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Casino Ladrones is a place where you can make a killing. You can walk in with two dollars and exit with two thousand. I’ve seen poor men turn rich in an hour. In Casino Ladrones, a winner is defined by a mixture of luck and skill. But you can’t have winners without losers, and there are plenty. The funny thing is, the losers always come back. That’s the trick with Casino Ladrones: It doesn’t discourage anyone. The unsuccessful participants feel the need to win more than what they lost. They don’t play against each other, they play against the casino.
Casino Ladrones is a towering structure that casts a shadow of greed and selfishness over men who are unlucky enough to be lured inside. The flashing lights and deafening noises act as invitations to enter.
There is a room in Casino Ladrones where you are destined to lose. It’s called the Red Room. The entrance is blocked by a thick door that muffles the music and yelling coming from the main rooms of the casino. The only objects inside are weak lamps, which give the red walls the hue of bloodstains, and a round table that is usually covered by cards and cash.
The greedy owner of the casino plays in there. He goes by the name of Vince. Vince is a heavyset man who constantly smokes and constantly takes. Most people know him as a master gambler. I know him as a master cheater. Everyday he plays his self-invented card game called Poison Bridge. Vince is always the dealer, and that puts him in an easy position to cheat. That's why everyone who gambles in this room loses in the end.
I know all of this because I work at Casino Ladrones. I’m an underpaid waiter in an overpaid casino. Every weekday at high noon, I sit in the Red Room and get drinks for the gamblers when they're feeling dry. I watch Vince cheat and steal their money.
Some people know that Vince cheats, but they are intimidated by his power. Vince always has a bodyguard at his side, and you have to give personal information to the front desk of Casino Ladrones. It’s easy for Vince to track a man down if he happens to be a little too fortunate. Vince rules Casino Ladrones and no one knows how to beat him. No one but me.
It’s my shift right now, and I watch as Vince steals a sucker’s cash as well as his pride. Two more guys start a game with him. Watching Vince fuels my anger and I am determined to do what I have been planning for days. I’m going to challenge Vince to a card game of Poison Bridge. I walk over to Carl, one of my friends, who also works at Casino Ladrones.
“I’m going to challenge him as soon as the game is over,” I say.
“You know I don’t think this a good idea,” he replies. “Have you considered that he could hurt the people close to you?”
“I haven’t talked to Wendy for a long time, Carl,” I say. Wendy is an old flame that left me when I decided to work at this hell-hole. “Vince doesn’t even know she exists.”
Carl rolls his eyes. “C’mon man, I was talking about me.”
I chuckle. “You’ll hold out alright, Carl. You always have.”
“Look, even if you do play, what are you going to bet?” he asks.
“Whatever I have.”
Carl sighs. He knows that he won’t convince me not to play the game, but he still tries.
"Why are you doing this, man? Why not leave? Just quit this job and walk away. You always said that anyone who gambles in here will always lose in the end. You won't win."
"I don't need to win. I need Vince to lose."
"Can you escape after you beat him? Maybe we--"
I interrupt him. "No, Carl, I'm not going to bring you into this. I don't want you or Juan or anyone else to pay for this. I can't escape Vince. He always keeps an eye on his employees. Vince knows where we live, and he always stations a few of his men by the entrance. I can't escape."
Carl shakes his head and mutters. "I'm afraid that you don't want to."
We stand in silence for a long couple of minutes. Finally Carl speaks again.
“Vince is going to give you the worst punishment he can dream of. His bodyguard is going to kick your teeth in. You’re going to lose your job.”
I almost laugh. Losing my job is the least of my worries. I know that Vince is going to kill me. I won’t tell this to Carl, or Juan, or any of my other friends. They don’t need to know that their friend is about to die. Only I do. And I can handle it. Death is such a small price for victory.
Vince’s current game is close to ending. I turn to Carl again.
“Get some people in here. I can only win with an audience.”
Carl nods his head and leaves the Red Room. As soon as he returns, there are a dozen gamblers behind him waiting for a show. Vince’s game ends, and I sit down at his table. He gives me an annoyed look and pulls a cigar out of his mouth.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
I clear my throat. “I want to challenge you to a game of Poison Bridge.”
The small crowd laughs a little, and Vince joins them.
“Waiters don’t play in the games,” he says.
“Can’t we make an exception?” I ask. “You’re not afraid of losing are you?”
Vince’s smug look disappears. “I never lose.”
“This game is going to be a little different,” I say.
Vince raises an eyebrow. “How so?”
“I get to be the dealer.”
The crowd gasps. Vince is getting more angry.
He says, “I’m always the dealer, kid. Haven’t you noticed?”
“I’ve noticed a lot of things,” I say. “The game shouldn’t change if you play a different role. It is fair, after all.”
Vince looks at all the gamblers watching. He can’t back away. Vince can’t afford to look like a coward.
“Fine,” he says. “But beware, kid. I know my game better than anyone else.”
“You’ll know it even better when you lose.”
Vince cracks his knuckles.“Your funeral.”
The game starts at a slow pace. Vince and I exchange careful glances as cards are moved across the table. The crowd grows and no one leaves the Red Room. They want to see how this ends. Vince starts to sweat. He starts tapping his feet nervously. I remain calm and keep a pokerface.
Vince lays a King of Hearts on the table. The dealer always ends up with an Ace of Spades and a few lesser cards. All I need to do is set the Ace on the table and I win. Vince knows I can do it, and he glares at me. His look tells me that if I put that card down, he will kill me. I hesitate.
This is my last chance to retreat from this game. This is my last chance to leave Casino Ladrones and live another day. I can put a bad card down and walk away, a loser.
I glance at my friends. Carl and Juan are at my right, watching nervously. If I lose this game, they’ll only know me as the friend who didn’t have the guts to stand up to a bully. If I don’t beat Vince, he will continue to steal from other gamblers. I know what I have to do.
My confidence grows. I’m ready to put the card down. David didn’t kill Goliath with second thoughts. There is no turning back. It’s time to prove that Vince is a thief and a cheater. It’s time to prove to my friends that I’m worth a damn, even if it means dying. I set down the Ace of Spades.
The crowd is silent. They stare with wide eyes and dropped jaws. They can’t believe it. I won. They know the game is rigged and that Vince is a cheater. I take Vince’s money along with his pride. Vince storms out of the Red Room and his bodyguard follows him. I turn to Carl and Juan.
“Take it.” I hand them the cash.They accept the money uneasily.
Carl asks,“Why are you giving it to us?”
“If Vince gets his hands on me, he’s probably just going to take the money back. Besides it’s worth more to you guys than to me.”
Juan nods his head. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to drive out of here, maybe build a house and start a new life. Don’t worry about me.”
I leave the Red Room and take the employee entrance out of Casino Ladrones. I head over to the parking lot. I feel bad for lying to my friends. I wouldn’t have a chance to escape from Vince. He’s probably in the parking lot right now, waiting for me. I don’t even want to think about what Vince is going to make his bodyguard do to me. I can die more easily knowing I did this one thing right.
Sure enough, Vince is standing next to my car with his bouncer at his side.
“Going somewhere?” he asks.
I ignore his question. “Before you kill me, Vince, I want you to know something. Everyone in the Red Room saw you lose, and they know you’re a cheater. It’s only a matter of time before the cops come knocking on your front door. And if you do happen to escape the police, you’ll never forget how I humiliated you. Every time you shuffle a deck or play a hand, you’re going to remember me, the one man who beat you. This night will haunt you forever.”
Everyone who gambles in the Red Room loses in the end.