Chapter 10: Doubt

Everyone sat around the dining table. Myra shuffled the two decks together and then dealt out all the cards, ten each, plus an extra eleventh to Grace, Cassie, Percy, and Luke.
Grace went first. She scrutinized her cards, shuffled them around in her hand, and finally plucked out a single card that she laid face-down on the tabletop. “One ace,” she said.
Cassie went next. She quickly took three cards from her hand and tossed them down onto the table. “Three twos,” she said.
Percy played one three, Luke played two fours, and then it was Joey’s turn. He looked from his hand to the circle of players and back, studying his cards and others’ faces. Finally he played three cards and, smirking, said, “Three fives.”
Joey looked around the circle, prematurely self-satisfied, but Cassie quickly proclaimed, “I doubt it,” and his smirk flipped into a pout. Cassie turned over the cards he’d played, revealing an ace, an eight, and a ten.
“Ooh, nice try,” Caitlin teased.
“Whatever!” Joey shouted. “It’s not even fair, I didn’t have any fives.”
“Sorry, buddy,” Myra said. “That’s how the game goes.”
Cassie pushed the pile of cards over to Joey, and he sulked a bit but added the cards to his hand.
They continued around, each person shedding a card or two or three, keeping the game exciting by occasionally making risky discards or doubts.
One fun aspect of I Doubt It was that one false move could catapult a near-winner into last place, and that happened a few times. The first time, Zoey recklessly tried to pass off her entire remaining hand as five queens, and when a chorus of “I doubt it!” rang out, she ended up with a thick stack of cards.
In the next big twist, Percy played his sole final card as one six. With little to lose, Caitlin cried, “I doubt it!” Percy sighed and collected the discard pile.
Alex was forced to pick up cards twice, the first time when he wrongly doubted Aldo’s three nines, and the second time when Cassie doubted his unlikely four jacks. But he was lucky because both times, someone else had recently picked up the pile, so it hadn’t accumulated much, and he only had to pick up a few cards.
Although she knew it restrained the game’s thrill, Myra tended to play it safe, usually discarding two cards. She regularly bluffed—after all, with such a large group, it was common to only hold one or zero cards of a given rank. But two cards was the threshold of safety. Even though it wasn’t mathematically probable that a player would have two cards of a certain rank, the kids weren’t exactly aware of statistical probability, and the idea of having two cards seemed reasonable. With this conservative strategy, Myra whittled away her hand, never making great strides but also not drawing attention or incurring any drastic losses.
Every so often, the leading player would try to discard their final cards, get correctly doubted, and grudgingly pick up the whole stack, having plummeted from first to last place. With ten players, it was proving exceedingly difficult for anyone to win. So when Alex played his last four cards as four sevens, Myra immediately said, “I doubt it.”
He gestured for her to flip over his cards, which was normal, but his smug smile sent a jolt of apprehension through her.
She gingerly turned over the cards, exposing four sevens.
“I win!” Alex crowed.
“So you do,” Myra said, her mouth puckering at his self-satisfaction. Skating over his ugly lack of sportsmanship, she asked the kids, “Shall we play again?”
“No, silly,” Percy said. “We keep playing. We have to see who gets which place.”
Everyone watched Myra gather the enormous stack of discarded cards, and the game continued on. Aldo got lucky and went out with one true eight. As second and third and fourth place were earned, the group of remaining players shrank, making the game easier and thus expediting the drawn-out process of ending the game.
Myra never recovered from the ruinous setback of erroneously doubting Alex, and she ended up coming in eighth place. With two players left, Zoey ended up pleased not to come in last, and Grace lost graciously.
“Who’s up for a rematch?” Myra asked.
Everyone agreed to another round, even if they weren’t all enthusiastic about it. But what else would they do, with the lightning still flashing and the thunder still rumbling and the rain still cascading down as if they were living inside of an enormous waterfall?
Cassie shuffled and dealt this time. Percy went first with two undoubted aces.
Since she’d lost the last game because of him, Myra surreptitiously kept close watch over Alex. He tended to play more aggressively and irregularly than she did, sometimes discarding a single card, other times four or five. Yet when he was doubted on these less plausible plays, he was usually found to have really played many cards of the same rank. With kids racking up large hands through doubting him, they quickly learned to avoid attempting to call his bluff. Normal principles of plausibility did not apply to Alex.
But there had to be a logical strategy beneath his apparent invincibility. Myra’s first idea was that he was counting cards. With exactly ten players, he could count which ranks he’d be playing in the future, and then play off false cards in ones and twos before making large discards through calculated stockpiling of a particular rank.
But that hypothesis proved to be incorrect when Zoey won with two kings, and then the next turn, with only nine players, Alex went out with five tens.
Even though the kids shrieked at her not to, Cassie doubted Alex, and he smirked when she revealed five tens and morosely picked up the sizable discard pile. Yes, he’d only come in second place this time, but he was still unreal.
The kids reacted with pronounced ambivalence to Myra’s proposition of a third round, but she insisted. Joey shuffled and dealt, and Caitlin started. Myra scrutinized Alex. He noticed her eyeing him and shot her a fleeting wide grin.
After having wasted the entire second game trying and failing to figure out his strategy, Myra now decided that she’d been going about this totally the wrong way. His actual strategy didn’t matter at all. She just needed to recognize when he was lying. She started watching his behavior to pinpoint his tell.
Through several rounds of surveillance, she noticed that he usually held his cards with his fingertips just touching, and after discarding, he returned his right hand back to that relaxed fingertip-touching position. But occasionally after a discard, his right hand would return to cover his left hand, his right palm laying against his left fingers in a subtle protective gesture.
She’d found his tell.
Ever cautious, she observed a bit longer, but once she knew what to look for, the gesture was obvious. It didn’t seem to correspond with the number of cards he played, but it was distinct and unconscious.
Myra steeled herself to act the next time he covered his hands. It didn’t take long. The next round, he played five fives. The kids didn’t even blink at the outrageous play, but he brought his right hand up to cup his left hand. Before she let herself hesitate too long, Myra blurted out, “I doubt it.”
The kids gasped and nervously whispered feverish remarks.
Myra studied Alex’s face, but it revealed nothing. He wore his standard expression, unruffled and faintly cheeky. Her stomach churned and she instantly regretted this entire foolish mission.
She and the kids held their breath as she leaned in toward the discard pile. She slid the five cards over the edge of the table so she could get her fingers under them. She felt the cards’ smooth face-down surfaces, which offered no tactile information indicating their rank, as smooth and slick as the one who played them.
She swallowed, squinted, and turned over the five cards.
The kids gasped again, this time even louder than the last, like a breathy hurricane. They all stared down at the five cards Alex had played, allegedly five fives, which were in reality total junk.
Myra looked back up at Alex. She thought she caught a glimpse of his cocky facade slipping. He gave her a brusque nod of acknowledgment and collected the discard pile. It happened to be small, but this victory was meant to be symbolic more than numeric.
They continued playing, and after Myra’s power play, the kids were less intimidated by Alex. After having allowed him to make any play unchallenged, they were now emboldened to confront him. Caitlin and Aldo each doubted one of his plays, but alas they didn’t know what to look for. Both were punished with large piles of cards to add to their hands.
Myra, however, knew exactly what to look for, and the next time Alex clasped his hands together, she doubted his claim of three fours. Again the kids crowded in eagerly, anticipating the reveal. With more confidence and enjoyment this time, Myra flipped over the three cards he’d played. Yet again junk. Not a single card was a three.
Alex’s mouth tightened in a smile distorted with discontent. He picked up the modest discard pile with a slight sneer. “Someone’s on a lucky streak,” he said, but they both knew it wasn’t luck.
The kids didn’t know that. In their eyes the invincible card magician was no longer Alex, but now Myra. Every time one of the kids played, they looked uneasily to Myra to see if she would use her powers of divination on them. She started playing her own cards more recklessly, as she was rarely subjected to doubts now. Instead of playing a card or two, she ramped up to three or four occasionally, feeling bulletproof. Her adrenaline was climbing and she felt the rush of a gambling addict craving another big win.
Despite her two successes against him, Alex was still doing quite well. Percy and Cassie were both nearing the end of their cards, but Alex had only a single card left in his hand. It was Joey’s turn, then Caitlin’s, then Zoey’s. Myra waited for each of them to finish with distracted impatience. At last Zoey played her two tens, and then Alex had no choice but to toss down his final card and announce, “One jack.”
The kids sighed in disappointment at losing their chance for first place, but Myra watched Alex lean back and unconsciously fold his hands together in his lap, unmistakably his tell. Her heart skipped a beat, and she declared, “I doubt it.”
He raised his eyebrows, still sprawled back in his chair. He extended his arm toward the heaping discard pile, inviting her to check.
Flushed with anticipatory triumph, she overturned the single card resting on top of the stack.
The jack of hearts stared up at her, mocking her catastrophic blunder with his perky curled mustache and his pointy crown tipped at a jaunty angle.
“Ooh, tough luck,” Alex drawled. “So much for good fortune coming in threes.”
The kids looked on, eyes wide and mouths open in candid shock.
“Myra, no…” Cassie groaned.
“Why?” Caitlin lamented, not actually asking the question, but making a statement acknowledging this moment as illustrative of life’s many unpredictable failings.
Myra stared down at the contemptuous jack atop its towering throne of cards.
“You’ve got to,” Grace said, her voice low and gentle.
Mortified to find herself blinking back tears, Myra picked up the thick stack of cards.
Alex watched the game continue as he lounged back in his seat, his arms crossed victoriously over his chest.
Aldo played two queens and then it was Myra’s turn. She fanned her cards out, displaying her enormous accumulation of cards as she searched through them, picking out certain ones.
Slapping the cards she’d selected down onto the table, she said, “Seven kings.”
No one doubted her.