30-Day Flash Challenge, Day 30

Photo by Piotr Makowski on UNSPLASH.

“The left, no. The right,” I say to the street performer.

I’m sure the white pawn is in his right hand. He got lucky the other times, but I think I’ve figured out what he’s doing.

“Are you quite sure?” he says to me.

He asks this every time, but that seems like a rather obvious gambit. Not once in the first seven rounds have I changed my mind. Maybe he thinks I will never change my mind. I hesitate just a second, then I say, “No, I’m not sure. It’s in your left hand.”

I relax in my posture, exhale, and smirk at him cheekily.

His closed hands are extended towards me; in one is a white pawn, in the other a black. The wager is he can influence me to pick the black one every time.

So far, he’s seven for seven, but his luck just ran out.

His look is sly, inscrutable. His hands remain closed.

I know what he’s doing; he wants me to doubt myself, change my mind.

This is mentalism, not magic. These aren’t even his pawns; they’re from my set. He saw me playing chess in the park with the other hustlers earlier. He was particularly interested in the ritual we use to decide who gets white, who gets black. One of the players takes two pawns, one white, one black, sticks them behind their back, and secretly places one in each hand. Then they extend both closed fists to their opponent. The opponent taps one of the hands, and that’s their color for the game.

The bet was $1 to start; each successive round is double.

He’s won seven rounds straight. The current bet is $128.

He cocks his head slightly, slowly opens both hands. (There is no possible way this is sleight of hand.)

The white pawn is in his right hand.

In his patter, he says it’s all about reading body posture and language, how I stand, etc. But there’s an element of influence at play as well, he admits. Somehow, his body language, his words, are influencing my choices.

Color me skeptical, but this sounds like nonsense to me.

That nonsense just suckered me into losing $255 to him.

He asks if I want to go again.

I’m acting foolish, but I nod my head.

I might hate myself later, but for now I do my best to clear my mind. I shut my eyes to reduce the chances of the mentalist influencing me with subtle physical gestures.

“That’s a smart strategy,” he says in a whisper. This, I sense, is more intended for the other spectators watching our game of chance. He figures I’m going to bolt soon, and he’s grooming his next mark.

I comically raise my fingers and plug my ears.

I nod my head up and down, calming myself, making my mind as blank as possible.

A voice in my head chides me for this foolishness. It points out that with each hand, I have a 50% chance of winning. Those are not bad odds. If casinos operated that way, they would never make any money. Theoretically, I should break even at some point.

The current bet is $256. I guess I’m a slow learner. If I win, I will accept my $1 profit and have a story to tell.

If I lose, what will I do? I don’t know.

I crack my eyelids open, squint, see his closed fists extended toward me.

Before unplugging my ears or looking directly at this performer, who is very skilled, I say, “Now, don’t say anything and don’t move, okay?”

He says nothing; I take this as consent.

How’d I let this go on for so long?

In the early rounds, he even provided a bit of psychology for how he might be forcing me to pick black every time. A subtle ruse. By very slightly extending the hand he wanted me to select, the odds were good that I would. But once he revealed the ploy to me, surely it couldn’t sway my choices? Right?

First instinct. Go.

“Right hand,” I say without looking at him.

He doesn’t hesitate; he opens his hands; the right hand contains the black pawn. He read me so well he knew this was my final bet.

I just gave this enigmatic mentalist $511 cash.

I step aside, but I’m not ready to leave. Another spectator steps up and thinks he has cracked the code. He loses $16 in a hurry, then walks away like he remembered an earlier engagement. Another mark steps up to give it a try. I sense that none of us believe we will get rich from the game; we need to see the streak broken. If someone were to flip a fair coin 37 times and it came up heads 37 times, you’d probably be inclined to watch for a bit. At some point, randomness must assert itself. This idea strikes me as ironic.

It’s all about influence, he says again.

No one loses as much as me, and suddenly I’m his buddy. He talks to me while he effortlessly takes the few dollars from the others in the little crowd.

He’s a fascinating man. We talk about gun control. I tell him I’m a staunch liberal, I will never buy a gun, that I’m for sensible control legislation.

He tells me he’s from England, about going to school at Oxford, about his parents, about the psychology of influence.

I stand there for another hour. In that time, the mentalist doesn’t lose a single game.

He says things to me that occasionally I can’t manage to hear, but I nod along as if I had.

“I want to thank you for being such a good sport. This is for you.”

He produces a box from somewhere, wrapped in white tissue paper and a pale blue silk ribbon.”

Then he talks, and I go away. He says words to me. Telling me how nice it was to meet me, I guess. None of his words are registering with the conscious side of my brain.

On my way home, I remind myself to stop for eggs. I’m not going to be eating out this month, I laugh.

16382 Preston, it will be on your way.

I glance down at the opened gift on my passenger seat.

The back door will be open. It’s the one between the green and blue dumpsters in the alley.

And some bacon too. I’ve not had bacon in a minute.

He’ll be alone.

And maybe some orange juice.

I stop in the left-hand turn lane onto Preston and glance down at the box again.

For a second, it looks like a gun, but that’s ridiculous. Why would that charming man have given me a gun? It must be something else. I laugh to myself as I begin looking for 16382.

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