Trip Aces

poker-aces

There aren’t a lot of things to do in jail. The one thing that everyone got excited to do was watch cops. We didn’t watch it because we loved watching cops put away bad guys. Heck, as far as society was concerned we were the bad guys. Nearly all of us disagreed with the premise of the show that law enforcement was basically good and criminals were basically bad. Yet we still laughed when some criminal made some stupid mistake. We still thought there were some pretty messed up people out there. We probably had just as much in common with the cops as we did with the criminals.Most of us were there for non-violent, often victimless crimes. DUI was a big one. Robbery of theft was another one. Drug abuse, dealing drugs and vandalism rounded out the top five. The disturbing crime that I saw far too many people in with me for was some kind of sex crime usually involving a minor. No one understood why these people were in there with us. We all shared a common experience though: we had all dealt with law enforcement and everyone had a story about it.

Jail isn’t the worst place for a storyteller. Lots of people in jail have interesting or at least different stories that people on the outside always seemed to find entertaining. Storytelling as how we passed the time. The most popular guys were the good storytellers. Jail’s not unlike any other social institution. You need to make friends in order to pass the time. The problem with jail – or one of the many problems with jail – is that the potential of pool of friends you have to choose from is full of some pretty shady characters. People surprise you too though. The crack addict that was my bunk mate the first week I was there was a really nice guy. He taught me everything I needed to know; how to act, what we could/couldn’t get away with and where the boundaries were. He always told me I was a good guy and that I should just do my time without getting involved with all the people who have come to call jail home. I don’t think there has been a time before or since that gave me a feeling of common ground with a crack addict.

One of the social problems that I faced in jail was a problem I faced on the outside as well – I simply didn’t fit in. You may be thinking to yourself: well, how big of a problem is that? It’s probably a good thing you don’t have a lot in common with people who’ve been incarcerated and that’s the mindset that I had going in. But, the truth is that no matter where we find ourselves we have a fundamental longing to fit in. It’s hard to pass the time if you don’t have any friends. That’s true in school, it’s true in work, and it’s true in jail. What I decided was that since my stint in jail was rather short and everyone seemed to agree that I didn’t belong there that my pool of friends should not be limited to fellow inmates – in fact, they were probably the last people I wanted to make friends with. So, what I did was mix it up with the Cos and other outcasts. I organized Monopoly tournaments and poker games. What I came to realize was that you could create your own fun if you surrounded yourself with the right people. And eventually what happened was that the storytellers wanted to get involved in these events. Everyone loves playing poker and I taught everyone a variety of other card games that my grandpa had taught me. We were having poker games on the weekends that the jail staff even looked forward to. One of the most interesting experiences I had was in the legendary trip aces game.

The Saturday afternoon poker game started after the one o’clock head count. Every day at certain intervals we were required to be in our bunks so that all inmates could be accounted for. This would take about twenty minutes and after that time we could do pretty much whatever we wanted. Around two o’clock is when most people got back from work release, so it seemed like the natural time to start the game. The guard in our block was a man who looked like he worked at the A/V department at your local Best Buy. His glasses were as thick as they make them and as blocky as one can get without creating a new shape altogether. He was a little on the larger side in terms of weight, but he had a jovial demeanor that went over well with inmates. He sat down at our table and waited for the hand to be dealt. We were playing Texas Hold’em which was about the only game anyone in jail seemed to know how to play. I’m not sure that many of them could have handled the concepts behind five or seven card stud, so this was the only way we could do it without taxing their brains too much. We weren’t allowed to gamble of course, so we used Monopoly money, but people took it very seriously. Watching the game you’d think that everyone had legit skin in the game.

Most hands ended with someone having a straight, a flush or three of a kind. Occasionally we’d get someone with a full house, but that was rare. You had to know what we had gone through in previous games in order to get that full house as we buried those cards on the bottom of the deck. Some people took the game a little too far betting meals on the game or various things that they were allowed to bring in from the outside. Probably the most preposterous bet was a guy who thought he could smuggle in an iPod without considering the fact that he would have no way to charge it even if he got it in. You couldn’t have cell phones in jail that should go without saying. You could have a radio, but only a radio and you have to have a special kind of headphones otherwise you could potentially use them to hang yourself with. When someone had a really good hand they would usually offer to buy the table a steak dinner if someone had a higher hand. Steak was all you could think about because the food was so awful. Many of us – including myself – believed that steak would probably have been better than sex.

One Saturday the CO was playing with us and he seemed to be on some kind of hot streak. I’m a naturally suspicious person, so after he started winning hand after hand I paid particularly close attention to how he was playing. I started extended games by making more creative bets to see just how ridiculous of a hand he would get. He started getting high full houses and my instinct was to get out, but something deep within me needed to find out what he was up to. I knew something was off, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I finally started getting decent cards and one hand I knew I had the highest hand at the table, so you can imagine my surprise when the guard starts raising me higher and higher. That’s when I decided to see just how high he’d go.

“How about an iPod,” I said knowing that my bunkmate wanted one badly. He smiled.

“You know that’s against the rules,” he said with a smile.

“Because it would be totally unprecedented for someone to smuggle something like that in,” I said with a hint of sarcasm. He thought about it for a minute.

“That’s your bet?” He asked.

“If I can put it out there then sure,” I said confidently. “In fact, I’ll sweeten the deal for you. We’ll give you complete control over the TV in our block for the next month if you win this hand.” People around me started getting really nervous real fast.
“Your friends seem concerned that I’m not as big of a fan of Cops as you guys are,” he said laughing.

“I don’t care what you’re a fan of because I have the high hand,” I said. I knew that the one thing that COs like anyone in law enforcement really placed the highest amount of value on their power. If I infringed upon his perceived power then I’d be able to figure out what was going on.

“I’ll call you on that,” he said confidently. I watched his hands. Growing up with my grandpa it was not unusual for cards to ‘accidentally’ fall on the floor or for new cards to suddenly ‘show up’ halfway through a game. It was a joke to my grandpa, but I doubt it was a joke to this guy. This whole game was about power for him and I was challenging his power. By now the whole cell block was crowded around the table looking about as worried as a bunch of inmates can. I laid down my cards: an ace and a king giving me three of a kind with a king high. The best he could do since there was already two aces out in the field was match my hand. Imagine my surprise when he laid out his cards: two aces. I looked at him and smiled. No one could figure out why I was smiling and I didn’t tell anyone either. I walked over to the TV and handed him the controller. Then I grabbed the deck of cards as he got up to enjoy his reward. I laid out the cards in front of me and organized the cards by value. There were fifty-six cards in the deck with an additional ace, king, queen and jack. He hadn’t just cheated to win that hand; he had cheated to win multiple hands. I looked at the cards and studied them for their differences. The cards that were swapped in looked almost identical. If you were looking at them from just a foot away you’d have never noticed the slight difference in color.

As I went down to get dinner that evening he stopped me in the hall and asked me why I didn’t call him out in front of everyone rather than let him take control of the TV. The answer was simple. I was getting out in a couple of days so it didn’t matter to me all that much what he did. What did matter was that the next time he wanted to join the guys for a game of poker they would look at him suspiciously. They would view him with contempt because everyone saw the hand three games earlier when someone won with an ace high. That meant that not only did he slip cards into the deck but he also at one point was dealing off the bottom of the deck. By cheating at a game that meant nothing he sacrificed the one thing of value that he had: his authority. What happens when inmates stop listening to him? I didn’t know the answer to that, but I was also very happy that I didn’t have to stick around to find out.

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2 thoughts on “Trip Aces

  1. Excellent writing! I really enjoyed reading this – I’ve always found jail/prison stories fascinating. A book I think you would love because it’s also about a storyteller who has spent jail time (the story is more complicated than that but this book is the best piece of modern literature I’ve ever read) : Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. 🙂

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