Lucky Russo

Lucky Russo knows the tendencies of each of his high-stakes poker opponents. He knows which hands they will play and almost exactly what they will bet on those hands. For him, poker is more about the mathematical calculation of pot odds than it is about having good cards. That’s why it’s so surprising to see him suddenly lose consistently.

Lucky Russo
By Angela Rasch

“I’m willing to gamble a bit with my hand,” Lucky said.

My brother had been on tilt for about a month and had lost nearly our entire fortune. His friends had tried to get him to take some time off away from the table, but he kept playing — and losing.

“You could have a full house,’ he speculated, “but I don’t think so, because you would have raised my bet after the turn with two pair. . .so you didn’t catch a full house on the river.”

Aldo the Shark peered at him across the green felt from behind his Ferrari dark glasses. “We’re playing table stakes. You bought in for $100,000, which you’ve already got in the pot.” He stopped to snort. “And from what I’ve heard you’re tapped out.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Lucky said, but his voice cracked enough to tell everyone Aldo had been right. “I’d like to bet another $100,000 that says my set beats your two pair.”

“You ain’t got a hundred G’s, little man,” the Shark snarled, shuffling his chips one-handed and twirling an unlit cigarette with the other. Aldo owned the second-tier club that hosted the game. He tried hard to get people to call him “Digits” to foster the rumor he collected people’s fingers who didn’t pay their gambling debts, but everyone called him “Shark.” Some said it was because he was such a big fish; a big fish you had to watch. Supposedly the going rate for welshing at Aldo’s club had been set at one finger per $10,000 of unpaid debt.

“I’m good for it,” Lucky said. “I’d like to keep all these.” He flexed all of the fingers on both hands and grinned.

That’s so like Lucky.

Lucky had a reputation as one of the nicest poker players in the world. He played in a lot of tournaments and treated everyone with equal respect, even those with grossly inferior skills who lucked their way in playing in $25 satellites. He shared everyone’s joy in winning, even when it meant he had lost. When a player got knocked out of a tournament, Lucky always managed to be one of the first to offer a handshake and a consoling word. Never did he want to be the “big winner” in high-stakes games. He won consistently with good style.

Lucky Russo loved to tell people that our Italian surname meant “red-haired” as he ran a hand through his thick mane, that he wore shoulder-length most of the time. Because of his fine features, slight build, and short stature his hair made him look more like my sister than my brother.

“If you don’t pay, your fingers must stay.” Aldo chuckled at his own tired joke and was joined only by his staff. The professional players around the table remained silent. Most players won’t comment on anything unless they’re actively involved in the hand; and this hand included only Aldo and Lucky, because all the rest had folded.

Aldo usually lost, which was about the only reason those at the table put up with his crude behavior. His threat toward Lucky had not been well received.

“How about this?” Lucky asked, seemingly thinking quite hard. “How about if I pledge to work at any job in your casino for a year to pay off the 100 big ones -- if I lose, which I won’t.” Lucky’s teeth gleamed a friendly signal to everyone around the table that seemed to say, “I’ll be alright. Don’t be concerned.”

He had gotten his nickname because he won at anything that involved good fortune. When we played Monopoly as kids, he would always set his marker down on the spaces he owned and almost never land on my places with all my houses and hotels. He would flip his lucky dime and laugh. Then he would do his best to tell me that I had done everything right; and he had just been “Lucky.”

How can I not be concerned? Lucky is my entire family. When our parents died eight years ago, Lucky convinced the welfare people he could support me, his little sister. He just turned nineteen and had also just dropped out of college.

Mom had wanted him to become a math professor. Lucky read mathematics books like I read romance novels. Dad thought he should go into sales because Lucky had a talent for reading people. I thought he should get married to some rich woman because everyone loved him.

Lucky had other plans. He wanted to play professional poker. Online poker gave him his start. After he had built up $30,000 in the bank and paid off all his student loans, we started taking trips to Vegas. We bought a home in “Lost Wages” a few years ago to be close to the action.

Some say Lucky’s recent string of bad luck all started when he misplaced his celebrated dime. I couldn’t say, but as his business manager I had watched Lucky lose hand after hand, in game after game, so that our millions had dwindled down to less than $20,000, plus table stakes for this very important game. He constantly told me not to worry. He said he was doing something he had to do, and could stop losing whenever he wanted.

How can losing be necessary to anyone?

Aldo tapped his fingers together and studied my brother. If Aldo had been studying me like that I would have yanked down on my skirt to cover my legs.

“Look twerp,” the Shark said, “what makes you think I would pay you that much money for a year’s work in my place?”

Everyone’s eyes swung toward Lucky. Shark had a point, in a way — looking around the room at the faded upholstery on the chairs I wondered if a high priced greeter wouldn’t have been out of place in such a cheap casino.

“Bellagio’s just offered me a million to be their greeter for a year,” Lucky said quietly. Lucky had won five World Series of Poker bracelets. He ranked fourth on the all-time winners’ list with just under eleven million in lifetime total winnings. His poker playing had made him a celebrity. At $100,000 for one year, Aldo would be getting an enormous bargain.

Not since I had been a sixteen-year old girl, whose parents’ estate money had run out, and who was dependent on a twenty-year old poker player for her living, had I felt so vulnerable. Lucky tried many times to explain things to me to calm my fears. He said luck really had nothing to do with winning at poker over the long haul. According to Lucky, a person needed a good head for numbers and a long memory so you would know everyone’s tendencies.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Biggie asked. “Biggie” stood for “Big Mouth.” He was Lucky’s closest friend in the poker world. “I’ll front you the money.”

“It’s okay, Biggie.” Lucky nodded. “I have to do this. There’s really no other way for me to get what I want.”

“Georgie,” Aldo said, snapping his fingers, “bring us some paper and a pen so we can get down the terms of the bet.”

“Paper!” Biggie snorted. “Kiddies’ game is down the hall.”

Everyone at the table had won or lost a million or two on verbal bets. Everyone trusted each other’s word. Once you lost your reputation in the poker world, that’s it. It’s all over. Jamie Gold found that out after he won the WSOP and had that dust-up over a verbal agreement to share his winnings. Writing down the wager signaled something sinister going on in Aldo’s mind.

Aldo frowned across the table at Lucky. “I don’t care who you are. If you don’t meet the terms of this bet to the letter, you’re going to be known as ‘Stumps.’ The Shark will chomp until there’s nothing left to bite. You’ll have to take lessons from that William Rockwell guy about how to hold your cards with your toes.”

I closed my eyes to shut out Aldo’s horribly ill-mannered remarks. Lucky had played at a table next to Rockwell in the last World Series of Poker. The disabled man had lost the use of his arms in a motorcycle accident, and used his feet to hold the cards. Everyone who played with him had been impressed by his dexterity and determination — as well as his poker skills. Such grace would be lost on someone like Aldo. I couldn’t imagine Lucky working for him.

Lucky was never loud or obnoxious when he played. He quietly studied his opponents, so he would know what kinds of hands they played and how they played them. Privately to me, he claimed to know exactly what his opponents would do in most situations -- especially what they would bet.

Whether or not he had been dealt good cards really didn’t matter much, because he played against what his opponent had and what his opponent would do, more than he worried about what he had in his hand. Some people thought Lucky had a wonderful ability to pick up on tells, but knowing his opponents’ folding and betting propensities proved to be more scientific and accurate than watching for facial tics. He kept a database on each player, which I helped him with by jotting down betting on each hand and cards shown. As Doyle Brunson once said, “Ninety percent of all poker hands are never shown.” We had to watch a lot of poker to understand each player.

“I’m in,” Aldo said, holding the pen an inch above the blank sheet of paper, “if we can agree on terms.”

“I’ve already stated the duration,” Lucky said. “A year.”

Aldo nodded and sneered. “Now the important thing is. . .you’ve got to work at whatever job it is I say.”

“Right,” Lucky said, “but it has to be the same job day after day. I don’t want to be learning new jobs every day or so.”

I shuddered. Aldo would be out for revenge against Lucky. Even though Lucky had been gracious about it, he had knocked Aldo out of two big tournaments. He had also won a large amount of money from Aldo over the years. Money that had been all lost back to the poker community over the last few weeks. Since they had played each other so much, Lucky could read Aldo like the headlines of a newspaper.

“Well fuck all, y’all,” Biggie growled. “That prick is trying to find a way to show you up.”

Lucky waved off Biggie’s warning.

Aldo narrowed his eyes. “If you lose you’ll have to wear the regular uniform for the position. You understand?”

“I expected so,” Lucky smiled. “I do want to stipulate a few things. First, whatever I do has to be honest — I’m not going to do tricks.”

I closed my eyes and tried not to gag. Lucky would be very popular as a gigolo, but that would not fit into his ethics.

Aldo laughed nastily. “I already got plenty of hookers.”

Lucky looked directly at the Shark. “I want three weeks to put things in order, before I start working.”

Aldo bit his lip. “Okay, but then you’ve got to promise me you will do whatever job it is I give you and act as if you think it’s the greatest job in the world. You’ll do whatever is needed to fit in with the others and try as hard as you can to be an asset to my business. I want to see that famous Russo smile of yours lighting up my place.”

Lucky nodded. “Of course. Like I said, I want all my fingers left when we’re done with our bet. I also want you to give me a $25,000 stake so I can continue in this game. If I lose it all, you have to promise to write it off and not mess with me. . .no finger clipping.”

“Uh huh,” Aldo grunted, “but if you win, I get my $25,000 back and the first $50,000 of your winnings when we stop the game at the scheduled time, in six hours.”

“Agreed. Also, I get to wear a bracelet of my choice when I’m working.”

Aldo’s face brightened. “I’d like you to wear one of your bracelets to remind people who you are. It will add dignity to my joint.”

“Write it up,” Lucky said, flashing a confusing smile I hadn’t seen in weeks.

Like Biggie, I had a bad feeling. If Aldo won he would do his best to humiliate Lucky.

Aldo finished the document; and then they both signed it.

Lucky turned over his trip eights; and then everyone sighed when Aldo theatrically flipped over his full house.

Lucky . . . hadn’t been.

“You’re mine,” Aldo roared, as he laughed cruelly. “The next full year you’re going to be a cocktail waitress in my casino, humping drinks. You’ll wear the same short skirts and high heels as my gals do.”

The six other players around the table gasped.

Aldo smirked. “And, Mr. Bigshot Lucky, the waitresses are all required to wear dresses and look good whenever they’re out in public, whether they’re on the clock or not. I got my image to uphold.”

Lucky had kept his poker face, but Biggie looked as if he was ready to rip open Aldo’s throat.

“Your sister can help you learn how to act,” Aldo continued, “so as to look the part. No damned man in a dress will be ‘an asset to my business’ so you better look right.” He clicked two fingers together as if to be snipping with them to emphasize his threat.

If I have to, to save Lucky’s fingers I'll make sure Lucky looks more feminine than me. Aldo isn’t going to be handed an excuse to do anything to Lucky’s hands. A few times when I had been about six or seven, Lucky had played dress up with me. He had looked okay in Mom’s dresses, as I recall.

“You’re a donkey,” Biggie stated to the Shark, speaking for the rest of us. He knew, as I’m sure everyone in the room knew, Lucky would do his best to pay off the debt.

“I can do it,” Lucky said, almost eagerly. “It will be a test of my will. . . a real life test.”

He smiled gently as he reached in his pocket and took out what appeared to be a charm bracelet. He fastened the clasp of the feminine piece of jewelry around his wrist. It had only one charm, a dime; his lucky dime, if I wasn’t mistaken.

“Gentlemen,” Lucky said with a winning smile, “as soon as my boss Aldo passes me $25,000 we can shuffle up and deal. My luck seems to be with me.”

Two hours later Lucky had already paid back the original $25,000, plus the $50,000 interest. He had chips and cash in front of him that easily totaled over $300,000. All the time he had been losing he said he could win any time he wanted to. I smiled finally understanding my dear, sweet brother. Apparently, he could lose any time he wanted to, as well.

The End

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