Sam Houston left London in torrential rain. Less than three hours later, he had touched down in Barcelona, where it was 28 degrees in the shade. As he walked slowly down the stairs to exit the plane, Houston looked at the other travelers marching towards solid ground ahead of him. Most were still in clothes that were suited to the gray skies above England. They clutched bulky jumpers or wore thick coats with collars turned up against the rain they’d left behind. Sam was wearing faded tan leather sandals, an azure blue t-shirt and shades. He was smiling as the sun beamed down, warming his soul.

When you play poker for a living, you learn to plan, then adapt as you go. It was the only way to survive and he’d been doing it so long it was as natural as breathing. While everyone else on the flight waited at the carousel for their luggage, Sam headed directly outside. He traveled only with a small black carry-on which he stowed in the cabin overhead bins on the flight. It was packed for three days maximum. Ideally, he wanted to be home in two. This wasn’t a vacation, it was business.

Taking the first taxi off the rank, Houston climbed in and shut the door. Barcelona was one of his favorite cities, so he left his headphones in his bag, slipped his shades into the ‘v’ of his t-shirt and sat back, content to watch the world go by.

“Le Meridien, gracias,” said Houston to the driver. He relaxed his muscles and stretched out his legs. At well over six feet, it hadn’t taken long on the plane for him to feel the need to stretch out his limbs. He smiled at the irony of a life playing high stakes poker, chasing games where he often sat in a chair for hours at a time. It made zero sense to some. Whole days went by sometimes, the changing cards his only reminder that time had passed. He lived in a vacuum of reality, a bubble which no-one could pop. It hadn’t always been that way, but that was his life now – living on the edge of a six-figure win or loss with every trip he made.

Sam was disturbed from his reverie when his mobile phone sprang to life in his pocket. The screen showed him ‘Sophie’ was calling. He really needed to change her display name.

“You arrived then?” she said. He could hear the loud thunk thunk and tinny announcements of a London Underground platform in the background.

“Just, Twigs. Surprisingly, I’m a bit tired.”

He called Sophie ‘Twigs’ due to her incredibly long legs. Often accusing his best friend in the whole world of being related to spiders was just one of a thousand in-jokes the pair had shared since they attended University together in London.

“Hardly surprising. That was some send off last night. You know I’m supposed to be working today?”

“I can only apologize. Going away is hard. I wanted to let off some steam.”

“Sam, you travel three times a month. You drank even me under the table last night. I think I’m peeing 80 proof vodka.”

“That happens when you drink spirits. Wine is the way forward.”

“Not the way you drink it. I put the bottles out for recycling this morning. It sounded like I was making some sort of environmental protest.”

“Don’t make me miss London already. And you of course, Twigs.”

“Hunter is going to kill you when you get back this time. He’s sworn off drinking for a week.”

Sam laughed. “A week? Tell him it’s his round when I get back… win or lose.”

“Make sure you win. We’re out of wine.”

They both disconnected and Sam leaned back in the seat. It meant a lot to him to have a friend group who checked when he arrived, missed him when he was gone, and looked forward to his return. He had no family back in the States, his friends were his family.

He had brought Twiggy and her fiancé, Hunter, with him on his trips a few times. It was always the wrong call; it just turned into a holiday, and an expensive one as he never won money when he was preoccupied with friends instead of the game. If he wanted to win, he had to do so alone. When it was just him and the cards, they could go his way. If there were external influences, he only ever lost.

Sam won more than he lost, but it wasn’t like he turned up, made money and went home. He’d learned long ago that poker didn’t work like that. It was a game of fine margins and pressing any edge you could. It was, as the saying went, a hard way to make an easy living’.

The journey melted into a blur of familiar sights. He’d been to Barcelona a dozen times, maybe more. Each time he’d enjoyed it, regardless of his results at the felt. The taxi arrived at La Rambla, the bustling market center of Barcelona’s multicultural city, where he was greeted by the familiar cacophony of sights and sounds that existed nowhere else in the world. Between the buildings, in the back streets, apartment blocks stood, showcasing their graffiti art which appeared on most brick surfaces like an urban art shop. Clothes hung from every window and even the washing that dangled from window frames provided a wild, expressive backdrop to a city that not only never slept but appeared as if it was permanently dancing.

Sam tipped as he always did and took a business card from the driver which he could use to rebook the taxi if he liked. The card was a simple one, just a name and a cell phone number. He slipped the card into his right pocket next to his wallet.

Once back outside into the brilliant sunshine, Sam put on his shades and took a walk

around the market square. He bought some fresh fruit, bottled water, and chocolate from a supermarket on the corner which he knew stocked foreign confectionery. A Hershey bar and Reese’s Pieces, reminders of New York, the city where he was born, although he hadn’t called it home for a very long time.

He returned to the sunny street and took a moment to watch the street performers. Regulars, like the gold statue man, who stood still as stone while children tried to make him smile, were always an enjoyment to watch. Another performer perfected a pirouette on a unicycle, their bejeweled outfit dazzling the onlookers, standing out even in Barcelona. Another artist, a man, holding a wooden staff, seemingly sat in mid-air while hovering over a carpet. It was a great trick, but Houston had seen it before, he knew how it worked. The magic of that trick was lost to him, similar to when he discovered the truth about Santa. 

He walked with purpose to the hotel and checked in. 

Sam dropped his bag on the bed of his penthouse suite. He had let the receptionist know that he needed an alarm call for 10pm that evening.

It was early afternoon, but Sam could sleep on command, a very handy skill to have when conserving energy – both mental and physical – it was a key to his success. His room was the same he always stayed in. The large suite with a king-sized bed was fitted with Egyptian cotton sheets. Thick carpets gave way to tasteful Gaudi-inspired artwork on each of the four walls. Sam loved Gaudí. If he wasn’t playing so soon after landing, he might have visited Gaudí’s defining work, the Sagrada Família. A huge ornate physical structure, it held claim as the largest unfinished church in the world, over 140 years in the making and still incomplete. It had completely taken over the last years of the artist’s life, having consumed him until he was struck down by a tram just eleven years after he started working on it. Gaudí was buried inside his masterpiece. Some might have found that grim or distasteful, to Sam it was inspiring – the artist had become part of his own legacy, living on forever within his magnum opus.

Absentmindedly nibbling on his fruit and drinking some water, Houston took a look out of the window at the vibrant market square full of color, sound, and chaos. He loved Barcelona more than so many other cities because of its random nature. It never looked the same two days running, much like a poker table.

Sam returned to the bed and lay down, tired but wired at the same time. There would be at least a couple million Euros on the table for him to win and he only knew only three of the players: Antonio, Sofia, and Carlos. Antonio was the organizer. He had a bit of a wild streak and was somewhat unpredictable, but he was well known and was an old campaigner at the felt. Second was Sofia, a Bulgarian heiress and recreational player. She had the talent and finances to devote all of her time to poker to make millions. And she would have had it not been for her attention span. The third player Sam knew was Carlos. A young Spanish kid who had begun to turn up in a number of private games that Sam played. He was hyper-aggressive, bulky, and indefatigable. The other player was a mystery and if he didn’t decode them out before they did him, it would cost him a lot of money. That was the thrill of the game.

There was only one problem. Sam had no idea, but his poker game was about to turn into a crime scene.

About the Author: Paul Seaton has written about poker for over 10 years, interviewing some of the best players ever to play the game such as Daniel Negreanu, Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. Over the years, Paul has reported live from tournaments such as the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and the European Poker Tour. He has also written for other poker brands where he was Head of Media, as well as BLUFF magazine, where he was Editor.

This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.