Thursday, June 24, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Dead Man's Hand, Crime Fiction at the Poker Table

 In My Little Chickadee, the late great comedian W.C. Fields played a wily card sharp.

In this classic comedy film an eager sucker sees Fields spreading cards across a table and asks excitedly, “Is this a game of chance?”

“Not the way I play it, no,” was Fields’ classic answer.

I grew up on movies and TV shows that revolved around poker games and I read crime fiction and thrillers that also featured poker in the stories.

I also grew up playing poker. I began at an early age, playing poker for nickels, dimes and quarters in the Francis Scott Key elementary school yard in South Philadelphia.
As a kid I watched high-stake gamblers and racket guys play poker at a club in South Philly long before there were casinos in nearby Atlantic City. I used to run to a nearby luncheonette and bring back sandwiches and coffee to the players. The game’s big winner always gave me a huge tip.

I joined the U.S. Navy when I was 17 and I continued to play poker on an aircraft carrier on our down time off the coast of Vietnam. Many of the sailors never played poker prior to joining the Navy, so I and a few other more experienced players always did well.

After leaving the Navy I began to play poker for somewhat higher stakes and I played cards often during my 20s. I also bet on sporting events heavily and if there were two bugs on the ground, I would put twenty bucks on the one of the right.

I was a relatively good poker player at my level and I won more often than I lost, but I didn’t care much about money in my youth. I spent it as fast as I made it. When I won I went out with girl friends or the guys and I promptly blew all of my winnings at stores, bars, clubs and restaurants.
When I lost I borrowed money from the local loan sharks. These guys circle poker games like a shark circles his prey in the ocean.

I liked the active “sporting life” and I truly loved playing poker in my younger days. Although I gave up serious gambling when I married at the age of 30, I still play an occasional “friendly” game of poker with friends.

So with my life-long interest in poker, as well as my life-long interest in crime, I was eager to read Dead Man's Hand: Crime Fiction at the Poker Table (Harcourt).

Otto Penzler, the editor of Dead Man's Hand, wrote in the forward that he was surprised that no one had put together a collection of stories combining poker and crime before this.

“If ever a subject begged to be associated with crime it is gambling,” noted Penzler. “And if you think poker doesn’t involve gambling, you are seven years old and think it’s fun to play for matchsticks.”

Penzler, the founder of the Mysterious Press and owner of the Mysterious Bookstore in New York, collected 15 short stories that feature poker and crime. The stories were written by some of today’s top crime and thriller writers.

“For well over 150 years, poker has been America’s game of choice,” Howard Lederer wrote in his introduction to the stories. “The mere mention of the game would conjure images of Mississippi riverboat gamblers, cowboys willing to a man if he thought his opponent had an ace up his sleeve, and brazen Vegas hustlers drinking whiskey and smoking cigars while using marked cards to take the unsuspecting.”

Lederer, a professional poker player known as the “poker professor,” added that for the last 150 years poker has become inextricably woven into the fabric of the American experience. He noted that the game is played by American presidents, Supreme Court justices and friends who use the game as an excuse to get together each week.

“Otto Penzler assembled a staggering array of crime novelists and asked each of them to weave the great game of poker into an original short story,” Lederer explained. “John Lescroart writes a story about how the memories of a father’s home poker game still haunt the son many years after his death. Rubert Holmes tells a tale of a poker game that is more than it appears. Eric Van Lustbader shows how the game can form the basis for a unique father/daughter relationship. Walter Mosley examines how the game of poker can provide a unique platform for nonverbal communication. And Sam Hill examines a poker pro coming to grips with his own mortality, both physically and professionally.”

In my view, one of the better stories in the book is called Bump. The story was written by Jeffery Deaver, the author of a series of thrillers that feature a quadriplegic detective named Lincoln Rhyme and his partner Amelia Sachs. One of Deaver’s novels, The Bone Collector, was made into a film with Denzel Washington.

Deaver was also recently chosen by the family of the late Ian Fleming to write the next James Bond continuation novel.

Bump is about an actor who once starred in a successful TV crime show, but is now reduced to sheepishly pitching an idea for a new show to a TV producer. The producer was not interested in the idea, but he offers the older actor a chance to appear on a reality show called Go For Broke.
The live program will film a high stake poker game between “celebrities.”
The celebrities will use their own money at the game and they will use cash, not chips. If the actor wins the poker game, the producer tells him, he would receive a “bump,” which is a buzzword in the entertainment world that means a “leg-up,” or getting recognized on the media radar. Bump also means a raise in poker.

As the reality show uses cash instead of chips, the criminal element becomes interested and two hoodlums plan to take the game down. Deaver’s story is clever and interesting and he packs a lot of character, plot and details into a short story.

I also liked One-Dollar Jackpot by noted crime novelist Michael Connelly. In Connelly’s short story a professional poker player is murdered in her parked car in front of her home. Connelly’s popular character LAPD Homicide-Robbery Detective Harry Bosch catches the case.

The woman won a considerable amount of money at a casino and Bosch wonders if she were followed from the casino by a thief and killed for her winnings. He also suspects her husband, a less successful poker player. This is a well-written, suspenseful story.

Otto Penzler offers a very good collection of stories, so if you’re interested in crime, poker, crime fiction, or all of the above, I recommend you read Dead Man's Hand: Crime Fiction at the Poker Table.

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