Chapter 1-3

Chapter 1

 

Your weakest spot, it's where I come in

 

The treacherous hole is waiting for me

 

 

Pride and Fall - Blood

 

 

Expecting a baby is like running toward a brick wall at breakneck speed. You hear a wet thud, maybe a crunch, and from that point your current course and speed come to an abrupt halt. A new phase in life dawns and it’s impossible to foresee how the collision with the wall affected you. Some get up straight away and carry on as if nothing had happened. Others are shaken and bruised. They shake themselves off and stumble away in a completely different direction. Some never get up. The brick wall that was rushing towards him was inviting, and he tried to speed up in anticipation in whatever way he could so the crash would happen as soon as possible.

 

 

Something that morning was different. When he came down to the kitchen, he saw directly how mum’s body was lighter. She was whipping up something in a bowl and appeared to be dancing to music that only she heard.

 

“Good morning,” Peter said, pulled out the chair at the table and sat down. Her good mood was contagious and before too long he was also sitting, clapping his hands on his legs and bobbing his head.

 

“Good morning, sweetie. I’m making pancakes. Would you like some?”

 

Peter nodded enthusiastically.

 

She dug around in a cupboard, took out a frying pan, knocking everything on its way in the process, and put it on the stove. The aroma of frying butter soon wafted out in the kitchen.

 

“You know what,” she exclaimed and knelt down in front of him. Her eyes glimmered. “You’re going to be a big brother.”

 

 

 

The limousine slid silently into the parking lot and drew up in front of him. The driver, a long man dressed in a black suit, stepped out and asked for his ticket. Peter showed it to him and the driver glanced at it before gesturing to Peter to climb in. When the car swung out from the parking, it drove so smoothly that he hardly noticed. It was only apparent the limousine was in motion when it swung and the champagne bottle, that was placed in a holder filled with ice, rattled sideways. Alongside it there were four tall champagne flutes in perfectly constructed holders. This was superstar treatment. There was room for eight people in the back seat, at least. He carefully lifted the bottle and considered taking a glass. No, stay disciplined. That was crucial right now.

 

Peter leant back in the seat in total comfort. It was so luxurious he had goose bumps. The seat he was sitting in was as wide as his couch at home and the dark leather smelt new and fresh. A black screen in which he could see his own reflection separated him from the driver. At 9.10 am, they had left the station and now he was really on his way. It was surreal.

 

There was so much technique in the car that he hardly knew where to start. There was Wi-fi, a fridge, a nine-inch plasma TV with films and news channels. Between the seats there was a copper-coloured telephone to the driver. He also found a panel for back massage, which he turned on straight away. It wasn’t long before he became restless, he just wanted to get to the casino.

 

The seat creaked beneath him as he eased himself sideways to peer out of the tinted windows. They were driving in a tunnel and Peter could see his own reflection in the glass. His short, brown hair was brushed slightly to the side and sideburns framed the angular face. His grey eyes were focused, alert. In the reflection from the glass, his distinct nose and tight lips looked as though they were a part of his grey-black sweater with a zip at its collar. The car drove out from the tunnel and the image disappeared. Four grey office blocks passed by outside as the limousine glided through the concrete landscape. He could see graffiti on the smooth grey walls.

 

Michael27 was here!

 

Peter wondered if Michael27 had taken part in the tournament. Or maybe he’d been a demonstrator. He wondered if he’d get to see any of the activities that took place outside the casino every year, but decided not to think about that.

 

The limousine swung off to the left onto a street with fewer buildings. They were leaving Stockholm behind them. He needed to keep track of so much in his head during the intensive period that laid ahead of him. His mind started to play through the almost infinite number of factors that could affect a poker hand. He shook his head to avoid those thoughts. They weren’t needed right now. Outside, he could see even more graffiti on the concrete walls.

 

Stop the tournament. Save …

 

The rest of the words were missing, but he could guess what had once stood there. There was an uneven hole in the concrete where the words had once been. Demonstrators. He couldn’t understand how they reasoned, people attended of their own free will. Suddenly, a sweat broke out over the bridge of his nose and he found it difficult to breathe. He closed his eyes and counted quickly to ten.

 

Don’t panic.

 

Focus on the tournament.

 

Keep calm, whatever happens.

 

He took a couple of deep breaths and looked out of the window until he was once again calm and collected. He wiped the sweat from his brow, scolding himself. That was one of his tells, one of those signals he sent out more or less unwittingly that an alert opponent could interpret. Things like that could let him down at the poker table. If he allowed himself to be provoked, his sweaty nose would betray him in the end. Once he let such thoughts into his head, his judgement would become clouded and he could make bad and rash decisions. This was the best opportunity he would ever have and the tournament was the ultimate experience. It was even listed in many magazines as the highlight of the year. In his mind, he went through his bags that lay in the boot. Yes, he’d packed powder for his nose.

 

There were many stories of players over the years that had been ice cold for most of the competition. But then they’d made some small mistake. The favourite, Vladimir Pazjitnov was one example. The Russian had lost three quarters of his chips when he missed a bluff two years ago. Vladimir had scratched his eyebrow one time too many, and a chinaman by the name of Wu Lao had easily been able to read him. Vladimir was knocked out of the competition three hands later.

 

Luck had a lot to do with it also, of course. Nobody could know which cards would be dealt, but betting blindly and relying on luck is never successful in the long run. Peter had done his homework and trained poker for many years, on the internet and with friends. He’d won several tournaments at home in the south-east of Sweden and had studied pot odds and statistics. He knew by heart how many chips he should bet in whatever situation, taking into account how much there was already in the pot and which position he was in around the table. When he sat with the small or big blind, sums that two players always had to bet at the table, he knew exactly what to do with the cards he was dealt. A good starting hand can become worthless after the flop, after that it doesn’t matter how much a player sticks to protocol. A bluff is only as good as the opponents around the table decide. And at King’s Hope the rules were different to other casinos. In other words, he’d studied enough but he had to stay on top of his nerves.

 

Stick to the plan.

 

Don’t get carried away and play smart.

 

The limousine made another turn, this time onto a narrower road. Fields and trees sped past outside. He saw a farmer driving a tractor around a field. Shortly afterwards they passed a river where kids were throwing sticks into the water. He should really try to sleep a little so he could keep focused during the entire tournament. Ten thousand players. He shut his eyes and tried to imagine it, but he couldn’t build up a good image.

 

Instead, he allowed his thoughts to wander and could feel his belly relaxing as the throbbing of the car’s motor spread through his body. Taking part in this tournament was out of the ordinary. He couldn’t show his opponents any mercy once they’d sat round the tables. Nobody would show him any, and allowing any feelings to take over is a sure way to lose. He’d knock them out, one at a time, until he was the only one left. If his opponents became desperate and made bad decisions, he'd hone in on their weak spots methodically and without mercy. It would be at those opportunities that he’d go in and take their chips. The limousine jolted and he opened his eyes.

 

Through the window, he could see the casino towering in the distance. Thirty-eight floors and one hundred sixty-seven metres high, the casino was one of Sweden’s tallest buildings. It stood like a chrome giant between Stockholm and Uppsala. A huge monster of metal and glass, devastatingly alluring. Peter had never seen the building with his own eyes, and now that he was close to it he felt almost threatened by its uncompromising beauty. The limousine soon arrived, slowed down and pulled up in front of the entrance. The building ran about a hundred metres in both directions, like an impenetrable, hi-tech fortress.

 

The surfaces were covered in a black marble that sparkled in the morning sun. The large windows were dark and appeared to mirror the entire world outside in their concrete frames. Peter stared ecstatically. He could hardly believe that he was really here. King’s Hope Casino was a fragment of beauty in the otherwise so grey world.

 

Outside, a man in a black suit approached the car. He opened the door so suddenly that Peter almost lost his balance and fell out, he’d been sitting with his nose pressed to the glass.

 

“Welcome, sir. May I ask you to step out of the car?”

 

The voice was nasal and the man spoke faultless English. On the left lapel, over his heart, the hotel’s lettering was embroidered in white, green and red – KH. Peter’s stiff joints cracked as he struggled out of the limousine. Once he’d made it out of the car, it felt like the casino’s power would knock him to the ground. King’s Hope exuded tension and ecstasy.

 

A thick red carpet at his feet led up to the entrance. There was a well-kept flower border that went around the entire building with colourful plants he didn’t recognise. He could only identify a couple of them as some kind of orchid. How these exotic plants could cope with the Swedish climate was a mystery. Maybe they were replanted before each tournament.

 

To the right, along the façade, there was a large fountain where water trickled gracefully. In the middle of the pond there was a large granite block in the shape of a poker chip with the number one carved in the middle. It was similar to the chip the winner would receive, but that would be in the standard size and in solid gold. He shivered. There he was at last.

 

“Sir, are you ready to go in?” The man interrupted, and held Peter’s case at arm’s length, as if he were afraid to have it too close to his body. Carefully, Peter took the case from him and nodded.

 

“Yes, I suppose so.”

 

He only barely managed to grab a firm hold on his luggage before the man let go of the case and shut the car door. The limousine drove away at once with a quiet purr and disappeared from sight. The man turned back towards the road where more limousines were waiting to drop off their passengers. He must have been one of the last to arrive, since the tournament was due to start in only a couple of hours. Most of the foreign participants had already flown to Sweden or had made their way there by other means. The newspapers had already written about the annual pilgrimage a month ago. They’d published the usual articles about the rows of limousines that, filled to bursting point with players, had driven back and forth between the casino and Stockholm.

 

He pulled a breath of fresh air into his lungs and then took the first step onto the red carpet. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. He didn’t really know what he’d expected. Maybe a fanfare?

 

The large, dark doors slid open silently when he reached the entrance. He hesitated. It still wasn’t too late to turn around … He braced himself and stepped into the casino. Another man with a neutral face, dressed in a suit approached him. From the corner of his eye, he could see about ten men in the hotel’s uniform standing and waiting by the wall. Quiet, calm music was playing in the background from a hidden speaker.

 

“Welcome, sir. Did you have a good journey?”

 

“Yes. You have nice cars,” he said, while examining the man. The costume also consisted of a pair of shining patent leather shoes, a white shirt and black tie.

 

“Please come this way,” the man said, waving his hand towards a metal detector by the side of the entrance. “You may leave your luggage with me while you walk through.”

 

The security check reminded him of those at an airport. He heard a discrete beep as he stepped through the frame of the detector, and another blank-faced man came forward.

 

“Raise your arms.”

 

Peter did as he was told and tried to suppress the feeling that he’d done something wrong as the man frisked him rather roughly. The search was unpleasantly thorough, for obvious reasons. Finally, the ordeal was over and he nodded in acknowledgement to the remaining staff. He carried no weapon, he could have informed the guards that much. Weapons were about the only things it was forbidden to carry into the casino. It’s all part of the game, he thought to himself with a sudden and weird feeling of superiority. He couldn’t explain it, but at that moment he was convinced he would win the whole thing.

 

“Sir, it’s fine. You can register at the reception over there.”

 

Peter nodded, took his case and walked over to the desk the man had indicated. Now he was in the casino for real. A heavy feeling of professionalism and pride hung in the air. There was also an electric, almost erotic feeling of excitement when he sensed the unmistakable smell of playing cards and poker chips. He continued forward and almost stumbled over a small staircase with two stairs.

 

Never lose your cool. Maintain your image.

 

The foyer was enormous, about a hundred metres to the back from where he stood. The field of view was obscured by large pillars that ran all the way up to the ceiling. The floor was of dark marble tiles in a pattern that was reminiscent of poker chips and playing cards. The corners of the cards were cut off, making them appear lopsided and sharp. Nor were the chips symmetrical, they had distorted and rough edges. He suspected the intention was to create a kind of surreal feeling of being at the actual poker table. It created the right atmosphere straight away.

 

The reception was straight ahead, a large half-moon shaped, brightly lit grey booth. It stood out like a lighthouse, guiding him into this fascinating landscape that had been built in the shape of a Black Jack table. On one of the walls there was a large oil painting of a crane, standing on one leg and holding a stone in its other raised foot. Beside the bird there was a fox staring slyly out into the casino. When Peter looked around he could see more players, some bunched into small groups, others standing along the edge of the room. There was a faint murmur of many voices. Some leaned against the metre-thick pillars, while others sat on chairs or on couches that were spread around the foyer. He could also see people from security. They all had a small ear-piece in their right ears and a visible bulge under the left sides of their suits where their pistols were holstered. Security was tight even down here, on the ground floor.

 

When he’d taken in as much of the hotel as he could, he strode confidently forward to the reception. The man that attended to him had deep wrinkles on his face and black hair that was greying slightly at the temples. His name badge revealed him as Andersson. He moved gracefully, suggesting he’d been in service for many years. Peter wondered how many participants he’d checked in over the years.

 

“Welcome, sir. Your name, please?” Andersson also spoke impeccable English, reinforcing the air of professionalism.

 

“Peter Norrqvist.”

 

The man typed on a keyboard behind the desk, the keys rattling quietly.

 

“Thank you. Do you have a nickname? I would like to remind you that you may type it in yourself.”

 

“No. I play clean.” Peter coughed. “I don’t like to label myself,” he added, somewhat embarrassed.

 

“Of course. A good choice.”

 

Nickname. He’d considered taking one for quite some time, but finally he’d decided not to. Each player could choose a nickname for themselves if they found it necessary. Peter was of the opinion that a name should be earned. He didn’t quite know why, but to give oneself a nickname felt wrong. Maybe he was too ordinary. The Americans that came each year always had a habit of giving themselves as big and bombastic names as possible. Like Henry “The Destroyer” Farnspeg, who was knocked out somewhere around nine-hundredth place a couple of years ago. Peter could distinctly recall the scene from the televised broadcast. “The Destroyer” didn’t live up to his name, that’s why his defeat seemed even greater when he finally lost his last chip.

 

Andersson clicked on the keyboard for a few more seconds and looked up again at Peter.

 

“There, sir. The tournament begins on the tenth floor, but you commence the tournament on the eleventh floor in …” Andersson glanced briefly at his wristwatch. “In precisely two hours and three minutes, at 12 noon. You will find the lifts at the far end of the foyer.” Andersson pointed behind himself in the direction of a larger pillar. “I also assume you are familiar with all the regulations?”

 

“Of course. I have learnt them all.” Peter nodded eagerly to emphasise that he’d understood.

 

“That’s good. If you break the regulations, you will either receive a warning, or you will be immediately disqualified. If you receive three warnings, you will be disqualified. Everything is explained in this leaflet if you need to refresh your memory. The staff can also answer any questions you may have. If you are not sure, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s better to enquire rather than being eliminated due to a misunderstanding.”

“Absolutely,” Peter nodded solemnly. He knew all the rules by heart, but shivered nevertheless at the thought of being disqualified just for slipping up. That would be unfortunate. Embarrassing.

 

“Wait here a moment and I will fetch the items you need.”

 

Andersson disappeared into a room behind the desk. He came back almost at once holding a square case with a shoulder strap that he lifted onto the counter. It contained, among other things, his poker chipsHe opened it and pulled out a few objects.

 

“Please give me your left arm.”

 

Peter was so eager that he hit his knuckles on the counter when he threw his hand forwards. Andersson fastened with obvious routine a wristband on him, containing a data chip that registered everything from his pulse to his exact location in the casino. The wristband took care of other things, too. It had a small display with his player number – 5,727. For a moment, he wondered why the number was not higher, but then he remembered that they take a random bag from the store room. Perfect, in that case nobody could walk around bragging that they’d arrived first. Or plan to check in with some ludicrous lucky number merely to gain a psychological advantage at the poker tables. The arrangements for the tournament were rigorous. When the wristband was in place, Andersson passed a scanner over it to confirm the registration.

 

“The wristband gives you access to the different floors. On floor three there are dormitories, should you wish to use them. I understand that you are familiar with the rules for that? If you need to refresh your memory, it is also covered in the leaflet. If you survive the first round, you may be able to move upwards one or several floors later.”

 

“Of course. I’m climbing to the top,” he replied with a smirk. Andersson didn’t even look up at him.

 

“There is just one more thing I need to inform you of before you are ready to get started. Precisely one hour before the tournament commences, you will be summoned to your floor. The lift is the last chance you have to change your mind. If you do change your mind, your place in the competition will be offered to a reserve player. Do you understand?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Great. Good luck in the tournament!”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

I predict

 

You will find the point of no return

 

Far behind you

 

Out of reach

 

Soon out of sight

 

 

 

Seabound - I Predict

 

 

 

“Damn. I completely forgot what I was going to say. Anyhow, the journey went well. I arrived yesterday and spent a pleasant day here. There’s a spa on the sixth floor. I was there several hours yesterday, even though it was boring as hell. If it’s there, use it. That’s what everyone says back home, and it’s one of those old habits that's been hard to shake - I don’t even know if I want to. There’s so much else to put behind me, perhaps someday I'll be able to … No, I will. The massage was really relaxing. I fell asleep for a moment while they were kneading my back, and when I woke up I had stripes in my face from the cushion.

 

“Do I miss anything from the outside? The pupils, maybe, but there’s two sides to that coin. It’s fun being able to affect the kids, but what future do they have? Many of them will end up at the factory until they’re worn out and can be replaced by new kids. Others will maybe manage to get to London and start a new life there. A few of them may follow in my footsteps and end up here. I wonder if they’ll know what they’re getting themselves into. Do I? Of course I do. There’s no better shot at getting away from the past.

 

“I’m from a small town, Porthmound. I grew up there and, like most of the others, I never managed to leave. I remember how I sat in school and felt sorry for the teachers since they never wore anything colourful. Now it’s me standing there looking out over the pupils. It’s OK, perspectives change over the years. Now I think it’s nice not having to wash my own clothes since they take the teachers’ uniforms with the rest of the laundry. And having a job means a wage and being able to buy real clothes for my free time.

 

“But never having had the chance to leave Porthmound has its clear disadvantages. During those school years, everybody gets a label. Everyone thinks they know who you are, what you are expected to like and how to react to things. It’s impossible to get rid of all that, in any case as long as you hang out with the same gang you grew up with. That’s why King’s Hope is a great new start. There are no labels here.

 

“Maybe that’s why I liked Marv, because he was a couple of years older and we didn’t know so much about each other when we met. Sorry Marv, you’re a complete arsehole. I hope you see this, ‘cause the label I’m giving you will be hard to get rid of. That, I promise.”

 

 

 

When Peter had taken his bag and wristband, he glanced around hesitantly. Andersson had disappeared into the room behind the counter and left him alone. Peter turned and caught sight of one of the other players who’d just come through security walking towards him. The man was tall and was wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. Peter took his bags, one in each hand and retreated towards the inside of the hotel. He spotted a couple of empty chairs by the wall and made for them. He tumbled into one and discovered to his delight that the cushion was no more than a thick leather cover over the cold steel frame. Spartan, but stylish. He wiped his brow and then lifted the poker case onto his lap.

 

With trembling fingers, as if it were a valuable relic that could fall to pieces at any moment, he slowly opened the zip. He turned up the flap and stared in. Inside was an empty metal insert with ten furrows, where his poker chips would lie in neat rows. The insert resembled a chocolate box, and he had to lift the empty upper insert to at long last see his chips. They occupied only four rows that weren’t even filled. It seemed like a pathetically small amount. He counted them carefully and ensured himself that the sum of all four chip denominations added up to 10,000. Just as they should. All players started out with the same amount of chips. He drew his fingers along the rows and listened to the faint clicking they made as they touched each other.

 

Twenty-four creamy white chips worth 25 each.

 

Fourteen pale blue chips worth 100 each.

 

Ten mint green chips worth 500 each.

 

Three brick red chips worth 1,000 each.

 

He carefully picked up one of each and rubbed them between his fingers, let them drop back together and listened to the hypnotic clicking. These chips were worth the journey here. Just the feeling of holding them exceeded all his expectations. Back home, in the south-east of Sweden, he’d only ever played with cheap ceramic chips. These were quite clearly different. They were heavy, really heavy. He knew that they weighed fifteen grams each, which was a few grams heavier than standard chips at other casinos. They were made of a mixture of plastic, porcelain and fibreglass, moulded around a metal core to create the perfect balance and feel. The engraving was elegant as well, he could clearly feel the numbers under his fingertips, and he slid them around in his hand and listened to the pleasant sound of them knocking against each other. After a while he put them back in the bag and closed it again.

 

If these chips felt so good … How would the higher values feel?

 

He wanted to start playing, to measure his strengths against the other players. Peter looked at a clock high on the wall on the other side of the room. There was still just under two hours left until it started. One hour until the final call up to his floor. The other players were probably sitting up there already, waiting. Maybe he should go up, but he didn’t want to rush that decision. He could at least wait a few more minutes.

 

We’re all in the same … casino.

 

He casually picked up the brochure he’d been given and fingered it carefully. It was more like a book than a brochure with twenty pages full of information about the tournament. Even the paper was luxurious and smelt newly printed. There was a photo of the hotel on the front, an aerial view with the text:

 

 

 

King’s Hope Casino, the annual challenge.

 

 

 

The foundations for King’s Hope Casino were laid in 1969, when a factory was built for manufacture of kitchen cabinets and kitchen accessories. The factory ran at a loss and was closed in 1973. The building stood deserted until 1975, when the local council renovated it and redesigned it into office space. For the next eight years accountants, telephonists and secretaries worked here. It was due to the administrative character that the building also had a unique architecture and that was why the building caught the attention of visionary and millionaire Cid Andrew. He bought the complex in 1983 and built what is now King’s Hope.

 

The building took eleven years to complete, and with its thirty-eight floors the casino is one of the tallest buildings in Sweden.

 

 

 

Peter jumped over some text.

 

 

 

The doors of King’s Hope open one month before the tournament begins. Players come from all corners of the globe and are given rooms at the casino before the tournament gets started. Floors four to nine act as a hotel for foreign guests that arrive early during this period. The players must check out from the hotel section 11 am the day the tournament starts at the latest. The third floor, where Salon Selma and the dormitories are situated, is always available. The fifth floor, where the restaurant is situated, is also kept open. The other floors are locked for the sake of the tournament, which begins on the tenth floor. After each complete round of play, the lower tournament floors are also closed off.

 

Since the birth of Texas hold’em at the beginning of the 1900’s it has spread over the world, from Golden Nugget to King’s Hope. One aspect often discussed is the changing meta-game, which is becoming faster and more aggressive. The experience that King’s Hope has to offer is completely unique and the close, intense atmosphere around King’s Hope’s poker tables can’t be found anywhere else. The meta-game at King’s Hope changes a little about every five years when influences from the rest of the world seep in, but nothing can measure against the psychological thrill you find within the walls of King’s Hope. Therefore, influences from other venues are kept to a minimum, and King’s Hope can proudly present a robust tournament of absolute world class. It’s the ultimate challenge, and every year tens of thousands of players apply for a place in the tournament. Do you have what it takes?

 

 

 

The casino contained thousands of tons of steel, glass and cement. It was also reinforced with armoured walls and bullet-proof windows. The number of visitors always peaked during tournaments and, for the first two years, spectators had been allowed in cordoned-off areas of the building. On occasions, there’d been almost twenty thousand people in the casino. This concept was abandoned rather quickly due to the increased administration. Nowadays the public had to remain in the area outside the casino, or follow the tournament on TV. Articles usually began to appear in the newspapers a few months before the start of the tournament and there were always lists containing the nationality of the participants and other information regarding the coming battle. At the least, this gave Peter an odd sense of pride. He was here now, one of the chosen. Maybe he’d even end up in The Book and become immortalised.

 

He turned the pages until he found the regulations and started browsing through the ones specific to the tournament, in case he’d missed anything. They covered both the hotel’s service as well as the poker play itself. He fastened on rule number four that read:

 

 

4. Alcohol will only be served until five thousand players have been knocked out, after which service will cease so as not to impair players’ judgement.

 

 

 

Alcohol. Sure. A good indication of those who take it seriously and those who don’t. Generally, people are more intoxicated at AA meetings than at a serious poker table. That they stopped serving alcohol when five thousand players had been knocked out was hardly due to lack of judgement. It was more likely that players tended to get more desperate, and if they were drunk they might feel they could take more drastic measures. And getting knocked out for getting plastered would be a disaster. No, he’d try to take it easy with the booze. Maybe one beer in exceptional circumstances …

 

He tried to recall how it’d been in earlier tournaments. The results always varied, but on average it took about one and a half days. The ever-increasing blinds also meant that the tournament seldom went on for more than two days.

 

Peter’s thoughts whirled instead around that magic number: nine thousand players knocked out. That was when the bets went up considerably. He sincerely hoped he’d get that far. One thousand remaining players vying for first place would be thrilling. He ran his finger down the list of rules.

 

 

 

5. Each time one thousand players have been knocked out, the tournament is paused for one hour. During this hour, remaining players will be requested to move to another floor. This will keep the number of players the same on each floor during each session until one thousand players remain.

 

 

 

He turned the page.

 

 

 

7. Blinds go up a level each hour on the hour.

 

8. Each player must place all their chips on the poker table before each round starts. If the player does not show up, his place in the tournament is deemed forfeit and the player is thereby out of the contest. King’s Hope therefore encourages all players to be early and to place their chips on the table before the indicated time.

 

 

 

After that there were some rules and information about how you could use the time during the breaks. Amongst these there was a description of the dormitories, and of Salon Selma next to the dorms. Until he had a decent pile of chips, his stack, he thought he’d be better off concentrating on the poker.

 

He turned his thoughts to the number of players. There were five hundred players on each floor, and for the first rounds you were placed on a randomly assigned floor, table and seat. Statistically, the first round went relatively fast. Anything between two to ten hours had been recorded, with a mean duration of just over four hours depending on how cautious the players were.

 

When a table happened to become empty if one player had knocked out all the others around the table, the player quite simply moved to an empty seat at another table. He went through a few scenarios in his mind what would happen up there when it finally got started when someone broke his chain of thoughts.

 

“Hi. May I sit here?”

 

The owner of the soft voice didn’t wait for an answer and dropped into the chair beside him. When he looked up, confused, his eyes met those of a woman. She stared at him in surprise before bursting out in an uncontrollable giggle.

 

“What’s the matter?” Peter mumbled, embarrassed. He’d been taken completely by surprise and that bothered him.

 

“Sorry, but you should have seen your face. You were so into that brochure and when you looked up, you had such a funny expression. Like a kitten that just saw a fly for the first time.” She dried the corners of her eyes and smiled warmly.

 

“Sorry, I hope you’re not angry?”

 

“Not at all, I was just a little surprised”, he muttered, making her start giggling again. Her grey eyes glittered and his irritation ran off him as quickly as it’d come. She was rather attractive. Short brown hair fell over her eyes and broad, but soft, face. Full lips, a slightly pointed nose. The black T-shirt had the text “Fuck me? Screw you!” emphasising her breasts. Their contours sent a surge down to Peter’s crotch. He tried to look away, but his gaze got stuck instead on her hips. She was wearing a pair of dark green khaki shorts that went down to the knee.

 

“I’m Peter Norrqvist.” He held out his hand and she shook it gingerly.

 

“Dibley Wallfower.”

 

“Wallflower, nice name. Are you from England?” It was hardly worth asking since her accent gave her away.

 

“Yes, that’s right. And you? Are you from here?”

 

“Well ... I’m from Sweden, that’s right. But from a small town down South, Norra Svedja. It’s so small it’s not even on the map,” he said, smirking.

 

He suddenly became painfully aware of his own pronunciation. He suspected that she thought he sounded like a retarded idiot as he spoke the words in English with his broad Swedish dialect, slowly and unaccustomed.

 

“Have you made up your mind who you’re going to be here yet?” She wondered, thankfully changing the subject.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Well, you don’t think I go around dressed like this at home?” She grinned. “I grew up a bit outside London. Back there I was a teacher with boring grey-brown clothes all day. I bet you can imagine how that looked. So when I found out I’d been accepted to the tournament I decided to become someone else completely. A new person, entirely free from the reputation I had at home. That’s why I got this T-shirt.” She gave a big smile as she drew her hands down her waist to stretch the cloth flat. “Do you understand?”

 

“I understand completely, better than you think. Although I’ve not even thought about becoming anyone else. Apart from around the poker table maybe, but we all have a poker face.”

 

“A poker face isn’t being someone else. In here you don’t have to give a fucking damn what things were like before.” She suddenly lifted her hand to her mouth and giggled girlishly. “You see! I don’t normally swear at home.”

 

“Do you have a nickname here?”

 

“No. I didn’t think I needed one. Why? Do you have one? Peter ‘The Kitten’ Norrqvist, perhaps?”

 

“No, I don’t have a nickname. I want to play clean. If it goes well, I want to be remembered for who I am and not for some ridiculous name. I don’t want to forget my roots, where I belong. Don’t you think so?”

 

“Maybe. I think the opposite. That it’s just as well to forget your roots. Here, you get the chance to start again and become a new person. That’s what I think, anyway. How far do you think you’ll get in the competition, then?”

 

“I’m going to win, obviously,” he grinned. Then he got serious again. “I want go as far as possible, of course. I guess you do too. But …”

 

“Yes?”

 

“The last remaining hundred get their name written in The Book, so that’s my goal.”

 

“You’d rather choose The Book than get to go home?” She wondered. She met his gaze challengingly, and, in her eyes, he clearly saw rule nineteen.

 

 

 

19. When one hundred players remain, each player has the choice to leave the competition. Those that choose to leave receive a smaller prize sum. Those players that decide to continue are written into the year’s edition of The Book and compete for the honour of first prize.

 

 

 

“Yeah, every time. At least I think,” he added and grinned. “But you never know until it happens. Would you like to be there? Imagine getting your name in The Book so people remember you. They’d say something like: ‘Her, Dibley that wiped the carpet with the Russians and Chinese and Spanish and …’” He stopped himself and smiled. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

 

Dibley had a distant look in her face, as if she’d pulled down a blind between her and Peter that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

 

“Maybe. But that’s the difference between you and me, Peter. I’m not satisfied just getting in The Book. You see, I’m going to win this contest. As my new, liberated self.”

 

To emphasize the latter, she gave out a loud, hearty burp. Peter couldn’t make up his mind if it was by accident or on purpose, but it made them laugh so much that players further away in the large hall turned and stared at them.

 

“I like you, Dibley,” he said warmly, and really meant it. “I hope it goes well for you. With a little luck, maybe we’ll sit at the same table later. Which floor do you start on, by the way?”

 

“On the thirteenth.”

 

He gave a low whistle. “All right … Are you superstitious?”

 

“No, that’s just bullshit. I think it’s good they’ve given that floor a number. Otherwise it would just be floor fourteen that’d be the thirteenth. It’s nonsense in my opinion. I’ll make sure all the others round my table think they’re having bad luck, but I’m not intending to.”

 

They laughed again.

 

“What’s your number, by the way? I’m 5,727 – not exactly a lucky number.”

 

“I don’t have a lucky number either, but at least I made three digits, 857.”

 

“That’s always something,” he said with a smile.

 

They continued chatting about nothing in particular for the next half hour, but avoided talking about the tournament on purpose. It felt good to push away all thoughts of the looming challenge. At last, Dibley sighed and stood up.

 

“Well, I’d better go on up to the thirteenth. It’s not so long before it starts now and I really must go and powder… No, now I almost forgot. I must really go for a poo before it starts for real. Imagine losing chips just because you need to go. What would people say?”

 

Peter grinned at her. “Very good idea, my fine lady. By the way, is there any suitable title for a recently liberated woman?”

 

“Call me what you like. My bowels need emptying anyway.”

 

Peter burst out in laughter. He’d never met anyone like her. What if one of them got knocked out before they’d had an opportunity to meet again … He cast his eyes down at the ground a moment. Maybe it was exaggerating, but he’d liked her from the very first. He opened his mouth to say something, but changed his mind.

 

“Yes, I suppose it’s time to get moving,” he said instead.

 

“I suppose so.” She hesitated a short moment before turning to leave. “Good luck then, Peter. See you later, maybe.”

 

Then she left with her poker bag nonchalantly thrown over one shoulder. He admired her swinging hips as she walked and wondered if they would meet again. She disappeared behind a pillar before he realised his mistake. He shot up out of the chair and ran to catch up.

 

“Dibley. Wait!”

 

She quickly turned around and smiled cautiously, as if she didn’t really understand what he was up to.

 

“You … I don’t suppose we could meet up, if we’re not knocked out before then?”

 

He’d almost expected a blunt no, but she just smiled warmly back.

 

“I’d like that. But where?”

 

“The dorms on the third floor. What do you think?”

 

He realised how that must have sounded as soon as he’d said it.

 

“Er ... I only meant … You know, a place we can both find. We may end up on completely different floors and …”

 

She chuckled delightedly as he dropped his gaze to the ground, embarrassed.

 

“Yes. Great. See you later then.” He felt so happy, he surprised himself. It wasn’t such a good thing necessarily. Something like this could ruin his concentration during the game. Whatever. He had a date already for the first break. Something to look forward to and something to think about so he didn’t squander his chips.

 

“One more thing. Take care of your chips, so you don’t lose them all too soon.” It sounded awkward, but he felt he needed to say it anyway.

 

Dibley smiled again, quickly took a step forward and kissed him lightly on the mouth, before turning away and walking towards the elevators. He watched her until she walked out of sight. Dibley reminded him of a memory from his teenage.

 

He’d come home early one day from school. He was alone and had turned on the TV. They were showing a music video with a man and a woman running through a desert, giant lizards crawling around with big forked tongues devouring whatever they could get hold of. Large buffalos, and of course people. The imagery shifted and the couple were running by a river where there was a school of fish flouncing, and after that on a beach. In hindsight, the video seemed strange and difficult to grasp, as if the band didn’t know themselves what they wanted to express. Although maybe it just went right over Peter’s head. However, that didn’t matter. What Peter remembered best was the woman. She’d awoken that part of every boy that makes their brains switch off and made their mouths water, something different, but highly desirable.

 

The women’s ideal at that time, at least the kind of woman plastered over all advertisements and commercial breaks, was to be as thin as a rake, looking like she needed a big sandwich just to avoid snapping in half. The girl in the music video was completely different. She was fleshy without being fat, with thighs that gave him pains of longing. Her soft facial features were faintly Asian, and she sang in a hoarse voice that had etched itself permanently into his memory.

 

Dibley reminded him of that singer, and it roused feelings inside that he’d held at arms’ length a long time. It was alarming, but also … exciting. Refreshing, actually.

 

But his memory of that singer had, like everything else, faded and vanished. All that was left was a vague, distorted memory of the song. It was like everything else, that withered and was stolen by forgetfulness, unnoticed. He shook his head and cleared his thoughts.

 

There was no point in wallowing in the past. He'd got Dibley on his mind, and that seemed most relevant right now. When that thought landed in his head, he felt strangely high. At that moment, it really didn’t matter if he were to be knocked out amongst the first thousand, or if he really got as far as the final hundred. He walked back to the chair by the wall, where he flicked absently through the brochure without taking in anything. He beckoned a guard who jaunted over obediently, and ordered a large sandwich. The guard went away and quickly reappeared with a generously filled baguette and a glass of water. Peter didn’t know when he’d get the opportunity to eat next time, and he needed the energy.

 

While he ate, he thought long and hard about what Dibley had said, about becoming someone completely different here at the casino. She had an undeniable point, but was that the right path for him? Becoming someone new was beyond his original plans, a possibility he’d not even considered. Imagine just letting everything go for a few hours… He chewed it over for a while until he was interrupted by a long gentle beep from the speaker system.

 

“All players are requested to go to the elevators for transport to their designated starting floor.”

 

Peter stood up, swung the bag of chips over his shoulder and picked up his own luggage in his hand. Behind the pillar there was a short flight of stairs that led up to the elevator hall. There were about twenty elevators placed along the wall in front of him, all with mirrored doors that reflected the shiny floor and dark wooden panelling on the walls. About thirty players stood by the elevators. Like him, they had been waiting for the signal before making their way up. A few of them were staring into space at nothing in particular, others were standing cockily with their legs apart and arms crossed to give the impression that they weren’t nervous.

 

Above each elevator there were digits that revealed where it went, since not all elevators went to every floor. This was to help prevent confusion amongst the stressed-out players, but also to limit the players’ free movement within the casino. There were stairs to ease the movement of participants, but King’s Hope preferred that they used the elevators, at least on the lower floors.

 

Peter aimed for the elevator second from the far left. He walked up to the elevator door and pressed the button. Shortly, he could see how the light changed in the gap between the doors as the elevator slowly braked and finally stopped in front of him. The mirrored doors slid silently open. Inside there was a guard from the hotel staff. The black suit and expressionless pale face blended into the beige walls inside the elevator. Everything else so far had been darker in colour, so Peter thought it looked inviting, like a street lamp does for a moth.

 

Come into the light and the warmth. Come in, come in and we’ll ride up to happier places.

 

It was most certainly a trick to encourage even the most hesitant to get in. He’d already made up his mind not to hesitate, he was already here – no point turning around and going home. If he did so, he’d regret it for ever and one of the reserves he knew were waiting outside the hotel would take his place. Then he’d never end up in The Book. He wouldn’t have a date with Dibley. He was stepping into the elevator, he had to. Despite himself, he hesitated. Then he shook his head, drew a deep breath and stepped in.

 

The man in the suit was a silent, ominous statue that threatened to knock Peter to the ground and crush him. The elevator car filled painfully slowly with people. Peter glanced at his fellow passengers. Beside him, on his left, stood a fat man in a golfing cap and dark sunglasses. To his right there was a tall, thin guy whose breathing through his open mouth produced a faint whistling sound. Eight more players stood around in silence, nervously shifting their feet. At last, the black suit cleared his throat.

 

“Doors closing.”

 

Everybody knew what that meant. Peter watched as the doors slid shut in slow motion. He considered for a brief moment casting himself out between them. Forcing the other players to the side and throwing himself forward. He could almost see how he thrusted his body sideways to squeeze through the doors before they closed on him. His upper body slowly twisting ninety degrees as he lifted and sailed through the air. His knees touching the edges of the door and him pointing his toes as he sailed through the opening to land on his back out in the hallway just as the doors slid shut. In reality, he didn’t move and the elevator started its upward journey with a slight jolt. He’d passed beyond the point of no return. Now there was only one way forward. The tournament laid before him and somewhere, there in the distance, the first prize. The elevator sped upwards.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

 

 

I'm not in control

 

I hate to feel this way

 

 

 

Feel like I'm falling

 

Drifting away

 

Spinning

 

Floating

 

Further away

 

 

 

Apoptygma Berzerk - Spindizzy

 

 

 

In the outskirts of the small town where Peter lived there was the ruin of an old industrial brick house that had burnt down over twenty years before. Sun-bleached graffiti betrayed the fact that the ruin had been a hide-out for youths in the past, when some of the walls had still been intact. Nowadays not much remained other than piles of bricks and it offered no hiding place or shelter from rain and wind. Weeds had sprung up in the cracks. In one place, where the end of a mechanical assembly line had once stood, two young birches stretched their branches hungrily for sunlight. The youths had moved on and left the building in the hands of mother nature.

 

Peter came across the ruin one day when he’d been out walking by himself, a secret little hiding-place just for him. Near a tumble-down brick wall, half hidden by tall grass, there was a tunnel. It looked like no more than a crack between the weathered bricks from the outside, but on closer inspection you could see that the tunnel led inwards. A twelve-year-old boy could creep in without any problem. One of the brick walls had fallen over a small container and hidden it, turning it into a stony mound within the ruins. Water leaked from a hole in the roof and there were rotting porno mags and rat droppings spread out over the floor.

 

Peter stood outside and looked briefly over his shoulder to make sure there were no grown-ups around. He went down on all fours as he’d done many times and crept through the dry grass into the darkness. He was pretty sure that he was the only one in the world just then that knew about the hidden room. Those that had once been in there had given up a long time ago, probably after the entrance had caved in so much that it became hard to squeeze in without bumping your head. He crept onwards and ducked to avoid snagging himself on the rusty nail that stuck out of the ceiling. He was soon inside and could sit up on his knees. Weak light trickled in from the opening behind him and his eyes slowly grew accustomed to the darkness.

 

“I’m showing this only to you,” he whispered reverently.

 

The room was so awesome and such a secret that he’d not even told his friends about it. He stood up, brushed the dirt from his knees and breathed in the damp, mouldy air. The thought of bringing his little sister here filled him with excitement. He’d show her everything. In the other corner, there was a rusty nail that you could scratch yourself on. They’d be able to hide things in there that only the two of them would know about. He really looked forward to teaching her all he knew, so much that he had to purse his mouth to get air into his lungs.

 

He looked around the secret chamber one more time before falling back down on all fours and crawling back out into the sunshine.

 

 

 

Peter stepped out of the lift together with a small Asian woman in puffy clothes with number 3,442. The eleventh floor spread out before them like an enormous lounge that appeared to shimmer in feverish fumes. The lighting made the pillars sparkle and from this vantage point the rows of poker tables looked like glittering paradise islands. The eleventh floor was magnificent.

 

To his left, along the wall, there were lockers in neat rows, shaped as cubes with one-meter sides and equipped with electronic locks. They were placed as far as the wall about twenty meters further down. The poker case was hanging over his shoulder. Peter found an empty locker where he placed his own bag and shut the door. He locked it by placing his wristband over a small metal plate. A faint beep was followed by a click, and the locker was locked. Just to be sure, he unlocked it again by waving the wristband in front of the metal plate. The door clicked and swung open. A window display with relics from the inaccessible world outside the casino walls. When he was satisfied he turned his attention to the poker tables.

 

The enormous room was separated into sections by large, thick pillars in V-shapes. This gave a good overview of the tables that were strategically placed in the different sections. The number of tables varied from seventy to ninety since there were five hundred players on each floor. King’s Hope had tables for ten players, but these were unusual and generally weren’t placed out until round six. King’s Hope preferred fewer players around each table to give an intense atmosphere and more interaction between players.

 

During King’s Hope’s first year ten-man tables had been the standard, but since many players chose to play extremely passively and wait for good cards, the televised coverage became very tedious. The first year’s winner, Chris “Warmech” Houlihan, uttered at one point those classic words that forever restructured King’s Hope:

 

“It doesn’t matter how many opponents there are around a table at any given time. Sooner or later I must knock them out, and if I can’t do it now I might as well not be here. Give me a table with fewer opponents where there is some action, rather than this painfully slow tempo.”

 

After this statement, the regulations were re-written and the year after the brochure read as follows:

 

12. The number of players per table will vary and is allotted randomly before each round. The croupier at each table knows the limit for your round. If the table you wish to sit at is full, you will be directed to another table.

 

 

 

The basic premises for each player varied around the tables, but that undeniably added a tactical aspect that was exciting and challenging for those taking part in the contest. The tournament at King’s Hope was like no other, there was more action around the tables and this made for better TV.

 

 

 

At the far end of the room was the large stage that each floor had, with a wide staircase leading up to it. The stage could be clearly seen from every table. The wall-to-wall carpet beneath the players' feet was known as the blue march. This name had originated as a joke during the second year of the tournament, since all players were forced to go up to the stage sooner or later.

 

Peter made his way forward between the players that were spread around the room. A few of them stood by themselves, waiting. Others were standing in smaller groups, conversing quietly. The rest were already sitting and waiting at the tables. There was a murmur of subdued talking and the occasional nervous laugh. Peter considered joining one of the groups, but decided to keep to himself until the tournament started. A clock high up on a pillar displayed 11:20. Forty minutes left until it got going. He began looking for his table so he could sort out the last details before the start. That didn’t require forty minutes, but he had an idea. If he’d laid out all his chips and found something to drink, he’d look professional. First impressions were important, even more so at the poker table and in particular at King’s Hope. With a little luck, he’d be able to intimidate one of his opponents, and that was in fact all that was needed to be able to win some chips during this first and important stage of the tournament.

 

He navigated around and peered at the small electronic name tags that were placed on each table. He tried to make mental notes of a few of the names on the tags but soon tired of that since there were too many to remember. It took him ten minutes to find his seat, and by then he’d become sweaty and stressed. He’d passed by his table twice before managing to read the name tags properly.

 

All the tables at the casino had the same design, a half eight-shape like a large rounded letter B. The croupier was positioned in the middle of the dent on the one long side. From there, the croupier had a good view over the table and could easily reach all chips and cards that were in play. There was a raised leather edge around the entire table, on which the players could rest their arms. Set into this was a camera that picked up the players’ cards and showed them on TV. Exactly twenty-five centimetres from the edge, there was a line all the way around the table, five millimetres thick. The line clearly marked which chips and cards were in play. If anyone threw or placed chips or cards over this line by accident, they were in play. You could either fold, or the cards could be turned up if a player was called. In front of the croupier there was a straight black line that denoted where the shared cards should be turned facing up. Beyond this, the table was covered with a smooth felt cloth in a soft white colour that allowed the cards to slide almost without friction. In the centre of the table were the casino’s initials in large red-black lettering - KH, and the table number in slightly smaller digits. Peter would begin play at table thirty. Two players had already taken seats at the table and were waiting when Peter arrived. He mumbled a greeting before tumbling onto his seat, almost opposite the croupier’s. The position was alright, he thought. Not right at the corner, but at least where the table started rounding off. He imagined that this would give elbow-room that those sitting nearest the croupier wouldn’t have.

 

To the right of his chair, the floor was raised into a square pedestal-like table about half a metre high. It was designed for the chip case, and when he placed his case in the depression made for it, he found it was so precisely designed that the case slid into place with a click. Everything felt extravagant, luxurious and real. It was for real! There was also space to place a glass or ash tray if needed. He started placing out his chips straight away. From the corner of his eye, he noticed that the others had already unpacked theirs and stacked them in tidy piles. In his eagerness to place them out, he knocked his hand on the edge of the table and the chips he had in his hand tumbled all over the floor. He threw himself down to pick them up. This could happen to anyone, but of course it would just happen to him. He could see in his mind how the brilliant idea of gaining the respect of his opponents fell as quickly as the chips he’d just dropped.

 

Shit, shit, shit.

 

When he’d picked up all his chips and carefully stacked them on the table, he realised his next mistake. He’d forgotten the powder for his sweaty nose that he’d packed in his own bag. He considered hurrying to fetch it, but decided against it. There was a risk that it would be one of his tells for those paying attention around the table. But it could just as easily work the other way, that they’d notice his nose sweating and interpret that as him having a strong hand. In other words, he had the opportunity to vary his play if he skipped the powder. What bothered him the most was that he’d lost track of his meticulous preparations. He figured that it would work out despite all that.

 

Breathe calmly, everything will be OK.

 

His mood and his control of the situation had been affected, but what counted was how he handled it. A clock on the wall showed that there were twenty-five minutes left. Plenty of time to calm down and get his body in balance again.

 

Two chairs away to his left sat a short, plump man watching him, amused. Peter smiled when their eyes met. The man, who looked to be about forty, had a thin moustache, big lips, a flat nose and deep-set, brown eyes. He had a golden-brown complexion and his short jet-black hair was combed to one side. Peter thought he might be Mexican, or maybe from Spain. The name-tag in front of him gave the name Miguel Hernandez, with number 2,521.

 

On Miguel’s left, directly to the right of where the croupier would be sitting, sat a very young man. His name was Mads Knutsson, number 412, and didn’t appear to be much older than twenty. White, burly and curly golden hair. His face was round, and he had a large bulbous nose and big blue eyes that were topped with thick eyebrows. He wore a loose-fitting football sweater with a Danish flag on the front and had his gaze fixed intently at some distant point in front of him.

 

Now that Peter was finally sitting at the table, he wasn’t really sure how to behave. He’d planned in his mind to act cool, calm and unmoveable. Right now, he was just nervous and felt indecisive. Did he really want to get to know his opponents? Or would he be better off sitting without saying a word until the tournament started? He couldn’t make up his mind, shifted on his seat and broke the silence.’

 

"Hi, I’m Peter. Are you ready for this?” He wondered, with a less-than-perfect English accent and his voice trembling with nerves.

 

“I’ve been ready for three days,” Miguel replied in faultless English.

 

“Me too,” the Dane nodded mechanically.

 

It became silent again at the table. Peter stared alternately into space and then down at the table, waiting for time to pass. He studied some of the other players spread around the tables. Many of them sat with earphones, listening to music. It soon became apparent that something was about to happen. All around the room he saw that players went to sit where their names were displayed on the digital name tags. The initial placing was chosen at random by a computer. It was a cunning system, since nobody could possibly know which opponents they would meet at their table, and could therefore not gain themselves any kind of advantage. Of course, a less-experienced player could end up at a table among several pros with many years of poker experience, but since it was left to chance it wasn't unfair. Peter stifled an involuntary smile. King’s Hope didn’t generally take any notice of complaints.

 

Just then, two players arrived at the same time and sat down at the table. The first one took the seat between the Mexican and the Dane. The display showed that this was Lennart Olofsson with number 7,981. He was about Peter’s age with a broad nose, blue eyes, bushy eyebrows and an angular face. His thick, brown hair was shiny from too much wax. He was sporting dark blue jeans and a thick dark sweater with a small mark in the form of a rose on the breast. He shook hands with those sitting at the table, gave a wide smile and crushed Peter’s hand with an overly strong handshake.

 

The other player sat down between Peter and the Mexican - a woman with a narrow face, pointed nose, hazel-brown eyes and thin lips that slanted slightly upwards, making it look as if she were smiling over some secret. Her blond hair was plaited and her fringe hung over her forehead. Peter had the impression that she was very proper, perhaps she worked as an estate agent or at a bank? The display proclaimed that this was Louise Vallaganie with number 44. She was the first player he’d seen with a two-digit number. Louise presented herself politely to the others, but didn’t seem to be really interested in the people she was seated at the table with. Peter couldn’t make out where she could come from. Maybe Russia? Or Poland. Or perhaps America. He had no idea. He glanced at the clock and saw it was 11:42. Eighteen minutes until it began.

 

Three minutes later, when the clock had advanced to 11:45, a movement on the stage drew everybody’s gaze. The room was swept into silence. From a door set at the side of the stage, all the croupiers walked out. They were men and women of all ages, but had many details in common. They all exuded an ice-cold sense of professionalism and determination, as if they’d been born to deal cards at King’s Hope. Like this was their only mission, and their families had performed this honoured task flawlessly for generations. They all wore the same uniform, black patent leather shoes, dark cotton trousers, a white shirt tucked in at the waist, a black waistcoat over the shirt and a red bow-tie.

 

Peter stared, entranced by the silent procession of people standing in line in straight rows. When the last one had come out through the side-door of the stage, they stood completely still and silent for a minute with their hands clasped behind them. Then, upon a signal, they walked out into the room to take their places at the tables. They marched out without speaking and divided themselves as if they were a river being diverted by invisible forces. The sight of the blond female croupiers evoked images of the Valkyries to Peter’s mind. They were coming to the battlefield to bring home the dead after the battle that would be played out at the casino.

 

You’re here too soon.

 

A young man with rugged brown hair halted before their table. He stood with his hands behind his back and waited. Peter guessed he was about twenty-five. His eyes were bright blue and his gaze was observant and piercing. His nose resembled a hawk’s, prepared to snatch its victims around the poker table.

 

Just another day at the office. Confident and unemotional. Nice.

 

There was one more empty chair to Peter’s right, which meant there would be at most six people around that table. The display showed that the player that hadn’t arrived yet was a man by the name of Howard Pelshik, number 8,621. Peter ran over the rules in his head. If he’d not picked up his chips before the tournament began then he’d be disqualified. In the edition of The Book that came out six years ago, there’d been a report about a person that had been struck with panic a couple of minutes before the tournament had been due to start. He’d banged the doors of the elevators and screamed that they should let him out, until The Boss announced in the public speakers that the tournament had begun. The man was immediately disqualified and that was that. Peter remembered the incident since it had been presented as a statistic in The Book. Each year, one hundred and one people had the opportunity of making it into the book, the first to be knocked out was also included. However, the first to leave had to stick to the rules to end up in The Book. The disqualified man had therefore been really lucky to be included; he'd ended up in the book as a statistical note since he was the tenth participant ever to be knocked out in that manner. It wasn’t likely that a scenario like that would happen again. The final hundred players also were given a place in The Book to have their names immortalised. Depending on whether or not they decided to continue with the tournament, of course.

 

Peter became irrationally nervous that Howard wouldn’t show up. All players had the right not to be seated at the table, but their chips needed to be there so they could pay their blinds. It wasn’t unusual that players with a huge stack went away to eat or sleep for an hour or so. He glanced worriedly at the clock on the wall – 11:51.

 

“Huh, what a show? That was more than I’d expected. What do you say?” Lennart exclaimed.

 

His English was better than Peter’s and he only had a slight accent. He grinned while he turned on his chair to watch all the croupiers. One of the others mumbled some sort of response, otherwise it remained silent around the table.

 

“You’re Swedish, aren’t you?” Lennart inquired, directing his question to Peter. “Wasn’t that something? So damned in control. It was better than watching my wife being fucked by a bunch of sweat balls!”

 

“Yeah sure, it was impressive. Where are you from? Somewhere nearby?” His first impression of Lennart was that the man was one of those that tried to wear down his opponents by talking. That was allowed, but it could be really annoying to constantly hear a voice chattering in your ears when you were trying to work out how to play the hand you were holding. The psychological war of poker had already begun. The one that lost the war left the contest, it was that simple.

 

“I’m from Umeå, though I live in Uppsala now. But you can bet that I took the limo here. Oh yes! You don’t want to miss the chance of riding in luxury when you get it. Made me feel young again.”

 

“I totally agree. And this place is like a giant space ship. Completely different from the woods down south where I’m from…” Peter shivered and felt like biting off his tongue. He’d started talking about himself without thinking, just what he hadn’t wanted to do. You should never volunteer information freely in poker, because if you open up just slightly it’s easy to say too much. He instinctively liked Lennart though, he seemed to be genuine below the surface, an honesty that came from being brought up away from the big cities. Peter could see himself in that. At least, he thought so.

 

“So you’re from down there. I thought I could hear it. I met some old girl earlier from Dalarna, so we’re not the only Swedes here. Are you good at Texas hold’em no limit, then?”

 

“Well, we’ll have to see.”

 

Texas hold’em was the name of the game until there was a winner. Each player is dealt two cards at the start of each round. Then every player places bets, or chips, to see who wishes to continue for that round. After this, the croupier burns a card by laying it to the side so that nobody can see which card it is. Three cards are then dealt up on the table, the flop. These cards are used by everybody to make a poker hand. There is one more round of betting for the players left in the round. When this is done, the croupier burns another card and the fourth card is revealed, the turn. There is one more round of betting, after which one final card is burned and the river is dealt. Together with the two cards each player is dealt, they now have seven cards to make a poker hand of five cards. One final round of betting takes place, after which one player wins all the chips placed in the pot. No limit means that one player can bet however many of their chips they wish at any time during play. The minimum bet is however always at least as much as the big blind.

 

“Oh, I see – you don’t want to tell. Ha ha! Well, we’ll see when we get started. Won’t that be soon, by the way?” Lennart wondered and pointed nonchalantly at the empty seat beside Peter.

 

These words made Peter feel ill at ease. It was now 11:54 and the seat was still unoccupied. As he looked at the clock, the display shifted to five minutes to twelve. That was the signal that all the croupiers had been waiting for, they pulled out their chairs in unison with a scraping that filled the room, and then sat themselves down on their seats in almost spooky harmony.

 

Their croupier who, according to the name badge, was called Rasmus, immediately pulled out an unopened deck of cards from his breast pocket. He held it up in the palm of his hand and showed it to each and every one of the players. He broke open the wrapper, putting the plastic in the breast pocket of his waistcoat and spread out the cards in a fan on the table in front of him. The backs of the cards were plain white apart from the letter KH that were placed symmetrically so that they could be read from both directions.

 

Rasmus picked up the cards and began to shuffle them. He made it look easy as he cut the cards, placed both halves of the deck against the table with his index and middle fingers and pulled his thumbs skilfully from the bottom of the two piles so that the cards were mixed. He did so four times before picking up the shuffled deck, placing a thick plastic card at the bottom so that the lowermost card couldn't be seen, and then he tapped the deck on the table twice so the cards formed a neat pile. Then he threw down a card very precisely in front of each player, starting with Howard who was still not at the table.

 

Howard was dealt 2♣, Peter 9♥, Louise Q♥, Miguel 3♦, Lennart 10♠ and finally Mads got J♦.

 

This meant that Louise would start as dealer since she’d been dealt the highest card. Rasmus picked up the cards and slid the button over to Louise. The button showed who would start dealing the cards, which meant that the first card to be dealt to the players would be given to Miguel. From there the cards would be dealt out clockwise until each player had two cards.

 

Miguel and Mads, sitting after the button, would be required to pay the small and large blinds respectively. You had to place your chips on the table sooner or later, playing cowardly and hoping for a place in the final was not an option. The way the blinds went up at King’s Hope gave the tournament a turbo-play feel, which meant that the blinds would soon become high and players had to fight to remain in the contest. If they didn’t manage to collect enough markers quite quickly, they would have to take chances. Statistically, the tournament’s fast pace was evident as early as the third or fourth round. The blinds were raised once every hour. To commence with, the amounts were low, merely 50 for the small blind and 100 for the big blind. But that didn’t mean losing these chips was negligible. Everyone started with 10,000, but this could change incredibly quickly. You were only ever a couple of hands from being knocked out if you weren’t careful.

 

Rasmus’ display had taken less than a minute. Peter glanced once more at Howard’s seat. Whoever he was, he now only had four minutes to get there. Otherwise – disqualification. He ought to be pleased that there would be one less opponent, but strangely enough he wasn’t.

 

As the clock display moved to 11:58, Howard arrived, running. He was a short, fat man with Asian features dressed in a dark purple suit. His thin, black hair bounced from side to side as he threw himself left and right so as not to bump into the poker tables and players that sat around them. He wore small sunglasses that completely hid his eyes, but they accented his puffy cheeks. He gasped for air before sitting down and opening his poker case to unpack his chips.

 

“Sorry I’m late! Stomach,” he said, pointing without looking up from his case.

 

Seeing Howard arrive made Peter sit up straight in his seat. The tournament could now get started as planned. As if Cid Andrew himself had heard his thoughts, there was a faint beep in the speaker system. A harsh but neutral voice cut through the silence.

 

“Welcome to this year’s poker tournament at King’s Hope. In a few seconds it will be twelve noon and it is time for the tournament to commence. I wish all players the best of luck and may the cards fall to your advantage. Let the contest begin!”

 

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Copyright ©Hans Olsson