“Cool Hand” Cholmondeley riffled his chips and arched an eyebrow. In his day-to-day life, as CEO of an international franchise of high-end estate agents, he was Charles Cholmondeley – “CC” to his staff. But here at his Highgate kitchen table, on Friday night, he was Cool Hand. Around the table were the familiar faces: “Deuces” Smith, wearing his prescription sunglasses indoors; his old schoolfriend Andy “Snake Eyes” Boggis; Jack “Peg Leg” Vickery, the orthodontic surgeon; and Leonard Finch, aka “Tex”.
He pushed a £50 chip towards the middle of the table. To his left, in the big blind, Snake Eyes pushed in a £100. Action was now on the new player. Which was, to Cool Hand’s unease, his wife Diana.
“Charles,” she had said brightly over supper that Wednesday. “I’ve been thinking, why don’t I have a go at playing in your game? It sounds such fun.”
“But it’s –”
“Don’t say poker is for boys,” Diana had said crisply. “I’ve seen that Victoria Cohen on the television. If it’s a poker school, I can learn, can’t I?”
“It’s high stakes,” he whined. “It’s a £5,000 minimum buy-in. You’ll be the fish.”
“What’s a fish?”
“I mean, you’ll lose. The sharks will eat you alive.”
“Sharks? Darling, Jack’s a bloody dentist. And I’m a partner in a city accounting firm. I can afford to lose £5,000.”
The guys, with a mixture of bonhomie and naked avarice, had happily acceded to the idea. So he’d done what he could to prepare her: “Remember: a full house beats a flush. And a flush is?” “All the same colour?” “Diana!” “I’m joking. Gosh, you take yourselves seriously, you boys.”
Back at the table Diana took a moment before making her move. The mood had already soured somewhat earlier after, a number of hands in, Diana had exclaimed: “It’s nearly one in the morning. I’m all in!” She meant exhausted, but Deuces – holding Ace King after a long run of rags – had insisted on holding her to the expression and called. Fancying a suited Q-10, Peg Leg had called too. She turned up her cards – 7-3 offsuit… but had gone on, in a classic freak of beginner’s luck, to get a full house. Tripling her stack – “Goodness!” – had seemed to wake her up.
“I raise,” she said, now, pushing a reckless £1,000 into the middle.
“Darling,” hissed Cool Hand uncoolly. “That’s 10 times the big blind, it’s –”
“I feel lucky,” Diana said curtly.
Charles looked at his two kings with anguish. He put £950 into the pot to see her. Snake Eyes called too. Evidently he thought she had no hand (after the flukey 7-3 fiasco, who could blame him?).
The flop came ace of clubs, 10 of clubs and four of hearts. Diana put another £2,000 in without hesitation. Cool Hand felt even less cool than before. There was now £5,000 in the pot. God knows what the daft woman had. He called, leaving only £200 in his own stack, which had taken a battering early on.
Snake Eyes called – £9,000 there now. Deuces sniggered. Tex whistled. Charles grimaced. Snake Eyes called again. And Diana, eyeing the remains of Snake Eyes’ stack – about £800 – methodically counted out that many of her own into the pot. “I can only bet that much, right?”
Snake Eyes, after a long pause, pushed the remains of his chips into the pot. They all stood up. Tex whistled again when he saw Charles’s set of kings. Snake Eyes, holding Queen-nine of clubs, had nearly made a flush. But Diana showed a pair of aces. The final card was ace of hearts.
She cleaned up with four of a kind. Her self-deprecating shrugs of apology were slightly at odds with the businesslike way she raked the chips towards herself. And all at once people were looking at their watches and wondering, was that the time already. Excuses were made, and the school was breaking up for the evening rather earlier than usual.
“How did you do it?” Charles asked as they were going to bed afterwards. “I mean, did you just get lucky? Or were you – I mean, I don’t want to patronise you, darling, but you hadn’t played before.”
“Well,” said Diana with a certain haughtiness. “You might be forgetting I’m a trained accountant.”
“What? You mean you were calculating probabilities and, um, pot odds, and, er, reverse implied odds in your head? All the time? Gosh, that’s impressive.”
“Oh darling,” she said fondly, unbuttoning the cuff of her blouse and letting a couple of spare aces spill onto the dressing table. “No. I mean I cheated.”