By Gwydion Morris
The first thing I noticed about the old man was his hair, it was much too dark for his age. It wasn’t a wig, but he had definitely dyed it too much. Moments later I realized I was here to take a lot of his money.
It was the third day into my travels and I was in Bangkok. I was fresh off of a harmless scam involving tuk-tuks, suit shops, and a fake Buddhist holiday, yet I was still eager to explore the city.
I was walking around Terminal 21, a large mall near my hostel. As I was making my way up the escalator, I heard a voice call out behind me.
“That’s a nice backpack. Where did you get it from?”
As far as backpacks go, this one was pretty unremarkable. But I turned around just the same. I doubted they knew about the bargains at Winners, so I just said Canada.
The Thai couple seemed normal enough. They were well dressed and they spoke good English. They introduced themselves as Raymond and Anna.
We got to chatting and Raymond explained how Anna’s sister was soon moving to Vancouver to be a nurse. They asked me questions about Vancouver and I answered the best I could, seeing as I live on the opposite side of the country, but they didn’t seem to mind.
Talk went on for a bit until they invited me to their house for lunch where I could meet Anna’s sister and answer any of her questions. Being new to the country I couldn’t pass up the chance to have lunch with locals, so I graciously accepted and followed Raymond and Anna out of the mall. I had no idea where I was going and nobody knew I was gone.
We took the subway until it reached the last stop then took a taxi for about half an hour. The city fell behind us as we got into some suburbs. After a dozen twists and turns we reached their house.
It looked just like the house to its left and to its right. I guessed this was the average middle-class Thai house.
I left my flip-flops at the door and was welcomed into a large living room. Anna quickly left to prepare lunch and Raymond offered me a seat next to an old man on the couch. His smile was almost as big as his belly. He looked like Buddha. The three of us talked for a bit until another old man arrived.
This was Roger, the big player. I got up to shake his hand with my right and he shook it with his left. He apologized as he held up a right hand which only had a thumb, no fingers.
Roger joined us and we kept on with our friendly conversation. Once we were all familiar, Roger told me he was the head blackjack dealer in a casino on a cruise ship. He was proud of his ship and invited me aboard sometime. Doubtful I’d ever go on a cruise ship, I nodded and said that sounded great. After writing down his number for me, Roger said we’d do business. I had no idea what he meant, but again I nodded and said that sounded great. Over the next ten minutes he said we’d “do business” about half a dozen times.
The talk turned to blackjack, as Roger said he had invented a new version of the game. He offered to show me while lunch was being made and I was curious enough to accept.
Roger, Raymond and myself went upstairs and entered an empty room save for the small table and chair conveniently set up in the middle. Roger produced cards and chips from somewhere and dealt out a regular game of blackjack. Even with his missing fingers, Roger was able to command a deck of cards.
I barely know how to play, but I did my best, and we played a few rounds. Nothing special. We chatted a bit as we played, mainly about Roger’s casino. He said he was the top blackjack dealer in all of Asia in 1995, but had an accident in 1996 that claimed the fingers on his right hand.
Roger mentioned a man played at his table on the ship a few nights ago and won $80,000 and refused to play again, walking away with all that money. Safe to say Roger’s bosses weren’t happy with him. I said that was too bad, and thought nothing more of it.
Then Roger started showing me his special version of blackjack. His version was less of a game and more a way to cheat. It only worked if he was the dealer and I sat opposite him. He’d hold the deck of cards in a way where he could stick the top card out for me to see what was coming next, letting me know exactly what to play every time.
I was a little confused at this point and was starting to hope lunch would be ready soon. Maybe this is what Roger meant by us doing business on the ship, I thought. Better I stay on dry land then.
We played this rigged game for a while and I still had no idea why. Suddenly Roger stops and says, in a serious tone, “Are you ready to do this for real?”
“What? Of course not, I’m just here for lunch.”
“What do you mean? Don’t you have the confidence to do this in a real game?”
I laughed and shook my head awkwardly, hoping to God this was a joke. I was starting to get hot. Roger sat back in his chair looking disappointed. Raymond hadn’t said a word the whole time.
A knock on the door broke the silence. Lunch is finally ready, I thought. But it was Anna letting Roger know he had a guest.
An old man walked in wearing an ill-fitting black suit, and hair that was obviously much too dark for his age. He kept his briefcase close and joined us at the table. This wasn’t lunch, this was something else. I got even hotter.
Roger perked up as soon as the old man sat down. He clapped his hands together and said in his cheeriest voice, “Ok, are we ready to play some blackjack?”
The realization hit me like a cruise ship. I was instantly sweating. My heart either dropped or stopped, I couldn’t tell. My vision went in and out.
This was the man from the casino. The one that cost Roger a lot of money. I was here to make sure Roger got his money back.
I was numb in my seat. Their mouths moved but I couldn’t hear anything. My fight or flight instinct was kicking in, I had to leave this house quick. My mouth worked and I spoke. I asked what time it was. Raymond said it was 4:30. This was my chance.
“Oh shit, I have to go. I’m meeting my friends at 5,” I was out of my chair before I’d even said anything.
I didn’t wait for a reply. I opened the door, fully expecting there to be a thug blocking my escape. Luckily there wasn’t and I didn’t look back once as I made for the stairs, leaving that poor dark-haired bastard to be cheated some other way.
The way to the front door went past the living room, where Anna and the Buddha uncle were watching TV. They didn’t look at me as I went by. It dawned on me there probably never was a lunch, or even a sister.
I got my flip-flops on and made it to the street. I had no idea where I was but I started walking to put some distance between that house and myself. My adrenaline was pumping. I was ready to run back to my hostel at this point.
Suddenly Raymond catches up and puts his arms around my shoulder.
“Hey man, are we cool here? You’re not gonna say anything?”
“No, whatever, I just want to get out of here.”
Satisfied I’d keep my mouth shut, Raymond left and I grabbed a cab. It all sank in as the cab started moving and I had a nervous laugh to myself.
Later that evening, safely back at the hostel with a drink in hand, I was trying to make sense of it all. I still am today. For the rest of my life I’ll be wondering what would have happened if I’d played along in that blackjack game.
Chances are I would have left Bangkok giving the thumbs up…just like Roger.