Excerpt from ‘Hillbilly Hustle’, a novel by Wesley Browne

Excerpt from ‘Hillbilly Hustle’, a novel by Wesley Browne

Knox Thompson first crossed paths with the man who would ruin him at a poker game above the arcade in downtown McKee, a forsaken place he had made it a point to avoid. After finding out about the game from one of his Porthos regulars, Knox couldn’t resist. It was said to be frequented by a herd of donkeys spilling money, and that proved to be true, but making money and keeping it aren’t the same thing. Especially not in Jackson County.

He knew better than to go to that sketchy-ass game, but by mid-2011 the poker boom of the aughts had cooled, online poker was illegal in the United States, and most of the good live games had dried up. At the apex, he had his choice of games in Richmond and Berea, but when poker waned, so did his options. The worst part about it was the shittiest, most casual players were the first to give it up. They say poker lessons are expensive, and it’s true. Knox tried to teach at least two nights a week if he could. He had come to rely on poker winnings to keep his pizza shop and his parents afloat.

The worsening drought made him reckless. It drove him up the narrow stairwell with puckered, peeling paint into the dense smoke of the apartment over the arcade in McKee. He had told Darla, his girlfriend, and himself that if the game wasn’t on the level or if things went bad, he’d just bail out.

Making his way up, Knox didn’t recognize the country music that played. The steps were shallow and about every third one sagged like it was held up by wet sponges. The apartment at the top was a studio with a table and ten chairs in the middle. Off to the side was a kitchen with appliances as old as he was and a sink full of dirty dishes. A feeble folding table teetered under the weight of two Cherry Master video–slot machines. The poker table, which appeared to be from an old dining-room suite, had green felt over the top and stapled tight to the undersides. It was ringed by men, sitting in mismatched chairs that looked to have come from ten different grannies’ kitchens. They wore dull flannel or black t-shirts, jeans, and boots or high-top shoes, and most were stoking cigarette cherries or had tobacco spit cups or bottles alongside. The smoke in the room was thick as white gravy but the smell of damp still pierced through. Only one person was vaping. It hadn’t fully grabbed hold in Jackson County just yet.

There was one woman at the table, heavyset, wearing glasses and a faded denim shirt. She appeared to be neither smoking nor dipping. She had a half-full twenty-ounce bottle of electric-blue Mountain Dew game fuel and an open bag of Funyuns on the table beside her.

Once Knox cleared the landing, all eyes lighted on him, like a strange car passing down a country road. They had no way of knowing what he was: a guy who had built his game reading and rereading dozens of poker books, and playing countless hands live and online. He had worn his white Adidas slides with white socks—one with a Nike logo and the other without—loose mesh shorts, and a threadbare, powder-blue “Trampled by Turtles” t-shirt. He had one tattoo, a full-sleeve of fighting robots in grayscale. The most he’d done all day to his receding, curly black hair and sloppy beard was run his fingers through them. If he had any tells at all, he made sure his appearance wasn’t one of them.

The table went back to the hand playing out. It ended with a bet followed by folds and a burr-headed fat kid with a chinstrap beard and diamond-looking stud earrings raking a small pile of chips and adding them to his stack all while dragging from a stubby fag. He couldn’t havebeen more than twenty-five.

A little fellow with painstakingly combed slick dark hair who sat at the head of the table opposite the stairwell raised his chin and looked over the others. “What can we do for you?”

If Knox were smart, and listened to his better inclinations and laboring lungs, he would’ve said, “Nothing,” and walked right back out. Being obstinate—as was his way—he said,

“Sidney Fulks told me there’s a hold ’em game I could play here.”

“He told you right. Games 2/4 cash and they’s a fifty-dollar minimum buy-in. You can buy back for less. Grab you a chair.” The man pointed at the two open seats opposite each otherabout midtable. Behind the little fellow stood a hulking man with his arms crossed. He had pale hair, eyebrows, and mutton chops, and a dip the size of a mouse tucked behind his lip. His veiny, thick arms were tattooed in countless flying bats. Wherever the gym was in McKee, he had putin his time plus someone else’s.

Knox read the little guy as the table boss in more ways than one, so he took the open seat three to his left so he could play behind him. The chip stacks on the table ranged from around twenty dollars to somewhere around five hundred. The little guy lorded over one of the tall stacks. Knox’s rule of thumb was always to buy-in for fifty times the big blind, so he peeled off two hundred in loose twenties, laid them on the table to get changed for chips, and was off.

The deal made its way around the table, each player dealing in turn. If Knox had caught any kind of hand he would’ve played it, but was content to fold his two hole cards and watch the action for a couple table rotations. He quickly found out the game’s reputation was accurate, andhis instincts were, too. The play was loose as hell and the little guy bullied and stole every stray pot nobody seemed too attached to. One time the chubby boy with the chinstrap bowed up in a small pot in which Knox strongly suspected he had a real hand, and the little fellow must have suspected it too, because after a long deliberation, he laid down what Knox felt certain was a pair of rags.

Like every new poker game Knox had ever played, he eventually got asked who he wasand where he’d come from. He was an interloper amongst a lot of regulars, that was clear. He told them he owned Porthos Pizza, which led one player at the table to recollect going there while he was on a bender in Richmond.

The first pot Knox raised to twelve dollars preflop someone piped up. “What do you know. The carpetbagger’s playing him a hand. Look out.” He was right. Knox had been dealt jacks, which he always hated to play because they got vulnerable quick, but it was still a good hand. He wasn’t the only one at the table who was judicious in his hand selection, but there were damn few. Several of the players would at least call the big blind to get a look at the initial flop if given the chance, which suited Knox. Pot sweetener in a cash game was hardly ever a bad thing.

With jacks, so long as no ace, king, or queen came on the flop, and no flush or straight seemed likely, Knox was in good shape if he didn’t have too many callers. Jacks were a hand hegenerally preferred to play without much competition. At twelve bucks he got three calls, including one from the little fellow, which was two more than he wanted. The flop rolled off 10,8, 9 of different suits, good for Knox’s hand. No over-cards and he picked up an open-ended straight draw. A flush hitting wasn’t too likely for anyone. If nobody sat on pocket 8s, 9s, or 10s,or jack/queen, Knox was healthy. Still, he decided to push a nice size continuation bet and end the thing right there. The little guy acted first. He checked, followed by the next two. Knox counted the pot at thirty-eight dollars, so he bet thirty-five and got ready to rake it all back in.

The little fellow drew from his smoke. Then he pointed at Knox with it scissored between his fingers. “That’s an awful big bet. You hit this flop? Cause I sure as hell did.” Knox looked at him and smiled. He’d been to card games where he ran his mouth. In fact, he did at most, but this wasn’t one to do it. Even Knox knew that.

The little guy used a small swirly slice of agate as a card protector. He slid it off, bent back his hole cards for a peek, and put it back. He spun a single chip on the felt a couple times before he stacked a full hundred in chips in front of him and pushed them to the center. After it was already out there, he said, “I raise.” His check-raise was a perfectly legitimate, perfectly nasty play.

The other two players folded before he’d got the words out. Knox went back over what he thought he might have, and there was a lot that scared him. Sometimes, though, he got a tickle that said, “He ain’t got it.” Knox’s Spidey card-sense tingled like crazy. The little guy’s raise and talk seemed tailored to push him out. He called it.

When the dealer peeled the next card, the turn card, off the deck, Knox watched it right until the last. Then he sneaked a look at the little guy, who watched the card hit the table and stared it down. He didn’t look at his chips, and he didn’t look at Knox, just the cards in the middle. Usually, if a card was real good for a player, they didn’t look at it long. They didn’t want to seem too interested. It was a red seven. The second heart on the board. Knox had made a straight. The little fellow eventually glanced at his own two cards like he forgot they were there before taking Knox in again. With one more card to go, Knox was pretty sure the guy didn’t have much. That was until he said, “I’m all in.” The instant he said it, everything Knox was so sure of ran off with its tail tucked.

The only hand the little guy could hold that beat Knox’s now was queen/jack. It was possible he could work his way to a heart flush, a full house, or even four of a kind on the last card—the river card—but at that moment, queen/jack was the only hand that bested Knox. Knox’s Spidey senses now started pinging with doubt, but whenever anything like that happened, when his thoughts scattered and he lost his nerve, he went to his safe place: the math. He had learned the formulas in his poker books. He didn’t have to make a hard decision, just do the math. Knox wasn’t even all that good at math, but he didn’t have to be perfect, just close.

While everyone watched, he peered at the chips in the middle and pointed at them as he counted. Then he counted what was left of his stack. He had only eighty-four more dollars in chips. He realized he should’ve pushed it all in earlier rather than just call the previous raise, but he hadn’t done it. Now there was three hundred and twenty-two dollars in the pot and Knox only had to call eighty-four to win it. It was possible he was throwing good money after bad, or the little guy had flubbed it and forced him to call a bluff, but either way the math dictated Knox try to quadruple his money.

Even as he pushed in his chips and said, “The math says I call,” Knox wondered if he should bother buying back in if he lost, or just go home and lick his wounds from the beating and stay the hell out of McKee in the future.

The little fellow drew his eyes tight and said, “Turn ’em up then,” as he flipped his cards,showing 7/10 offsuit. He had two pair. His only hope of winning was to make a full boat on the final card, the river card. He could tie Knox’s hand and chop the pot if another jack fell, but thatwas it. He only had four cards to win and two cards to tie. Statistically unlikely, but by no means uncommon. Knox had been fucked that way enough times to wince at the prospect.

Knox exhaled as he turned his jacks. The little fellow shrugged, looked at the dealer, andsaid, “Burn and turn, Rockhead. Maybe I’ll catch me one.” The man had been reckless, butshowed no sign of regret. The dealer tossed a card into the muck in the middle. Then he turned a hapless 6 of diamonds onto the pilled green felt. “Well, shit,” the little dandy said. “I made my straight.” And he had, though lower than Knox’s. He directed a single nod Knox’s way. “Good call.”

***

There’s equity in sitting on a big stack won honest that can’t be had by buying in high. Earned money is stronger money. Knox had run his initial two hundred to well over four hundred and that was worth something. Stack-size alone could win certain hands from certain players. Short stacks were liable to push in at any time, but most medium stacks didn’t much want to tangle with a big stack if they could avoid it, unless of course they had a real solid hand to double on.

The big stack at the table had grown to a shade over five hundred. After that, there was Knox. The slick little guy had rallied back up to over three bills playing his same hell-bent style. He seemed to cow most everyone at the table, and more than just in cards. The paste sculpture behind him, who they called “Greek,” behaved like a dog on a leash. The few instances when someone took a pot from the little guy, they wouldn’t look at him. Like they were apologetic, butnothing was ever said out loud. The other players called him “Burl.”

The table stayed juicy and loose. Knox’s stack climbed mostly slow, and on the way up hit a couple snags. The lady whipped him with a full house after he had flopped trips, but shedidn’t have a real deep stack. He also traded chips with Burl here and again, but still, Knox climbed. He never got too deep if he didn’t have a made hand, because Burl almost always showed down. Burl seemed fixated on getting his chips back from Knox specifically. That was the way of a lot of players. They held little grudges.

Once Knox had earned back his lost chips and then some, Burl scrutinized his near five-hundred-dollar stack. “I’d like to break into Fort Knox over there. That’s what I’d like to do.” Burl smiled then, but not friendly. “Boys, what do you all think of a man comes to a game the first time and makes hisself a bad guest?” Everyone else looked Knox’s way and grunted softly.

Knox measured his words. In most other instances he would have told Burl what to fuckand where he could do it, but he knew better than to say it there. “I’ve caught some cards tonight, that’s for sure.”

“That you have.” Two fresh cards went out and Burl took a look, measured out a preflop raise, and the subject dropped.

The game ground on until the small hours of the morning. A couple players busted and slunk on down the stairs. Knox yawned again and again, and the yawns grew larger and larger until other people at the table couldn’t help but take notice.

The chinstrap kid said, “You might oughta hurry up, Burl. Fort Knox looks like it’s fixing to close.”

“That so?”

Knox tapped the screen on his phone, which was on the felt, and checked the clock. Then he looked at his stack. He’d made his way over six hundred and was the big stack by a third. “I probably ought to head to the house before too much longer.”

“Hell, I ain’t even broke in yet. Surely to god you ain’t gonna leave with all my money and not give me no chance to get it back.”

Knox pointed at Burl’s chips, which were substantial. “You’ve had a fair night yourself, chief.”

“Sure,” he said, “but some chips is more special than others.”

Knox picked up two of his own, flipped them between fingers one over the other. He looked up like he’d just thought of something. “Who is this we’re listening to, anyway?”

Burl tilted his head a touch to one side. “You like that? That’s Wayne Hancock. Still plays it like it was meant to be played.”

“Is this an album?”

“This one playing’s Thunderstorms and Neon Signs. It’s a goodun’.” “How many songs left?”

“Five or six.”

“I’ll stay till it’s over. After that I got to go.”

Burl checked some fresh hole cards. Then he tossed chips in underhand. “Come on in this water then. It’s real nice.”

***

Knox wasn’t too eager to put his chips in harm’s way. He tried the best he could to fold his way out the door, but didn’t have much choice but to play when he caught ace/2 of diamonds in the big blind when nobody had raised and the small blind folded. The big blind was a forced minimum bet, so folding without a raise didn’t make any sense. Burl and the lady in the denim shirt had called, so there were only three limping into the hand, a rarity at that table. When Knox tapped the felt, signaling his check, Burl said, “Fort Knox ain’t closed just yet.”

The flop came: king, ace, deuce—the king and deuce both spades. If Knox was beat at that point, both of the other two would have had to be slow-playing a big hand. The only way to find out was to throw in a little bet. There was fourteen in the pot, so he matched it. The woman said, “Well, I missed,” and tossed her cards in disconcertedly.

Burl let his eyeballs run all over Knox while riffling his chips. “You make you a hand or you chasing that flush?”

Knox met his gaze. “One way to find out.”

“Reckon.” Burl flipped fourteen into the center as if he were sowing grass seed. Neither watched the turn card come off. Their sights stayed on each other. The turn brought a queen of clubs. Burl glanced at it for no more than a wink. Then he scratched his nose, examined his fingers, and scratched it some more. “What do you think about that purty girl?”

There was plenty that could beat Knox’s aces and deuces. All strong hands. Aces, kings, queens, ace/king, ace/queen. If Burl was sitting on two spades, he could still hit his flush on the river, too. Knox ran back the night trying to recall if Burl had slow-played any big hands. He couldn’t remember one time.

Knox wanted to lead out with another bet and see if Burl would go away, but feared Burl might go up over-the-top. If he did, Knox would have to think about dumping the hand, which pained him. There were forty-two dollars in the pot, but since pot-sized bets seemed to beckon Burl to call, Knox dialed down to thirty, thinking that might spook him if he thought Knox was betting for value.

Burl ground his jaw like he was working a piece of gum, though he wasn’t. He didn’t say one word, didn’t do anything, just looked at the chips in the middle and caressed that agate cross section he used to protect his cards. He said, “I call,” then sat there a bit longer before extracting his chips and flipping them into the middle.

The river card was on the felt right on the heels of Burl’s chips going in. Almost as if the card had silenced it, the country album timing Knox’s play ended. Nobody stirred, nobody made a sound. For the first time, the drips from the kitchen faucet that had been pelting the dirty dishes in the sink all night were audible. The card was the ace of spades. A card worthy of such quiet. A card that made Motörhead play in Knox’s mind, and made him study the other haggard faces at the table and wonder if any of them heard the same tune. It was a card that brought answers, but not all Knox needed. Not nearly.

He had a full house. Aces full of twos. Burl couldn’t have two aces in the hole because Knox held one, so quad aces were out. Burl could have been playing for a flush and made it, but Knox had that beat. Knox also knew that the ace of spades hitting made the flush play less likely, as fewer players chased any but the ace high “nut flush,” but with the hands Burl played, there was no telling. There were two hands Knox feared: ace/king and ace/queen. As wily as he already reckoned Burl to be, he could conceive of him doing that. If he had, Knox was beat by a bigger full house.

The simple fact was, Knox didn’t know what Burl had. He’d bet into Burl twice alreadyand figured out nothing. Knox decided to try another tack. He reached out slowly and tickled the felt with his middle finger, signaling a check, secretly hoping Burl would do the same behind.They’d show it down and, win or lose, Knox would get out with a decent profit on the night.

Burl started talking. “You make your flush there, Fort Knox? Is that what you done?”Knox shrugged.

“You slow-play aces? You do that? You wouldn’t do that to me would you, hippie-pizza-man? Just when we was getting to be friends.”

Knox shrugged again.

“Kings? Queens? You make you a big healthy hand?” Burl nodded. “I know you ain’t got two queens cause that’s what I got. I got queens full. You done let me lay around too long.” He took a peek at his cards, whistled, and smiled. “Ain’t they purty. You wanna see ’em?”

Burl slid his cards out and peeled at the corner like he was going to show, shook his head, and brought them back. He leaned back in his chair, took a cigarette from a pack of Marlboro Reds he had sitting on the table, flicked a matte-black Zippo from his front pocket that flamed just as quickly as he opened it, drew hard on the cowboy killer, and blew out the smoke swift and long. “I’m all in.”

Knox pushed his lower lip into his upper, and his upper into his nose so his mustache hairs tickled his nostrils. “That’s a bold move.”

“No it ain’t. It ain’t bold at all when you got what I got.”

Here’s where Knox went into circuital psychology. In poker, strong is weak. Everybody knows that. Because everyone knows, there are people who act strong who are strong, thus giving reverse-reverse signals. But if Burl knew this, and he knew Knox knew, he could have been doing reverse-reverse-reverse psychology. So Knox was in limbo. He was pretty sure Burl didn’t have the queens he said, but then again he might. Knox had seen it done. In that particular hand, Burl would be better off with only one queen and an ace. In a matchup of full houses, the higher top three cards determine the winner. Knox had aces full of twos: three aces and two twos. If Burl really did have two queens in the hole, he had queens full of aces, and it lost. That hand may have looked prettier, seemed bigger, but it was a loser.

To buy a little time, Knox asked a relevant question. “How much you got left in your stack?”

Without the slightest pause Burl said, “Four hundred thirty-five,” puffing on his cigarette without touching it. Pasteurized milk–skinned Greek was peering in, trying to get a look at what all was out on the table, the whole time never uncrossing his bowling-pin forearms.

If Burl won the hand, Knox’s big night was lost. He’d give back all he made and then some. It was supposed to be his last hand. He didn’t have the best possible cards. He didn’t have the nuts. He also didn’t have a feel for whether Burl had him beat or not, but Burl gave off like he thought he did. The question that struck Knox was, if Burl wanted to take a chunk, why push him out of the hand? Burl had played the hand slow, and now at the end he was shoving it all in. Was that to extract the maximum, or to get what he could without showing down the hand? Knox wished for the answer, but didn’t have it. Lacking the answer, and without too terribly much in the pot, the smart move was to fold and take home the hefty winnings he would have left. He needed that money. His parents needed it. Math didn’t compel Knox to stay in the hand. He was lost in it, so he should’ve just gotten out. That was smart the thing to do.

The faucet continued to drip drip drip. Knox said, “I call.”

Excerpted with permission from West Virginia University Press.

Wesley Browne is the founder and host of Pages & Pints Reading Series at Apollo Pizza in Richmond, Kentucky. He lives with his wife and two sons in Madison County, where he practices law, co-owns and helps manage local restaurants and a music venue, and coaches sports. Hillbilly Hustle is his debut book.

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