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´╗┐Title: House Operator
Author: Tenneshaw, S. M.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "House Operator" ***

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                            House Operator

                          By S. M. Tenneshaw

               At poker, Rafferty knew he could beat any
            man alive. Now, needing money badly, he walked
           into the Ganymede Casino looking for a patsy....

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
                             December 1957
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Rafferty was a gambler of the old school. He didn't believe in any of
the fancy electronic gadgets that the casinos went in for these days,
didn't much care for the psionic games of chance and other tricky and
probably rigged affairs. Give him a good poker game any time, and he
would be happy.

He stood in the door of the Ganymede Casino, outlining himself against
the gaudy lights flashing within, standing there patiently. Inside, the
rich and would-be rich of a dozen planets were enjoying themselves,
playing the brightly-lit games and throwing money around in handfuls.

Rafferty waited for some attention. His hand slid to the bulky roll in
his pocket--one hundred hundred-credit bills, 10,000 smackers in all.
It was all Rafferty had. He was here to triple it, or else.

Tomorrow 30,000 had to be handed over to Lee Walsh. It was the result
of the one mistake Rafferty had made.

Walsh was a big-time gambler, with ulcers and high blood pressure and
ten million in the bank. Rafferty was straight middle-time, a man who
genuinely enjoyed his chancy profession. And Walsh had said, "Why don't
you play something _I_ like to play? All the time poker, poker, poker.
Why don't you switch to something else."

"I like poker," Rafferty said. "I win at poker. Why switch?"

Walsh seemed to stiffen. "Let's have a little game of planet-faro,
Rafferty. Just you and me. I'm tired of all this poker."

"I don't like planet-faro. It's a lousy game. All those flashing
lights--it's more like pinball than honest-to-darn gambling."

"You ain't chicken, Rafferty?"

"Chicken?"

"Yeah. Let's try some planet-faro."

So they did--and Rafferty had sat by leadenly while Walsh cleaned him
out. Thirty thousand shiny credits down the drain, and the debt due
tomorrow at noon. You didn't welsh on Walsh, either. It was sort of a
slogan.

Rafferty didn't have the thirty thousand. He had two alternatives: he
could scrape up the cash somewhere and hand it over, or he could grab
an out-system liner and get going toward Aldebaran, and hope to live.
He wouldn't--not for long.

He decided to scrape up the cash. And there was one sure way to do
that. Poker.

Poker was getting to be an unpopular game, and there were two reasons
for it. One was the advent of more popular new types of gambling
devices; the other reason was that Rafferty was so good it didn't pay
to compete against him. He often had trouble getting up a game. People
tended to slink away when they heard Rafferty wanted to play poker. He
played it hard and he played it mean, and he didn't lose too often.

That was why he had come to the Ganymede Casino. On the big
pleasure-moon, anyone could find some sort of game going--and if he
couldn't, the house would be glad to provide some competition. Rafferty
didn't much like the idea of playing a house operator, but he was
confident.

He patted the ten g's and waited. After a couple of minutes an
impeccably-dressed man in tails came over to him and smiled courteously.

"Yes, sir?"

"My name is Rafferty. I'm looking for a poker game in the house. There
one around I can get into?"

The impeccable man frowned slightly. "I don't think so,
Mr.--ah--Rafferty. Wouldn't you care to try our Roto, or the
planet-faro, or robot roulette? We--"

"I want to play poker," Rafferty said. The chips were down now; he had
to stick to his specialty.

"Well, I'll see what I can do. Would you wait here, please?"

Rafferty waited. He waited while the impeccable man cruised around
the huge gameroom, murmuring gently to someone here, someone there.
In all cases the response was the same: a shrug, a curious glance in
Rafferty's direction, a quick and emphatic shake of the head.

No one wanted to play. Usually Rafferty could count on some fool
millionaire anxious to try to best the great Rafferty at five-card
stud. Not today, though. There were no takers.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Rafferty; I couldn't seem to promote a game. But the
planet-faro--"

"Poker," Rafferty said.

"Would you object to playing a two-handed game with one of our
employees?" the usher asked suddenly. "Naturally he'll be staked by the
house, and I think you'll find him fit competition for you."

Rafferty chewed at his lip. He needed the money--and if the house
operator was staked by the casino, it might be possible to cart off
quite a load.

"Okay," he grunted. "Bring on your shill."

       *       *       *       *       *

The usher led him to a small, highly-polished card table in the back,
and signalled to a man waiting to one side.

"Mr. Steel, this is Mr. Rafferty."

"Hello," Rafferty said.

"Pleased to meet you," said the other. His voice was a soft purr; his
face, an expressionless mask. Rafferty smiled. He was quick to size up
his opponents, and this time he could tell he was up against a good one.

"Chips?"

A house girl had come by. She was clad only in a strip of something
filmy across her breasts and another round her middle, and she had a
trayfull of chips. Rafferty casually handed her the hundred bills and
accepted his stack of chips. She also gave him an unopened deck of
cards.

"Care to?" Rafferty asked, offering the cards to his opponent.

"No. Go ahead."

Methodically Rafferty broke the seal, spilled the cards out, flipped
the jokers to one side, and riffled through the deck. There were
fifty-two of them, all right, and they looked good. He started to
shuffle.

The first few hands passed quickly. Steel was a quiet, noncommittal
player who seemed to have a tremendous reserve of calmness. It wasn't
too surprising, thought Rafferty, considering it wasn't his dough at
stake. But a shill has professional pride.

The first three deals were in the nature of warmups, and Rafferty
emerged from them twenty or thirty credits to the good. He felt the
cards moving the right way; luck was with him tonight. He wondered if
he could come away with a million. The Casino had no limit.

Fourth hand he decided to experiment with some offensive tactics. Steel
dealt; Rafferty scooped up his cards and looked them over. Jack, Four,
Eight, Seven, King. Spade, club, spade, heart, diamond. Coolly he
fanned the cards out and pushed a hundred credits toward the middle of
the table. Steel saw him.

"How many?"

"I'll stand pat."

"So will I."

"Five hundred," Rafferty said.

"See that and raise it a hundred."

"I'll bump to two."

"I'm with you," Steel said. "What do you have?"

Without a facial flicker Rafferty exposed his hand. "Jack high. You?"

"You beat me. It's your kitty."

Rafferty scooped the pot in, frowning inwardly. He'd made his
bluff--but Steel had been bluffing right along with him. It was only
luck that the little man hadn't been holding a Queen.

Rafferty pulled Jack high again on the next deal, took three, came up
with nothing and folded. On the next hand both men played it cautiously
and Rafferty dropped fifty credits when Steel's pair of kings took his
tens.

Next deal, Rafferty again came up with nothing. Inwardly he cursed; the
cards weren't coming as well as they had. He decided to bluff again,
since the previous attempt hadn't yielded any information about his
opponent's tactics.

This time he pushed the bet up to a thousand before calling.

"Three sevens," Steel said.

"You beat me," Rafferty said, and collapsed his hand.

"Mind if I look?" Steel said.

"Yes," said Rafferty. He was surprised; it was a rank amateur's trick
to ask to look at a hand that had been tossed in. Coming from a cool
customer like Steel, it didn't make much sense.

But slowly Rafferty began to fathom the way his opponent's mind worked.
And slowly, as his genius for the game asserted itself, Rafferty began
to win.

By 2100 his pile of chips totalled near fifty thousand. It was enough
to pay off Walsh and still come out with a comfortable profit for the
evening's work--but Rafferty didn't want to quit. He didn't play the
game that way.

He decided to go for a killing. He had Steel figured, now and he could
take the house for a fortune.

Nursing three jacks and a pair of fours, he pushed the betting higher
and higher. Steel kept right with him.

"Three thousand? I'll see you and raise one."

Without letting expression cross his face, Rafferty pushed a few more
credits out. Then a few more. Then a few more. Five thousand credits
hung on this deal, now.

He remained totally blank-faced. That was the secret of poker: never to
tip off an opponent to anything. Steel was good, but Steel kept giving
himself away.

Like now, for instance. Perhaps the shill didn't know it, but his right
eyebrow was twitching faintly. So far, every time Steel had bluffed a
weak hand, that eyebrow had twitched.

Well, now Rafferty had him. He had a full house; it was going to take a
bunch of fancy cards to top it. And Steel was almost certainly bluffing.

"Six thousand," Rafferty said.

"Seven."

"Seven five."

It reached nine. Finally Rafferty said, "Okay. What do you have?"

Casually Steel lowered his hand. Jack, Queen, Queen, Queen, Queen. That
made four Queens.

He hadn't been bluffing.

And Rafferty was out nine thousand credits.

       *       *       *       *       *

He kept his composure, but inwardly he was disturbed. By all rights
Steel _had_ to be bluffing--but there they were, four queens.

The game progressed. A few curious onlookers had gathered. By playing
cautiously, Rafferty started piling up chips again. His winnings
mounted to a hundred thousand, hundred fifty. He had Steel figured now
for sure.

But it wasn't as sure as all that.

Rafferty staked five thousand on a straight flush. Steel saw him and
added five hundred on top of it.

"I'll go with you," Rafferty said. "Here's another thousand." Straight
flush, Queen high. Only three hands could possibly beat him--and one
of them was a royal flush. It didn't seem likely. Besides, the lower
corner of Steel's mouth was drawn back, as it usually was when he had a
fairly good hand and was playing it big.

The chips flew out madly. Rafferty watched the pile grow; neither man
would let the cat die. Ten, twelve thousand credits now. Fifteen. In
thirty years of poker, Rafferty had never had fifteen thousand credits
riding on one hand. But he was sure he had it.

"What are you holding?" Steel asked finally.

"Straight flush, Queen high." He started to reach for the chips.

Steel's mild, purring voice interrupted him. "_What suit?_"

For the first time that night Rafferty's composure left him. "C-Clubs,"
he stammered.

"Spades," Steel said sweetly, and put down the eight to Queen,
inclusive and consecutive.

It just didn't figure, Rafferty thought glumly. He wasn't as annoyed
over the wild improbability of two straight flushes the same hand as he
was because he had failed to guess Steel's facial reaction properly.
He'd been dead wrong.

He got wronger. Steel sat calmly without saying a word except when
necessary, and gobbled in the chips. It seemed to Rafferty that Steel
was reading his every move.

He was holding two pair, and played it big. Steel stayed right with
him, and when the payoff came:

"Three fours."

Three fours won. But Steel wouldn't have ridden that far on the trio
unless he knew pretty well that Rafferty didn't have much to show. He
seemed to _know_. And as the game progressed, he grew less and less
readable himself. It was a strange reversal for Rafferty, who was
accustomed to detect his opponent's idiosyncrasies within three deals
and to play them mercilessly from then on.

"Two kings," Rafferty said.

"Two aces."

Rafferty looked down at his pile of chips and counted them. Eight
hundred credits left. Eight hundred lousy credits.

It was just enough to book passage to Aldebaran. Rafferty slumped in
his chair.

The gambler in him urged him to go on, to try to win the thirty
thousand he needed and clear out. But another part of him told him
it was futile; Steel was getting sharper and sharper, and it was
inevitable he'd lose even the remaining eight hundred. He didn't want
that to happen.

He rose stiffly.

"Had enough?" Steel asked.

"I think so."

"I hope I haven't discouraged you. We can still play some more, if you
like?"

"What's the use?" Rafferty said hollowly. "I can't win. And at least
this way I'll be on Aldebaran tomorrow when Walsh and his gunmen come
looking for me."

"What's that?"

"Never mind." Rafferty turned away, scooping up his remaining chips.
He cashed them in and shambled out the door, still unable fully to
understand that for the first time in his life he had met his master
at the poker table.

       *       *       *       *       *

After Rafferty was gone, the impeccable usher came over to Steel, who
was sitting patiently by the huge pile of chips.

"You clean him out?"

"Just about," Steel said. "He had a little left to book passage with."

"It looked bad for a while, there. He was better than a hundred
thousand ahead of you."

"It took me some time to detect his playing patterns," the house
man said. "He was very, very good. He's the best player I've ever
encountered."

"But he couldn't beat you, natch!"

"Hardly. Once I had penetrated his defenses, he was at my mercy." Steel
rose, smiling blandly. "I took 9200 credits from him. It's thirsty
work. How about a drink?"

"Sure thing," the impeccable man said. "I guess I can spare a drink for
the best house operator this casino has." He took an oilcan from his
jacket and inserted it at the back of Steel's neck. The robot grinned
happily at the lubrication; his soft photonic eyes beamed.

"I enjoy playing poker," Steel said. "But someday you must enlarge my
circuits so I can take part in planet-faro too. It looks like a very
interesting game."



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