Officially, they haven't seen each other since the Afghanistan Charity Tournament. Home games and backroom rounds and low-budget casinos don't count, not like New Jerusalem.
The New Jerusalem Hotel & Casino is known. It holds the Annual Lone Star Million-Dollar Tournament. The pros play New Jerusalem.
Max plays New Jerusalem.
And when they step into the high roller area, those five men who had been nicknamed the Losers after the Afghan Tournament, people stop talking and watch them walk over to a single table, where one man sits, shuffling cards and smirking.
"Gentlemen," Max says, one gloved hand fanning the cards out on the table. "Shall we begin?"
Flop: 3♦ J♠ 4♠
They each have their own style, even in the beginning rounds where the blinds are small and they all seem to have the same amount of chips.
Clay stares up over his hole cards with sleepy-looking eyes, looking honest even when he's bluffing.
Roque tries to intimidate, eyes sharp like razors, trying to hurry the game along. They say he got that scar from a card in a game gone wrong, nearly taking his eye out.
Cougar doesn't speak, except to raise or call. He doesn't look up from his cards except for when he's betting, and his gaze is precision, looking right through the other players, like he can see through their cards.
Pooch grins and whistles and laughs at bad jokes. When you're not playing against him, you think he's a total beginner, with obvious tells and no strategy. But when you're at the table with him, you learn otherwise.
Jensen talks. Constantly. He tells stories about poker players, he talks about playing online, he fidgets, he laughs, he plays like he has solid-gold cards no matter how low they are. He throws off his enemy, distracts them, herds them into his trap and then takes them for all they're worth.
And then there's Aisha. Aisha, who has a Five and a Seven in her hole cards and wins this round.
Flop: 7♥ 4♣ Q♣
"Haven't seen you since...the Afghan tournament, wasn't it?"
Clay shrugs. "Been busy."
"I suppose fighting with...what was his name again? Fadhil?" Max smirks as Aisha tenses. "Yes, I suppose getting into a fight with Fadhil and being barred from pro games would keep you busy."
Clay looks up at Max. "You were the one who won that pot."
Max smiles. "And with your help." He slides his chips over. "Call."
Clay smiles slowly as he flips over his Queen.
Flop: 5♣ 3♦ 9♠
"And there I was, in Houston, trying to get into the SuperWinPoker.com offices, telling them they had a major security flaw that meant that every fiftieth round had all the cards revealed, and what do they do? They call security on me!"
"Jensen, shut up..." Roque says, throwing chips in. "Raising three."
"I mean, okay, you had to be running a scriptbot that, okay, I did program, and, okay, yeah, I was the only one who could see the flaw, but that flaw shouldn't have been there! None of the other sites had it!"
"So what did you do?" Pooch asks, matching Roque's chips. "Call."
"Pretended to be psychic, and then Cougar and I wiped out the house for 500 grand." Jensen smirks. "Gave 'em the code to fix it afterwards." He flips over his cards. "Two pairs."
Pooch grinned. "Full house," he says, holding up his nine.
Flop: 9♦ Q♠ 7♠
"You son of a bitch!" Clay yells, slamming Roque against the wall. "What did you do?"
Roque coughs and grins. "What do you think I did, Clay? Huh?"
"Max knew I was bluffing — only one person on that table could tell, and it couldn't've been him, could it?" Clay steps away. "What the hell did you..." He stops, staring at Roque, his eyes wide. "Jesus, Roque..."
Roque looks at him, exhausted but defiant. "What did you think I'd do, Clay?" He shrugs and pushes himself away from the wall. "He made me a deal." He straightens and glares at him. "I give him this game, he gives me the Lone Star Tournament."
"And that's all it takes?" Clay asks, his voice harsh. "One lousy tournament and you lose your best friend?"
"I lost my best friend after the fucking Afghan tournament, Clay! All this talk about getting even and revenge — I just wanted to play the game!"
Clay stares at Roque, then walks away.
"You'll always lose, Clay! You'll lose!"
Flop: 4♥ 4♣ Q♥
The next round is subdued, even though Jensen's dealing.
His banter's half-hearted, even with the Queen of Hearts in the flop, and nobody looks at the empty chair next to Clay.
It's only fitting that Cougar wins, silently, with the 4 of Spades.
Flop: 3♣ K♣ Q♣
During the break before, Jensen walks in on Clay and Aisha going at it in the men's room.
He can't stop talking now, grumbling about how the ladies' was totally empty, and how he needs to piss like a horse, and "Christ, Clay, not again, seriously, what is with you?"
Clay smiles smugly throughout the betting, and not just because he got laid, but because the Three and Queen of Hearts sit sweetly in his hand, just waiting for the right moment.
The smile gets wiped off his face when Jensen stands up and slams down an Ace and a Seven.
"Keep it in your pants!" Jensen shouts as he runs off to the men's.
Flop: 5♠ K♦ 9♣
Halfway through the betting, one of the waitresses comes to Pooch with a note. Pooch reads it, then throws his cards on the table. "I'm out," he says hurriedly.
Clay blinks. "What?"
"Jolene needs me," Pooch says, scooping up his chips. "Something with the baby."
Jensen half-stands and Pooch gestures him down. "No, stay. Play. I'll be back when I can."
Clay wins with a pair of Kings, but when he flips over Pooch's cards, he sees the straight that would've knocked them all dead.
Flop: K♥ K♦ 4♦
Max is running low on chips. Clay's eyes are fixed on that dwindling pile, watching it get smaller.
He looks down at his cards, the Ace and 7 of Spades, and pauses on the last round of betting, his hand resting gently on his chips.
Jensen folded after the flop. Cougar went after the turn. It's only Max, Aisha and Clay, and Aisha's looking between both of them, waiting for their next moves.
Max looks at Clay, eyes narrowed. "Well?" he asks.
Clay takes a deep breath. "Raising." He pushes the entire pile of chips towards the center of the table. "All in."
Cougar whistles low. Jensen swears under his breath. Even Aisha is impressed.
Max looks down at his pile of chips, then shrugs. "Call."
Aisha pushes her chips towards the pot, and Clay stares at Max as he flips his cards over. "Two pairs and an Ace," Clay says.
Max is grinning, and Clay feels sick and hot, until Max flips over those cards. A Seven and a Nine.
Aisha chuckles and flips over her cards. The Six does nothing, but the King means she's pulling the chips towards her even before everyone can clock that she's won.
Clay slumps back in the chair, grinning. "Looks like you're out, Max," he says.
Max nods. "Sure looks that way," he says, surprisingly cheerful. "Oh, wait. No it doesn't." He snaps his un-gloved fingers and Max walks into the room.
It can't be Max, he's sitting right there, looking smug, but this man looks just like him, and has the same smug grin on his face even as he puts a million dollars' worth of chips on the table.
"Have you met my brother?" Max asks Clay nonchalantly. "He doesn't really go in for poker, but he is a whizz at the blackjack table..."
Clay is standing before he even realizes, white-hot rage coursing through him, and it's only Jensen and Cougar pulling him away that stops him from smashing Max's smug face into the table.
He slumps against the wall, defeated, pockets empty, and heads for the bar.
Flop: 7♥ 7♦ 4♣
The atmosphere's changed now, hot and heavy and tense. Jensen wipes his glasses on his t-shirt, the cards blurring in front of him. "It's amazing how simplified playing cards have become nowadays, design-wise," he says, mostly to himself. "I'm blinder than a naked mole rat, but I can still tell the difference between a heart and a diamond." He puts his glasses back on and pushes over the big blind, wincing slightly at the size of the stack of chips. "It'd be great if people playing the game were as simple, y'know?"
Aisha looks up and glares at him. "You trying to say something?" she asks, her voice sharp.
Jensen shrugs. "Dunno, Aisha. You think I'm saying something?"
Aisha gives him another look, and the look she gets back from Cougar in return is furious — targeted red-hot ferocity.
She blinks, shaking her head slightly, and seems distracted throughout the rest of the game.
It only takes one circle of bets, with the river still hiding under its burn card, before she folds, scooping up her chips and walking out without a word.
Cougar wins with a Seven.
Flop: 8♦ K♣ 10♦
The stacks of chips couldn't be more uneven. Max has a huge collection, stacks of $100 and $500 chips teetering in piles. Cougar's is a bit larger than Jensen's, due to Cougar's careful betting, but even his is just barely one third of Max's.
Jensen has an Eight, and that's good, that's three of a kind, but there's every chance that Max has the other Eight and a King. Or a Ten. Or even a fucking Seven, and it wouldn't matter, because that'd mean he wins and wipes them both out. Game over
He's never been able to read Cougar — not the way Cougar can read everyone else at the table — so when Cougar pushes all of his chips in, Jensen can't stop himself from shouting.
"What the fuck, man? Seriously?"
Cougar holds up his hand to Jensen, shushing him, and looks directly at Max. "Raise," he says, his voice low and angry.
Max grins, looks down at the pot, and then pushes the same amount in. "Call."
Jensen can't see Cougar's face under his hat, not even when he turns over a Three and a Queen. That Queen might be the Kicker for the pair of Eights, but Max hasn't shown his hole cards.
Cougar taps on the table, silently. Max's grin grows sharper as he flips over his cards. A Seven and a Two.
He only has a fucking Seven.
Jensen hoots and throws down his Eight with one hand while reaching for the huge pile with his other, then stops, staring down at it. "Jesus fuck, Cougar," he says, his voice rough. "What the fuck did you do?"
Cougar shrugs. "Had to be done," he says, voice quiet. He slides the cards over to the deck and stands slowly, twisting his neck slightly.
"But..." Jensen gestured towards the pile. "But you..."
Cougar smiles, sharp and bittersweet and achingly beautiful to Jensen right now. Jensen finds himself standing up before he even realizes, suddenly pulling Cougar close, hugging him tightly.
It's ridiculous, because it's just a goddamned card game, that's what his sister always says to him, but he thinks he's even starting to tear up.
Cougar's never gone all in like that. Hell, Cougar's never let Jensen beat him. And now there's a stack of chips on Jensen's side of the table and it's like his world's just exploded.
Like a nuclear bomb's gone off in his heart.
Cougar pulls away just enough to look up at him from underneath that cowboy hat of his, and Jensen wipes at his eyes. "Allergies, man," Jensen says. "Totally allergies."
Flop: 5♥ 2♥ K♠
It's just the two of them now, the youngest and rawest of the Losers against the man who fucked them over.
And he's going to lose.
Even with the pot from the last game, it's not enough. There's no way he can match that pile of chips sitting in front of Max.
If this was a tournament, he'd give it a shot, safe in the knowledge that, no matter what, he'd still be going home with second place and a bit of cash, but this...
All or nothing. And it's going to be nothing.
Jensen rubs his eyes, exhausted. He gestures towards a waitress for another drink — he's been drinking espresso like they're tequila slammers, hot and sharp against his tongue. He's going to crash hard when this is all done, slumped in a corner, strings cut, but, right now, he needs to be awake and alive and watching Max like a great big raptor watching its prey.
He's going to lose. He's tired, and he's going to lose, and the past twelve hours have been for nothing, because he can bet it all in the first five minutes and it doesn't matter if he wins or loses because he'll still lose.
And that's when a pile of chips fall in front of him.
"What?" Jensen looks up.
"Looked like you needed some help," Pooch says, smiling down at Jensen.
Jensen looks back down at the chips, his mind quickly doing the math. It's close. Hell, by some damned strange luck, it's practically the same exact amount.
Maybe. Maybe he could do it.
He looks back up at Pooch. "I owe you."
Pooch just nods and pats him on the shoulder. "Kick his ass."
And Jensen's back in the game.
It goes down like it always does, little blind and big blind and burn cards. The turn gives him a pair of Fives, sweet enough for right now, but then the river throws down a Seven, and Jensen knows he's got a chance.
Maybe Max's got a King. Maybe he's got a Five. But if Jensen can lead him on, keep him sweet and thinking Jensen's too tired and jittery to bet right, then maybe he's got a chance.
The bets get higher, the pot growing and growing. They've drawn a crowd around them, and Jensen knows he's getting cocky, but that's good — that's fucking brilliant, because the cocky players always get burned, and Max needs to think he's going to burn.
And then it's time. There's only one way this can end, and both of them know it.
Jensen closes his eyes, takes a slow deep breath, and pushes the rest of his chips in. "All in," he says.
Max just grins, and puts all of his in as well. "Call."
His Seven and Three look like nothing now. Two pairs aren't worth anything. Jensen's going to lose it all and they really will be Losers. His mouth is dry and he can barely hear over the drumming of his heartbeat.
Max turns over a Two and a Queen.
And like a rubber band stretched so fine and taut, Jensen snaps back and he slams the table and shouts, just as the audience starts to applaud.
Pooch is slapping his back, Cougar's grinning at him, Clay's saluting him from the bar and even Aisha looks impressed.
Max just shakes his head, stands, and walks away.
But fuck him, because, right now, Jensen's won.