The Strangest Poker Game Ever: Part I

While playing at a home game in Scottsdale, Arizona, at which I was the newcomer, I was told a sketchy story about a wacky recluse who lived in the Sonoran Desert and routinely embarked on UFO safaris. More than just a crazy individual with an intense curiosity about deep space and extra terrestrial, this guy had supposedly been abducted by aliens and was now hell-bell bent on exacting revenge against the other-worldly life forms that had forever traumatized him; apparently, he could recall everything that took place and none of it was good.

When I heard this, I immediately thought of Travis Walton, who purports to being snatched up from the mountains of northeastern Arizona in November of 1975 by malevolent unearthlies. Despite recalling very little of his off-planet experience, a book and a movie about his ordeal (Fire in the Sky) were released.

Naturally, I was intrigued by the story, even though the details were extremely hazy, delivered to me via multiple hearsay — essentially six degrees of separation on steroids: “I know a guy who dates this girl who slept with the owner of a restaurant where someone who knows a guy who knows the guy had dinner.” So I put out my feelers, anxious to get the scoop. When I didn’t hear anything after a few weeks, I filed it under Fuhgettaboutit.

That was three years ago. Recently, I went back to Scottsdale, Arizona, visiting family for Thanksgiving. The day after Turkey Day, my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and almost let my voicemail handle it, but for some reason I decided to answer. The gist of that call: Was I still interested in the UFO safari guy?

Are you kidding? Does Phil Hellmuth whine like a little girl when he’s beat? However, before I could be given the story, there were conditions I had to agree to:

I had to come alone and unarmed.

I couldn’t bring photographic or recording devices, just a notepad and pen.

As payment, I had to bring a top quality set of poker chips, four unopened decks of playing cards, and a large pumpkin pie.

The “alone and unarmed contingency” had me a bit unnerved, but I wasn’t in a position to bargain. It was a take-it or leave-it scenario and I opted to take it. That led to a ridiculous set of driving instructions that would supposedly lead me to my contact, who would then deliver me to Marv, the aforementioned UFO hunter. After picking up the requisite poker chips, playing cards, and one bad-assed fresh-baked pumpkin pie courtesy of Costco, I turned my attention to the route I was instructed to follow.

Now, you have to understand, I’m a full-tilt gear-head and I’ve done many road rallies in the past, most of which utilized enough oddball instructions to get a Garmin Global Positioning System instructor lost — things like proceed north at 51 MPH for 14.2 minutes, then go east for 81 seconds at 63 MPH, then drive 85 KPH heading west — shit like that — but these directions seemed to be penned by someone on acid… Acid after smoking a fat Jamaican Gold splivvy and consuming a few ounces of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

The funky route doubled back on itself at least a dozen times, crisscrossed itself equally as many, and required me to get out of my Tahoe on three separate occasions to climb atop the roof just to ascertain where the fuck I was. After four and a half hours of driving, I pulled into the parking lot of a small grocery store near Goodyear, fully expecting to be at least 100 miles from my intended destination. So you can imagine my surprise when a man wearing a bwana-esque safari outfit straight out of a Discovery Channel Store catalog came up and congratulated me for following his instructions properly.

Putting down his overflowing grocery bags, he introduced himself as Jacob, Marv’s “contact to the world.” His words, not mine. Somewhere in his mid-50s, Jacob was clean-shaven, nicely bronzed, and wore his long, grey hair in a ponytail. He appeared to be extremely fit, one of those mid-life crisis gym-and-tanning booth types. If Banana Republic was looking for a pre-geriatric fashion model, Jacob was their man.

I went to my SUV, grabbed the items I had been instructed to bring, and momentarily debated taking the small .40-caliber Glock 27 I kept concealed beneath my seat. Ultimately, I thought better of it. Then, I rejoined Jacob at his ride, a freshly washed and waxed Jeep Cherokee, seemingly straight off the dealer’s lot.

Jacob started the engine, asked me to open the glove compartment. Beside the owner’s manual was a nightshade, the kind you wear to prevent sunlight from interrupting your sleep.

“We don’t go anywhere unless you put that on,” Jacob explained. “Marv’s orders.” I looked at him as if he were crazy. Perhaps he was the guy all along and was just shining me on. I didn’t know what to think. But I really wanted the story — whatever it was — so I complied with the request. And off we went.

During the drive, which lasted about 40 minutes, Jacob gave me a crash course on the man I was en route to meet. According to my chauffeur, “Marv” was fiscally solvent, the result of some successful real estate transactions his mother had made many years prior. But following his UFO ordeal, Marv turned his back on society and became, to all intents and purposes, a hermit. Now he lived in the relative harshness of the Sonoran Desert, with a couple of yearly vacations to Cabo San Lucas thrown in for good measure. Jacob, his best — and only — friend since boyhood, acted as his liaison to the world,
fetching him supplies and provisions, as needed.

When the vehicle stopped and I was given permission to remove my blindfold, it was still light enough to see where I was — smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Somewhere east of Blythe and west of Phoenix, I guessed, surrounded by a shitload of sand, scrub brush, and cactus. Basically, I was fucked.

I got out of the Cherokee, about to grab the items from the back seat, when I noticed a man leaning against a towering Saguaro just a few yards away, eyeing me intently. Mid- to late-50s, he stood roughly six feet tall with a husky lumberjack’s build and deeply tanned skin the texture of shoe leather. He had a tangled mass of blackish-gray hair that Charles Manson would envy, a thick beard that looked as if it harbored a family of swallows, and wild, deep-set brown eyes that screamed out that they had witnessed events no mortal man could shake. He wore a raggedy pair of knee-length jean shorts splotched with a litany of stains, a flannel shirt, the sleeves cut off just below the elbows, and a pair of well-worn hiking boots punctuated with an army of burrs and cactus spines. Despite the man’s unkempt appearance, he looked to be a model of physical fitness, the result of hard labor, not a Powerhouse Gym. Casting agents for the reality TV show Survivor would give up their first born to sign this guy.

Looking back, I’m amazed at all the features I took in, because it was his gun that truly captured my attention — a gun that was aimed at me! A sawed-off, double-barreled 10- gauge shotgun with exposed hammers; a coach gun for those who know their weaponry. By the looks of it, an antique — the kind that could be set off by a modestly spicy taco fart, let alone the itchy trigger fingers of the sketchy individual holding it.

“I’m tellin’ ya, bringing him out here is a lousy idea,” Marv said to Jacob, his fidgety fingers flirting with the triggers. “Ain’t no good gonna come of it.”

Jacob adamantly disagreed. “People should hear your story,” he said. “They need to know what’s out there.”

Marv spat a quart-sized globule of frothy phlegm, wiped his mouth with a bowling pin-thick forearm. “I don’t give a hairy fuck about people. Sure as shit they don’t give a hairy fuck about me.”

With the pair of oversized steel spaghetti tubes eerily reminiscent of the Lincoln Tunnel still leveled at my torso, Marv caustically introduced himself and made a point of informing me that both barrels were stuffed with magnum loads of 00-buckshot. While he wasn’t sure what effect it would have on a “cock-sucking space critter,” if and when he got the chance to unload on one, he was absolutely certain it would cut me in half.

“It’s for close encounters,” Marv said with a smarmy Son of Sam-like grin, sending an icy shiver down my spine. Most situations, I’m pretty hard to spook. But there, I felt like a drugged ewe on a cliff surrounded by a slew of horny sheepherders overdosing on Viagra.

At Marv’s urging, Jacob came forward and began a rather harsh frisk of my person, searching for the aforementioned items I was instructed not to bring. When the frisk was over, Marv removed a tattered yellow rubber dish glove from his back pocket, tossed it to Jacob.

“Your turn to do the cavity search,” Marv said.

A lump the size of Rhode Island formed in my throat. I started calculating distance and angles, trying to figure out my chances of taking the stubby street-sweeper from Marv without getting blown away in the process..

Honestly speaking, I was now desperately looking for an out. Sure, the story was stratospherically cool — any journalist worth his salt would cream for the opportunity — but I was really beginning to worry about what might happen to me in parts unknown in the company of an armed individual obviously a dozen fries shy of a Happy Meal. That’s when they both started laughing hysterically.

“You should’ve seen your face,” Marv said, lowering the shotgun. “That was worth the price of admission right there.” He took a step toward me. “You did bring the chips, cards, and pie, right?”

I nodded like an automaton. “Fuckin’ A,” Marv said, flashing me a hearty thumbs-up. “C’mon, my camp’s over here.”

Whew! Deep breath time. After retrieving the items from the Cherokee, we hiked through some shrubbery, over a berm, and down into Marv’s camp.

Spartan but complete with all the essentials, including a fire pit, in-ground water barrel, and a makeshift outhouse — the camper shell off a pickup truck, standing vertically — there were even a few luxuries: namely a small color television and a battered satellite dish, both of which were jerry-rigged to an ancient portable generator. Olive drab military netting, interwoven with sticks, brush, and dead plants, was used to conceal the main structure — a four-man tent — from the air.

With the sun beginning to set, Marv declared it too early to hunt for flying saucers, so he stoked the fire and whipped up a quick dinner courtesy of Jacob’s grocery shopping — turkey kielbasa and crispy sauerkraut, washed down with still-chilled Negro Modelos. Seated around the fire on folding tailgate chairs emblazoned with the logo of the Arizona Cardinals, Marv began to tell me his story:

He and Jaws, his trusty German Shepherd — Peter Benchley’s Jaws was his all-time favorite book, although he rooted for the shark — were out meteor hunting, a hobby he routinely enjoyed. After setting up camp for the night, he was about to go to sleep when they were enveloped in a blinding white light. At first, he thought it was the searchlight from a helicopter, either the Sheriff’s Department or the Department of Fish and Wildlife. But then the light began changing colors — first to red, then to blue. When it returned to its original hue, Marv was completely immobilized, unable to so much as blink. Locked in the beam, he was lifted off the ground and rotated, horizontally and vertically, so that he was now lying prone, facing down. Below him, he could see that Jaws was being lifted, as well. The ground below began getting smaller and smaller, and while he was no longer looking up into it, he could feel the light becoming more intense, yet he felt no sensation of heat. Then, the light disappeared and everything was bathed in an inky blackness. Marv maintains he never lost consciousness.

“As soon as my feet left the ground, I knew it was a goddamn UFO,” Marv insisted. “And I knew I was one fucked motherfucker.”

According to the pair, Arizona has more unreported UFO abductions than any other state in the union. Marv went on to explain that only South America has more actual documented UFO sightings, but he believes the United States is rapidly closing the gap. “People just don’t want to talk about it,” he said, pinning Jacob in an icy stare. “Myself included.”

All went silent. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a chainsaw. Eventually, Marv continued:

When the lights came back on, Marv found himself totally naked, imprisoned in a large translucent wheel, similar to the kind a pet hamster might play in. Surrounding the wheel were four alien creatures — beings that stood roughly the height of a five-year-old child. They had smooth, ovular-shaped heads — bearing a strange resemblance to the shaved head of tennis great Andre Agassi, who Marv had seen in newspaper photos — extremely frail bodies, ghostly pale skin, and enormous black eyes that looked like obsidian teardrops. They had no visible mouths, noses, or ears, and their limbs were grotesquely thin but seemingly devoid of bones or any skeletal structure.

In the background behind the alien beings, Marv could see his faithful German Shepherd, its entire skin removed, its body cut into pieces and set atop a number of small, knee-high crystalline pedestals.

The sight caused Marv to bellow in fury and he pounded against the wall of the wheel, causing one of the creatures to float backward, as if startled. Suddenly, the wheel began to turn and Marv was forced to run. He fell a few times but the floor was agonizingly hot — strangely, he felt no heat on the soles of his feet — and he quickly got up and began running again. The wheel rotated faster and faster; Marv struggled to stay upright, his heart feeling as if it were about to explode. When the pace proved overwhelming, Marv pitched forward, expecting to be burned alive, however the floor of the wheel was now cool and it stopped turning instantly.

Fueled by an unrelenting anger, Marv clambered back to his feet, ready and willing to chew through the imprisoning wheel if he had to, whatever it took to get at the beings that killed his beloved canine companion. But the wheel around him instantly disappeared and he found himself spread-eagled against a glassine wall, all limbs seemingly tethered by invisible restraints. Then, he could feel his left arm being cut into — although he felt no pain — and his peripheral vision enabled him to watch in horror as the skin on his forearm was slowly peeled back. While no blood oozed forth, the sight of his arm being vivisectioned was beyond unsettling. He wanted to scream but his vocal cords wouldn’t cooperate. Another cut was made. This time he felt pressure against his bone. Moments later, his arm broke open, remaining connected by a tiny swatch of skin. However, the arteries, veins and tissues continued to perform as if nothing had happened. The beings came closer and examined the nearly-severed limb for a long while before putting it back into place. This procedure was then repeated on other parts of his body. All the while, Marv thought he was going to lose his mind, if he hadn’t already.

I wanted to ask Marv if he’d been drinking that evening, or perhaps under the influence of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus the Native Americans used to employ with mystical effects, but he must have read my mind. Marv insisted he was clean and sober, and made it especially clear that he never abused any substance because he didn’t like feeling as though he weren’t in control.

I asked him if he had any scars from the numerous pseudo-surgeries, to lend credence to his allegations, but he just shook his head. That’s when I brought up the possibility of submitting to a polygraph. Travis Walton had taken numerous lie detector tests, passing each and every one with flying colors.

At the suggestion, Marv gave me a snarl so menacing that if looks could kill I’d have been ashes in an urn. “I don’t give a flying fuck what Travis Walton did or didn’t do, nor do I give a worm-infested shit whether or not you believe a single word I said!” Veins were bulging from his neck, his forehead, and from places I didn’t know they were harbored. “I know what happened to me, I know what happened to my dog, and sure as fucking goat cum smells like rotten cheese do I know that those evil little fucks are up there, watching us all at this very moment.”

Seeing that his buddy was about to erupt, Jacob suggested we play poker to usher in the peace. The proposition scored a hit with Marv, who said he’d finish the story later, during the hunt.

While Jacob fetched a folding table out of the tent, then replaced dead batteries in a cluster of electric lanterns, I presented Marv with the specified gift of cards and the chip set. He tore into them like a kid with Christmas presents, all the while telling me how much he enjoyed poker but didn’t like enough people to host a game. When I mentioned the nearby Indian casinos, which offered live poker, he shook his head and frowned.

“Nah, I don’t play well with others,” he said.

I made a mental note to do everything in my power not to piss Marv off. If that meant dumping a few hands, or the entire game, so be it.

Once the cards were shuffled and the chips distributed equally — we each started with 2,500 — we began a mini-tournament. As I began to deal, Marv said that he had read most of the poker books in print — when not looking for aliens or sleeping, all he did was read, he explained — and he was most impressed by Dan Harrington.

“I thought about grabbing him up,” Marv said of Harrington, “like the aliens did to me. Get some private lessons and then let him go. Jacob convinced me not to.”

Score one for Jacob, I thought. I’m sure Dan Harrington would echo that sentiment.

Still a bit prickly from what he perceived as my doubting of his story, Marv decided to play the role of bully and pushed all in on the first seven hands. I mucked six times in a row, as did Jacob. In actuality, I had a callable hand (for three-way action, anyway) on almost every occasion, but I didn’t want to take the chance of beating him. The continuous laydowns, however, irked Marv just the same, and he let us know, — in no uncertain terms — that he wanted a real game, not a bunch of “lambs waiting to get slaughtered.”

Fine by me, I thought. I was gonna call next time he pushed, regardless of what I had. Sure enough, on the very next hand, Marv went all in again. True to my word, I called with a suited 8-2. Hopefully, he’d double up and I’d be off the hook. Well, Jacob figured it was time to play back at his buddy, as well, and he called, too. We turned over our cards. Jacob was holding A-Q off and Marv had pocket jacks. When I showed my yard sale, Marv asked me if I had ever played poker before. I smiled and lied, said it was my favorite hand so as not to arouse his suspicions. And then my plan went into the crapper when the flop came 8-8-2. Jacob laughed. Marv bared his teeth and cursed. I started praying that a UFO would fly overhead and beam me up to safety.

“Fucking bad beat,” Marv said. “Story of my life.” “Hey, you’ve still got outs,” Jacob reminded him. “I’m not holding my breath.”

The turn and river brought no help and Marv tore his jacks in half. For good measure, he tore up my cards, too.

We broke out another deck and started fresh. This time, Marv played a little tighter, pushing all in on every other hand. Despite claiming to have read a slew of poker books, it didn’t seem that he grasped the overall concept of the game. Then again, the guy lives in the freakin’ desert and insists to have been abducted by aliens. Who the hell knows what color his grey matter really was?

Mercifully, Marv eliminated me when my pocket fours got beat by his K-10. Then, I played the role of dealer as he and Jacob battled it out. They went back and forth for a few minutes before Marv’s suited A-J snapped Jacob’s pocket nines on the river.

“Let’s play again,” Jacob said, hungry for more. “Screw that,” Marv replied. “I wanna wax me a spaceman.” As Marv disappeared into his tent to prepare for the hunt, Jacob pulled me aside. “No matter what happens tonight,” he began, “just let it run its course.” That state-sized lump was back in my throat again. Calgon, take me away.

February 2007