but I was not about to let anyone catch on to the fact.
My poker face should be legendary. A good poker face is key in this game.
“Betting always starts to the left of the dealer,” he continued. James turned his head and looked at his fiancÃ©e, Adrianne. Her face contorted in momentary thoughtfulness; then she put two blue chips into the center pot. I did the same. And then the fourth player, the reason all of us were there to begin with, Rachel, completed the round by tossing her own chips haphazardly at the middle of the coffee table we all circled. I’d officially begun my first game of Texas Hold ‘Em.
My foray into both poker and adultery started the summer after my twentieth birthday. I was staying with my family back in my hometown for those three months and was bored out of my mind. Luckily, there was Rachel. She was my best friend and a handful all by herself. We managed to keep each other entertained most days and nights with idle chatter, obsessive coffee drinking, and pissing contests in the form of drawn out billiards games at the local pool halls. That summer she’d moved into a new apartment with a soon-to-be-married couple. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the root of all my trouble.
Sometimes I look back on it and blame my boredom for the events that unfolded there. Sometimes I blame Rachel. Sometimes, James. Often, myself. But this is the game, and these are the cards you’re dealt. These are your pocket cards. They’re your own and they’re the only advantage you’ve got. Them and how good you are at keeping a straight face.
My face was straighter than the proverbial arrow when I was first introduced to James. He was athletic and tan, with a cocky smile and a library of all the books I’d either read or wanted to read in my lifetime. He cracked a joke and gave me a grin, and that was it. I was hooked.
“And this is Adrianne. His fiancÃ©e.” I didn’t even blink when Rachel said it. That’s how good I am.
Sometimes it’s not good (but hold out hope — there are more cards to come); sometimes it’s exactly what you wanted. Always, it takes you by surprise.
Next comes “the flop.” The dealer turns over three cards in the middle of the table. These are community cards. Any player at the table can use them to create the best hand possible with their own two cards. Regular poker hand ranks apply (a flush beats a straight, a straight beats a three of a kind, and so on). The flop gets the game started. Once those cards are on the table, you finally have something of a sense of where you are. Sometimes it’s not good (but hold out hope — there are more cards to come); sometimes it’s exactly what you wanted. Always, it takes you by surprise.
I was taken by surprise the first time James told me I was beautiful. We’d been friends for six weeks, but only once had we been left alone together, and that once had been an awkward walk back to his apartment during which we had both started overtly flirting, and then abruptly stopped when we realized the other wasn’t objecting. It had taken a while to recover from that realization.
In the meanwhile, I began staying for days and nights on end at that apartment with them. It was better than sleeping on my mom’s couch, and more often than not Rachel and I would fall asleep together on her bed after long days of hiking or rock climbing anyway. I became the fourth roommate, but no one seemed to mind. Rachel loved it; it cured her own boredom. James loved it (and I didn’t really think much of that fact at the time). Adrianne didn’t say one way or the other.
Adrianne and I had an odd relationship right off the bat. Yes, I had a small crush on the man she was engaged to — and he seemed to have a small crush on me — but neither fact was very obvious to begin with, really. She resented me, I think, because I was Rachel’s best friend and she wasn’t, and because, apparently, James thought I was smarter than she was. Whenever she and James would argue, she’d ask right in front of me why he enjoyed talking to me so much more than her, and he’d yell back something at once cruel and flattering about my intelligence surpassing hers. I never knew what to say during those moments.
The night of “the flop,” we were playing Texas Hold ‘Em in the living room, as usual. The game had become a Saturday night ritual. I was still trying to remember all of the basics, but I was also winning nine hands out of ten. Adrianne was frustrated with me to no end for my “beginner’s luck.” Rachel thought I was some sort of God. James still couldn’t take his eyes off mine when he dealt.
“Hold on. I’ll get you a chair.” Rachel was setting up the chips, and I was perfectly happy on the floor, but James wouldn’t have it. He raced into the kitchen and returned with a squeaky piece of lawn furniture which he then told me he would take so I could have his chair. He could never seem to make up his mind about how to treat me. Half the time he was giving me his seat, the other half he was asking me, tone harsh, why the hell I slept over at his place so often and if I’d be helping them out with that month’s water bill.
I won the pot again that night. The game dissolved then into drunken antics. James’ friend Brian came over, and Adrianne’s younger sister stopped by as well. Several of them hit the bars while Rachel and I took in a rented movie. But the only important thing about that night was the end. Brian went back to his place. Adrianne and her sister crashed in her and James’s bed. Rachel fell asleep straight off, having to work the next day. All was quiet when I went downstairs to get a glass of water, and found James making a bed for himself on the living room floor.
I have a habit of betting high, you see, even when the cards are against me.
“Stay awhile and talk to me,” he said, and we were friends, so I did.
It was only the second time we’d ever been alone together. We stayed up talking for hours. And then he whispered in the dark that he was finding it hard not to kiss me. I was shocked. The initial flop can do that to you. Often you don’t see it coming. The cards are either in your favor or not. You either bet high, bet low, or fold accordingly.
He told me he thought I was beautiful, and that he hated himself for thinking these things. He said he hated seeing me and Adrianne in the same room together, because it made him feel guilty and…he just did. And he wanted things to be different, and he wanted…God, he wanted to kiss me so badly.
I stared at him for a long time. I memorized his face that night, in that moment. Finally I said, “I wish things were different too.” It was exactly the confirmation he needed. He kissed me then, and didn’t stop.
I have a habit of betting high, you see, even when the cards are against me. It’s not all that hard to do. It doesn’t require any forethought or strategy. You just go with it, and you don’t think about the possible outcomes. It’s not exactly the smartest way to play, but it can yield some staggering results.
When the sun rose, we sat on the rug and said that it was good that this had happened. “We’ve gotten it over with,” he said, not looking at me, which I didn’t like, but then he looked at me, and I wasn’t sure suddenly if I liked that any better. “If we’d let the sexual tension keep building up like that without addressing it…who knows where it would have led.”
The bluff is harder than it sounds. How do you know someone’s not trying to pull the same wool over your own eyes?
I could only nod my head. His fiancÃ©e and her little sister were asleep directly above us.
“Now it’s over. We won’t have to worry about it. We’ve gotten it out of our systems.” I think he really had himself convinced.
Once everyone has placed their bets a second time, the fourth community card is put down, called “the turn.” Now you’ve got slightly more options. What’s the best hand you can make with your own two cards and the four now on the table? Is it worth staying in? Or, if it’s not, can you bluff your way into a win?
The bluff is harder than it sounds. It’s not just your acting skills, it’s also your conviction and how well you can read the people around you. Do you know who’s trying to pull the same wool over your own eyes?
A week went by, and I decided to sleep on my mom’s couch through all of it. Just in case. I finally broke and told Rachel what had happened the Friday night at the end of that week. Eventually she calmed down enough to forgive me and half-forgive James and promise not to open her mouth about it ever again, except to tease me about it, which she did, mercilessly. The next night — Saturday night — we all sat down to another game of poker.
I didn’t so much lie to anyone as I withheld information. That’s really what the bluff is all about. Adrianne didn’t ask if anything had happened between me and her fiancÃ©e, and so I didn’t tell. James and I tried to act like everything was right and normal. Honestly, it was a good thing Adrianne had never been any good at picking out a bluff. Rachel, however, stared us down throughout. The game didn’t go very well.
Afterwards, Adrianne went off to bed and so did Rachel, though she stayed awake until, literally, she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer, not wanting to leave me and James alone together. That was a good instinct of hers. Too bad it didn’t work out.
I don’t know how we kept the affair up, or secret. I can’t count cards. And if I could, I probably wouldn’t. The mystery of what card is going to come next is half the fun of the game.
Mostly, I just didn’t say anything. During the time I had alone with James, we distracted ourselves with our mutual fantasy of what things would be like if reality were ever so slightly different. We didn’t bother justifying it to ourselves. On TV, characters are always doing that, finding ways to convince themselves that what they’re doing is acceptable. We had no illusions about how wrong we both were. But in the moment it was hard to think logically about it, and also easy to say — usually even out loud — that this was the last time, and that what we were doing wasn’t about “her” or “them” but just about that moment.
“The river” is the fifth, and last, community card. This is it. This is all you’re going to get. All you’ve got now is whatever hand you can make with any combination of these five cards and your two pocket cards. Folding now is only wise depending on how much you’ve already bet.
The way James liked to play — and the way I liked to play — was to wait until the last possible moment and then, no matter what his hand, go all in. James lived for going all in. Especially when I was his opponent. The river would come and Adrianne would already have folded long ago. James would stare right at me and not even bother to look at his cards. “All in,” he’d say.
Rachel would sigh. “Fold,” she’d mumble, and throw down her cards.
I’d look down at my own cards and hope to God James was just bluffing, because all I had was a lousy two pair. But I hated backing down from a challenge, especially when he was the one issuing it. “All in,” I’d tell him.
There’s no going back now. You either win or lose. The pot either belongs to you or to your opponent. There’s no compromise in Texas Hold ‘Em. And there’s no halfway when dealing with a nearly married man.
Adrianne left to visit her parents for two whole weeks around that time. She worried over James being lonely, but he assured her that he’d be fine. I bit my tongue at his words.
We spent nearly every night and most days together over those two weeks. Rachel rarely let us out of her sight when she had the means, but luckily (or unluckily), she was then preoccupied with having just come out of the closet, and with her new girlfriend, Anna, to whom she would lose her virginity in Anna’s dorm room one night while another friend and I waited outside in the car. So James and I pretended that the fantasy was true, that we could be more than just the friends that we told every one we were. We pretended that Adrianne and his obligation to her didn’t exist, even though it was an obligation that had developed over the past four years, during which they’d traveled the world, saved each other’s lives and made a thousand different promises neither knew how to keep.
I don’t know why, but for some reason I started to choke up halfway through the act.
It all came to a head, at last, the night before Adrianne was to return, which happened to be Rachel’s 21st birthday. A large group of us went out to celebrate, and then those who were of age took Rachel out to all the bars and nearly got her killed from alcohol poisoning. I met them back at the apartment, where we cleaned Rachel up, put her to bed, made sure every one else was either sober or accounted for, and then fell together almost out of habit. James invited me to stay the night and I didn’t say “yes,” but I didn’t say “no” either.
Sitting up in the bed that James shared with his fiancÃ©e, he read to me from Aldous Huxley. And then kissed me. And then turned off all the lights.
I don’t know why, but for some reason I started to choke up halfway through the act. I don’t know what was so different about that night. Maybe it was because we were, for the first time, in the bed he shared with her. But it all finally hit me then, for whatever reason. Sometimes the brilliant hand doesn’t come to you until the last possible second. Sometimes you don’t realize you should have folded long ago until the final round.
I pushed him away and lay there, breathing hard.
“What are you thinking?” He asked me. It was a stupid question to ask.
“I’m thinking…‘what the hell are you thinking?’” I spat out the words. He sat up. I think it all hit him then, too.
We talked and argued until the sun came up. Neither of us knew how to end things or when, only that we had to and this night was looking more and more like the most likely candidate for that unwanted, but inevitable, event. And then he cried a little, because he said he didn’t want to lose her, but that he needed to tell her. And then I cried, because James is the type to go all in or not at all, and he wasn’t going to go all in for me.
As soon as I figured this out, I left the apartment. I couldn’t face him or that place or myself. I stole my sister’s car (an act made more daring by the fact that I didn’t, technically, have a driver’s license) and drove around the city aimlessly until the clock hit an hour when people would be awake and I could feel normal again.
The cards were all in plain view now, and it was obvious who had the better hand.
Adrianne came home the next day. I didn’t see or speak to her or James. I couldn’t. Two days later, Rachel and I left for Europe, both of us hoping to escape our various demons. It didn’t work, of course. Her sexuality and the conflicts it brought up for her as a Catholic, and my sexuality and how easily I let it screw things up in general, stayed with us even across an ocean.
The “showdown” is exactly what it sounds like. Every one remaining in the game reveals their cards, in order of who bet first. Whoever has managed to create the best hand and hasn’t folded wins the pot.
Rachel and I returned from Europe just three days before I had to go back to school. Adrianne had left a message on Rachel’s cell phone reporting in clipped tones that they’d been evicted while we were gone. “Come pick up your stuff as soon as you get back.”
I could only guess that James had told her. I later learned that, yes, in fact, he had confessed. Most of it. The engagement was still on, though he’d had to sleep on the couch for a good long while. The cards were all in plain view now, and it was obvious who had the better hand. If you’re lost on this point, I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t me. I went back to LA.
In Texas Hold ‘Em, it isn’t so much about who has the flush or the straight; it’s about how they played up until the showdown. It’s about how much they bet, and when, and if they knew how to keep a straight face through every turn. For me, it’s also about taking huge risks, going all in, putting everything on the smallest chance that the next card is going to be exactly what you need.
Please learn from my mistakes. One of us should. I still don’t know how exactly one gets from point A to point “adultery.” It’s not about getting duped. It’s not about confusing what’s right with what’s wrong, because both words and both definitions are clear and pronounced in your brain throughout the entire ordeal. It’s not even about believing you’re going to get the guy in the end, that he’s going to choose you over the woman he’s made the promise to. I may have hoped for it — I may have wanted it — but I always knew better.
I suppose, more than anything else, it has to do with just learning how to play the game the hard way. There’s no practice round in Texas Hold ‘Em. Either you’re in or you’re out, and bring your checkbook. Bet big, risk it all on the flop, on the river, on the next card. And keep a straight face no matter what.
About the Author:
Jennifer Goodwin is a senior in the Filmic Writing program in the USC School of Cinema-Television. She hails from Flagstaff, Arizona, where she spends her time writing, rock climbing and watching too much TV. She hopes her mother isn’t reading this.