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Poker & Pop Culture: Fiction Writers Finding Truth in the Cards

  • Martin HarrisMartin Harris
Poker & Pop Culture: Fiction Writers Finding Truth in the Cards
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  • Poker & Pop Culture: The fictions of Kelley, Oates, and Updike show the truths revealed by poker.

  • Poker represents many things -- a rite of passage, a danger, an escape from thinking about mortality.

Poker is a game that necessarily forces a unique kind of social interaction at once collaborative and competitive. It's a game in which personalities must emerge, eventually, perhaps to clash with one another, with the consequence being friction or friendship or more often something in between.

It's also a game in which ideas of "truth" are constantly being challenged, with players willfully misleading each other with the "stories" they tell via their actions and table talk.

No wonder writers of literary fiction have frequently found poker an inviting subject about which to write. The game itself is inherently plot-driven, with each hand creating a potentially compelling mini-drama. Placing a poker game within other social contexts can thus excite all sorts of storylines that can work as avenues of inquiry into the human condition.

We've covered in this series earlier literary treatments of poker performed by novelists and short story writers, among them Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Bertolt Brecht, and James Thurber. Many modern fiction writers have likewise chosen to fashion stories around poker games. As a result, they not only use the game as a means to explore various truths about the culture, but also show different ways the culture views poker.

Poker as Signaling the End of Innocence

Before his death earlier this year, New York-based African-American fiction writer William Melvin Kelley earned high regard for his novels and short stories exploring various aspects of modern life and racial identity. His experimental style also has invited comparisons with James Joyce and William Faulkner, with some of his works introducing mind-expanding fantasy elements into otherwise realistic settings.

Kelley's early story "The Poker Party" appearing in the 1962 collection Dancers on the Shore stays within the bounds of realism, memorably describing how a group of adults' regular poker game is experienced by a young boy allowed to observe past his bedtime on a Saturday night.

An older narrator tells the story retrospectively, looking back on the memorable incident from his childhood. Kelley employs a subtle touch when describing the idyllic youth spent by the boy, one comfortably free of conflict. Soon, though, a contrasting note is struck when the boy contemplates the coming poker game that night.

"I did not like the Poker Parties," he confesses. "They lasted very late, almost until I woke on Sunday morning and my father would sleep the day away and would not take me to the park like other fathers."

Tucked into bed, he imagines various horrors arriving with the poker players. "I was awake, the darkness soft and as close around me as my one soft blanket," he says, but the shadows outside his bedroom door frighten him.

"I was afraid; each shape was a man in a long coat coming with a silver knife to slice my neck."

In actuality the players are hardly to be feared — his mother and father both play, as do an aunt and uncle as well as a family friend named Mister Bixby. On this night the boy wakes up and wanders out to watch, and although his father's mood isn't great as he's been losing steadily to Bixby, he nonetheless allows his son to do so.

The father grows impatient with others failing to cut the deck before dealing, declaring a misdeal when it happens. Bixby then does it, and over the father's objection is allowed to deal out a hand of Spit in the Ocean, anyway, one resulting in Bixby winning a decent-sized pot of nine dollars from the father.

"Now I know why you didn't want to redeal," the father says to Bixby after the hand, and the previously pleasant atmosphere quickly turns sour amid the accusations and arguing. The boy grows especially upset, in part because he's convinced he somehow caused his father to lose the pot, and he's quickly put back to bed by his mother.

Looking back, the narrator realizes the true importance of the incident. "For the first time in my life I was afraid of grownups," he explains, having "never seen them argue" before that night.

Poker here is made to function as a kind of emblem of adulthood marking the end of childhood innocence — a game capable of creating antagonism and hostility, and introduce a young person to feelings of fear and uncertainty. The story's lesson lends an ironic meaning to its title, with the narrator learning the truth that growing up means understanding all parties must end.

Poker as a Danger, Though Not Insurmountable

Joyce Carol Oates's gripping story "Strip Poker" similarly can be considered a "coming of age" story, featuring a young female protagonist who also gets introduced all at once both to poker and to "grownup" dangers.

The story appeared in a 2007 compilation of poker-themed fiction titled Dead Man's Hand, then was republished in 2011 in Oates's own collection Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense. Encountering it in either place should prepare the reader for something potentially sinister, although if you've read any of Oates's more than 40 novels or hundreds of other short stories, you already know she's never shied from grim tales demonstrating humanity's dark side.

Annislee tells her own story, doing so from the point of view of her 13-year-old self (i.e., not looking back from a more mature perspective as Kelley's narrator does). Away on an summer vacation with her mother and brother — her father being ambiguously "out of the picture," as Momma puts it — Annislee finds herself going along on a speedboat trip with a group of older boys.

The boat's name is "Hot L'il Babe," and it's suggested perhaps that's just how at least some of the boys picture Annislee. One of them successfully lures her along by asking "how'd I like to play poker with him and his buddies." She confesses that she doesn't know now, the boy insists they can teach her, and off they go.

They arrive at the other side of the lake, make their way into a cabin, and out come the cards. There are beers, too, and before long Annislee is both learning how to play five-card draw and how quickly Coors causes her to become dizzy and confused.

One reviewer of the Give Me Your Heart collection remarked on the "waves of growing creepiness" in the stories, and the reader can't help but worry greatly for Annislee as she wins her first few hands to build up the money the boys gave her to start, then starts losing.

The poker hands are well presented, as is the lesson delivered to her by one of the boys that the cards you're dealt don't matter as much as how you play them. "Doesn't it matter what your actual cards are?" she asks one, who replies "sure it matters, but not so much's how you play what you're dealt."

Eventually Annislee runs out of money, at which point the boys declare the game is in fact strip poker. Things progress even more disturbingly from there, and at one point a couple of the boys insist she must strip because "that's poker." At a crucial moment she's able to turn the situation around, changing the game from poker to another card game, one called "Truth."

"There's other kinds of stripping, not just taking off your clothes," she explains when introducing the game. "It's a little like poker, except you don't bet money, instead of paying a bet you pay in 'truth.'"

The boys are skeptical, but are utterly defeated by Annislee's first story, a frightening, violent one describing how her "out of the picture" father had once treated another male predator who'd gotten too close to her. The tables are turned in a dramatic way, with Annislee playing the "hand" of her story perfectly — and devastatingly.

The story seems to present poker as something dangerously risky, but perhaps not utterly to be avoided. One can learn the game. In order not to lose, though, a player has to keep one's wits and be able to shape and present the "truth" effectively.

Poker as an Escape (For a While, Anyway)

Best remembered for a quartet of novels (plus one novella) tracing the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, starting with 1960's Rabbit, Run, John Updike penned more than 20 novels, hundreds of short stories, several books of poetry, and a significant amount of literary criticism and essays. Like both Kelley and Oates, Updike is often praised for his descriptive powers and ability to portray characters and scenes in affecting ways, providing genuinely deep insight into our existence when his plots involve relatively ordinary, "day-to-day" scenes and situations.

Updike's story "Poker Night" (published in Esquire in 1984 and later collected in Trust Me) presents an unnamed, middle-aged male narrator living a very familiar, not too remarkable-seeming existence. He's married with two children (now grown), has worked many years at "the plant," and for three decades has been part of an every-other-Wednesday poker game.

After working late one Wednesday the narrator has a doctor's appointment from which he goes straight to the poker game. However, on this day the doctor introduces a disruption to the man's routine. The diagnosis isn't specified, but talk of chemotherapy and treatments makes it clear enough the man has cancer, and that his prospects going forward are grave.

Much of the rest of the story finds the man playing his poker game as usual, putting his diagnosis (and the thought of telling his wife about it) to the side for a few hours while letting the lively card game literally distract him from thinking too directly about his own mortality.

He rattles off the backgrounds of that night's players — Bob, Jerry, Ted, Greg, and Rick — giving the history of the game and how over thirty-plus years "the stakes haven't changed," remaining low enough to keep the game fun. "It really is pretty much relaxation now, with winning more a matter of feeling good than the actual profit," he explains.

The game produces a few interesting hands, including a couple of instances when the narrator believes he made mistakes — staying in one hand, and folding another when only to find out he was best. "It's in my character to feel worse about folding a winner than betting a loser," he comments, adding how the latter "seems less of a sin against God or Nature or whatever."

It's clear the game is providing a kind of escape for him, and Updike deftly has him recognize a kind of symbolism in the cards themselves.

"The cards at these moments when I thought about it seemed incredibly, thin: a kind of silver foil beaten to just enough of a thickness to hide the numb reality that was under everything," he says.

He notices the others around the table, friends whom he's known for many years, and finds himself recognizing how they have aged. Suddenly he thinks about death again, and earns a small measure of comfort in the idea that "people wouldn't mind which it was so much, heaven or hell, as long as their friends went with them." The thought has the effect of winning a small pot, carrying him forward a little further.

He finishes the game five bucks down, though when he gets home he tells his wife "I broke about even." It's a small lie, though it mirrors a larger one he'd been telling himself ever since getting the news from his doctor — namely, that somehow it wasn't as bad as it sounded, and that perhaps everything would work out okay.

He knows this is a lie, though. The short scene with his wife confirms it, and the story ends with the narrator recognizing in his wife's look that she's contemplating life without him. The description sounds a lot like a player having finally noticed an opponent's tell, thereby learning something important about what might come next.

"You could see it in her face her mind working," he says. "She was considering what she had been dealt; she was thinking how to play her cards."

From the forthcoming "Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America's Favorite Card Game." Martin Harris teaches a course in "Poker in American Film and Culture" in the American Studies program at UNC-Charlotte.

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