Queen of Spades

Queen of Spades

by Michael Shou-Yung Shum


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“Michael Shou-Yung Shum’s Queen of Spades is a remarkable debut by an enormously talented young writer who has produced a literary delight that circles the dead center of a very dangerous pleasure—casino gambling. ”—Frederick Barthelme, author of Bob the Gambler

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781942436317
Publisher: Forest Avenue Press
Publication date: 10/10/2017
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Michael Shou-Yung Shum eventually found himself dealing poker in a dead-end casino in Lake Stevens, Washington. Two doctorates bookend this strange turn of events: the first in Psychology from Northwestern, and the second in English from University of Tennessee. Along the way, Michael spent a dozen years in Chicago, touring the country as a rave DJ. He currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia, with his spouse and three cats. Queen of Spades is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Queen of Spades

By Michael Shou-Yung Shum, Ciaran Parr

Forest Avenue Press

Copyright © 2017 Michael Shou-Yung Shum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-942436-31-7


The Audition

Auditioning new dealers was one aspect of his job as pit manager that still interested Stephen Mannheim after nearly forty years in the trade. Off the beaten path of the Vegas, California, and Atlantic City casinos, the Royal attracted to its doors the oddest sorts of characters seeking gainful employment, drawn to the Pacific Northwest by the quiet beauty inherent to the region. There was something in the trees, it was oft repeated, and Mannheim, who had lived within these pines and shadows all his life, had never considered there was anywhere else he should be.

That May night, he had clocked in at eleven p.m. as usual, and received word from the swing shift supervisor that a man named Arturo Chan had arrived to interview for the newly open dealing position on the graveyard shift. Three days ago, Mannheim had lost one of his best dealers, a woman named Crystal, to a rival casino in Snoqualmie, and the existing dealers had had to work five downs out of six rather than their usual three out of four to cover her absence. Mannheim had taken his time filling the opening, but he knew if he delayed any longer, word would reach Gabriela, and she was the last person Mannheim wanted to disappoint. Although the rumors circulating among his loyal crew — that their boss was distracted, that something was wrong — were not entirely unfounded, Mannheim realized they could be dispelled with a single decisive act, and when he sat down with Chan in the employee lounge to discuss Chan's credentials, he was already looking at this new character with an eye toward hiring him.

Chan was clad in the traditional white tuxedo shirt and black pants of the auditioning dealer, and as they shook hands, Mannheim noticed Chan's fingernails were cut short and were exceptionally clean. Mannheim liked his solemn manner immediately, as he'd had problems in the past with more effusive dealers, ones who might berate a customer, or quit without any provocation whatsoever. In his starched, pointy collar, Chan looked positively severe. As he sat silently, Mannheim scrutinized a long list of Chan's previous dealing appointments — they ranged from coast to coast for a period of twelve years, requiring two full pages to delineate.

"You have quite a bit of experience," Mannheim said. He chose at random a casino in West Virginia. "Oh, I see you worked at the Blackridge. Was Farnsworth your manager?"

Chan regarded him and shook his head. "Sorry, sir. I knew of no Farnsworth."

"I see. He must've left before you got there." Farnsworth had been the name of Mannheim's cat. It was a little trick, Mannheim knew, but he'd caught enough prospective dealers in a lie that it was a useful little trick.

Chan continued: "My manager was Mr. Dumonde. His number is available under the references section."

Mannheim flipped the page and scanned it without reading. Then he looked at Chan. "The one thing that concerns me about your background is that you've moved around so much."

Chan nodded. "I have. But I've worked a minimum of six months at every location, with the sole exception of Four Queens in Tunica, which closed due to a hurricane. In each instance, I've given at least three weeks' notice, and never missed a shift."

"So how long are you planning on staying this time?" Mannheim asked.

Chan paused and carefully placed his palms on the table. "My previous appointments were temporary — but I believe the Royal is different, sir."

"We think so," Mannheim said, smiling. "What can you deal?"

"Blackjack, Pai Gow, Caribbean Stud, Two- and Three-Card Poker — the usual. The only games I cannot deal," Chan said, "are Craps and Roulette."

"What about Faro? We offer that in the high-limit room here."

"Nor Faro," Chan added apologetically. "I've never had the opportunity."

"That's fine," Mannheim said. "In the pit, we only spread Blackjack, Pai Gow, and Three-Card." He stood up from the table. "Well, shall we?"

The two men exited the lounge and Mannheim led Chan across the dark patterned carpet — ingeniously designed to camouflage any chip that fell upon it — to the pit, which in that nether hour between swing and graveyard shifts was calm and subdued. They walked behind the velvet ropes into the center of the pit, where the assistant graveyard manager, Dayna, stood with her arms crossed. One of the high-limit dealers, Chimsky, was also there, chatting to Dayna about an upcoming boxing match he considered an extraordinary betting opportunity, a "mortal lock." Mannheim knew Chimsky and disliked him — technically, Mannheim was his superior, but Chimsky lorded over everyone in the pit the fact that he worked in the High Limit Salon.

Mannheim tapped one of his dealers on the shoulder and indicated to her that she should step aside for a few hands. Chan positioned himself in the spot, and the two customers at the table, old Royal regulars, regarded the new dealer suspiciously.

"Hello," Chan said. "I hope you are well."

"We will be if you deal us some winners," one of the customers said. "Leanne's killing us tonight."

With the flick of an agile wrist, Chan was off. Mannheim and Chimsky stood and watched the audition, which consisted of three hands. The first thing Mannheim looked for was confidence in knowledge of the game, the rules and the payouts in particular. The second was speed and efficiency — the more hands dealt per down, the better for the house. And finally, there was that aspect of dealing that cannot be defined — style, for lack of a better word. Chan was unremarkable in the first two departments, but his idiosyncratic flair in sliding a card from the shoe, flipping it over using just the edge of the card, the overall effect created by his spider-like fingers as they traveled across the felt, mesmerized Mannheim. He understood why Chan had had so many previous dealing appointments: the man was an exceptional dealer.

"So what do you think?" Mannheim whispered. He knew Chimsky, who prided himself on being the best at the Royal, could always be counted on for a brutal but fair assessment.

"He's not very fast, is he?" Chimsky said. "He's solid enough for the pit, though. He's better than half the people here already." Chimsky said the last softly enough that exactly none of the dealers of whom he spoke could hear.

Mannheim nodded. There was something in Chan's serious manner, in his subtle dealing style, that bespoke some secret intensity. He reminded Mannheim of himself at a younger age, a slow-burning fuse ready to be lit — but by what? Mannheim had never discovered his own spark, and now it was too late for him. But afterward, in the lounge, after he informed Chan he was hired — news the man received with utter equanimity — Mannheim told Chan that he hoped he would discover what he was looking for at the Royal.

"Find yourself a nice place to live," Mannheim said. He recommended a building with furnished rooms several miles away, in downtown Snoqualmie. "Get acclimated to our little corner of the world. Come in tomorrow night and we'll get you started. Oh, and let me know the size for your vest."

After Chan departed, Mannheim — pleasantly diverted by the audition — returned to the pit to begin his nightly ritual, kibitzing with his dealers and regular customers. His mood was light as he listened to their tales of woe: bad beats in Blackjack, an unlucky DUI, a tooth that had mysteriously gone missing. Mannheim was laughing at this last story when he began to feel a wetness in his right ear — from the inside. He put a hand to the spot and when he examined his fingers, there was blood on them. Mortified, Mannheim excused himself and rushed to the employee bathroom, all the while applying pressure to his ear, but to little effect — he could feel blood dripping down the front of his hand, staining the sleeve of his jacket.

In the bathroom, he leaned his head against the wall of the stall and stuffed the afflicted canal with tissue. As he waited on gravity to stem the flow, Mannheim could not help but recall Dr. Sarmiento's warning that disturbing symptoms would arise as his condition worsened: internal bleeding, amnesia, fainting spells. Even unusual odors and hallucinations. For a moment, Mannheim wished that the trickle wouldn't stop, that it would in fact surge, and he would bleed to death right then and there on the floor of the Royal, and be done with it all. But of course, after ten minutes, it did stop.

Mannheim carefully cleaned his ear, both the lobe and inside, washed his sleeve, and then made his way back to the pit, feeling slightly disoriented, his equilibrium off. There, he watched as the rest of the evening at the Royal unspooled around him, hardly taking any notice now of what Dayna, Leanne, and the others were saying. There was a note of doom in his voice whenever he confirmed the buy-in amounts shouted by his staff, or explained to a customer why they were no longer allowed any alcohol. In the back of his mind was the knowledge that there was a very good chance that Chan would be the last dealer he would ever audition, that he would ever hire at the Royal, for Mannheim was dying, and only he and Dr. Sarmiento knew this.


Chan's First Night

At the appointed time, Chan returned to the Royal, freshly groomed. From the cage, he received his name tag — Arturo Chan, Pit Dealer — and a red vest, size small. It shaped his torso nicely, and he could tell Mannheim was pleased by his neat appearance. He tapped in at a Blackjack table, replacing a rotund, curly-haired dealer named Bao who dashed off to smoke. There were two players at the table, a mother and daughter who each had fifteen dollars out, but seeing the dealer change, reduced their bet sizes to five dollars, the minimum.

"Good luck," Chan said, passing his right hand over the table with a flourish. He dealt them both pat hands — the mother a 20 and the daughter a 19 — and then promptly dealt himself a Blackjack, with the Jack and then the Ace of Spades. "Story of my life," the mother muttered as Chan swept their bets. They each pushed out five more dollars. This time, Chan dealt the mother a 6-4 for 10 and the daughter a 5-6 for 11 — and himself a 7. They doubled down and Chan stonewalled their hands with a Trey and a 4, respectively. "It never fails!" the mother exclaimed, glaring at him. When Chan revealed that his second card was another 7, giving him 14, their spirits rose for a moment — only to be dashed when Chan dealt himself a third 7 to make 21. Disgusted, the pair left for greener pastures.

Mannheim, who had been watching, chuckled. "I think this casino is going to like the way you deal."

It took twenty minutes before Chan received another customer. A young couple sat down, holding hands. He offered them the deck to cut and the woman took the yellow cut card and plunged it in the middle. Chan deftly made the cut and inserted the entire thing into the shoe. Out of the first three hands, they won twice when Chan busted, and pushed when they all drew 18. The table gradually filled, seat by seat, so by the time Chan got to the cut card, there was only one empty chair. Chan was finding a good, steady groove, and occasionally he won a toke or two for himself from the young couple, who had taken a liking to him and were occasionally placing one-dollar wagers on his behalf.

It was in this kind of dealer's trance, during his third down of the evening, that Chan looked up from the hand he was dealing — a new player was taking an inordinately long time deciding to hit or stand — and noticed a small procession was negotiating its way through the pit, toward the exit. It was a group of valets escorting an extremely old woman. Chan was struck by her appearance — she wore a long, dark gown, and her fine white hair was pulled back high from her forehead by a gold circlet. In several spots, the skin on her face was nearly translucent, revealing a patchwork of veinery underneath, like the delicate marbling in a block of cheese.

"Sir, my card please," the new player at the table was saying. Chan realized he'd been distracted from the play of the hand. He quickly dealt the player an 8 to make 20, and busted himself with a King. But moments later, while he was making the payouts, his attention was again drawn from the table, this time by the sound of someone shrieking in delight.

"Yes!" a woman near the entrance was shouting. "Yes! Yes!" It sounded like the mother that Chan had dealt to earlier that evening. Her slot machine was going off, relinquishing its jackpot in an orgy of bells and sirens. And a most curious sight — Chan could see that just beyond the machine and its happy winner was the old woman, leading the procession of valets up the ramp that led out of the casino, taking no notice of the commotion at all.

"Hey dealer! Are you going to pay us or what?"

Flustered, Chan apologized. He finished the payouts and swept the hands, and as he slid the cards into the discard tray, he was glad to see that Mannheim hadn't seemed to notice his dawdling. For the rest of the down, Chan resolved to focus.

At the end of his fifth consecutive down, Mannheim tapped him on the shoulder and told Chan to go on break. "Keep up the good work," he said.

Chan wandered to the employee lounge, where two fellow pit dealers pulled a chair for him to join them. Leanne and Bao were friendly and gregarious, and after fifteen minutes of chatting about their respective dealing pasts, Chan asked them about the old woman he had seen leaving the casino. They were only too happy to respond. He learned that no one knew her real name, and that she was referred to by all the regulars and the staff as the Countess.

Every evening, Leanne said, she could be found playing Faro in the High Limit Salon. She arrived at ten p.m. in a long, silver Rolls Royce limousine, and would gamble for three hours — no, it was four, said Bao. Until two a.m. precisely. All the while, her chauffeur, a young man who never spoke a word, stood stiffly by her side.

"She's sort of the queen of the Royal," Bao explained.

As they continued chatting about the old woman, a shadow fell across their table and a loud voice interjected: "I couldn't help overhearing your conversation." Chan turned and recognized the heavyset bearded dealer who had been present during his audition — Chimsky. He was standing before them in his purple vest, drinking a cup of coffee. "You three may be interested in hearing how she fared in her gambling this evening."

Leanne sighed. "Go ahead, Chimsky. You're going to tell us anyway."

Chimsky smiled and sat down in the seat next to Chan's. "Tonight, she watched eight decks pass without placing a bet," he began. "Three whole hours. Then, with no warning, I see her quietly push out one green plaque onto the Deuce." Chan knew the green plaques at the Royal were worth $25,000 apiece. He leaned closer.

"Three Deuces had already come out during the deal," Chimsky said. "The only one left was her Deuce — the Deuce of Spades. I waited for the table to quiet. Then I threw down her card and there it was —!"

* * *

For the only time that evening, Chimsky told them, a slight curl of a smile had escaped the Countess's lips. She waited calmly while Chimsky slid her winnings across the table — another green plaque to match the one she had wagered. She had not played another hand, although she watched until two a.m., as she always did. Then she had risen, ordered her car, and departed.

"Are you saying," Chan asked — it was the first time he had spoken to Chimsky —"that she places only one bet over the course of an entire evening?"

"Not quite." Chimsky turned toward him. "Many nights she watches and doesn't ever place a single bet. But very rarely, she'll place two in a row. The last time was three years ago, and she won over a hundred grand."

"I remember that night," said Bao. "It was all the talk for about a week."

"So she plays a system," Chan said.

Chimsky laughed. "Of course. But I haven't been able to figure hers out. Once, I recorded every hand she played on my deal for a month, about a dozen total. I couldn't detect the slightest pattern."

"But who is she? How can she can afford to bet such large amounts?"

Chimsky shook his head. "No one even knows where she lives!" He looked like he was about to say more. "Ah, but look at the clock. The Faro table calls."

At the conclusion of his shift — the last four hours of which were unremarkable — Chan returned to the cheap, furnished room he had rented based on Mannheim's recommendation and tried to sleep. However, even with the windows papered over, there remained slits through which light penetrated and vexed his eyes, no matter which way he turned. Eventually, he arose and took a long shower instead, then made a pot of coffee and returned with a mug to the living room. Where a television normally would have sat stood an old trunk paneled in dark wood — Chan gazed upon this with some satisfaction and ran his hand over its leading edge.

When he lifted the lid of the trunk, the hinge activated a mechanism that elevated an inner shelf to the level of his waist. Upon the shelf were the books Chan had been collecting since early adulthood, antiquarian tomes on the history and art of gambling: the first edition of Yardley's The Education of a Poker Player, Rocheford's Les Caprices du Hasard, the classic Gambling Systems of the World by Martingale. Chan withdrew the Martingale and perused it for half an hour, seeking some mention of the system the old woman employed, but he found none that fit Chimsky's description. This reinforced for Chan what he already suspected — that the Countess's system was singularly hers.


Excerpted from Queen of Spades by Michael Shou-Yung Shum, Ciaran Parr. Copyright © 2017 Michael Shou-Yung Shum. Excerpted by permission of Forest Avenue Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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