Harry likes to call me on the spur of the moment. He’ll have a woman and his poker buddies waiting for him in Vegas at the MGM Grand and I’ll drive him over from L.A. When we arrive, I’ll find the boys reassembled in Harry’s suite, ready for action, and the girl sitting at his wet bar. I always grumble when he asks, but don’t misunderstand. I never regret helping him out.
Just to be clear, Harry is not Willie Nelson. Harry is an older, grizzled star like Willie. Harry sings like Willie. He spends time in Hawaii like Willie (who lives there). Harry smokes cigars and a lot of weed. He loves poker, like Willie. Willie, however, focuses on life and poker in Paia with the other members of his rat pack there: Don Nelson, Owen Wilson, and Woody Harrelson. Harry lives up on Mulholland Drive. The poker rooms in their homes, Willie’s and Harry’s, aren’t so very different, though.
Harry doesn’t like to fly and he doesn’t like to drive his own car. I’ve been his gofer on a number of movies over the years and he’s happy to ride shotgun with me behind the wheel. He insists that I be sober both ways, so our little road trips provide me with an opportunity to dry out a little. When the traffic is reasonable, the trip takes five hours, more or less. On this latest occasion, I told Harry that I had to be back on set in two days, no matter what. Harry said we wouldn’t be gone that long.
He seemed unusually excited this time around. He ran off at the mouth all the way to Nevada. His arch enemy Sid was coming to the game, and Sid always got Harry going. Harry and Sid are the best of an excellent group of poker players. They’ve taken a lot of money off the others in the group, and Sid has taken a lot of money off Harry. This time, Harry said, he had a secret weapon. He wouldn’t say more.
We checked into the Grand and in no time at all Harry had a blond bimbo on his arm, his girl for the trip. He squired her around, showing her off to hotel staff and punters he knew from all over. Harry’s wife never made the trip.
The poker game, once it started, progressed as it often does when Harry and Sid are after each other and in top form. By the time the sun came up, after no more than twelve hours of play, the two of them were alone at the table in the suite. The rest of us were spectators. Once head-to-head, they switched to seven card stud exclusively. Old school. After an hour of play, Harry was already on the rocks. He sat back in his chair.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said. He gestured toward the house phone. “Get the doc down here.”
A young Asian physician appeared, gave Harry a onceover, and told him to stop playing.
“I won’t stop,” Harry said.
“Don’t be an idiot, ” Sid said. “I’m not playing a sick man.”
“Then forfeit your chips,” Harry said.
“You ain’t that sick.”
Harry rubbed his face. He groaned.
“Let my girl take over for me,” he said. “Just until I get myself back together.”
Sid’s eyebrows shot up. He looked over at the bimbo. He looked back at Harry.
“Who is she?” he said.
“That’s Reba,” Harry said. “Reba, come over here.”
Reba came over. I pushed a chair forward and she sat down at the table next to Harry. Sid stared at her.
“Harry, you dog,” Sid said. “You’re throwing in a ringer. You think she’s better than either of us? Or is she a mechanic?”
“Look at her,” Harry said.
She was not prepossessing.
“Take off the dark glasses,” Sid said to her.
She took off the glasses.
“Take off the wig,” he said.
She looked at Harry.
“Go ahead, Baby,” he said.
She took off the wig. She had a mousey little noggin.
“You know her?” Harry said.
Sid shook his head.
“If she were any good, you’d know her?” Harry said.
“Well, then. Play cards.”
“Watch her hands,” Sid said to the rest of us. “Watch her like a hawk.”
Mort had been dealing for Sid and Harry. Sid tossed his ante into the center of the table and motioned to Mort.
“I’ll explain the rules to you,” Harry said to Reba, “but then I’ve got to get my feet up on the couch for a little bit.”
Sid barked a laugh.
“Right,” he said. “She don’t know the rules.”
Apparently, she didn’t. The game progressed in fits and starts. Reba truly seemed ignorant of the game, not to mention of any strategy or tactical subtleties. She played a conservative game and Sid took her money slowly, shaking his head and rolling his eyes as he did so.
Harry had moved back to a sofa from which he watched the action. And slowly, strangely, Reba began to win. The pots got bigger. Mort handed over the cards to Jacob, but Sid’s luck did not change. By lunchtime, he was wiped out. Reba was modest in her success but Harry wasn’t. He crowed and then he crowed some more.
“I know I’ve been snookered,” Sid said. “Tell me how and it’s worth it to me. She didn’t cheat. I’d bet on that.”
“She didn’t cheat,” Harry said. “She’s a sweet kid and a freak of nature. I’ll let you stew until next time and then I’ll explain what happened.”
Sid fussed, but he had a story to eat out on and a revelation to look forward to. On the way back to L.A., Harry told me about Reba.
“Did you ever play that game with a little kid where you put your hands behind your back and put a penny in one of them, and then you hold your hands out in front of you and the little kid tries to guess which hand has the penny? Sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t but if you want them to get it, you can sort of move that hand closer to them and they’ll pick it. And then it’s their turn and they hold their two hands out and you start to point and they’ll sort of move the empty hand toward your finger, so you always choose the empty hand if you’re not a complete schmuck? You ever do that?”
“Well, if you play that game with Reba, she’ll always pick the hand with the penny and you never will. It’s not telepathy. She can read body tells by instinct, without thinking, instantly. You hold your hands out and if you want her to pick the empty hand, she can tell just by your tiny movements which hand you want her to pick. Like you were that little kid. We keep doing the same thing when we grow up, only just, you know, a tiny little bit. Of course you’ve got to care or it doesn’t work. When she holds out her hands, you’ve got to want to pick the hand with the penny, and if you do, she’ll get you to pick the empty hand, again, sort of like the kid does, by signalling which hand is empty, and then you go along without even knowing it. Or if you want to pick the empty hand in the first place, to score point with her by letting her win, because you’ve got designs on her, you’ll keep finding that damn penny every time she opens her hand, with her grinning at you and saying My aren’t you the lucky fellow, I guess I just can’t win. Do you follow me?”
I shrugged again.
“Sid cared. On every hand,” Harry said. “He wanted to take her money.”
“But wouldn’t she still make dumb bets?”
“That’s the beauty of it! In the beginning, with small bets, she could afford to play like a beginner, which she was, because that allowed Sid to judge her ability and informed his behavior in subsequent hands. After that, Reba didn’t play her cards. She played Sid, always doing the opposite of what he wanted her to do or hoped that she would do. Sid kept trying, harder and harder, raising the bets higher and higher, but he was actually beating himself by telling Reba how to bet the opposite of what he wanted. Because he’s a hell of a player and if she bet his way, he was going to win for sure.”
“How’d you meet her?” I said.
“She’s a shrink at a rehab clinic in Woodland Hills. Spend a week with her and you’re off your jones for a month. A week for a month. Keep her in mind. Sooner or later, you’re going to need her.”
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