In my weekly poker game, which we’ve been having for five years now, we are all jealous of Positively Fifth Street author James McManus for several reasons. First of all, he’s published four novels. Second, he once came in fifth in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, winning roughly $247,760, which, if anything, places him even higher on the respect-o-meter. And finally, he had the gall to write a bestselling book about it, which is a little like having sex with Paris Hilton and then selling the home videos online. We get it, you scored; do we have to hear about it all day?
So when my incredibly erudite and virile editor tells me that James is in town on a book tour and would be willing to play a little poker, I nearly plotz. Writing about playing poker with a writer who became famous for winning at playing poker after being hired to write about poker—now that’s Charlie Kaufman meta. And of course, the requisite ending for the article would be for me to beat Jim at poker.
Like Pilates and metrosexuals, poker’s current popularity is a direct result of overwhelming media attention. If it’s not the umpteenth showing of Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo, it’s the giant displays of poker manuals at Barnes & Noble and the countless articles by journalists chronicling their failed attempts at playing poker. And no wonder. Poker has become the participatory activity du jour of journalists because it’s a sport that even pencil jockeys can play. With all due respect to George Plimpton, I’d rather not put on shoulder pads to see “what it’s like” to be tackled by a 300-pound linebacker. But I’m certainly willing to sit at a table and summon up my inner alpha dog over paper cards and clay chips.
Poker also requires a certain level of self-analysis, a quality that writers have in spades. In the recent poker anthology Read ‘Em and Weep, David Mamet offers this thought: “Poker reveals to the frank observer something else of import—it will teach him about his own nature. Many bad players do not improve because they cannot bear self-knowledge. The bad player will not deign to determine what he thinks by watching what he does.” It’s not enough to be able to guess what cards your opponent is holding; you need to know what he thinks you’re holding.
On the day of the big game, James is running late, and my friends and I are waiting nervously for the star of the show. It’s four in the afternoon, an odd time to play poker, more so because we’re all here in the same apartment on Mercer Street 16 hours before, practicing for an upcoming 64-player tournament organized by yours truly. The fact that I could easily convince 10 otherwise responsible members of society to play an afternoon game of poker suggests, I believe, deep-seated dissatisfaction with our day jobs.
James doesn’t so much walk into the room as sneak in, and for a second I don’t notice the distinguished older gentleman taking off his coat in the foyer. After exchanging greetings (“Please, call me Jim”), he asks, “So what kind of stakes are we playing for?” Fair question, but a little embarrassing. After all, Jim’s regular home game has a $500 buy-in, and every Tuesday he drives from Chicago to northwest Indiana to play an even higher-stakes game. Do I admit that we have been playing $5 tournaments, where the winner takes home at most $50? I decide that’s on a need-to-know basis.
“How’s $30 a head, top three places are in the money?”
I collect the money, put it in the usual safekeeping spot (on the bookshelf, under the Furby), and we’re off.
Now, the game we’re playing is called Texas Hold ‘Em, or just “hold ’em.” Players are each dealt two cards facedown. Three community cards are dealt faceup (in poker lingo, “the flop”), then a fourth card (“the turn”), and then a fifth and final card (“the river”). Players bet in between each round, and they make the best five-card hand using their facedown cards and the faceup community cards. We’re playing a “no-limit” tournament, which means a player may at any time put all his chips into the pot. If he loses, he’s out of the tournament. The last player remaining with all the chips is the winner.
If I have any chance of being the last one standing, I’m going to have to figure out how to read Jim. Is he a “tight” player—someone who will only play premium starting hands like two aces—or is he “loose,” willing to play many hands on the off chance that the flop goes his way? In terms of his betting style, is he “aggressive” or “weak”? In our poker group, the biggest insult is calling someone “tight-weak.” Tight-weak players don’t win any money, because they’re too conservative to steal any pots by betting big, and on the rare occasions they’re actually in a hand, the smart players know to fold.
Right now, I’m feeling tight-weak. Partly it’s the cards—I’m hoping for face cards or little pairs, but all I get is garbage. But the truth is, I’m trying way too hard not to lose for me to win. On the one hand I make a pair of queens after the flop, my friend David bets 40 in front of me, and I suspect he has kings. At least, he’s representing kings. I fold quickly and fiddle with my tape recorder.
Although Jim isn’t faring much better, he’s taking it in stride. When I suggest that it’s a lose-lose proposition for him to play this mini-tournament, since he’s expected to win, he says with equanimity, “It’s not like I’m Michael Jordan and you’re going one-on-one against me in basketball. Anyone can win at a table.” Easy for you to say, Mr. Fifth Place. I still have something to prove.
Meanwhile, the chip leaders at the table turn out to be our host Amy and my girlfriend Beth. In his 1959 book Poker for Fun and Profit, Irwin Steig could cavalierly write, “In serious poker, women are a nuisance. . . . Poker calls for head-on aggressiveness, which our culture tends to discourage in women.” Welcome to 2004, Irwin. In this game, they’ve got the big stacks, and they’re pushing people around. When Beth reraises 30 and gets Ira to fold, Jim says admiringly, “The chicks are crushing us.”
A few hands later, Jim pushes his remaining chips into the middle of the table, and says the magic words: “All in.” Doug also goes all-in, and my friend Andrew calls. I ask Jim how he feels about his hand, now that two people have called his bet. “Where’s your messiah now?” he intones existentially. There’s no more betting, so everyone turns over their cards. Jim has a pair of jacks (a monster hand), Andrew has the ace of hearts, queen of clubs (pretty strong), and Doug has the 8 and 6 of hearts (not so much).
The flop is 9 of diamonds, 9 of spades, 8 of spades. Jim’s in the lead with jacks and 9s. The turn is an ace, now making Andrew a 90.5 percent favorite to win the hand. So of course what should come on the river but . . . a jack! Everyone is screaming at Jim’s miracle full house, while he calmly gathers the pot.
Soon it’s my turn. I peek at my cards and see two 10s staring back. It’s a good starting hand, but it’s vulnerable, and I need to drive people out of the pot. “I’m all in.” I put on my best “don’t mess with me” face, which scares everyone away except Beth, who probably thinks I’m bluffing, or worse, doesn’t care. Jim comments, “This is where the lovers’ quarrel begins.”
I turn over my 10s, only to find Beth holding two jacks. The quarrel is basically over—I’m something on the order of a 4-to-1 underdog. If I believed in a messiah, I’d be offering up plenty of myrrh and frankincense right about now, heavy on the myrrh.
The flop is no help. The turn is, of all things, a jack, which gives Beth three of a kind and me a slim chance at a gutshot straight. But it seems there’s only one come-from-behind victoryper article allowed, as the river draws a blank, and I’m out. The crowd applauds politely, as is the tradition in poker tourneys, while I leave the table. As the next hand is dealt, I try to reassemble what’s left of my dignity and ask Jim if he thought I did the right thing by going all-in. “Sure,” he says. “With jacks or 10s, you should either be all-in, or out of the hand.”
The beauty of poker is that even when you lose, you can be consoled by the thought that you made the right play. But consolation and $4.11 will get you a grande mocha around these parts. Meanwhile, Jim was running late for his next appearance, and so went all-in on a marginal hand and lost. It didn’t seem to bother him too much—at least, as far as I could tell. I guess when you’ve won hundreds of thousands of dollars playing poker, losing $30 ain’t such a big deal. At least Beth won the tournament, so I can walk around saying that my girlfriend beat Jim McManus at poker.
All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my book deal.
Or maybe my girlfriend is.
Art Chung is a writer for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and other works of a trivial nature.