Read the INTRO >> Part I. The Dealer
II. Mr. Razak Aziz
“Oh yeah? I’ve never played Blackjack before. What’s that like?” I ask him, feigning more interest than I actually have. I feel a little drained and with no sign of Sunny or Mie, I am starting to realize maybe it’s time to bounce on out of here.
Epol pulls out a laminated ID badge with a photo of a cruise ship. “I work on big fancy cruise ships. Casinos. Rich oil businessmen come to the cruise ships to gamble. I work in the VIP rooms”. He beamed at me, clearly proud.
Me, I’m not the slightest bit curious about Epol’s job, but I figure he did just listen to all my rambles about my life, so I at least owe him the same courtesy. He goes on to describe his disdain for the customers of the casino cruise ships–rich men who never treat him with respect despite his long-time standing as a professional croupier. Greedy, spineless, vicious men who will do anything for money and power, and never, ever tip exceptional dealers like Epol a fair percentage. They come every week, throwing tons of money down on the table, and not a single dime ever trickles down to folks like Epol and his family. He was preaching to the choir.
“My country is in ruins. You see? The roads? The trash? People living in nothing. People not living.”
I shake my head, feeling the pain behind his dry black eyes. Forgetting my own discomfort temporarily, I did see.
I think back to my tuk-tuk ride from the airport just hours earlier, that ominous heaviness I felt then, it was here too. It fit quite nicely in this empty void of a room. The only window in the room is behind my head, but there is no more light coming through the window now. No reflection to cover Epol, no reminder, no glimpse into a reality away from this heaviness. This cloying heaviness, mixed with the sweat of uncertainty, intimidation and pure-fucking-fear. It sticks all over my body. It gets caught in my throat. I cough a little.
“Water?” Epol calls out to Mie to go get me some water.
“No thanks”, I cleared my throat, “I’m fine”. I’m not ingesting anything else here for my own piece of mind, I think.
I’m fine. Everything’s fine.
“Can you believe Ms. Niko, it is $100,000 minimum just to sit at the table in the VIP room?” Epol tells me with his nostrils flaring and his eyes refusing to relax. He takes a small pad of paper out of his breast pocket and writes $100,000 US on it with a black marker. He holds it up to me, making sure I understand the amount.
“Wow” is all I say.
I wonder what that lifestyle would be like. But mostly I wonder how to politely make my exit from this lovely family’s abode. I look back and see that night is upon us outside the window. But I feel an overwhelming obligation to at least finish the conversation. I can’t just dash out of here after such a convivial affair. Mie re-enters and smiles like she’s greeting a dear old friend she hasn’t seen in years. She sits beside me on the couch.
“Yes I’ve been working a long long time”, says Epol. “I want to retire in a few years, so I can finally be done with casino cruise ships. But I must keep working to help my family. My mother is sick you know. If I was rich I would help all the people of Cambodia. Just give everyone a little this, a little that, you know. But now with our dear Mie getting this job offer in San Francisco, you know, I’m 58 years old, but I will work forever.”
I had forgotten all about Mie’s job offer in San Francisco. That’s why I was here in the first place. How did I get so sidetracked?
“So you never play Blackjack, huh?”
“Nope. I’ve never gambled at all actually”, I give him a nervous laugh. “It’s not really my thing.” Ha-ha.
“I can teach you”, says Epol with a sly grin on his face, “and I can teach you my method for winning. It’s guaranteed you will win 100% of the time.” He stands up and continues, “I will be the one who will go set the room up, Mie will come too. She doesn’t understand Blackjack, she’s very innocent.” He winks at me and I look over at Mie wondering how to get out of this without offending anyone. She just nods excitedly like we are about to go meet the prime minister. And Epol disappears into the hallway.
I look at my iPhone, it’s just after 8pm. There isn’t a single wifi connection. It will be very dark soon and I have no idea where the fuck I am. Usually I get my surroundings all figured out before I jump into some grand adventure. It’s not like I can call someone to come get me, my phone doesn’t work here. And who would I call if it did? The battery is dying. I try to remember when exactly I left my hostel, but between all the flights and layovers and timezones and different countries and foreign faces and sensory overload, my brain can’t seem to manage it.
I probably shouldn’t have come here.
I try to think myself through this, but not much is coming. So I just sit there like an obedient lap dog. Waiting. I think Mie’s still firing off robotic questions about San Francisco again, but I’ve tuned her out. I feel a bit out of it in general. It’s probably the lack of sleep. That’s all.
I probably shouldn’t have come here. I probably should leave, yeah I’ll just leave. When Epol comes back, I’ll just tell him I have to leave. It’s getting late. I’ll just get up and walk out and find my way back to Packers Choices Hostel. It’s fine. I probably shouldn’t have come here. It’s fine.
“Okay, we’re ready.” Epol has returned. Like magic I forget my fail-proof plan to leave and I get up and follow Epol down the hallway instead. I feel Mie lightly touching my arm.
It’s fine It’s fine.
All of a sudden I am in a little bedroom down the hallway. There is a small folding table with 4 seats around it. Epol instructs me to sit down in the seat farthest away from the door. Mie sits next to me. Epol sits across from Mie. I light up a smoke and feel myself calm down a bit. One game won’t hurt right? I’ll appease the uncle. Then I’ll leave. I don’t want to be rude because I genuinely like this family. Mie is so sisterly and warm. Sunny disappeared early on but he has been nothing but gracious. And Epol is brilliant. He’s like an old professor I admire. What he says has value, right? I mean, they are still strangers, but everyone is a stranger to me here in Asia.
Infact, I’m the real stranger.
It was me they should be wary of, right?
Epol begins to teach me how to play. I wasn’t lying, I have never gambled or played Blackjack before. I have been inside Atlantic City casinos once, but gambling never interested me. As he gets the plastic poker chips out I remind him I don’t want to play for money. And even though he nods his head like I’m being silly, I’m instantly comforted by the fact that I brought no money. I have a few crumpled up useless Riels, my passport, and my debit card in a little traveler’s pouch around my neck. That’s all I brought.
“I used to play poker with my grandma”, I tell him trying to ease the tension I feel as he shuffles the cards.
He doesn’t respond to me but goes on,“this is classic 21 blackjack. To win you must get 21 point. You must not get more than 21 point or you lose.” I nod my head, I understand.
“ A 4 is 4. A 5 is 5. Jack, Queen and King count as ten”
“What’s an ace?”
“An ace can be 1 or 11”.
Epol goes on to explain that in this particular type of Blackjack, there is the dealer or himself, the banker, and the player. Supposedly, the banker and the player play against each other while the dealer deals the cards but remains neutral.
I ask Epol what the difference is between the banker and the player, but his answer doesn’t make much sense. I just go with it because I’m feeling fuzzy and tired, and because I don’t even care to learn accurately anyway. I’m just trying to be polite, especially after all the hospitality this family has shown me. And with all the intense conversations earlier, I want Epol to understand I’m different than those rude, greedy, capitalist Westerners who destroyed his country, and I’m different from the tourists who come and ruin his city, I cared. I wanted to show a different side of American culture. I guess I wanted some sort of selfish validation.
So there I sat going through scenario after scenario with Epol as Mie sat there wide-eyed and supposedly clueless. We are in a tiny, tiny room. Behind Epol there is a small cot. I wonder who sleeps on it. Behind me there is a set of drawers. Beyond that there is just the table, the four chairs, and Epol, Mie and I sitting tensely, tensely. There is no window.
Epol explains that he deals two cards to the banker and two cards to the player. Then the banker will make his bet. The banker must draw a third card unless he has 17 or more. Next, the player is given the option of drawing a third card. Something like that.
“So how do I know if I should take a third card or not? Say I have 14? Do I stay or what?”
Epol takes me through multiple scenarios until I understand basic strategy. I lose myself in it.
“You are very fast learner!” He looks at Mie, “isn’t she Mie my dear?” Mie gives a cheery smile and squeezes my arm.
Listen,” Epol says softly but sternly, leaning his head in. “I have the ultimate strategy for winning. I will show you, and you will see that it is 100% proven to win every time.”
“What do you mean, Epol?”
What Epol means by strategy for winning, is strategy for cheating.
“I have been doing this over 30 years Ms. Niko, so I know a deck of cards like the back of my hand. I always know what card is next.”
I doubted him but he was right, no matter how many times I shuffled the deck and cut it, he always knew what card was next. “Is this like counting cards?” I had seen that heist film several years back, 21, you know, the one where that MIT nerd starts counting cards to earn money for medical school or something. It’s based on a true story I think. I can’t remember how it turned out for him.
“No.” he says, without further explanation. Then he goes on to show me an elaborate system of cheating using hand gestures. It seems I’ve lost my window of opportunity to leave yet again, and now I’m deeply absorbed in learning Epol’s cheat scheme. So much for just one game.
Each finger is worth 2, and the thumb is worth 1. So if he put a thumb and two fingers down on the table, it meant the card is a 5. If he put two fingers down, it’s a 4. If he just put the thumb down it’s an Ace, a closed fist means 10. And so on. Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. What’s going on?
“Ms. Niko, you don’t worry about anything at all, you just wait for the hand signal. I give it to you. I will see what the card is and tell you with my hand. Just remember the rules. And we are 100% guaranteed to win every time.”
Sleep deprived and increasingly anxious, things still didn’t seem to add up. After a few rounds with a hypothetical banker and me as the player I ask, “this wouldn’t really work in a real casino though right?” I look at him, eyes full of skepticism. “I mean, it’s so obvious, anyone would notice the dealer doing these hand signals in a heartbeat.” It seemed ludicrous to believe otherwise, I wasn’t that gullible. Otherwise tons of people would be up in these cruise ships swindling money away from billionaires. Right?
“No.” He tells me. “Everyone is too focused on their own cards to notice me doing anything. These are rich greedy businessmen. They are smart, but their greed makes them stupid. You understand that, you’re smart too. Very smart girl for an American.” I smile.
“You learn Blackjack very quickly. You and I could make a great team on my cruise ship. We would go and win every single round and split the money 50/50. Then I take care of my mother and send Mie to San Francisco. And you pay off your student loans and help your family.”
Now the warning bells were ringing loud and clear. Like a church risen from the ashes of the apocalypse. Epol couldn’t be serious? He didn’t think I was actually going to go on an elite casino cruise ship to try to cheat oil billionaires out of their fortunes? I mean, that would be absolutely insane. That would never happen in real life. That would only happen in a Netflix original TV series. He must think Americans are really dumb or something. But I just play along and laugh it off as an obvious joke, I was leaving for Siem Reap on a bus tomorrow anyway, I already had my ticket. Let the old man think what he wants. Hardy-har-har.
I realize I’m out of cigarettes. I’ve been chainsmoking since I got here. Epol notices too and gives me a new pack of Winston Lights. I accept it because it’s unopened, still feeling concerned about the food I ate earlier. I had almost forgotten about that until now, and my suspicious feelings were back like a ghost from a not-so-distant past.
Epol gives me a lighter. “Take this. It’s a souvenir. So you always remember your time here in Cambodia at my family’s home.”
It’s a blue plastic lighter with the NagaWorld logo on it. NagaWorld is Phnom Penh’s famous casino, I’d seen it advertised everywhere at the airport. Is this where Epol worked? I think back to the badge he had showed me earlier but I hadn’t bothered to take note of the cruise ship name. I thought NagaWorld was a hotel casino, not a cruise ship. Fuck, pay attention. I take the lighter but I’m not paying attention. I start to wonder if I’ve been drugged… by that spaghetti no one else ate…
I don’t necessarily feel like I am on drugs, but I don’t feel quite right either. Things have been a little off since the spaghetti, but am I just being paranoid? I don’t feel drunk and it doesn’t feel like that time I got roofied at a nightclub in San Francisco. It doesn’t feel like anything I have ever taken recreationally. I just feel confused. Like someone took egg beaters to my brain. I’m scrambled.
How long can I keep blaming jetlag and sleep-deprivation? But before I can sort it all out, Epol’s phone rings.
“Ah yes, hullllo Mr. Razak Aziz,” Epol says slowly and loudly into the receiver. He pauses and stares.
“Oh no, you lost $50,000 last night? I’m so very sorry to hear that Mr. Razak Aziz… I know, I know, I am your lucky dealer and I am sorry I was not there…” Epol looks up at me and gives me a wink. “Yes Mr. Razak Aziz I think you can win that $50,000 back no problem… Yes I understand… we are long-time friends… always Mr. Razak Aziz… Yes, anytime you want to come to my home… you just ring the doorbell…” Then he says something that is distinctly Filipino. Then back to English. “Okay…Ha… Bye Mr. Razak Aziz.”
Epol puts his phone back down on the table and explains that Mr. Razak Aziz is one of his gamblers. He is a regular on the cruise ship and he loves nothing in the world as much as he loves gambling. “It doesn’t matter how much money Mr. Razak Aziz loses, he will still keep playing,” Epol tells me.
I just sit there listening, as if there is no other option in existence.
“Mr. Razak Aziz is Director at PETRONAS. He has so much money. Oil money. He is from Brunei. Oil country. Rich country. Mr. Aziz from Muslim family. But Mr. Aziz love to gamble.”
You know, I had no reason not to believe him. His story could be factual. From what I know Brunei is a very oil-rich conservative Muslim country. PETRONAS is a Malaysian oil and gas company owned entirely by the Malaysian government. It’s the number one most profitable company in Asia, and their headquarters are in the Petronas Towers, the iconic twin skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur city center, once the tallest building in the world. I had just stood beneath the Petronas Towers in KLCC a few weeks ago. I had selfies on my iPhone of me in front of those giant twin towers.
I take a long, hard drag from my cigarette. Epol goes on, “Mr. Razak Aziz is gay man, but shhh. In Muslim country, es’very very bad for him.” I understood what he meant. “But he very happy man, always singing, always joking, always talking about his boyfriend, always winning money then losing money, still playing playing playing. He is good sport about losing, he just loves to play, so no need to worry.”
Why should I worry?
Why is he telling me so much about this so-called Mr. Razak Aziz? Is he just trying to impress me? Entertain me?
“Mr. Razak Aziz has a lot of money. But he never uses it for good like you would, like I would.” Epol pulls out two crisp hundred dollar bills from his pocket. He places the bills down on the table in between us. “We can use our technique to win his money.”
“No I can’t play for money. I-I don’t even have money. I told you that already. I-I’m not even sure I understand the rules anyway.”
“Listen, this is my money.” He pushes the two hundred dollars closer to me. “If you lose, no problem. No problem Ms. Niko” He shakes his head profusely. “I won’t be mad with you. I’m willing to use it because I know we will win, just like we practiced. Remember how we just practiced? And you won every single round? Just like that. Okay Ms. Niko?”
In my head I said, “no Epol, and actually I really, really must be leaving, I didn’t realize how late it’s gotten. People will start to get worried about me.” But it was too late. They already knew that there was no one to be worried about me.
I stand up to leave but Mie stands up at the same time, blocking the door and grabbing my arm, “what’s wrong? Don’t worry it’s okay. This is our home.” Then the doorbell rings.
My blood curdles.
“Excuse me”, says Epol walking towards the door, “And remember Ms. Niko, at this point in time, you are a real estate agent from New York. Your family is very wealthy and they have been gambling on my cruise ship for many years. That’s how I know you. Know you many many years. You are here to scout new real estate opportunity, and you couldn’t resist paying me a visit.” Then he hurries out the door.
Mie somehow forces me to sit back down in my chair without doing or saying a thing.