Survival was rough in glorious Nar Shadaa. Other than rob some sorry asses who had little to take or beg low-life crime lords for scraps in turn for your freedom, your only chance at surviving in this gigantic, filthy city was gambling. There were tons of different slots and lotteries and other games to try your luck at, but personally, I had never been a fan of luck. I depended my living upon my own skill—yes, skill—for good, old fashioned, reliable pazaak.
Now, some might argue that skill cannot exist in games involving the luck of the draw, but saying that is simply for losers who need to make excuses for their terrible playing. The truth of it is, pazaak, although admittedly risky, was the safest bet at lasting to see the murky light of the next day. I had been playing the wondrous game for a solid few years, all the while safely protecting my “Pazaak King” title.
“Game!” I shouted. Our small group of spectators gave out a whoop which quickly drowned in the rowdy commotions of the cantina. Really, there was enough noise to drive the most concentrated Jedi master insane: there was the crappy band, the many drunken idiots, and of course, the howling baboons by the stripper tables. Along with the noise was the smoke and stench of sweat that filled the air—not exactly the most pleasant place to be, but I knew the spot, and there were plenty of suckers who were willing to throw away their money in a match against me.
Sitting across the game table was my opponent—a Duros—obviously furious. His navy skin turned closer to violet as he continued grunting. After a minute of staring in frustration—from the board, to me, and back to the board—he jolted out of his seat and started the routine accusations that I heard all too often. “You cheated!” he yelled. “No one is that lucky! You’re slipping cards!”
I rested my feet on the table, slouching in my chair. From my experience, if you raise your voice to people with anger issues, they only raise theirs in return; if you respond calmly and kindly, then they usually tone things down; but, best of all, if you respond collectively while throwing in an incredibly proud, smartass attitude, they near explode.
“Well, if you want to bet your wife and children next, then you’re always welcome to a rematch,” I taunted. You could say that provoking grumps to make scenes was one of my many productive hobbies. The Duros gave me the usual enraged-but-unable-to-do-anything-about-it glare and pounded his fists on the table; it always amazed me how so many thought that throwing fits and shaking their fists would magically solve their problems. After failing to get some sort of support from the game moderator or the crowd, the sore loser finally acknowledged his loss and headed toward the cantina exit.
“Anyone else?” I asked, gathering my winnings.
As I shuffled the main deck, an older man stepped from the crowd to stand beside me. Now, this was something that I also got often: a vain attempt to embarrass me by announcing my coming defeat to the entire cantina. “If it isn’t the infamous Ace Ren,” the old man nearly shouted, “The ‘Pazaak King’! Your name is well known in quite a few places around here. A regular myself, I often hear your name mentioned as ‘the best there is’ and ‘undefeatable’. It’s just such an honor to finally meet you.” I never minded sarcastic praise such as this—it made it all the more satisfying when they got their asses handed to them at the end—but this geezer seemed to get more dramatic and annoying as he carried on.
“Wouldn’t it be just a darn shame if you lost to an old man like me?” he continued, “How about it, hotshot: ten thousand credits!” Our table seemed to attract more interest; some crazy fanatics even started cheering. Now, most people might have felt overwhelmed and shaken at any bet that rose above the measly fifty credits, but not me. I knew I just struck the jackpot, and I had no second thoughts about taking advantage of a kind, old man.
“You got it,” I accepted.
Heading toward his seat, the old man tripped against the moderator, bumping them both to the floor. “Pardon me,” he apologized, “These bones tend to give out every now and then.” I wondered if that was a deliberate move to get me to play easy on him. Honestly, I didn’t even care if the guy had a heart attack after having to pay me ten thousand credits. The two were helped up, and our game went underway.
“Select your side cards,” the moderator instructed, “Remember, you cannot have two of the same card.” He then shuffled the main deck and placed it center on the table, facedown. Pazaak was a fairly simple game to understand: The goal was to reach a total amount of 20 (or as close as you could get without going over), and you did so by drawing amounts from the deck. If winning was that random, however, I would not have been so interested. Whereas the main deck was supplied by the cantina, individual cards could be bought and collected elsewhere. For each game players selected four of their personal cards, and these side cards could be played once per turn after drawing from the deck. Cards that subtracted or had other unique properties could only act as side cards, whereas those from the main deck could only add.
I always chose the same cards for my hand: +1/-1, which lets you opt between adding or subtracting one point; +2T, the “T” giving you the win in ties if played last; D, which doubles your current amount; and the always useful +5/-5. Finding rare cards like these was tough, but I was devoted to this game, and I would have done nearly anything to get my hands on them—for one I had to spend an entire
night bugging my friend until they finally gave it to me.
“I’m Reche, by the way,” the old man said. I acknowledged him with a mumble.
I showed my chosen side cards to the moderator (a standard procedure to prevent fraud cards from play), and after they were scanned and validated, I placed them facedown on the table. After Reche did the same, the moderator announced the start of the game, “Best of three rounds. Challenger starts.”
Reche started chuckling.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, getting more and more irritated with each “teehee” he let out. He said nothing, only reaching for one of his side cards. The viewers behind him exclaimed as they saw what he held.
“Looks like your luck just ran out,” he laughed, slamming down his chosen card. "+20!" My eyes opened wide.
“Is that card valid?” I asked the moderator, completely envious.
“Yes. Its code is registered and activated. I was surprised to see it, too.”
“Interesting,” I said to myself, “I really want one.”
“These were released just last week. The only card known that's played before you draw. There are only a hundred of them in all of Nar Shadaa—incredibly rare. Sell for millions,” Reche further explained, “But don’t worry, kid. You still have a shot to tie.” Although the mockery in his tone pissed me off, he was right: Because he reached 20, I was free to keep drawing until I either tied the amount or went over. I grabbed from the deck, hoping for something useful.
I drew a +7, and Reche continued to chuckle. None of my side cards could help with that draw. Trying to ignore my cheery new friend, I drew again, this time getting a +10, making my total 17. I wished I could slam down a +3T card to wipe the smirk off that old fart’s face, but I had yet to find a kid who I could bully into giving me one. With only one option, I drew again, and I busted.
“Alright! After one more round I’m buying myself some Tatooine death sticks!” Reche laughed, the crowd joining him. “You start, bud.”
Truthfully, I didn’t even have the ten thousand credits to give. If I lost that game, I would have found myself standing before some boss or Hutt, being contracted as Reche’s slave to pay off my debt. As bad as that sounded, however, I was not worried. All that his victory meant was that I would have to do sooner what I already anticipated: cheat. Yeah, the Duros and everyone else were right—I cheated. But at least I was good at it, and I didn’t get caught. Like I said, skill had a lot to do with pazaak, and by that I meant sleight of hand, smarts, and trickery.
“Well, son? It’s your tu—” Reche began, but he was cut off by a sudden failure of the lighting. Now, killing the power might have been going too far—even for me—but this game was being too closely monitored to simply slip cards. With no windows, the cantina turned pitch black, allowing me to do pretty much whatever the hell I wanted. What I did then could have either brought me up or tore me down; it was a risky play, but I never acted without planning ahead or thinking things thoroughly. Rest assured, when Ace Ren cheated, he cheated well.
Murmurs and screams started after moments in darkness, but just as abruptly as it died out, the lights suddenly powered back on. “That was weird,” I stated casually, everyone in their same positions. The noise of the cantina started picking back up again.
“Weird, indeed…” Reche agreed, apparently suspicious. He glanced from me, to the moderator, then to the main deck.
“My turn,” I nodded, and I luckily
drew a +10 card from the deck. “Perfect!” I exclaimed. Grinning, I grabbed my D card and showed it to the crowd, getting some cheers before I played it. Reche stood up in reaction, pointing right at me before starting his wild
“Now, don’t you think that’s a little suspicious?” he started, “I don’t know how, but you caused that blackout—or perhaps you just took advantage of it—and slipped that card on top of the deck! That was just too convenient of a draw!” It was obvious that some of the crowd had similar suspicions; some booed and glared and even shook their heads in disappointment. “How low, Pazaak King.”
“Don’t be such a sore sport,” I coolly replied, “Just scan the +10 to confirm that it’s the cantina’s. Then let’s move on with the game.”
“Err…well, that’s…” he stumbled, scratching his nose.
I knew it
, I thought. No one else would have known, but Reche was cheating all along. That “rare” +20 card of his was fake, and the scanner that validated it was fake, too. When Reche bumped into the moderator, he was actually replacing the scanner for one which didn’t discern between valid and fraud. Reche couldn’t have proved that I was cheating, because that meant he would also have to give himself away. His gambit would have worked had he not been up against his own kind.
“It’s valid,” the moderator confirmed, “Besides, how would he have caused the blackout? Nothing he did was questionable.” Saying that
was questionable. But perhaps, to the common eye, swaying my hand underneath the table wasn’t something worth noticing.
“Whatever. Let’s just keep playing,” Reche mumbled, frustrated, “I’ll probably win right now, anyway.” He sat back down, drawing a +2 from the deck. He then played his +10/-2 side card—also definitely a fraud—opting for a total of 12. I leaned forward as he drew again, ready to cause another unfortunate mishap at the slightest hint of relief on his face. “Damnit!” he shouted; I relaxed again. He threw down the drawn card as he cussed, showing a +10. He busted.
I smiled, feeling it was the appropriate time to also strike at his ego, “You were too rash that round, Reche. You should’ve waited to use that unique
+10/-2. I take it you don’t have any other -2 cards, do you?” That was the first time I saw a vein pop out of someone’s forehead. The first time I saw one explode was after I mocked, “Your start, bud.”
Reche pulled a +2, I pulled a +7, he pulled a +1, and I pulled a +10. Although I was confident I would win, I was still in a bad position. I had no side cards to bring me to 20, and with a total of 17, drawing again could have well busted me; if I pulled a +8 or +9, even my +5/-5 couldn’t save my ass. I decided to play it safe—what I usually did before really
playing it safe—by using my +2T and yielding. To yield meant to stay with your amount for that round, and you could not draw or play any more cards. With a permanent total of 19, all that remained was for Reche to bust.
“Well, now, there’s just no way I can lose here. Get ready to cough up,” Reche breathed. His next few draws totaled him at 15, and the room grew anxious to know his remaining side cards. “My sides give me quite the bit of options,” he said, motioning to them, “If I draw one of three cards here, you’re done for.”
“Just get it over with,” I forcefully yawned. Reche responded by sliding the top card off the deck and slowly dragging it across the table, keeping its number hidden. Making the moment drastic was exactly what I needed to pull off my winning move. “For the love of—Hurry up, you old ruin!” I snapped, provoking him further. Just as I hoped, he spent what remaining life he had bending the corner of the card, allowing only himself view. He then smiled. Now!
I told myself, and the lights flickered in the blink of an eye.