Chapter 4 (round 1)

Chapter 4

 

Don't trust an avatar

 

Here you are on your own

 

This place is called the subspace

 

It is where you'll fight alone

 

 

 

This place is called the subspace

 

It is where you'll die alone

 

 

 

Funker Vogt - Subspace

 

 

 

 

 

”The casino’s OK, though I’ve seen better places. I looked around earlier, explored the corridors and tested the beds. Good bounce, clean and white, but nothing special. Once, many years ago, I was at a hotel in Germany. There were tea carts in every nook and cranny. Although that was when I was younger and hungrier. And besides, this isn’t a hotel. Anyhow, I just wanted to say that despite the polished surface in here, I’ve seen other hotels with better facilities. To be honest, the food’s hard to beat and they haven’t even opened the tournament restaurant yet. Other places don’t have Salon Selma either. I’m looking forward to the third break. It’ll get busy then, you can be sure of that.

 

"I’m more than ready now! It’s great to actually be here. I hardly thought I’d make it here, but once I’d stepped out of the house it went smoothly. I did it. Ellen, if you see this you can cheer me on – you can at least manage that? It’ll be a nail-biter and I’m looking forward to it.

 

"The absolute best about being here is the money. Maybe you’re meant to give it to relatives, but you, Ellen have so much already. I remember when I realised that. While most others have to work hard for their daily bread, you ordered your own food transport that drove across town. What a sight that was, kids and grown-ups alike running after the truck. They didn’t stop until they got to the barred gates where your guards chased them off. I watched from the window and I’ll never forget the sight of people huddling and slouching away once they realised it was private property. I was really impressed because you had this I-couldn’t-care-less aura about you. I’ve seen people try to fake that without much success, but you got it at the first attempt. I was really chuffed that I’d hooked up with you.

 

"But people change over the years. Was it that attitude that made you cheat on me? I found a fucking sweater in the wash that definitely wasn’t mine. The maid didn’t care, even though she knew too. It was tough going, but it was you that had all that money so what was I supposed to do? Oh well, no use crying over spilt milk. The money I got for taking part in the tournament is a start. I’ve put it in a private account where you can’t lay your hands on it. When I get out, it’ll be you and I going separate ways. I hope you’re doing well out there, I really do. Because it’s great in here. See you, one way or another!”

 

 

It seemed like an eternity before a sharp sound was heard from the speakers. It was the starting signal. All the croupiers started in unison to deal cards to the players and Peter held his breath in an attempt to fight back his nerves. He felt a tingle in his stomach as he followed the circle of cards being spread around the table with his eyes. The first card landed in front of him, and it wasn’t many seconds later that the second arrived. He scraped the cards together with visibly shaking hands, but let them lay on the table without looking at them.

 

Don’t reveal anything you don’t have to. The less tells, the better!

 

Since Louise had the dealer button, Miguel and Lennart had the small and big blinds. Mads was therefore under the gun, meaning that he was first to take any action before the flop. Mads placed his hands over his cards, leaned forward and glanced at them. Then he carefully pushed 100 in chips over the line. He was in the game.

 

Howard also hid his cards under his hands, but unlike Mads he threw them into the middle of the table, from where the croupier immediately collected them. It was now Peter’s turn. He peeked slowly at his cards, one at a time. 9♥8♣. Rubbish cards. He tossed them to the croupier. Louise also folded at once.

 

“Call,” Miguel said, and threw in 50 more in chips to match the big blind.

 

“Well, now it begins,” Lennart said and threw in another 100 nonchalantly into the pot.

 

Mads quickly matched the bet, followed by Miguel. The first round of betting was complete and the game could get started for real.

 

There was already 600 in the pot and Peter watched nervously as the croupier burned a card and then turned up three cards on the table.

 

The flop was K♦3♦9♣.

 

Miguel, sitting after the button was the first to make a move. He thought for a while before checking, something that each player could do when they weren’t required to see an earlier raise. After a short pause for consideration, Lennart bet 300. Mads stared down at the table a while before he finally counted out 600 in chips and pushed them over the line. Only Miguel was left, and he folded after hesitating for a moment. Lennart snorted and threw his cards into the middle. Mads had won the first pot relatively simply and cheaply.

 

Peter, who’d been sitting and watching, had followed the game with watchful eyes. That was his greatest strength in poker. He wasn’t the best at the maths, even if he’d memorised everything from pot odds and starting hands to the percentage chances of winning each stage. Neither was he an expert at reading tiny reactions like flared nostrils, small changes in the voice or other tells. Peter’s superpower was his skill in sniffing out his opponents’ behaviour. He couldn’t read the minute details, but he could build up a relatively correct picture about whether his opponents had strong or weak hands. For an average player this could take hours, but Peter’s gut feeling warned him early. This instinct had saved his chips many times during tournaments he’d played at home and he’d learnt to trust it.

 

He needed to see more of the others around the table, but it felt like Mads and Lennart were loose-aggressive players who, simply put, played out their opponents instead of just waiting for good cards. They were more likely to bluff than passive players. Miguel felt like a loose-passive player that played many hands in the hope of getting hits when the cards turned up on the table.

 

Peter already had a clear plan. He’d play tight-aggressive and maintain a calm and safe appearance until he’d built up a decent pile of chips. At least safe for the most part, he’d have to take chances sometimes. Maybe even risks… The most important decision to make was if he’d fold or not, that was how to keep chips.

 

Rasmus had quickly picked up all the cards and was busy shuffling the deck. The soft rustling of the cards was suddenly interrupted by a sound from the speakers.

 

“Dear contestants, we have our first elimination. On the eighteenth floor, Arnoldo Contadino from southern Italy, number 449, was knocked out on the first deal. Arnoldo was dealt K♦K♠ and went all-in, but he was challenged by player 3,178 who had 10♥10♣. Despite having the advantage of the higher starting hand, 10♠ came up on the turn and Arnoldo didn’t get a king on the river. As the first contestant to leave the competition, Arnoldo will be mentioned in this year’s edition of The Book. We wish you the best of luck for the rest of the tournament.” The Boss’s hoarse voice faded out and disappeared.

 

An oppressive silence spread over the room as all players digested this information. The only sound that could be heard was the sound of cards being shuffled and the clicking of chips. Finally, Lennart gave a low-pitched whistle.

 

“Well I’ll be damned. Going out on the first hand. People normally play so conservatively in this tournament. What an idiot, contest an all-in with a pair of tens? Sure, sure, apparently he won but what the heck – I wouldn’t do that on my first hand.”

 

“Maybe he was a newbie?” Howard suggested while at the same time rubbing his cheek.

 

Rasmus started dealing them new cards, starting with Lennart since Miguel had the button.

 

“Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the cards he actually had?” Miguel snapped.

 

“Exactly,” Howard said. “And sometimes you need to take a shot, don’t you? If you have cowboys for a start hand, you may as well go all-in.”

 

“I suppose, it just sounded idiotic. Pair of tens …” Miguel muttered. At this stage, he was so indignant his face had turned red.

 

“Maybe it was him that wanted to get into The Book? The other player I mean, with number, 3,178.” As he spoke, his second card landed in front of him. “And don’t forget that there are on average seven players knocked out on the first hand, but only the very first is written in The Book and this year that was Arnoldo. Getting to the final isn’t exactly an easy match with ten thousand players. Especially when most of them play tight,” he added, nodding provocatively at Lennart. “Will you get to the final, for example?”

 

“Of course I’ll be in the final,” Lennart exclaimed. “First of all, I just need to knock all of you out,” he grinned.

 

Peter didn’t take any notice of the comment. Instead, he said, “He was unlucky, wasn’t he? What if 3,178 wanted to get into The Book but failed, and now he’s going to have to fight his way through the entire contest. He’s got more chips than anyone else right now, but that can change like the swing of a pendulum.”

 

“Yeah, yeah Mr. Philosopher!” Louise interrupted. “Not everybody wants to make their way into The Book as you make it sound like. Can’t we just concentrate on the game instead?”

 

Peter opened his mouth to say something but changed his mind. The Book was his goal, unless he managed to win. He wondered briefly what Louise’s aim was. To get through the third round, maybe, because after that the doors to Salon Selma were opened.

 

“Sure,” he replied and fixed his gaze on the table.

 

Howard was first out pre-flop and he folded. Peter carefully lifted the corners of his cards to see what he had. Q♠Q♦.

 

A good hand. He could feel the blood rushing in his ears but was determined not to show it. He thought for a moment before sliding 300 in chips over the line. A bet size of two and a half, or three times the big blind was good to signal strength to the other players around the table without jeopardising too many chips. Sticking to this was a good strategy so as not to reveal too much information. Louise and Miguel both folded as a result, Lennart was in and after a moment’s consideration, even Mads stayed in the game. Two opponents that had seen his hand. As long as neither of them were trying to lure him into a trap, it looked good so far.

 

The flop was 5♦10♥Q♣.

 

Peter had made a set, three of a kind with two cards in his hand and the third lying on the table. He contemplated a moment before tossing another 500 chips into the pot. Lennart folded and Mads matched the bet after some hesitation. Peter was holding the nuts, the best possible hand. He wondered how long Mads would be willing to carry on. When the turn came, it was the K♥. There was the risk that Mads had made a straight, or possibly a higher three of a kind, but Peter didn’t think so. He quickly pushed 700 more into the pot and Mads folded almost straight away.

 

Peter cheered inside. He’d won his first pot. Not a huge sum, but it felt like a victory to have won it. For one thing, he’d grown his pile of chips and that was every player’s lifeline so as not to be knocked out. Furthermore, his confidence had been boosted and the others would think twice next time they played against his hands. At that moment, he felt like king of the casino and he intended to keep that crown as long as possible.

 

For the next few hands he only got junk cards. When he had the small blind, he folded on 2♥9♠ and on the big blind he got to see the flop with K♣4♠. Since none of the cards on the flop matched his hole cards, the two cards that were his, he quickly discarded his hand. This passive play style gave him the opportunity to study his opponents more thoroughly. His first impression that Lennart played many hands was soon confirmed. On the other hand, this was working out quite well for him. He lost about as many pots as he won, but it paid off since his pile of chips was growing.

 

Mads and Miguel both had a tighter play-style. Mads was particularly obvious since he pushed in a pile of chips when he had good cards. He was however forced to bite the bullet sometimes and fold when even better cards came up on the table, but he wasn’t afraid to bet when needed. Miguel was similar, even if he played fewer hands. Peter couldn’t quite make out Howard. The sweaty man in sunglasses was playing almost obviously badly, which led to his pile of chips steadily diminishing. He occasionally won a hand, but it was never enough to cover his losses. Peter was concerned that Howard would be the first to leave their table.

 

Louise was the hardest to understand. She skilfully varied her play and it was expensive to see her hands. Moreover, she didn’t hesitate to fold in pots where the stakes were higher. She was also a loose-aggressive player. Peter suspected that she sometimes played hands that she shouldn't. Her appearance, like that of a librarian, gave a false sense of security. She was a dangerous opponent at the table.

 

It wasn’t until the ninth hand at table thirty that Peter joined play again. He was under the gun and was staring in concentration at A♥J♥. A good starting hand, since he could make high pairs, a flush or even a straight. After a moment’s thought, he raised to 250. Louise, Miguel and Lennart all folded. Mads continued and finally Howard at the big blind joined.

 

Upon the flop Peter felt the sweat. On the table was K♥K♦Q♥.

 

So far, Peter had a pair on the table, he was one draw away from a straight and had a good chance at the highest flush if another heart was dealt. Mads and Howard both checked. Peter hoped none of the other would noticed him swallowing as he pushed 350 over the line.

 

Mads studied the cards on the table and saw the raise. It was possible he had one of the high cards. Howard drew his hands through his hair, frustrated. Then he tossed away his cards and leant back in his chair with a deep Hollywood sigh.

 

The turn made Peter’s heart stop. There it was, 10♥.

 

He had the absolute king of poker hands. A royal straight flush. He could hardly believe his eyes. The probability of a royal was miniscule, or 1 in 30,940 since there were seven cards including the river. For a fraction of a second he wanted to jump out of his chair and scream wildly for joy. Instead, he pretended to contemplate for a long while what the cards on the table had to offer, whilst at the same time fervently thinking about how many chips he could steal from Mads. In an attempt to lure Mads into a trap, Peter checked. Mads behaved as usual, studied the cards on the table, the size of the pot, glanced at his own hole cards, felt for his chips making Peter hold his breath, but in the end he passed.

 

The river was 4♠.

 

This card probably did nothing for Mads’ hand and therefore wasn’t likely to make him bet. Peter was very aware that he would have to decide the size of the pot himself. How much should he bet to encourage Mads to see his cards? Not too much otherwise Mads would just fold. But not too little since then he would not be taking advantage of the situation. Although … What did Mads think he had? If he could make Mads believe that he was bluffing, maybe he would call. How could he best achieve that? He considered for almost a minute until he finally pushed 1,000 in chips into the pot. That made it look as if he were trying to intimidate Mads, and in that way encourage him to call. From the corner of his eye, he observed how Mads raised his hands and locked them together in front of his face while he contemplated. The seconds stretched into an eternity as Peter waited for his trap to close. He was very aware of rule 9:

 

 

 

9. A player may only think for three minutes before a decision must be made. If the player exceeds this time limit, the hand is declared dead and will be automatically discarded.

 

 

 

It took Mads two minutes to come to a decision. He folded. Peter was noticeably disappointed, and this made him irritated since he didn’t want to show his feelings under any circumstances.

 

A royal straight flush. And he doesn’t make a bet!

 

With shaking hands, he turned his hand up to show the others.

 

“Ha! Look at that.” Lennart exclaimed. “A royal!”

 

“Yeah, not bad. I’m still waiting for my first,” Howard responded with a smile.

 

“I’m wearing the wrong lenses, so I didn’t see the suit at first,” Mads nodded and wiped his brow with his hand. “Now I’m glad I folded. Bloody hell, I was lucky!”

 

“Yeah, lucky,” Peter replied stiffly.

 

A commentator’s voice boomed inside his head: Unlucky, kid.

 

At that moment, he didn’t know what to think. For one, he’d been dealt the highest hand there was. He’d been unbeatable. The probability of anyone else getting a royal straight flush during the tournament was extremely low. For the other, he was bitterly disappointed that he’d been dealt it then. In part, it was very early in the tournament, and partly that nobody had bet against him. Poker was like that, but how many similar opportunities would he get?

 

Peter tried not to show his disappointment to the others and he played the next few hands calmly and methodically. He’d played the hand right. Hadn’t he?

 

A few hands later he had the button and had been dealt K♥J♠.

 

Lennart folded, Mads joined and Howard raised to 200. Peter sat and thought. King-jack was OK, but there was a risk these could be threatened, especially since they weren’t suited – cards of the same suit, and since Howard had raised before him.

 

“Fold,” he said, in as neutral a voice that he could muster.

 

Howard won the hand on the turn by aggressive betting.

 

Thirty-seven minutes had passed before it happened. Three tables to their left, the players drew a collective breath that could be heard in a large part of the hall. Somebody at the table gave a shout of excitement and another groaned. When Peter looked, he saw a short man with dark hair stand up. His face was deathly pale and he was staring straight ahead. Three guards had crept up behind him and were standing there, prepared. He turned stiffly and looked into their eyes. Peter couldn’t see the man’s facial expression, but he could read the panic and anxiety from the body language. His shoulders were heaving from his gasping breaths. His head turned from side to side, as if looking for an exit. One of the guards gestured towards the stage. The others stood back, at the ready. In case. Peter knew that the guards carried stun guns if the defeated players made a fuss. The man swayed and started moving towards the stage. His steps were very heavy, as if his shoes were made of lead. When he got to the stage he stopped and hesitated. The guards were there at once and pushed him roughly up the small staircase. The man stumbled, but managed to keep his balance and stood there in the limelight where everyone could see him. His shoulders sagged and he was as white as a sheet. The guards didn’t hesitate. One of them pulled out a gun, pointed it at the man’s head and pulled the trigger.

 

The sound of the shot echoed in the room, but it wasn’t sufficiently loud to deafen. Peter wished it had been. He could still hear the messy sound of the man’s blood and brains peppering the wall and floor behind the stage. This was followed by a dull thud as the body fell to the side and hit the floor. Like a sack of potatoes being thrown into a cellar. Peter saw the man’s legs and feet lift slightly before he looked away.

 

“Now it’s begun,” Lennart whispered solemnly.

 

Yup, it was for real now. The point of no return had been passed a long time ago. There was only one dark and uncertain way onwards. Peter pushed away the wave of nausea that swept through him.

 

He’d read loads of books containing murders and watched war movies and documentaries. He’d seen thousands of people die on film. None of that had prepared him for the guards’ cold brutality. Two more shots resounded as the guards made sure that the man was dead. Then, there was a weak scuffing sound as they dragged the body off the stage. After that, there was silence. It had been over in a matter of seconds. The staff of King’s Hope were efficient and professional.

 

At the table where the man had sat, one of the players suddenly stood up – a very fat man with shaved head, a thick bull neck and cauliflower ears. He had a tribal tattoo on his neck that disappeared under a white T-shirt. He looked like a white Mike Tyson as his intimidating eyes swept around the hall.

 

“The bastard got what he deserved,” he shouted. “Do you all hear? He got what he deserved!”

 

The large man sat down again and Peter noticed that he was shaking with anger. Words of abuse and scoffing flew from several other tables. In a strange way, the man’s tantrum had eased the oppressive atmosphere around table thirty.

 

“Wonder why he’s so upset,” Howard said, without any sign of pity.

 

A little while earlier, Howard had ordered a glass of the casino’s own brand of whiskey, Cowboy Andrew, named after Cid Andrew. This whiskey was matured in oak barrels between seven and ten years and was in high demand. It was sold outside the casino at exclusive restaurants to those who could afford it. The older vintages were also extremely desirable for rich collectors, and were consumed with an almost religious appreciation in private gatherings. The media of course didn’t write about the whiskey but Cowboy Andrew had despite that become a legendary drink after one player, during the casino’s second year, had praised the sweet, fruity drink in a long speech from one of the monologue booths. The demand for it had increased exponentially and was one of King’s Hope’s biggest exports and sources of income during the rest of the year when the tournament wasn’t taking place. That was also when the monologue booth had seriously shown its potential power for publicity, and that attracted many players each year. In the monologue booth, they had the opportunity to be seen, to mark their presence.

 

Howard had abandonded the whiskey for a gin and tonic that he sipped every now and then. Peter doubted that Howard’s choice was so tactical, and after having seen a player being shot he was himself a lot less keen on that beer he’d been thinking about earlier.

 

“The one that left took the bald guy’s chips and then lost them to someone else, maybe,” Louise suggested.

 

“Yeah, makes sense,” Peter agreed, understanding her reasoning. “No wonder he’s angry.”

 

“King’s Hope in a nutshell,” Lennart laughed.

 

The tournament went on mercilessly.

 

Peter looked at his cards, K♣10♦.

 

As he glanced at Howard’s stack of chips, he became suddenly concerned that he would soon be leaving the tournament. Howard had almost methodically spread his chips amongst the others at the table and had just less than 3,000 left. Peter swallowed as he distractedly checked his cards again. He didn’t want to be the one to knock Howard out. He wanted the chips, no question about it. But if he knocked out Howard, would he then feel like a murderer?

 

On the table were 2♠5♠8♣, none of which helped Peter’s K♣10♦.

 

“Sir, you have 30 seconds to make up your mind,” the croupier said.

 

Peter looked up in surprise. The man who’d been taken out had completely preoccupied his mind, and for a few wonderful moments he’d forgotten that they had to continue.

 

“Check,” he said quickly, without showing what he’d been thinking. If he was going to win this pot, he’d probably have to bluff. That gave him knots in his stomach.

 

“I don’t suppose that came as a shock for any of you?” Miguel wondered while Louise sat and fingered her hole cards without looking at them. “Him that got knocked out, I mean. It’ll happen to you guys too.”

 

“Do we need to talk about this now?” Louise said. “And it doesn’t need to happen to us yet for a while.”

 

“Sooner or later it will, ‘cause I’m going to win this.” Miguel smiled so that hairs in his thin moustache pointed upwards.

 

“Rubbish,” Peter responded. “You’ll be out before …” He stopped himself when he saw Louise shine up like the sun. Peter had just enough time to think that she was lousy at bluffing before she opened her mouth.

 

“It’s just as well that you all stop speculating who’s going to win, boys. Because that’s going to be me. You see, I’ve got the Lollapalooza!”

 

Laughter burst out around the table and two neighbouring tables joined in and applauded. Even the croupier’s lips curled as if he were about to smile. The only one not smiling was Peter. He didn’t understand anything.

 

“What do you mean, the Lollapalooza?”

 

His comment made everybody fall abruptly silent, only to then laugh again all the more. It was a raw, brutal laughter that grated in his ears. He felt his cheeks becoming hot.

 

“He doesn’t know what it is!” Howard hooted. Peter gave him a murderous look.

 

“No, so what? What is it then?”

 

“He doesn’t know!” Howard laughed so much he was in tears.

 

“You play well, Peter,” Lennart said, catching his breath back. “If we both get through … let’s say round five, then I’ll tell you what the Lollapalooza is.”

 

“Alright,” Peter muttered bitterly while he returned the others’ amused looks. At that moment, he hoped it would be him that knocked out Howard.

 

The croupier now had to remind Louise that she only had thirty seconds left and she quickly checked. Howard, the third player still in the pot, suddenly bet 250, making Peter gasp. If Howard continued like that, he’d soon be up on the stage himself.

 

Peter studied his cards, then the pile of chips that were in play, and finally the cards that lay on the table. He decided not to bluff and folded. Louise, on the other hand, raised Howard’s bet up to 500. Howard called instantly. On the turn, A♥ came up.

 

Both of them checked.

 

The river was A♠.

 

At that point, 2♠5♠8♣A♥A♠ lay on the table. Louise thought for a moment and then slid 800 chips into the pot. That made Howard hesitate. Peter could see how he was wondering whether she was bluffing or not, but in the end he called. Louise showed her hand with a smile, A♣5♦. She had a full house.

 

“I get it, that was your Lollapalooza for the tournament,” Howard sneered and threw his cards on the table without showing them.

 

The croupier shot the chips over to her and she wasn’t slow to collect them together. Peter was now seriously concerned for Howard. His speech was slurred, obviously affected by the booze. Besides, he was down to about 2,000 in chips. Peter knew that the others around the table could now put pressure on Howard and in that way take his chips even more easily.

 

Just then the speakers came to life.

 

“The time is now 1 pm and the first hour has passed. Blinds are now up to level two, 100-200. King’s Hope wishes all players the best of luck.”

 

Lennart gave the thumbs up and Howard raised his glass.

 

Mads was the first to put pressure on Howard a couple of hands later. Miguel had the button, which meant that Howard was under the gun. Howard bet 500, about a quarter of his chips in an obvious attempt to take the blinds, a vital strategy for all players.

 

“Call,” Mads said and the rest of the players folded.

 

The flop came up showing J♥3♦10♣.

 

“Check,” Mads said, laying his head on one side.

 

“All-in,” Howard responded. Suddenly he sounded very sober.

 

Peter held his breath as Howard pushed all his chips over the line with sweaty and shaking hands.

 

“I’ll see that.” Mads called straight away.

 

The croupier collected their chips. When that was done, they revealed their hands.

 

Howard’s hand consisted of J♠A♥ while Mads had J♦K♦. Mads was dominated, meaning that they had the same pair but that Howard had the stronger side-card, or kicker. Mads, on the other hand, had a back-door flush draw, he could make the flush on the turn or the river. Howard only needed the luck not to see a king or two diamonds in order to survive.

 

The turn was 6♣, which forced Mads bolt upright in his chair.

 

Howard took a sip from his whiskey. His face was like a glossy mask. Peter admired his cool, despite being half way out over the edge of the abyss. The chance of a flush was gone. Howard sat completely frozen with the whiskey glass in his hand. The croupier burned the last card, pulled out the river card and held it face down on the table. The seconds ticked away slowly.

 

The river was Q♠.

 

Howard had survived the ordeal and managed to double his chips. A wide smile played on his lips and he raised his glass to Mads.

 

“Bloody hell!” the Dane muttered and gave Howard a hard-to-interpret stare.

 

A while later, Peter began to feel hungry. The clock on the wall showed 13:50. They’d now played for nearly two hours and only one player had been knocked out on their floor so far. At King’s Hope everybody played more cautiously for sure. Statistically, and compared with previous years, it was taking a bit longer than average. Poker psychology around the table was very unique at King’s Hope since the stakes were so high, so it wasn’t particularly odd.

 

“The excitement, my friends,” Howard said, taking a large gulp from his glass, “is all that counts.”

 

“Perhaps, if you think it’s exciting to get your brain painted on the wall over there,” Mads sneered.

 

“Why don’t they announce when more are knocked out?” Peter groaned, changing the subject. His stomach had started to make sounds out loud without any warning.

 

“Why? Do you want to go home?” Lennart smirked.

 

“Haha. Yes please, that would be something. No, I’m starting to get hungry and quite a few must have left the competition by now?”

 

“Not so certain,” Miguel added. “Maybe ten or so that have been knocked out so far. They only announce the first that is defeated since he ends up in The Book, you know?”

 

Peter nodded, he knew. But he was hungry all the same.

 

The dealer button moved along a step and Rasmus dealt them new cards.

 

Peter looked at his cards, 10♣5♦. He folded and then stared into space. Royal straight flush. Maybe he’d played it badly after all. The others around the table knew by now that he played tight. Perhaps it was time to try a bluff. He just had to wait for the right position. Or on the other hand, he just had to bluff. He could afford it right now. Simple.

 

No, stick to the plan. Although … You can’t avoid bluffing, even mathematically.

 

With his new strategy beating inside his forehead he began to carefully play more hands and bet stronger. Two hands in a row he managed to take the blinds with average cards by scaring the others away from the pot. Then he won a small pot with a three of a kind when Mads called him disappointedly all the way to the river. He was pleased to see that his own pile of chips was growing.

 

The young Dane had tilted, he was emotionally off-kilter, and had been playing badly since losing that pot to Howard. He was now down on about 3,000 in chips. Peter was sitting on almost 15,000 and was breathing calmly. He had control over the poker table.

 

Many players ran as quick as they could to the toilets when they had the chance. King’s Hope’s architecture allowed a surprisingly large number of participants to use the facilities without having to queue, but it was tactically wise to try to avoid the rush between the breaks. Peter also took his chance when his bladder was full and he could throw really lousy cards. But, as for everyone, it was both a relief and a stress to rush to the toilets and do one’s business as quickly as possible. At King’s Hope, you held on to yourself as long as you could.

 

At 3 pm the blinds went up to level four, 150-300. A new mechanism was now put in place – the ante. This was a small sum that all players were required to pay every round and built up a pot worth fighting over. The ante was a bit like everybody having a small blind level, and it started at a mere 25 in chips. A quiet groan could be heard around the hall since the merciless bleeding of chips had begun.

 

Soon after this, Rasmus discretely pulled out a small carton of pills. He pushed out two of the four white pills in the palm of his hand and put them in his mouth. This was mentioned in the brochure, but to observe it in real life was cool in a way that Peter hadn’t expected. It gave him butterflies in his stomach that spread upwards, making him raise his eyebrows. All croupiers had the stimulant Ephedrine on them so they could keep going through the long sessions. Croupiers were never changed as long as a table had players. Rasmus twisted his neck slightly as he swallowed the pills, and after a while he did actually look more alert.

 

At 3.34 pm, a heavy tumult broke out by the table the first player had been knocked out from. The Mike Tyson lookalike stood up, facing the guards and slightly crouched. His entire body was shaking, he snorted and sent a punch flying at the guard standing closest. The guard ducked and hit the man in the stomach. He didn’t appear to notice and continued to swing his arms. He hit the guard to the left who stumbled backwards, just managing to keep his balance. One of the guards pointed his stun gun against the man and pulled the trigger. The Mike Tyson lookalike howled in pain as the small hooks pierced his chest. He doubled over as the stun gun began to spark. The third guard swung at the man with his baton. A dull cracking sound could be heard when it hit the back of his head.

 

He was out of his mind, roaring and fighting like an injured bull. He managed to keep the guards off him for a couple of seconds, but when he turned his head to the side one of the guards kicked the back of his knees, and as his legs crumpled the guards were immediately on top of him. They beat his head, his side, wherever they could reach. The furious screaming was suddenly interrupted as the man was punched in the throat, probably crushing the windpipe. The man gasped for air and gave up attempting to resist. He grasped at his throat in a desperate attempt to start breathing. The guards grabbed his arms and ruthlessly dragged him up towards the stage.

 

“Why doesn’t someone do something?” Mads was pale and his eyes glazed over. “Why is nobody helping him?”

 

“Shut up,” Miguel said. “Do you want to end up there as well, before you’re out of chips? You know it’s against the rules to try and help people that have been knocked out. Or would you rather get a warning, perhaps?”

 

“But …” Mads fell silent and shook his head.

 

The guards had by now dragged the man up on the stage. They forced him upright so he was kneeling and two of the guards held him up so he wouldn’t topple over. The man’s face had turned a bluish colour and his tongue was twitching back and forth between his lips. The third guard took position in front of the man, slowly raised his gun and pulled the trigger. The man fell backwards, his legs folded underneath.

 

“I'll be damned,” Lennart said, almost respectfully. “When I have to go up there, I’ll show more dignity than that poor bastard.”

 

“The same dignity as the first one, you mean?” Howard’s words were mockingly formulated, but there was no mockery in his voice. “With hanging shoulders and empty gaze.”

 

“Yeah, it’d be better than that, wouldn’t it?” Lennart pointed with his thumb towards the stage.

 

“I don’t know. He was undoubtedly fighting for his life. He made a spectacular exit. What’s the better choice?”

 

Something had broken inside Mads after that. He was pale, quiet and seemed to be trapped in a private hell of fear and anguish. Mads had tilted for real. Peter saw the signs and he knew the others had too. Mads feared for his life. He held on to the only thing that could save him – a small pile of chips. Unfortunately, the machinery at King’s Hope casino was merciless. The dealer button continued its inevitable journey around the table and every time it approached Mads he gave a light groan.

 

Occasionally, when he was dealt a good starting hand he joined the play. His eyes most often showed disappointment when the flop came up. Then he’d run his fingers carefully along the few piles of chips he had left, and he almost placed a bet several times. But he folded almost every time the flop or the turn were revealed. The other players around the table shamelessly took advantage of this. Every time Mads played in, the bets were raised and as a result he left that pot with fewer chips than before.

 

Peter observed this performance with feelings of futility, disgust and fascination. He didn’t want Mads’ chips. But then he looked at his own stack and considered the future. How would it look in two, four, ten hours? He needed all the chips he could get. He absolutely didn’t want to end up in the same situation as Mads. So he also placed bets when Mads managed to push his chips over the line. It was dirty, but the atmosphere around the table was clear. In the hands that Mads played, there were free chips.

 

Take from the poor, give to the rich. Never mind the consequences!

 

It was soon 4 pm and the blinds reached level five, 200-400.

 

At 4.07 pm Mads was forced to go all-in. He was on the big blind but he only had 75 in chips left. He had no choice but to push his remaining chips over the line.

 

Howard and Louise stayed in for the flop, which was 8♠7♠6♥.

 

Louise folded when Howard bet, and Howard was now heads-up against Mads. They met man-to-man on the Teflon-covered battlefield. Their croupier had to turn Mads’ cards over since Mads couldn’t do it himself. He was shaking uncontrollably in his seat and was biting frenetically on his lower lip.

 

Mads hadn’t looked at his hand before, he was quite simply not capable of handling the cards. When the croupier revealed them, they turned out to be K♦Q♦ – two consecutive cards of the same suit, suited connectors. A strong hand, considering the circumstances. Peter saw how the shakes eased off and a glimmer of hope was lit in the young Dane’s eyes. Howard casually tossed his cards forwards, 4♥A♣.

 

After maybe ten seconds’ delay, the croupier burned one more card and revealed the turn – J♥.

 

Peter saw clearly as hope danced frantically in Mads fervent eyes. His lips were trembling as the croupier slowly moved his hand towards the deck to burn the final card. The faint, almost inaudible sound of the card dropping on the table sounded like an axe falling.

 

The river was 2♦.

 

“No,” Mads uttered. All hope in his eyes had been extinguished and there was now only a large black pool behind his pupils.

 

Howard had won with ace high.

 

“Unlucky, kid. I’m sorry,” Howard said. He leant back in his chair and fingered at the chips he’d won.

 

“No,” Mads repeated.

 

Behind him, three guards had convened, muscular and dressed in black. One of them carefully placed a hand on the Dane’s shoulder.

 

“Please come this way, sir.”

 

“No, no, no,” Mads said again, his voice trembling.

 

The guards tensed, but Mads stood up on unsteady legs. Then he turned and walked towards the stage, his back stiff. Peter couldn’t hear him any longer, but he saw from Mads’ body language that he was saying “No” again and again. He looked away when Mads climbed up onto the stage. Peter tried his best to think of something else when the gun shot sounded, but he couldn’t. The proximity to the blue march was so tangible, it was almost choking. Next time it could be his turn … The tournament at King’s Hope could be a terribly lonely experience at the end of the day. Around the table sat cardboard cut-outs of people that couldn’t be trusted during the rounds. You fought alone and died alone. King’s Hope was like that.

 

“That was dignity,” Louise said pensively. “I’ll go like that if I don’t win this damned tournament. Proudly.”

 

Peter wiped his mouth. He knew all the rules and he knew exactly what was on the line. However, he hadn’t expected to feel so … dirty. It wasn’t at all like watching on TV as he’d done for many years. But what could be done? No one could afford not to be egotistic. His stomach churned again.

 

“Aren’t you hungry?”

 

“Yeah. I think it’ll go faster now,” Howard said, sorting the chips he’d won from Mads. “There’s quite a few that don’t have many chips left. You saw Mads’ pile. I’m pretty sure we won’t have to play this round much longer before it’s time for the first break. After that, I don’t think round two will take as long. Those who aren’t knocked out now and don’t have that many chips will be easy prey later. Especially when the blinds go up.”

 

Easy chips. Cheap lives. Seen another way, life was extremely uncomplicated during the tournament.

 

It went pretty much as Howard had predicted. During the next hour about ten players were knocked out. Most of them walked on shaking legs up onto the stage for their executions. Nobody made any kind of resistance like the Mike Tyson lookalike, and only one of the losers stood out from the crowd. That was a plump woman with thick, black hair and a puffy face. She held her head high and drilled her gaze into the guards’ before they shot her. Peter began to understand what Louise had meant. Maybe that was the right way to go out. Would he have the strength to do that if he ended up on stage? The probability that he’d win was, like that of his royal straight flush, infinitesimally small. That he could make it past nine thousand nine hundred other contestants was statistically unlikely. However, he had to try and it was worth trying. Who else would stand up for what had happened to Moa? He pushed the thought away before it could take root.

 

Howard’s prediction was even more accurate as the chips markedly changed owners round table thirty. It went best for Peter and Louise. Miguel began to sweat when he lost a large pot to Howard and ended up on about 2,500 in chips. He’s soon be forced to go all-in so as to avoid the perilous situation Mads had been in. Howard’s number of chips was on the other hand going up and down like a yoyo. One moment he’d bet wildly with worthless cards, only to bet just as aggressively the next moment with a good hand. That meant he stayed on about 3,000 in chips, even if it felt like his stack was diminishing with each hand he played. Peter began to suspect that Howard liked to live on the edge of the abyss. He balanced there, blindfolded, and on occasion he would take a small jump in the air just to see if he’d avoid hurtling down into the depths. Howard had at least stopped drinking after he’d had to leave the table twice to run to the toilet.

 

The rules were clear. If a player wasn’t present and therefore couldn’t take any form of decision, the cards were discarded after thirty seconds. Howard didn’t lose any chips, but on the other hand he missed potentially strong hands. After that he didn’t order any more drinks. Lennart had also lost some chips but he remained calm. He kept himself going steadily with about 6,000 in chips.

 

At 5 pm, when the blinds went up to level six at 250-500 with an ante of 50, Peter began to seriously worry that it was taking such a long time. His belly was constantly roaring. Normally he’d have eaten lunch at around 1 o’clock. He began to fold more often since he couldn’t maintain the concentration required to analyse all the information around the table. When he sat in a later position in the deal, he ought to bet or raise on more hands. He needed to keep a lookout for the others’ behaviour patterns and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages with the cards he held. Just then he didn’t have the stamina for that and he discarded almost all hands that weren’t that strong. At 5.12 he was dealt J♣J♦ and decided to play the hand.

 

Louise had the dealer button, Miguel was on the small blind and Lennart on big blind. Howard was first out pre-flop. He folded and then it was Peter’s turn. Peter took his time, mostly for show, but also because he was hungry and couldn’t think as straight as he would like. He was in a strong position and his hand was strong. In the end, he raised to 1,000 so he’d stand a chance of maximising the profit from the hand. Louise folded and Miguel quickly matched the bet. Almost too quickly. Peter was, despite his hunger, cautious. Maybe Miguel had good cards this time. Lennart stared at his cards and at the big blind sitting in front of him. He folded. Only Peter and Miguel were left.

 

The croupier burned a card and the flop was A♦Q♠10♠.

 

Miguel was the first to call after the flop. He looked at the cards for a long while with his hands locked together in front of his face. His moustache twitched slightly. Peter wondered if that was a tell he hadn’t noticed before, or if Miguel was just thinking. Peter thought that Miguel could possibly be sitting with a big slick, ace-king. Or a pair of aces since he’d called so quickly before the flop. Finally, Miguel pushed in 1,200 into the pot. He could even have a pair of queens, which would beat Peter’s hand by miles. Well, Peter would be beaten and that was what counted. He had more chips than Miguel and would come out relatively unscathed. And there were two spades on the table that could be devastating.

 

Yep, I should really fold. But …

 

“Call.”

 

Peter thought he noticed an expression of disappointment pass briefly over Miguel’s face.

 

The croupier burned the uppermost card and revealed the turn – K♣.

 

Peter felt almost guilty.

 

Along comes the hero! The voice inside his head echoed.

 

“All-in,” Miguel said curtly.

 

“Call,” Peter said, without thinking.

 

Peter’s stomach turned when he realised what he’d done. He turned over his cards with a feeling of numbness and revealed his straight. Miguel turned his cards, still without any expression on his face, A♠K♠. Peter had read Miguel well. Miguel now had loads of outs, cards that could come up that would give him the pot. Peter desperately wanted the pot, but he wasn’t certain he wanted to be the one who knocked another player out.

 

As long as it’s not a spade …

 

Miguel said nothing as the croupier burned the last card and held out the river. A few long seconds passed before the card was turned up – 7♥.

 

Miguel pulled his hand over his face so hard that it became distorted like a rubber mask. He stood up quickly and stared down at the cards.

 

“Well, that’s life,” he said dryly and then turned towards the three guards that were already waiting behind him.

 

“Wait,” said Peter, confused. Miguel turned his head to look at Peter and stood still.

 

“I mean …” Peter said hesitantly. Miguel’s few seconds were ticking away into eternity. “I’ll remember you,” he said.

 

Miguel gave him a faint smile in reply. He raised his hand and waved goodbye with his index and middle fingers raised. He walked with decisive steps up to the stage, as if he’d already come to terms with his fate. The guards were right behind him. Once he was up there, he bowed his head and closed his eyes. The gun shot tore through Peter’s eardrums and threatened to make his head explode. Despite that, he clearly heard the dull thud of Miguel’s body hitting the floor.

 

There were now four players left around table thirty. For the next fifteen minutes Peter felt weak and uneasy. It wasn’t only Miguel’s death that had affected him. He was also getting more and more hungry, and had difficulty concentrating on the game. He was convinced the others could see that and were trying to take advantage, but he didn’t have the energy to defend himself. When he folded with K♣10♥ on the small blind, he knew he couldn’t hold out any longer. He had to eat. He kept staring absently at the clock on the wall, and only gave enough concentration and energy to the game that the cards required. Even if he was hungry, he couldn’t fold on a pair of aces. The luck seemed instead to have moved onwards to Louise, who had won several pots in close succession.

 

The time was 6.05 pm, the blinds had gone up to 300-600 with an ante of 50, and a further twenty-three players had been knocked out on the eleventh floor, when they were interrupted by the speakers.

 

“Dear contestants, the first round is now over. One thousand players have been eliminated and it is time to change tables. You will find information which floor and table you should go to on the electronic noticeboards by the elevators. I congratulate all of you who have come this far. The tenth and eleventh floors will be closed from now on. The second round begins at exactly 7.05 pm. Good luck.”

 

As soon as the speakers had silenced, Peter stood up. He raked up his chips without counting them. He’d finished with just over 24,000. Louise had the largest pile with over 28,000. Lennart had around 5,000 left and Howard, with his kamikaze style of play, had about 3,000 remaining. It would be sweaty for them in the next round. Peter desperately shoved his chips into his poker case without caring to sort them, then turned to leave. He’d suddenly gotten the feeling that something was wrong. The only thing that could have gone wrong was …

 

No. It’s gone OK. Don’t worry.

 

“Can I keep you company over some food?” Lennart asked.

 

Peter stopped. Despite the fact that he wanted nothing else than to eat, he had to get down to the third floor first. After having watched so many players executed up on the stage, he was suddenly very concerned for Dibley. He needed to know if she were still alive.

 

“Can I see you here again in a short while?” Peter suggested cagily.

 

“Yes, OK. Just thought you needed food. Take it easy kid, see you later,” Lennart said and waved his hand in the air.

 

First Dibley, then food. He could talk to Lennart after that.

 

He hurried to the elevators, crossing between the players and the poker tables. His worry grew stronger with each step he took.

 

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