Viet Nam News
by Từ Nguyên Thạch
My father is known as a gambling genius. He can work magic with a hand the average gambler would call useless. He deals the cards so quietly that you could hear a pin drop. The cards are completely under his power until they are dealt to the gamblers. His fingers control who wins and who loses. To keep the gamblers’ trust, after dealing ten hands, he changes to a new set of cards. He is transparent and open, nobody thinks he’s a cheater.
My father is a man of few words. Yet, when there is an argument about current affairs or about food, he always shows deep insight. However, in the gambling den where there are all sorts of people; well-to-do businessmen, influential officials, army officers and gangsters, he has to keep his mouth shut to stay alive.
He never talks about his job. When I was small, I noticed that he left the house early in the morning and came home late in the evening. I asked my mother what father was doing, she told me that he worked for a steel firm. He had to work night duty. He worked hard to support our family, mother stressed.
During the day, he stayed at home and helped me with my homework. His knowledge about history and geography was so broad that he was like a living dictionary. Yet, he was always humble. I never heard him shout at mother or our maids.
When I was 15, I discovered my father was a professional card dealer in the Thế Giới Tửu Gia gambling den owned by Huỳnh Lâm Công, a notorious Saigon playboy. When I was in high school, I started acting older by drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. One day, our teacher was ill and I snuck out with a friend to go to Thế Giới Tửu Gia to watch the gamblers play cards.
The first floor was reserved for drinkers. There was a small stage and a hall large enough for the audience to enjoy a traditional hồ quảng opera. The second floor was for xóc đĩa (a game in which coins are shaken in a bowl) and the third floor for card games. There were guards in each floor to stop drunkards causing disorder.
At first we were scared. Curiosity, however, slowly drew us into the building. I saw my father. He was sitting on a mat, among the gamblers. My heart started pounding. I wondered if it could be someone who just looked like him. My friend tried to elbow his way through the crowd to get a better view of the game. I stepped back for fear that my father would see me. Luckily, he was absorbed in dealing the cards. I was not brave enough to stay, so I ran, leaving my friend alone.
A week later, gripped by curiosity, I returned to the gambling den. My father was sitting in the same place. I hid and watched my father deal the cards. As a rule, the dealer does not play to ensure a fair game for the gamblers.
Whenever I was asked about my father’s job, I tried to hide the truth. I would be ashamed if anybody found out that my father was involved in gambling. My image of him had been shattered. I started to get angry for no reason. But father said nothing.
One night, I was doing homework when my father came into my room. I wondered why he was at home at this time. I pretended not to notice him and kept studying. Father took a seat by my side. He asked me how school was going. I choked up and couldn’t speak. Instead, my eyes welled up in tears. Father put his hand on my shoulders and said that he had seen me in the gambling den. I was startled. Father stood up and before going out, he said that I would understand when I grew up.
A week later, father came into my room again. He sat in front of me and asked me if I wanted to hear a story about his past. I said “yes”. Father began his story: when he was nine years old, his father died. Throughout his childhood, he had to work odd jobs to earn money to support his mother, who was a gifted poet who made little money.
Every morning, father went to sell newspapers and in the afternoon, he worked as a porter at Bình Đông Market. In the evening he learnt from my grandmother. He eventually graduated high school. He dreamt of being a teacher and he became a tutor for a rich family. It was the turning point of his life. His student was the only daughter of a rich businessman. His teaching method was different from other teachers. At the end of each lesson, he summarised it as a verse that would help the girl of fifteen remember the lesson. She progressed quickly. The year she passed the high school examination was also the year my father graduated from teacher training college. One evening, father went to the girl’s house to give his last lesson to her, but he was told to forget about teaching because the family had a party, and my father was invited. All the guests were businessmen and some local officials. The house owner came to greet the guests and when he was standing by my father’s side, he introduced father to the guests.
After some toasts, my father was drunk and wanted to go home, but a house maid told him to stay because the house owner wanted to talk to him. After the party, my father was led to the house owner’s room. He took out a set of cards and asked my father if he could play. Then the house owner displayed his magical way of playing card games for my father to see. My father couldn’t believe it, this man could do anything with the cards. He could make them disappear and then reappear in his hands. The house owner told my father that he had beautiful hands and he wanted to teach the magic to my father.
It took my father a month before he answered the house owner. He worked hard to learn from the master. The cards seemed to dance before my father’s eyes. He got absorbed in learning. One night, he went with the house owner to the gambling den. The house owner asked my father to pay attention to the two men that were dealing the cards. They repeated this ritual for a month. Then he gave a set of cards to my father and asked him to practice at home. My father practiced for more than two more months without being given the magic. The house owner told my father that he should be patient and not cheat when dealing the cards, as he would surely be discovered. The trick to reading the cards was using the fingers to feel the material of the cards and tell the difference between the fifty two cards. He said that my father should turn his ten fingers into ten eyes. My father work tirelessly to train under the watchful eye of the house owner.
After three years of training, my father was entirely focused on cards. One day, the house owner asked my father to display his skills. His ten fingers danced like an artist. The house owner’s eyes filled with tears. He was so moved at my father’s success. The house owner told my father that he had completed the course and congratulated him. He said:
“A gambling genius must know when he has to fold, or otherwise, he will die a miserable death”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” my father said in horror.
“Because I didn’t want to distract you.”
My father said goodbye to the house owner. He did not want to die a miserable death. He returned to teaching. But one day, he was asked to forge a signature in the school’s records, but my father refused because he thought it was a dishonest thing. He quit the teaching job and returned to the house owner, Huỳnh Lâm Công, and became a professional card dealer. The house owner married his daughter to my father, my mother, daughter of the master of the gambling den and wife to the gambling genius. My father took her home and refused any dower and has lived in our modest house ever since.
My father told me that my grandfather was shot dead by a robber one morning when I was still young. My father was still safe because he did not get involved in playing cards. He was only the card dealer. My father was a gambling genius but never became rich. I asked him if he felt ashamed of his job. He told me there is no shame in any man making an honest living.
Translated by Mạnh Chương