Copyright ©Hans Olsson
I have the power that I need
And it is time I make you bleed
With every laughter, I can cry
When it's your time, I'll make you die
Monofader - Behind
"The money they give you for taking part goes quite a long way, depending what you choose to do with it of course. I gave a third to mum, so she can at least buy herself some tea. I've saved a third of it for myself, as starting capital when I've won the tournament. If, despite all odds, I don't win then they'll also go to mum, I've made arrangements. The remaining third of it is for you, Marv.
"If you're watching this, then I hope you've already received a visit. Otherwise they're on their way. Do you remember that day when I went to London to meet an old childhood friend? I was never there. I met some local boys instead and paid them to pay you a visit while I'm here. I'm pretty sure they'll do it, and maybe they've turned up already. One of them told me that he was really good with a chain, and another one liked the weight of iron pipes.
"I wish I could see the look on your face, but it's enough knowing that they'll be knocking on your door sooner or later. I bet you hadn't counted on that, had you? That's always been your problem, Marv. You're so narrow-sighted and have no imagination. Stubbing out cigarettes on my stomach because you've seen it on film isn't inventive. It's plagiarism, and a failure. There's always more than meets the eye. I saw it, but your fears held me back. Well, it's over now. Have a great life."
"Please follow me to the next table," someone by the side of him said. A guard was standing there, staring at him blankly. He was holding a plastic tray for chips in his hand.
Peter stood up a little unsteadily and stretched. There was a gun shot from the stage. It was a strange feeling to be moving to a new table in the middle of a round, like a cold draught making his eyes water and clearing his head.
"This way," the guard said, having picked up Peter's chips, and then led the way to table fifty-one where four players were sitting. The new table was slightly in front of Dibley's, which meant he'd be sitting with his back to her. Now he couldn't involuntarily steal a glance at her.
Peter stumbled there, each step harder than the previous, when he realised how large his new opponents' piles were. It would continue to be a tough fight with a highly uncertain outcome.
"How many players are left?" he wondered, exhausted. His voice was hoarse, like a creaky, rusted door.
"There are six hundred and twenty-three players left," the guard replied drily, setting down the tray at an empty position and placing out his chips.
"Please register yourself at the table," he said, and pointed at the display. Peter obediently swiped his wristband over it and sat down. The guard took the tray and disappeared without a word.
"Look, more chips for us. Good luck, kid," a well-built man with a red beard said. He was wearing sunglasses and a scarf was tied at his forehead like a bandana. His name was Montagu Norman, number 2,909, and was sitting a couple of seats to Peter's right. Montagu had spread out his stacks to stake out as much space as possible, rather than having high towers. He had 245,000 in chips.
To Peter's left sat a woman with black hair sticking out from beneath a fedora. She was pale, but there was something determined about the way her lips were pressed together. She was Vivika Hurrman, number 1,482, and Peter estimated that she had about 180,000.
To Peter's right was a thin man in a chequered shirt with wavy blond hair and glasses. He was silently studying Peter's pile of chips. His name was Jerry Truwill, number 6,613 and Peter reckoned he had about 210,000 in chips.
The last player, sitting between Montagu and Jerry, was a man with sorrowful eyes and a clean-shaven head. He had typical Russian features. He was called Lev "Wind man" Ohlm, number 552. He had 1,145,000 in chips making him the chip leader at the table. Peter could hear sounds like sacks of potatoes hitting the floor from the stage.
Many of the players had chip colours that he'd not seen earlier. There were orange chips with pink stripes on the sides worth 100,000. Lev had a chip that was red and white, worth 250,000. It was shiny and had a golden line around the edge.
They were in the middle of a hand, so Peter had a brief but invaluable moment of respite and a free opportunity to study the other players. Lev made a large bet even before the flop, forcing the others to back out. Everybody apart from Vivika that is. She made a large raise, forcing Lev to fold when the turn was dealt. She won 60,000 on that hand. What had Peter learnt about his new opponents? Not that much, which was frustrating. The croupier at the table was called Ivan, and he had long sideburns and a crooked nose that slanted to the right. He picked up the cards and shuffled them as if they were angry wasps.
The dealer button was in front of Lev and Peter had the big blind. His hands were shaking noticeably as he pushed in the blind. He'd probably make it quite far by just passing and folding, but he'd never make it all the way. If he was knocked out now, it would be pointless. No mention in The Book. All there'd be would be lack of sleep and the taste of candied ginger.
"Bet 30,000," Vivika said firmly.
There went his chances of seeing the flop for free. He tried bracing himself and waited for the others to decide what they'd do before he could look at his own cards. He carefully bent up the corners to see A♣6♥.
There was a rawness in the air now that became more intense with each hand that was played. Five players around the table. No, thanks. Not with those cards.
"I'll fold," he said, as dispassionately as he could.
He knew the others were judging him and weighing him up. Vivika and Jerry still had to make their move for that hand. Peter tried his best to read his new opponents. In some way, they were like cardboard cut-outs, with no characteristics and no tells. His eyelids were constantly being pulled shut. He wasn't the only one who was tired. One man at a table to the left was sleeping with his arms crossed beneath his head. He had an enormous stack left and he'd survive, at least for a while. At the next table but one, one of them was sitting with their head back, snoring. In the end, Jerry won the hand and Ivan dealt a new hand at once. The dealer button trudged along, and the bell rang.
"It's now 3 pm," the untiring voice announced in the speakers. "The blinds are now going up to level twenty, 6,000-12,000, with an ante of 2,000. Right now, there are six hundred and eleven players and King's Hope wishes you all good luck."
Peter was struck by the number, six hundred and eleven players. There were too many, far too many. He was really beginning to close in on the top hundred. However, the speed of play at his table was dragging since so many sat with stacks way over the average. As time passed, he also felt less engaged with his opponents. In one way that was natural. They were merely names and faces, and he didn't have the energy to memorise further details about them. Since Lennart had disappeared, he'd felt … sad, if it was possible to feel that way at King's Hope. On another level, it was highly worrying that he couldn't muster the energy needed to take note of their tells and strategies. The players around the table melted into vague wax effigies and their faces were no more than formless, grey lumps. They occasionally exchanged a few words, but for the most part they just sat in silence, clicking their chips and waiting for good cards. Peter was playing in the dark.
Statistically, it often was like this. Nobody wanted to get knocked out when they were so close to salvation. Many players merely threw hands, hoping that someone else would be knocked out before them. It wasn't unusual that monster hands were discarded since each hand played was a risk.
Several hands later he was dealt good cards once more, A♥A♦, and he sat under the gun.
"Bet 36,000," Peter said, counted up his chips and pushed them over the line.
All the others folded straight away.
He'd won the hand and raked home the pot, which was relatively tiny. But the pot he'd won brought him just over the magic threshold.
My first million!
It was a victory for his self-esteem, at least.
"Did you all write wills before the tournament?" Vivika suddenly wondered.
"Er, no," Jerry replied. "Why would I do that?"
"What about you others? Did you write one?"
The players at the table shook their heads.
"What will they do with your stuff when you're gone?" she asked Jerry.
Jerry drummed at the edge of the table with his thumbs. "I don't know. I suppose they'll just have to fight over it, but I'm not writing a will."
Jerry stared at Vivika as if evaluating her. "Because if I write a will, then I've already given up, and I certainly have not!"
"I wrote one," Vivika said quietly. "My sister gets my stuff when I'm gone."
"Then you've already given up?"
"I'm just being realistic," she replied with sadness in her voice, shaking her head. "That's all."
The conversation died out and the players sat, avoiding looking at each other. The tournament rolled onwards. Most of the players around the table were unwilling to get involved in playing any hands. Peter tried to use that fact by playing aggressively and betting high before the flop. He won a number of small pots like that, but it was obvious that most of them wanted to try to wait it out until top hundred. The players around table fifty-one frequently took two of their allowed three minutes before making any decision, and therefore the speakers soon came to life again.
"It is now 4 pm and the blinds are going up to level twenty-one, 8,000-16,000, and the ante is 2,000. Five hundred and thirty-four players are battling on. King's Hope wishes you good luck."
He glanced over his shoulder and saw that most of the tables were empty. Many players were sitting heads-up. His own table was one of the fuller ones, even though there were only five of them there. When he squinted, he could make out individual faces amongst the remaining players. He was quite sure he spotted Korhart sitting over there, behind a massive mountain of colourful chips. He reassured himself that Dibley was still there. She didn't notice that he was looking at her, but she was sitting there, grey and exhausted with a dwindling stack in front of her. A little further afield, he saw an Asian with spiky hair. He also had an enormous pile. On a whim, he searched the room for more players with similar huge piles. Were they the ones that would end up around the final table? Probably. To his left he saw a woman who half stood up, reached across the table and collected a huge pile of chips. On the other side of the table, a man got on his feet. His head was hanging and the guards shoved him firmly to the stage. To the right he saw a younger man with a well-trimmed beard behind another mountain.
He sighed. Relatively he had quite a lot, but against those piles … He'd never manage it. Not against those monsters. The opponents over there were titans. Around his table, they were merely giants. He himself was extremely mortal.
What was he thinking? It wasn't over until it was over. He looked down at the table, weighing up his pile with his eyes.
You can win if you want. You've enough artillery there to make the others bleed. Don't give up.
On the next hand he was dealt good cards, he bet 36,000 before the flop. It should cost them to attempt to take his chips. He had Q♠10♠.
Montagu called without much delay, and after a slight hesitation Jerry joined as well. He discretely wiped his sweating hands on his trousers.
Ivan quickly turned up the flop, 2♣10♥5♠.
A match on the top pair. Was it enough?
"Bet 55,000," he said and pushed the chips over the line.
"I'll fold," Montagu said at once.
"Yep," Jerry agreed mechanically.
He reached over the table and pulled his chips together. The hands he was winning were not big ones, but at least he was keeping up a steady pace.
Three hands later, Jerry was knocked out by Vivika. The hand had begun calmly, but the two of them raised each other's bets after the flop and all of a sudden Jerry was all-in. Jerry had two pairs, jacks and tens, and lost against three eights.
The guns echoed frequently, and Jerry's shot was drowned out by the others. Peter's nerves were at their greatest just now. He was terribly close to his goal, and his fear was like a black, choking lump of phlegm. He had to turn away from the table several times to take deep, gasping breaths to force air down in his lungs.
Shortly after, Lev lost an all-in against Montagu. It was an insane hand in which both of them had full houses with three kings, but where Montagu had a pair of nines and Lev had sixes. Lev lost an enormous pot. The clocks seemed to be moving faster, too. Or was it the fact that the players had been awake for so long which affected their sense of time? And maybe their tired hands were no longer so efficient at handling chips. Whatever it was, the speakers soon crunched to life again, a sound that jarred Peter's ears.
"It is now 5 pm. The blinds are going up to level twenty-two, 10,000-20,000 with an ante of 3,000. Three hundred and fifty-seven players are still battling on. King's Hope wishes all of them good luck."
Two hands later, Peter peered down at 8♥8♣ when he had the dealer button. Before it was his turn, Lev had raised to 36,000.
Peter stopped to think. Lev had lost a lot of his original stack and now had about 300,000 remaining. That was fifteen big blinds.
"Raise to 72,000," he said.
"Call," Lev quickly replied.
Ivan turned up the flop, 7♠2♠K♦.
One higher card and a flush draw.
"Bet 75,000," Lev said. About half his stack was now in the pot. Peter had the feeling that Lev was trying to scare him off. Peter guessed that Lev had the flush draw. In that case, he had to scare him right back.
"Raise to 150,000," he said, calmly.
"All-in." Lev's response was lightning fast.
That startled Peter slightly. Did Lev have something he hadn't thought of? Maybe he had a king in his hand, but Peter thought he had something else. Ace and queen, perhaps.
"Call," he said, and revealed his 8♥8♣.
Lev turned over J♥A♠.
He'd read Lev rather well. Now he just had to avoid jacks and aces.
The turn was 10♣.
Lev stretched so hard that you could hear his spine cracking.
The river was 3♣.
"I'll remember you, Lev," Peter drawled as Lev stood up and disappeared towards the stage. When the echo from the gun shot had died out, Peter had already forgotten about him.
Peter stood up and stretched his legs. There were too many left. Far too many. Soon, most of them would start delaying making any kind of decisions as long as they could to increase their chances of making it to the top one hundred. He walked briefly around the table and looked around at the other tables in the hall. Two there. Three there. Two over there. It was the same at their table, where it was almost impossible to get Montagu or Vivika engaged in any hand. Peter continued to bet aggressively and managed to win a lot of small pots, but occasionally the other two snarled back and a few times he lost the chips that he'd just collected. Vivika had made the biggest recovery, having won two large pots from Montagu. Peter kept on an even keel with about a million in chips.
This was a stage of the tournament when it was worthwhile to be disciplined, and to have rested properly during the previous breaks. But for each player that was knocked out, the slower it went. Peter believed it might take an hour or two more. There had been long debates outside the walls of King's Hope about ways to reduce these delay tactics. For example, one suggestion had been to play hand for hand, meaning that each table should wait for the others until a hand was finished. Chris “Warmech” Houlihan's words still stood firm; if the players couldn't get through all the different phases of the poker tournament, then they didn't deserve to be in the top hundred. No rule against delaying had been implemented.
Peter's guess about the time turned out to be wrong, and the speakers sounded four more times until Cid Andrew said anything that was sufficiently interesting for Peter to wake out of the half-stupor that he and the others had been struck by.
"The time is now 9 pm and the blinds are now going up to level twenty-six, 25,000-50,000 with an ante of 5,000. There are one hundred and thirty contestants left in the tournament. King's Hope wishes you all good luck."
It was getting ridiculously close. Dangerously close. It was now that temptation was the greatest. One of them was Dibley. He hadn't seen her walk the blue march, although he hadn't paid too much attention to many of those marches. Was she still alive? He could turn around and make sure, but he couldn't bring himself to. They were like Orpheus and Eurydice, if he turned around then he could be condemning her to death. Or even worse – he might condemn himself to death. Instead, he concentrated on the table.
A few minutes later he got good cards again when he had the dealer button: J♥K♥.
"Bet 150,000," he said, and shoved in a standard bet of three big blinds, just as he'd done so many times during the past few hours.
"Raise to 300,000," Vivika said.
"Call," Montagu added.
Should he call the bet? Although, since he'd sat down again after his legstretcher the guns had fired three times. Twenty-seven players left until top hundred. Twenty-seven left until The Book. When it came to his turn he sat and stared at the pot like an idiot, not able to make up his mind. One minute passed, then two.
"I'll fold," he said finally.
What if he was knocked out now, to irreversibly fall at the finish line. It would be almost comical, and he might be remembered for maybe one week for his royal straight flush. Then he'd be banished to the shadows and would be forgotten like so many others.
In the end, Montagu won the hand on the turn. The guns fired in the background. Now there were maybe twenty places left until top hundred.
New cards landed in front of them, and Peter was dealt K♣Q♣.
He had enough chips to be able to discard hands for a while longer, but the blinds were beginning to become significantly high again.
"One moment," he mumbled, and stood up. He looked around, being careful not to look behind him, and estimated that there were about one hundred and ten players left. None of them looked as if they had a particularly small number of chips, which meant that he was short-stacked even in the larger scope of the game.
"Shit," he muttered, tired, and sank back down into his seat again.
But he knew what he needed to do, what the right plan of action was.
"Bet 150,000," he said in an attempt to steal the blinds since he had the dealer button.
"Call," Vivika said quickly, matching his bet.
"Call," Montagu added, smiling like a wolf and also paying the bet.
Ivan turned up the flop: 4♣5♥Q♦.
Peter had the top pair and a strong kicker. What did the others have?
"Check," he said, trying to keep his voice steady as he searched in their faces for information.
Both of them passed in quick succession.
The turn was 7♠.
He hesitated. There was a straight draw. Could anything good come out of this hand if he didn't go all-in? He could just check, of course, and see what Montagu did.
"Bet 250,000," Montagu said at once.
Peter stroked the chips he was holding with his fingers. Was it time? Was it the right decision to call? He had the top pair, that was a fact … His stomach was in turmoil and he couldn't work out if it was his intuition or all the other stuff. He thought for such a long time that Ivan had to clear his throat and warn him that his hand would soon be declared dead.
"How do you want it?" Montagu wondered.
There was something enticing and challenging about his voice that Peter didn't like one bit. He was instantly convinced that Montagu had better cards than he had.
"I'll fold," Peter muttered in dismay and discarded his hand.
Montagu gave a big smile. He lifted up his cards, glanced at them and then showed Peter 6♥. He threw the other card down on the table, leaving Peter in an eternal uncertainty.
Peter stared at his diminishing pile of chips. He'd lost momentum and a large part of the capital he'd worked so hard to build up. Now he was in the same unpleasant situation that he'd been in earlier and that he'd fought to get out of. All for nothing. He lowered his head, and as he did the guns fired, twice in succession. After that, the speakers crackled to life again.
"It is now 9.20 pm. King's Hope would like to inform you that there are only one hundred contestants left. Those of you who have survived this far may choose to leave the competition and return to the world outside, or to continue fighting for the esteemed first prize. There will now be a break of five minutes. Those players that choose to leave the tournament are requested to leave the final floor within that time. Those who continue will gain a place in The Book. King's Hope congratulates you all and wishes you good luck on your journey to the final table."
Peter slowly raised his head. He could hear a collective sigh of relief. Tears of happiness were suddenly running down his cheeks, and he sat up straight. A weight had lifted from his shoulders. The road at King's Hope was one-way, but he'd reached the line. Now he could make his departure with a good conscience. Although when he'd arrived, he hadn't wanted to die. It would be so easy just to stand up and leave. He lowered his eyes. No. That wasn't an option. Then it would all have been in vain and all those memories would die along with him, outside the walls of King's Hope. His rightful place was here, by the poker table, until the end.
He noticed that several other players were struggling with the same thoughts. Most of them were just staring down at the table, and he suspected that they were forcing themselves to remain seated. But some of them stood up and walked towards the lifts. Some of them were slouched, as if they were ashamed. Others walked holding their heads high, proud to have survived that year's tournament. For them, life outside would be much easier for quite some time. When the prize money was used up, their celebrity status might keep them afloat for a while longer. He stood up and slowly turned around.
He couldn't see Dibley by the table where she'd been sitting, and his heart sunk for a moment. But then someone came up by his side and they smiled at each other. She was pale and had black rings under her eyes.
"Hi," she said. "We made it all this way. It's unbelievable."
"Yeah, I can hardly digest it." He paused, not knowing what he should say. "What'll you do now?" he forced out in the end, painfully aware that the short break was quickly ticking away.
Dibley brushed back a lock of hair that had fallen over her forehead. "I was thinking about what you said earlier. This really changes everything. At home … They'll try and find ways to force me to be who I was before. But after this, everything is different."
"Mmm," Peter nodded. King's Hope certainly changed people.
"I'm not going to let them pull me back down to what I was before," she said, straightening her back.
Peter felt a shiver run through his body. He opened his mouth to tell her to get out, but he changed his mind. At that moment, Dibley was the strong and liberated woman that she'd come in to play.
"I'll do it," she said after they'd stood in silence for several seconds. "I'm leaving the tournament. I'm beginning afresh as of now. What are you going to do, kitty cat?"
Peter slowly shook his head. "I have to carry on."
They looked at each other for a long while, as their last few seconds together drifted away.
"OK. Good luck then, kitty," Dibley said. "I hope we'll meet again," she added with no real conviction in her voice.
They briefly hugged and then she turned and disappeared towards the elevators and out of his life. He watched until she was gone. Then he sank back down into his seat at the table.
Now it was just the final stretch. He'd fight as long as he had any chips left, because now he was in The Book. He was flying, and he was immortal.