Character, Chance, and Cheating
Coney Island , August 1877
A crossroads can be a place of great power; this should not come as any surprise. it is a place of choosing, of testing, of transition, and there is power in all of those things.
But a crossroads is not always what you think it is. it can sneak up on you. and even if you know to keep your eyes peeled for those two dusty roads, just when you think you know which you will choose and which you will leave behind, that’s when your crossroads will turn out to be something else entirely.
A hand of cards, for example. like the coup of monte Sam noctiluca was just about to lose.
It may have been because it was a particularly perfect August afternoon—not too hot, with breezes off the water that were just brisk enough to sweep most of the more pungent smells out of Culver Plaza, but not so strong that the cards wouldn’t stay put on the table. Maybe it was because it had been a quiet season; the newspapers had been screaming for years about the country being in a depression, but this summer, you could really tell. it could be that Sam had become so grateful for marks that he had forgotten they had to be watched.
Whatever the reason, Sam just hadn’t been paying close enough attention.
He saw it coming far too late to try and fix his way out of it. as he realized he was going full chisel into a fairly spectacular loss, he also understood that this fellow he was about to lose to might just be the biggest cheater in all creation. He was certainly the most shameless cheater Sam had ever run across, and that was saying something.
Sam didn’t lose at cards often. He was both exceptionally good at the games he played and exceptionally good at cheating if he happened to run into somebody better. every mark was different, but after a few hands, Sam could usually count on figuring out his particular logic. Whether by character, chance, or cheating, there was a way to beat everyone.
What on earth did I miss? he thought miserably as he stared at the deck of cards in his hand, and the card at the bottom that meant he had just gone broke. He’d missed something for certain, but what that was, he had no idea.
There was precious little skill required to deal monte square, and the odds favored the dealer by so much that Sam almost never bothered to cheat. You dealt one card face-up from the bottom of the deck and one card face-up from the top. Your punters, the marks you were playing against, placed bets on either or both of them. the rest of the deck, the monte, was turned face-up to show the card at the bottom, and if it matched the suit on either of the first two cards, Sam, as the dealer, paid off any bets the punters had made on the matching card.
So if Sam’s mark, the fellow in the porkpie hat, bet two bits on a spade Sam had dealt, and Sam turned the monte over to reveal (Cavolo, he’d sworn silently, you have got to be joking) yet another spade, Sam had to pay out a quarter dollar of his own bank. Which would’ve been fine if the punter had bet two bits, but he hadn’t. He’d put down a double eagle, a twenty-dollar coin.
Furthermore, it was the fifth time Sam had turned over the deck to find a spade. Considering there were only ten spades in a monte deck, and that they’d only played six hands, it was pretty impressive. Impressive, meaning impossible.
And with that, Sam was wiped out.
The punter sat back, tucked his thumbs into his vest, and grinned. “Guess we both learned something today, lad.”
Sam forced a friendly smile, even as he mentally let loose a string of hybrid Venetian and gypsy curses that would’ve made his grandmothers proud, followed by a few choice swear words in German, irish, and Scots. “reckon we did.” He gathered up the cards they’d played and shuffled them in with the rest of the deck. “We learned i’m a little more naïve than i’d realized.”
The punter smiled guilelessly. You’d really never have pegged him for a sharper, let alone the biggest cheater of all time. “Not sure i follow.”
Sam leaned back in his chair and considered. He knew better than to judge anybody by the kind of smile he flashed. “tell you what,” he began. “You’ve got my money, and that’s me on my own hook for assuming that if anybody was going to cheat, it would be me, so i took my medicine like a good kid.” Kid, to emphasize that on a good day Sam could maybe pass for sixteen. Maybe. “now you’ve got every penny i had, so indulge me.”
The fellow’s smile sharpened around the edges, but Sam had already gone too far to change direction now.
“Somehow you stacked the deck, and it had to be when you cut it. How’d you do that?” He smiled eagerly, made his expression one of admiration rather than accusation. He’d learned lots of tricks with that look, all from adults who couldn’t turn down the opportunity to teach something to a young whipper-snapper.
It didn’t work this time.
This time, the mark hauled off and hit Sam with a sharp hook that landed just under his eye.
Sam sprawled sideways off the crate he’d been sitting on, landing hard on his elbow and finally letting loose a few of those curses. a couple-three passersby paused, but none of them stopped: another indication that Sam had outgrown his scrappy kid routine.
Nice while it lasted.
The man watched him get to his feet, still smiling that smile that was at once as open and friendly as you’d ever wish to see, and edged. “You usually get away with that, kid? accusing fellows of cheating?”
Sam spat pink saliva on the ground between them. “You usually get away with such obvious cheating, mister?”
“Usually.” the sharper—it was no use pretending he wasn’t a professional—flashed his eyes sideways, and Sam knew he was about to get hit again. of course the man would have a sidekick. Cheating among professionals was like asking for a fight. It paid to have backup.
And I forgot to look. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Sam dropped fast and somehow managed to dodge the blow coming at the back of his head. When he straightened, fists up, his jaw dropped.
There was no second man, only the same fellow who’d just hit him, but who somehow now stood behind him. “Good reflexes,” the sharper said.
Sam spent exactly three seconds trying to figure out how the fellow had moved that fast, then decided it didn’t matter. He wasted another two seconds wondering what the fellow was up to. He already had Sam’s money, so there was no reason to stick around just to give him a whipping.
Any way you sliced it, ...