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In 1987, Dublin hosted the international poker championship. This year the action shifts to Belfast where the high rollers have gathered as John "Jive" Major cuts the deck for a high-stakes, life-and-death game. John's on a winning streak, holding no aces but playing his cards close to his chest. Read 'em and weep, he says, and deals.

To the dealer's left, Jimmy "Moxie" Molyneaux, boss of the old Union mob. Poker's not his game; he's more accustomed to a leisurely rubber of bridge where he gets to call trumps and turn an easy trick. Moxie's gang has been marking cards and dealing off the bottom since Partition but now he's got a handful of nothing with a deuce in the hole so all he can do is bluff, stay in, and hope no one calls him.

By his side is the Rev "Hellfire" Paisley, the joker in the pack, who, many claim, hasn't played with a full deck in years. He shouldn't be at the table anyway, as gambling's a sin, and if he could, he'd close the school. But he's scared of getting a raw deal and still thinks he can beat the house if he ups the ante. He's holding a pair of queens and his hole card is a knave. Whatever happens, he'll call a misdeal.

Sitting in the shadows, where Moxie and Hellfire don't have to look at him, is poker-faced Gerry "Yer Man" Adams of Sinn Fein, yesterday's wild card, today's big player. Yer Man plays a cool hand and reckons he doesn't have to lay his cards on the table to scoop the kitty. All he has to do is stand pat while Jive John raises the stakes, figuring that Moxie will cut and run and Hellfire will be exposed in the showdown. Besides, Gerry's hole card is the ace of spades.

It's a bluff no one wants to call, no one has a winning hand, no one's going to make a clean sweep. Jive John's feeling flush but more than that, he's tired of these three and tired of them taking his money. If he has a card up his sleeve, it's this: he wants to fold, cut his losses and go home. He wants them to play him out. He'd finesse them if he dared, but doesn't want to chance his hand. He figures if he plays it right, they'll finesse themselves - that's the game plan.