Jamal walked down the steps from the train platform onto Fordham Avenue, somewhere deep in the Bronx. Having lived so close but never been there, the Bronx was still another world, full of criminal and often murderous legends. One of his professors had directed him there to visit a store owner about doing their books. Although the street was full of stores and shoppers walking in every direction, he still wasn’t feeling this part of town at all.
For Jamal, the past month had been drama-free although it was rough on his bank account. This was the first time he had been without a steady paycheck, not including the times he picked up a shift cleaning offices with Andre’s mom, who had also become his first business accounting client. The only thing that took the edge off being close to broke was the fact that his parents were proud of what he was trying to do. Instead of hangin’ on the block in his spare time, Andre had started browsing the web in search of ways to market the company on a shoestring budget. Even Leila had become more than his girlfriend and started to help out as a part-time administrative assistant. All of this was great but things had changed. In the past, if he failed he only had himself to deal with himself. Now, he also had the pressure of possibly letting other people down, too. They were the main reason he was out there on a Saturday morning.
Leila sat in her bedroom, quietly praying that Jamal had a successful meeting with the music store. She had also signed on to make sure that Andre’s past wouldn’t somehow coax Jamal into stepping outside the law to fund his new venture. Any other time she wouldn’t have questioned Jamal’s moral limits but after he was wrongfully fired from his law office internship, she had seen a shift in his behavior. He talked about business with a new sense of vengeance, more determined than ever to succeed. Although his love and appreciation for her seemed stronger than ever, she and his parents could tell that a door had been unlocked inside him and something was struggling to get out. To make matters worse, his advisor, Steiner, had been forced to place a deadline on his startup date — which was now less than 24-hours away. He had to win this client. Based on the university’s requirements, without at least three clients Jamal wasn’t going to be able to claim he had a legitimate business, voiding his internship which would put him another year away from graduation as well as jeopardize his remaining scholarship money.
A bell chimed innocently as Jamal walked into Wildstar, a small sliver of a store with walls lined in nothing but Hip-Hop gear, throwback jerseys, sweats and mix CDs behind the counter. After a quick glance at all the prices, he could tell all the clothes were knockoffs and all the music was bootleg. Two Puerto Rican guys quietly watched as he approached the counter. “What’s good,” he said as a Nas CD caught his eye beneath the glass. “Is Mr. Ngyuen here?”
The guys glanced at each other then back at Jamal. “He’s in a meeting. Can I give him a message?”
“Oh,” Jamal replied as he checked his watch. “My name is Jamal Washington of BBTN Accounting. He and I had a meeting this afternoon.”
The two guys behind the counter mumbled something in Spanish; one stood rolled his eyes then meandered out of sight into the back. A mysterious voice chimed in over the phone’s loudspeaker. “Please send Mr. Washington back.”
Jamal was escorted into the back and through a small warehouse to a Pepsi cooler. The guy opened the door and pointed inside. “This way.”
“In the cooler?”
“What language should I say it in?” the guy replied. “Vayamos, por favor.”
Jamal cautiously stepped inside into a short hallway, through another door and down a short flight of stairs into a basement area brimming with cigarette smoke and chatter. Spread out before him was a small casino, complete with a few blackjack tables, a craps table, roulette table, and enough poker tables to host a small tournament. Flat-screen TVs lined the walls, showing every live sporting event imaginable. Before he could turn and walk back upstairs a voice called out his name. On the far side of all the action stood a stout, Vietnamese man in a tailored suit gesturing for him to come over.
“I’m Jerry. Jerry Ngyuen,” he said with a familiarity that gave Jamal the feeling that Jerry already knew a great deal about him.
The operation was pretty simple — sell cheap knockoffs in the store upstairs as a cover for the casino. Jerry explained that he needed someone to set up a simple accounting system to handle the store inventory and the rest he would take care of.
From the sound of it, Jamal knew he could set that up easily. The problem was that he had to figure out how to state his reluctance to working with what had to be an illegal gambling operation. Before he could say so, Jerry turned to him. “I already think you’ve got what it takes. The gig starts at $6000 a week — and a raise if you show immediate results within the first month. If you’re interested, you’ll need to do a quick job interview and take a test.”
Never in Jamal’s life had he earned that much in three months, let alone in one paycheck. Within two months time he would have enough to jump-start his company and start paying Leila and Andre. In four months he would have earned more than his father made in a year. In a year he’d make just over half the salary earned by The President, enough to pay off his parents’ mortgage and put a down payment on another house. He knew his parents would go crazy if they found out about this but because of all the early business expenses his bills had a choke-hold on him. The money seemed worth the risk.
Just then a man wiping his hands strolled out of the bathroom. Jerry called out to him. “Hey, Sparks, c’mere for a sec.”
When the man turned around and saw Jamal he froze — it was Steiner. Before Jerry could continue Steiner chimed in. “Mr. Washington,” he said as if Jamal was little more than a familiar acquaintance. “Sparks McCann — good seeing you again!”
“You two know each other?” Jerry asked.
Jamal remained quiet as Steiner continued. “Yes, well, sort of — Mr. Washington is a student entrepreneur that received an award in our business incubation program.”
“Sparks? Award?” Jamal thought, thinking he had stepped into the Twilight Zone. A nearby pit boss called for Jerry and he graciously excused himself. Steiner casually guided Jamal off to the side. “What are you doing here?” he half-whispered.
“I was gonna ask you the same,” Jamal replied then explained how he was referred there without mentioning the name of the other professor in their department, wondering if each one knew about the other. Steiner had been there all night. He explained why he was using an alias and that the two of them could be in serious trouble if word got back to the university. Reading between the lines, Jamal knew that Steiner was really saying “If word about this gets back on campus I can lose my job — and if that happens because you talked, you will be in trouble, too.”
Suddenly Jerry appeared again and asked if Jamal was ready for his test. With a nod Jamal found himself whisked away and being seated at a full Poker table with different colored stacks of chips placed in front of him. The other players watched his every move like a lobster lunch waiting to be served — and all of them looked old enough to be his father. “You have $100 dollars in chips to start. Your test is to learn this game and play for an hour. When time is up you need to have at least $100 dollars in front of you. Understand?”
Wondering what this had to do with accounting, Jamal nodded, figuring it was best not to ask any questions.
“Gentlemen, the game is Seven Card Stud, $3 ante, no limit,” the dealer said as he shuffled the cards then turned to Jamal. “Sir, are you familiar with the game?”
He shrugged with indifference, prompting the dealer to explain the game. As the dealer rattled off the house rules, Jamal quietly recalled everything he could from the weekly Poker games his grandfather used to host in the back of the barbershop. He was a kid at the time, making money from tips as he served sandwiches to the players. The only memory that stuck out was some occasional advice he received from an old man he later learned was an ex-con that used to run numbers, all based on a simple premise: Men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t. Jamal turned and asked “Can I write a few things down?”
Jerry thought for a moment, offered the other players a $25 dollar credit if they would allow a slight infraction to the house rules, and when they all agreed he handed Jamal a pen and a napkin then started the timer. “Oh — and if you ask for anything else outside of permission to go to the bathroom, you automatically fail the test.”
As the dealer started dealing the cards, Jamal scribbled down what looked like numbers clustered together in no particular order; some were whole numbers, others were decimals and ratios. When Jerry noticed there were no arithmetic symbols or formulas on the napkin he decided to pull up a seat and pay closer attention.
At first, Jamal caught a few ‘schoolboy’ jokes from the other players because it looked like he was going to fold every hand immediately. His strategy was simple: fold if he didn’t have at least a pocket pair of 10s or better or three cards toward a straight or a flush. The numbers he had worked out on the napkin were based on probability theory, things he had learned from a Poker-based project assigned in a Statistics 101 class. Knowing the number of players and a 52-card deck, he had figured out a few things, like his chances of making winning hands based on if the cards he needed were already dealt and showing in someone else’s hand. Out of seven cards dealt, by the fifth card if he didn’t have four to a flush or at least two pair he folded. Although he had all this in his head, he was secretly terrified — he never cared much for any card games other than Spades and he only made a B+ on the Poker stats project.
After the first 30 minutes, much to everyone’s surprise Jamal’s tactics seemed to be working. Upon winning his fourth big hand and getting up to $370 dollars in chips, something started to happen — he started to actually enjoy himself, realizing that his business math skills made him a natural wizard-in-training for the game.
By then Jerry picked up on some of Jamal’s strategy — and so did the other players. The jokes had stopped. For a low stakes table, the game had turned deadly serious. The others started to play against him as if he was a young mechanic, a card shark that wasn’t above cheating to win. Suddenly they were requesting new card decks at random and every time Jamal was in a hand he was battling higher raises, crazier bluffs, and anything else they could possibly do to knock him out of the game. On one particular hand he had made an Ace-high flush, a top winning hand until he noticed a pair showing on the board in another player’s hand. The math said that the other player might have anything from three-of-a-kind to a better hand, such as a full-house or even four-of-a-kind although the odds of that were extremely low. Jamal raised and the other player re-raised, prompting the others to fold. He raised again, pretty sure he had won the hand when suddenly the other player pushed all of his chips into the middle of the table. Jamal had to push the rest of his chips in, too, or fold, leaving him with under $100 dollars and 28 minutes left on the timer. “How high you going to jump, schoolboy?” the man mumbled with a granite face.
The showdown brought a stillness over the table. Jerry quietly sat waiting to see what Jamal was going to do. The pit boss stopped in mid-stride behind the dealer to watch. Even Steiner, standing off to the side next to Jerry, waited to see what was going to happen.
It was the first time Jamal had ever found the direction of his academic career riding on a single decision — the outcome of a card game…