I met Mr. Giang in the park across from my hotel. He was a very amiable old guy and we spent a half hour chatting. He had to leave, but wondered if I’d meet him back here the next day so he could introduce me to his niece and we could all have a “nice conversation.” I warily agreed. It would turn out to be one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had.
That night I met up with with fellow travel bloggers, Dave and Colin, and we spent the night drinking cheap beer and Vietnamese whiskey. Dave and I were comparing events of the day and he mentioned how he’d been befriended by a local who took him home for dinner to meet his sister who was a nurse and was about to move to New Zealand.
After a friendly dinner and chit chat, he’d been told a story about their sick grandmother and had give them $10 US to help with medical costs. He suspected that it was a scam, but had got a good meal and a taxi ride out of the deal so he wasn’t too worried about the money. I told him about my appointment to meet Mr. Giang tomorrow at 3:00. Dave laughed and said “I wonder if his grandmother is sick, too?”
Mr. Giang met me at the park as agreed and brought his cousin (whose name I forget) along. She was in her late thirties and was very interested in learning more about the US. As we crossed the park, I saw Dave sitting on a bench reading. He laughed and waved — his bus left at 7:00 and he was killing time.
I thought we were just going to meet for coffee, but they flagged down a taxi, explaining that they wanted to treat me to a real meal and introduce me to their family. I didn’t really want to go, but hated to be rude, so I went along. Traffic was heavy and the taxi took a good fifteen minutes to reach their house. I was, of course, completely lost.
Their home was a nice two story concrete place with a living room area and small kitchen filling the lower floor. As I walked in, I smelled food cooking and saw a Vietnamese man sitting on the sofa watching the basketball finals. Mr Giang introduced us — this was his brother, Woody, who was a Lakers fan and worked on a cruise ship. Woody’s English was flawless and we chatted about Vietnam and his job as a dealer in the ship’s casino.
Woody worked on his days off as a dealer for the VIP room of a club here in Saigon and gave me the low down on rich people and their attitude towards gambling. “They don’t care if they lose a hundred grand gambling, but they’ll stiff you on tips every time.” He had run a game just last night with some foreigners and the agreement was that the dealer got 10% of the winnings, but a businessman from Singapore had won $80,000 and only tipped him $50.
About this time, dinner was served and the four of us sat down to enjoy rice, a couple of vegetable dishes, and baked fish. Woody asked if I was familiar with a game called “Poker 21″ and I admitted that I’d never heard of it. “After dinner, I’ll teach it to you.” I replied that I’d like to learn but that I wasn’t interested in gambling. Warning bells were starting to tinkle in the distance.
“No, no… I’ll just show you how to play,” was the reply. After we’d eaten, Woody led me upstairs to his room where he had a small table and chairs set up by his bed. He pulled out a pad of paper and drew a map of the casino where he worked, showing me how his job was to watch the tables for cheating and where the VIP room was, where he’d deal cards for an hour a night.
Poker 21 turned out to be a form of blackjack where you could bet after each card and bluffing was an integral part of the game. He pulled out some cheap poker chips and I reminded him that I was not going to play for money. “Oh no,” he replied. “Never play against me because you cannot win.”
After we’d covered the basics, he said “Now, I will show you how to cheat.” He had me shuffle the cards, then dealt out two hands. The imaginary player’s hand was a twenty and mine was a twenty one. He dealt again and I had a twenty while the other hand was a nineteen. I watched his hands closely and couldn’t see any sleight of hand. He was good.
He then showed me his method of signaling what the other person’s hidden card was. After dealing, if he placed his hands together right over left, the down card was an ace. Touching his elbow was an nine, etc.
To further simplify things, he could tell me when to bet by touching his wedding ring. “I’m working the casino in Nepal in August. Maybe you can come visit and I’ll get you into the VIP room. We could make a half million dollars in an hour, and split it 50-50.”
“I’m afraid I won’t be in Nepal until much later in the year, Woody. And I don’t have the kind of money I’d need to even play.” “Oh, I could get you the chips as a loan. You’d repay me and we’d split the winnings,” he replied with a wink. “But before I could get you into the VIP room, you’d need to practice. And then I would want to test you to see if you can handle the pressure. With chips, it’s easy but real money makes a man nervous.” He wrote the word “TEST” on the sheet of paper.
He produced two $100 bills and laid them on the table. “I thought we agreed there would be no money, Woody.”
“This is just for learning. It’s my money, so there’s no risk for you.”
About this time, the phone rang and he spoke to someone for a minute. “That was the man from Singapore — he wants me to deal for him again tonight — says I’m his lucky dealer. Maybe this time he will pay me.”
Now, it was starting to fall into place — or so I thought. He wanted me to come play at his table tonight, thinking we were going to scam some foreigners. I, of course, would be the one fleeced in the end. I started looking for a way to wrap this up. His cousin had joined us and was telling me how good a dealer he was and babbling on about this or that.
There was a knock at the door and a sweaty, spastic man in a shirt and tie walked in, carrying a small satchel. Woody said “Oh, you’re early,” and then introduced us. This was Mister Li from Singapore. Oh shit.
“We’re just playing a friendly game,” Woody explained to Mr. Li. “Perhaps you’d like to join in before we leave for the casino?” Mr. Li would, of course, be honored to play against an American. “America is a great country,” he declared. “But Singapore is number one!”
Should you ever find yourself in such a situation, this is the point where you stand up and walk away. Apparently, I’m not that smart. I wasn’t thinking quickly enough and was awestruck by how smooth and well-played this setup was. Deer in the headlights.
Within a minute, I had $200 in chips sitting in front of me and Mr. Li had produced $500 which he had swapped for chips. Woody was shuffling the cards. None of the money was mine, but I knew it wasn’t intended to stay that way.
I only had about $50′s worth of Vietnamese dong on me, but visions of me standing at an ATM with a knife to my back were starting to flit around my head. Mr. Li was a damned good actor, playing to role of a arrogant –but stupid– businessman. He had a greased-down hair, thick glasses, and a cheap tie. There was always a hint of spittle hanging around the corner of his mouth.
The cards were dealt and I realized only then that I was trapped. I couldn’t fold the hand and walk away, because then I would owe Woody his $200. Woody was winking at me furiously but Mr. Li was somehow oblivious to it. I, of course, won the hand and now had $600 in chips.
Looking back, that was the moment to give them the chips back and walk away, but it didn’t occur to me at the time — I was so busy trying to think of a way out that I couldn’t see the obvious. They kept the pace up and any quiet moment was smoothly interrupted by a question from the cousin or Mr. Li. The cards flew again and I won again. Mr. Li got another $1,000 in chips.
Mr. Li was dealt a blackjack and won the ante. On the next hand, I drew a twenty-one, beating his twenty. “I’m sorry, but I have an appointment to go to,” I lied. “This is my last hand. Mr. Li was disappointed, but agreed. Woody was shaking his head — apparently, we hadn’t ‘taken’ Mr. Li for enough yet. I was done with the whole thing and was tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop.
For the last hand, Woody touched his ring again and I drew a card to give me a twenty one. Mr. Li had a ten showing. I bet low and he raised me so that I had to go all in.
Woody slipped up then and announced that no more cards would be dealt, despite the fact that Mr. Li had not indicated whether or not he wanted a card. A real gambler would have caught it. If I’d had any doubts about their collusion, that would have answered them.
It was Mr. Li’s turn to bet and he reached into his bag, pulling out a brick of $100 bills that was at least eight inches thick. “I bet $50,000″ he said with a big smile. The shoe had dropped and it was one hell of a big one.
“I thought this was a friendly game, Mr. Li. You’re trying to buy the pot.”
“I like to win,” he replied, grinning wide.
I had two choices: fold and owe Woody $200, or agree to match a $50,000 bet. Woody was winking furiously again, as if he had something stuck in his eye. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have that kind of money on me,” I explained. Woody jumped in and said that he would guarantee my bet, as I had plenty of cash back at my hotel room. Mr Li insisted on seeing the money and we waited patiently while Woody left the room to get his stash. How the hell am I going to get out of this?
He returned with $18,000 in cash, but Mr. Li was still not satisfied — he wanted to see all of it. “I’ll accept any currency — I am a business man. Gold is good, too.” Woody did one hell of a job of looking annoyed and feigning insult that Mr. Li wouldn’t take him at his word. Seeing my chance, I asked “Perhaps, you have time for me to go to my hotel and get my money?”
Mr. Li thought this was a great idea — he would leave, too, and we’d call him when I returned. Woody pulled two envelopes from a cabinet and we sealed our cards inside with a glue stick that just happened to be lying around. The cash and cards went into the cabinet, which was locked. Mr. Li insisted on holding the key. “I have $50,000 in that cabinet. Maybe someone tries to help themselves to my money.” Woody glared at him.
Woody led Mr. Li out of the room and the cousin started complaining about how rude Mr. Li was, insulting Woody in his own home.
I tried to tune her out, calculating the odds of my escaping the situation. When she noticed I wasn’t paying attention, she said “This is very exciting! What will you do with your $25,000? Stay in Vietnam longer?”
Woody returned and calmly explained that he had friends who would loan him money for a short period of time, but he wasn’t sure he could come up with the full $50,000. “How much can you contribute, Johnny? I might not need it, but a reserve would help — even if it’s only six or seven thousand.”
“The banks are closed, Woody — I can’t get that kind of money.”
“He said he would take gold. You can buy gold with your card from a shop. Just get a receipt.” Woody was a resourceful man.
“Okay, I’ll get what I can. Can you call a cab?”
The cab arrived and Mr. Giang and the cousin climbed in with me. Everyone had been asking what hotel I was staying at, but I’d conveniently forgotten the name, so we agreed to meet at the same spot in the park again. Traffic was very heavy and it took nearly half an hour to reach the park.
The cousin peppered me constantly with inane questions about the US — how much a cab costs there, how far away Mexico was from my home town, and such. Mr. Giang joined in with more of the same, always keeping me busy so I wouldn’t have time to think. Neither of them seemed overly excited about the fact that their family was about to win $25,000.
I think the plan was for me to return with as much money as I could gather, only to find that Mr. Li and I both had twenty-one. The cards would have to be dealt again and Mr. Li would insist on cutting them or such, denying Woody his opportunity to give me a winning hand. Either that, or I’d just be robbed outright.
I’d expected one of them to insist on coming with me to the hotel and had planned on telling them to screw themselves and making a run for it. To my surprise, they both agreed to wait at the park while I got my passport and the money. I crossed the busy street, walked past my hotel, turned the corner and ran into the first alley I saw.
Saigon is famous for it’s narrow, twisting alleys and I got lost as quickly as I could, taking every turn that led away from the park. Five minutes later, I popped out on a main street and saw the awkwardly-named Dung Restaurant, where we had eaten dinner the night before. Looking over my shoulder, I rushed in and took a table in the back, as far from the entrance as possible.
“Fancy meeting you here!” a voice said, scaring the living hell out of me. I looked up and saw Dave sitting at the table across from me, working on his laptop. “Dude,” I said. “Do I have a story for you…”
I was completely amped with adrenaline, and launched into my tale while ordering a beer. When I mentioned the card game, Dave laughed loudly and said “Poker 21?” He crossed his hands together and touched his elbow, saying “Ace. Nine.”
“You ran into the same scam?!” I was stunned.
“Yeah, didn’t I tell you last night? I got the same deal, right before they told me about their sick grandmother.”
“No, I don’t remember you mentioning it. How far did you go with the whole thing?” I asked.
“Oh, when he mentioned the test and pulled out money, I said ‘This is where I stop.’”
“You’re obviously a smarter man than me, Dave. Now I have to change hotels.”