Poker Face, by David Waghalter
She was the most unreadable player I had ever faced across a table. Whether clutching a winning hand or merely bluffing, her demeanor never changed. This is not to say that she was the stony, expressionless type – far from it. Her face was almost always stretched into an open-mouthed smile, telegraphing her glee and unbridled joie de vivre, but also allowing drool to leak out onto the table, her cards, her chips. Her constant babbling and chirping was distracting to some, strangely comforting to others. I never knew her name, but the falsetto voices emanating from the dim, smoky expanse beyond the game addressed her as “Good Girl,” “Hunny Bunny Wunny Munny,” and “Widdle Shnoo-Shnoo.” Me, I just called her “The Baby.”
But really she was more of a toddler. Based on my keen observance of the human condition, I’d put her anywhere between 18 and 22 months. Yet it seemed she’d been around forever. She could walk, haltingly, but mostly when I saw her she was at the table, strapped into her Safety 1st Grow-With-Me portable Booster Seat. She always used that seat, no matter how caked with strained peaches it became and no matter how bloated with gambling spoils her custodial savings account grew. Maybe she considered it good luck – you know how superstitious babies can be.
I won’t lie: sometimes her soiled diapers could make even the most grizzled, world-weary Texas-Hold-Em jockeys gag. But she never interrupted a hand so she could be changed – not just because she didn’t trust the rest of us with her cards on the table, but because she respected the game. And the game, the game respected her.
Even though she was a child, she could take care of herself. Well, not in terms of shoes, clothing, nourishment, shelter, transportation, or disposing of her own excrement. But when it came to the cards, she was a one-baby wrecking machine.
It’s said that Billy “One-Eyed Jack” Johnson once tried to sneak an ace out of his sleeve in the back room at Sully’s, and The Baby smashed the butt of her bottle on the edge of the table, threatening to use the jagged remains to see where else ol’ Billy was “hiding things.” It is also said that the bottle was plastic and broke accidentally, and that Billy fled because he’s an environmental illness hypochondriac who feared the polyethylene molecules released into his immediate airspace.
Naturally, The Baby didn’t win every time. How could she? But even so, she was very advanced for her age. Were her skills innate, grown in
the womb along with her sweet little nosey-nose and her fat little please-lemme-squeeze-em thighs? Or had she learned from the masters, shuttling between Vegas, Atlantic City, and the infamous five-and-under poker rings of Bangkok? In the end it made no difference – all that mattered was the sweat on your brow and the look in your eye when she called your bluff and pulled your chips into an ever-growing pile beside her rubber containers packed with Cheerios and diced carrots.
Oh, she took her naps. She took her naps and you kept on playing but you longed for her return. Even when she was bleeding you dry, you appreciated her presence. She made everyone around her a little better. That’s how you know true greatness in a player.
I never did find out what happened to her. When poker took off in the popular imagination, I always expected to see her on ESPN or Fox Sports Net in one tournament or another – or possibly in the Bravo Channel Pro-Am paired with Kathy Najimy or known baby-lover Don Cheadle. But The Baby disappeared. Some say the game began to bore her; some say she succumbed to the siren songs of Teletubbies and government-assisted day care. But me? I say she just grew out of it.
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