One Hand, Two Diamonds, Three Million


One Hand, Two Diamonds, Three Million

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

Casino Royale, Goa, March 2014

Day 1, March 12: I land in Goa and get on the boat. The floating casino is dead this Wednesday afternoon. There are just five of us, including a couple of familiar faces from the Delhi circuit, including the beautifully busty Puja. Lacklustre play, low-action day. Puja and I call a boat and hit a Candolim shack. We score some good smokes and get a little flirty. I’m not worried. I’ve been bankrolled for ₹5 lakh and I have five days.

Day 2, March 13: All spiffed up and shining, I get in early on Thursday. Just because you’re a professional poker player doesn’t mean you’re a slacker. My punctuality pays off. Within the first half hour, I pick up a set of deuces against the pocket aces held by the dignified Mrs Gavaskar and get a quick double-up. At 10:30 pm, during an early dinner break, I take stock. I am up 70K. The food in the casino’s dining room is shit. It fucks up the rest of the night. I reach my room at 6 am, reeking of whisky and failure. Two lakh rupees down.

Day 3, March 14: I don’t have the balls to play. Even the sight of Puja in a tight tee doesn’t get me to the tables. My investor is an old buddy. He’s counting on a win. It’s a return on an investment; the last time he didn’t get returned shit. At 8 pm, after a day of cowering behind a bottle of JD, I give my luck a drunken pep talk. Move it, you motherfucker, I tell him as I stride into the casino.

Day 4, March 16: The motherfucker doesn’t move it. At 4 am, I’m down ₹4 lakh. I need a snort or maybe just a cigarette. An equally grim-looking Puja joins me in the smoking room. We’re both fucked over. We think of hedging but it’s too late. It’s too late to do anything else but drink. We call for a boat and head back to the hotel. Puja pity-fucks me.

Day 5, March 17: I allow myself to linger in a post-coital haze until early evening, when, like an injured but brave warrior, I climb aboard. The poker room is on the third floor of the ship but I decide to do a little pre-test on the roulette tables. I put a tenner on black, and lady luck smiles at me. Score! The kids have scampered away after the weekend, leaving behind the hard-asses with stakes so high they’re called “nosebleeds”. I join a table, feeling a little bit like a hungover David taking on five Goliaths. The other table looks more lucrative, but it’s full. I reserve a seat and play on this one while I wait.

Day 6, March 18: I begin with a safe game, but the good hands keep coming, and without much fuss, my pile of chips grows steadily. I’m a million miles from celebrating. At 3:30 am, a local regular, Nitin, from the other table decides to call it a night and I take his seat with ₹1.8 lakh.

Big. Fucking. Mistake.

K3, 49, Q2, A6, 83, 29, 29, 37, K6, J5, Q3, 26, 94, T3… The dealer keeps dealing me junk for the next hour and I fold each time. Mr Jagannath Mehta, a stockbroker from Mumbai, is lording over the table with a stack of ₹5.5 lakh. I ask the waiter for a Red Bull.

At 6 am, Mehta decides to take a pee break. The dealer immediately serves me a couple of aces and I curse my luck. I could have made a killing off Mehta. However, a drunk guy obliges me, and I am now richer by 50K.

Mehta returns, and the dealer is back to his old ways. K4, 37, T2, T3, 69, J4, J5… fold, fold, fold. At 7:30 am, the casino staff announces breakfast. We decide to play one more hand before taking a break. I get a Jack and a nine of clubs. Mehta, sitting in an early position raises it to 4K. The grim-faced Mrs Gavaskar, who has been playing pretty tight, re-raises it to 11K. I decide to take my chances and call. Mehta puts in another 7K to match, and the dealer opens the flop. I’m at ₹2.3 lakh at this point.

Three beautiful clubs, including an ace open up. It’s the stuff of wet dreams. Even before the lady can act, an over-confident Mehta jams the pot with his entire stack – a little over ₹5 lakh. Mrs Gavaskar ponders for well over 10 minutes and finally decides to call, but I’m more worried about Mr Mehta’s holding than hers. I stare at his big, jowly face and I’m reminded of the bullshit “tell” scene from the Bond movie. Players like Mehta don’t have tells. So I do my math with the cards, add the whiskies and Mehta’s game over the past couple of hours, and then decide to call. The lady presents a spiked set of aces and Mehta comes up AK, with the King of clubs.

All I have to do is dodge a club. Math is on my side, but I’m as edgy as a horse on speed. The dealer opens the last two cards. Two red cards beam up at me and my relief is audible. My stack is now ₹5.1 lakh and my dignity is restored. Mrs Gavaskar collects her measly pile and bids us good night. Wise lady.

Mehta is no longer over-confident. He tops up to ₹5 lakh and orders another large whisky. A few hands later, I pick up a pair of queens, and Mehta pulls a classic defence move and makes a big, wholly unnecessary bluff. He loses his entire stack and I end up holding chips worth ₹10.5 lakh. Let me say that again. Ten and a half fucking lakh.

“Poker, unlike the dim-witted country bumpkin’s teen-patti, is a game of skill and probability.”

But Mehta isn’t in the mood to lose graciously. He asks the casino to give him a stack of ₹10 lakh. I want to get the hell out of here, but I hang on. It’s the ethical thing to do. After an hour of carefully guarded play, during which I pick up another 20K, I shake hands with a purple-faced Mr Mehta. He grips mine a little too tight.

I ask for a boat back to the mainland. I’m informed there’s a technical snag and it will take an hour. An hour in a casino with ₹10.7 lakh. I’m like a terrorist with a truck load of TNT. It’s my fucking obligation to blow the place up, but I try to hold it in. I grab a drink and cruise for women, but the poker scene in India is less Vanessa Russo and more Jagannath Mehta. Before I can say Trinitrotoulene, I’m on the third floor.

The rules of the house dictate that you have to sit back with the same stack that you left with, if the gap between departure and arrival is less than two hours. In poker parlance, it’s called the rat-holing policy. The name should have tipped me.

That, or Mehta’s extra-wide welcoming smile.

Three or four hands in, I am dealt aces. I open and raise it to 6K before taking it up straight to ₹1 lakh hoping to close the action or eliminate three of the four competitors. The others fold but Mr Mehta calls. It’s an almost perfect flop. A93 with two diamonds. The dealer opens a black king. An edgy Mr Mehta checks his cards. At this point, I definitely have the best hand and I am not even remotely worried. Mr Mehta announces he’s all in. The dealer counts his stack – ₹9.5 lakh. I need a whisky.

Poker, unlike the dim-witted country bumpkin’s teen-patti, is a game of skill and probability. There is grace and math at its core. I’ve estimated that either Mehta has spiked a smaller set or a double pair. In the second case, he’s drawing dead. If he has a smaller set, he had one out – only one card out of the remaining 44 cards could help him. I was a 97 per cent favourite to win. Ninety-fucking-seven percent! Even the remote possibility of a diamond flush draw gave me an 80 percent chance. Those were good odds for ₹20 lakh.

1, 2, 3 4, 5… you win. At 6, I fuck you over.

Did I have the balls to stake all my earnings at an 80 per cent chance of a double? One million, one final hand. The poetry is irresistible. I call his bet and the dealer drags my stack into the middle. My balls are in my mouth. Mehta opens a spiked a set of nines. The river card completes his quads.

The casino’s PA system announces the boat’s arrival. I don’t hear it. I only hear the roar of blood in my ears.