July 19, 2007

Hard Luck Harry and the Owl

By Johnny Hughes © 2007

Harry believed in luck more than any gambler you have ever met. If the Cowboys lost in the final seconds of a football game, Harry thought it was because he'd spilled the salt shaker at the Truck Stop. Harry had lost steadily at no-limit Texas Hold 'em for twenty-three years. His favorite hands were ace-jack and ace-ten. That's kind of unlucky by it's own self. By playing very tight and quitting when he was ahead, Harry managed to win one out of four times, year after year. If you asked Harry about that, he'd tell you he played too many hands and called too much on fifth street but he really believed he was snake-bit, permanently unlucky. It started in junior high flipping coins odd-man with guys that cheated him.

Harry was walking up to Williard's poker game when he spied a Great Horned Owl staring him down from a fence post. A shiver went down Harry's spine like a rabbit had run across his grave. It looked to Harry like the raptor might attack at any minute. He stood there frozen trying to decide what it meant. Since these owls are nocturnal, Harry had never seen one before. The owl let out it's distinctive mid-winter mating call, "Who? Who? Who?" the owl asked. Then it flew off with a great clapping of the wings.

Harry knew the owl was a bad omen to the Plains Indians who roamed the West Texas flatlands before the buffalo hunters, barbed wire, Texas Rangers, U.S. Calvary, windmills, and massive ranches ran off the Indians. That's why we don't have Indian casinos like the Okies. Sighting an owl was a sign of death to some Indians. Harry was spooked big-time. He wasn't his usual friendly self when he got his chips and a chair. On the third hand, while he was still thinking hard about the significance of the owl, he caught two black aces. The ace of spades is the death card. He almost threw the hand away. Harry smooth called the ten dollar blind. He only had $150 in chips.

Even Harry knew that Dylan always raises on the button and always makes a follow-up bet. Dylan was one of these college-aged players with a torn, battered hat and sunglasses. Dylan ran over the game like water over the lowlands. Harry called Dylan's predictable $30 raise. When the flop came 8,7,2 rainbow, Harry checked and called Dylan's $60 bet after a long study. Dylan could read and smell Harry's fear but he only had $50 left. When Dylan paired queens, he bet the last $50. All Harry could think of was that owl. He only called to confirm his primary interior vision of his bad luck. He looked surprised to win the pot. Fireman couldn't keep from laughing.

Then Harry caught a little rush, calling fearfully with some monster hands. If the owl was right, Harry thought, I am a doomed man in this poker game. Then Harry caught the ace-eight of spades in the big blind. No one raised and it came ace, eight, deuce. Harry held the ace of spades and the dead man's hand. His heart pounded. He called Dylan's small wager crying. When another ace came on fourth street, everyone checked it down. Harry cashed in $1,240, his best winning since two years ago Christmas at Sandia Casino when he held more hands than any manicurist in town.

As Harry walked toward his car, the Great Horned Owl was sitting on the same fence post. Harry avoided eye contact and ran for his car. His feet shuffling on the gravel startled the owl and it took off flying just over Harry's head as he opened his car door. He jumped in and locked the doors. By the time Harry reached his place of employment at the Purple Coyote Liquor Store, the story had grown. "It came right at my head." Harry said. "I ducked behind the car just in time. Sighting an owl is a really bad omen."

For a wrong-way gambler, Harry lived a very orderly life. He rented a small furnished apartment, He got all his clothes at garage sales and all his food at Wal-Mart. He didn't have a phone or cable TV and he didn't want them. Clyde would always let him work overtime on big football weekends. Harry religiously studied his dog-eared back issues of Bluff, but he still had a weakness for a weak ace. The guys around the liquor store made little $10 bets with no juice on sporting events. Harry budgeted $6 per week for the Texas lottery. He knew it was in support of the school children of Texas.

After his winning at the poker, Harry went back to betting football at eleven to ten pick 'em. The first week he had six $100 winners on the college games and three $200 winners on the pro games. He won every bet. If this wasn't lucky, what was? But Harry couldn't shake the thought of the owl. He dreamed about the owl clawing his face. He drove by Williard's poker game every day looking for the owl. It was a no-show. Then Harry went down to the library in a howling dust storm to read up on owls. He found out that some Indians believed owls have powers of prophecy. They represent helpfulness and wisdom. So the owl meant good luck, Harry thought. He sure was on a hot streak. The Greeks thought it was a sign of victory in battle if an owl flew over their troops. They revered owls and put them on their coins.

The Romans viewed owls as sinister, a very bad sign. They thought the sighting of an owl meant a defeat in battle. The Roman Army suffered one of its greatest defeats at the sight of the Garden of Eden between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in what is present day Iraq. They saw an owl before the battle. Some American Indians saw owls as a sign of death. So did people in the middle ages. But many other cultures saw owls as signs of wisdom or good fortune. The English are divided on owls as they are on most issues. In early English folklore, the call or screech of an owl was a sure sign somebody's number was up. In Northern England, an owl is a sign of good luck. Harry was confused by all this. Was the owl a sign of bad luck or good luck?

Somebody said that if you don't get a bet down, you might be walking around real lucky and not even know it. That was about as close to a core value as Harry got. He bet on sixteen football and basketball games and won thirteen bets. He won four times in a row at the poker game, rarely getting his money in the pot with the best hand. He went to the Mall and bought a whole new outfit, with a shiny blue Italian cut sports coat and gray wool pants. He got a shine and a manicure and had his thinning hair styled.

As Harry approached Williard's game, he didn't really see the owl fading away in the twilight but he thought he did. That night he played super tight and caught way more than his share of big easily played wired pairs. Harry convinced himself this was the certain signal that his life-long streak of bad luck had ended. This was his time. He would never see another poor day. Harry kept winning at every thing he did for a couple of months. He bought a 1993 Red Cadillac Eldorado, moved into a new apartment, and got a small multi-colored tattoo of an owl on his left forearm.

Whichever way your luck is running, it is bound to change. The pasteboards returned to normal and obsessive loyalty to ace-jack and ace-ten began to grind away at Harry's bankroll. If anybody got lucky, it was Harry's bookmaker. He couldn't pick 'em. Harry decided to have the tattoo removed by this quack with a laser. It left this weird bluish scar but you can sure tell it is an owl. Nobody calls him Hard Luck Harry to his face.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom, a novel that will be published in late 2007.

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