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“The Messy Soprano” by Alan25main

July 23, 2020

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This piece of poker fiction by Ronald G. Pittenger is 25 years in the making! After dropping the story for two and a half decades, he picked it back up and shares it with us. Get to know his latest character, Miss Susie.

I was sitting at my table, quietly trying to grind out the $200 per day I need to cover my bills — which isn’t all that easy to do at $10-$20 Seven Card Stud — when I heard her.

She screeched a cry of joy that started with a C-below. middle-C, and glissandoed up to a high-C. I thought my eardrums would burst.

“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings, and baby, I’m singin’ now!”

The table behind me was playing $10-$20 Hold’em. The self-described fat lady was raking in a mountain of chips.  I didn’t think she was all that fat, just BIG. She was perhaps 5’10”, no more than 200 pounds, well-proportioned, and feminine. Her straw-colored hair reached just past her shoulders.

Her smile — if it can be called that — would have made any merely mortal man quake with terror. The raw cunning and determination that gleamed through her eyes transformed the smile from a thing of pleasure and beauty into a challenge roared with full throat at the world. “If people can call me fat,” she seemed to say, “I’ll beat them at their own games until they acknowledge my skill.” 

To the obvious relief of all the other players at her table, she was leaving. The floorman sent someone to help her carry the four full trays of chips to the cashier. Tommy, the dealer, went on break. I went to ask him what had happened.

“Hey, guy,” he said. “That’s Miss Susie. She sings in the San Francisco Opera. She likes to play poker. Sometimes she plays for high stakes, but mostly she stays in the smaller games.”

Miss Susie? Even a cultural ignoramus like me had heard of Miss Susie. “Why the cry of victory?” I asked.

“She flopped a flush holding 6-5 suited. On the river, it turned into a straight flush to beat the ace and king flushes. There were a whole lot of raises.”

I could understand her jubilation. I’ve been on both sides of that kind of hand at various times in the past. I went back to my table. About an hour later, the seat to my right opened and Miss Susie sat down in it.

“I thought you were a Hold’em player,” I said to her.

“I love all the poker games,” she replied, “I play for the excitement of the combat. The stakes don’t matter, just the winning.”

“Aren’t you in an odd line of work for a warrior?” I asked.

“Hah! Don’t be fooled by the calm grace of the stage. There aren’t many fields more competitive than singing in the opera. For every job, there are thousands of qualified people, hundreds with beautiful voices, scores of whom have figures to die for, and dozens of them would work for free just to get the credit. A few of them would probably even pay to get the job.”

A person who works in that kind of atmosphere would need to be aggressive to survive, I thought. That must be the key to her play. What could I do to take advantage of it?

She was a very aggressive player. In the first nine hands, Miss Susie played in seven. She won five of them. She raised at every opportunity, and called only after hesitation — during which she was likely trying to figure out if she should fold or raise back. If she was raised back, she either folded or raised again; she didn’t seem to call a re-raise.

I decided to slow play her at the earliest opportunity. It wasn’t long in coming. I was rolled up with three kings, a deuce brought in the bet, and Miss Susie raised on her jack. I called.

After the fifth card was dealt, I had the high board with an open pair of aces. I bet the limit. Susie raised on an open pair of jacks and a five. One jack had been folded, thank God, or I would have had to consider the possibility of facing four jacks. One other customer was still trying to catch a flush, so again, I just called, hoping to keep the customer alive. He called, too.

The sixth card gave me a blank, didn’t help the flush, and made Miss Susie two pairs, jacks and fives. She bet the limit on her likely jacks-full. I figured the flush would fold no matter what I did, so I raised. The flush folded on cue.  Miss Susie raised back. I tossed in more chips to raise again, hungry for the kill.

With no hesitation, Susie folded. I sat there stunned. How could she fold jacks full? I pulled in the pot, toked the dealer a couple of bucks, went for a walk, and washed my hands. I stopped at the Sports book to check my bet on the Sailors — they were losing, of course — and got a coffee from the bartender. My mind was racing.

Either Susie didn’t have the full house or she had such a good read on me that she folded, anyway. No other explanation made sense. I didn’t believe she could read anyone that well without more time to study them.  Therefore, she couldn’t have had the full house. And if she was that aggressive with two small pairs, what would she do if she caught a really strong hand?

I resumed my seat and awaited opportunity’s knock. I began to study her as if my life depended on how well I could anticipate her thoughts. She would look at her hole cards only once, then place some chips on top of them. Her chips were heaps of colors with mixed denominations in every stack. Some stacks were like high-rise towers, while next to them stood a pile with only a few chips. There was no discernible pattern or plan, she just seemed to put her chips in at random. I concluded she had a good memory, but was sloppy.

As I observed her play of the next several hands, her eyes seldom left the table. She wasn’t looking at the players, just their cards!

I needed to pick my moment carefully. I had to have a threatening board at the same time Susie hadn’t improved above two pairs. So I got involved in more pots, trying to make the situation develop.

Miss Susie began humming “Habanera,” an aria from Carmen, one of the very few operas I knew. The sensuous, serpentine melody reminded me of Carmen’s seductiveness. And the fact that Don Jose kills her at the end of the story when she falls in love with Escamillo, a bullfighter. I felt ready to play Don Jose’s role.

The hand developed naturally. I started with a ten on board and a jack-ten down. Miss Susie raised showing a ten. My next card was a queen. So was hers. I caught a jack next; Susie got a ten for a pair. Our last up-cards were a nine for me and a six for her. Along the way, I had noticed one king, two sixes, and no eights folded. This was the moment.

Susie bet her pair. I raised. She raised. I raised again. She looked up at me. She called!

That wasn’t supposed to happen. She was supposed to fold right then and there. The dealer did the dirty down-card. I didn’t want to look. I wanted to watch what Miss Susie did when she saw her last card.

She glanced at her final card, looked up at me, and checked. She smiled Carmen’s smile. I felt I could read her mind. All she wanted was for me to bet so she could raise.

What could she have? I suddenly realized I hadn’t seen any aces. Could she have had a pair of them in the hole? Could she have caught a third one to make a full house? She acted as if she really wanted to check-raise.

I looked at my last card. It was an eight, making the straight. I looked from the cards up at Miss Susie and back again for what seemed like two or three minutes. Her gaze never wavered.

“The action is to you, sir,” prodded the dealer.

“Right,” I said, deciding. “I check.”

Miss Susie turned over a pair of kings. “My two pairs,” she announced with a smile, “lose to your straight.”

“Straight,” I confirmed, showing the jack and the eight. “It was nice to meet you folks, but I’m going to call it a night.”

Miss Susie stood up. “Me, too.” She turned to me and continued, “I thought you were going to play Don Jose to my Carmen. Besides, you’re winning. Want to try some $10-$20 Hold’em?”

“No, thanks,” I said. “I may have the chips, but I know when I’ve been outplayed. I’d rather be Escamillo and only have to fight against bulls.”

She was still laughing as I walked out the door.