Great Reads: Poker in the Fiction of John D. MacDonald
When you’re a poker player, you start to see the world in terms of the game. Everyday life becomes rife with poker-like situations. You get “coolered” in a friendly game of golf. You suffer a “bad beat” when you miss a train, get stuck in traffic, or have to work overtime on a Saturday. Poker offers you metaphors for life — or, perhaps more accurately, the poker player’s mind filters life through the lens of poker.
If you’re a fan of fiction as I am, you’ll also find yourself noting how poker-like situations often pop up in novels. For the most part, these references to poker are implicit. For example, when Sherlock Holmes says to Dr. Watson, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear,” it’s obvious that author Arthur Conan Doyle is not referring to poker in any literal sense. But as I wrote about a few months ago, the remark captures perfectly the distinction between a player who follows the action and one who interprets what all the actions around the table might mean. (See “All I Really Need to Know About Poker I Learned from Sherlock Holmes.")
But occasionally, and surprisingly rarely, writers use the game explicitly to reveal something about character and life. There are novels that put poker squarely in the foreground, like Jesse May’s great 1998 novel Shut Up and Deal. And there are novels that put poker squarely in the background, as in the case of one of my favorite genre writers, John D. MacDonald.
Getting a read on others
MacDonald was one of America’s most prolific pulp fiction writers. He published his first short story in 1945, and by the time he died in 1986, he’d published nearly 500 stories and almost 70 novels in all the major genres — mystery, adventure, Western, science fiction, and many, many thrillers. His novel The Executioners (1958) was the basis for two film adaptations titled Cape Fear.
I’ve read most of MacDonald’s mysteries and thrillers, and discovered that poker is a recurring motif in his work. Which makes sense when you think about it — poker is, after all, a small-scale drama of aggression and shrewdness and gamble. The game offers the novelist an echo of larger and more dangerous endeavors. Poker is also an excellent way to reveal character.
For example, in a 1957 MacDonald novel, A Man of Affairs, a woman is watching a poker game to get a read on a player named Guy:
I hung around long enough to watch him stay on a pair of threes, and draw twice to an inside straight. I learned my poker from my daddy. Daddy could have cleaned poor Guy in one long session.
That old adage “never draw to an inside straight” may not demonstrate a contemporary understanding of odds and expected value (sometimes it can be correct to draw to an inside straight!). But in the 1950s, it was part of poker’s conventional wisdom, and reveals Gus to be a loose, losing player both at the table and in the game of life.
Or take Clemmie (1958) in which a middle-aged businessman named Craig, happily married and comfortably well off, falls for a lovely young woman whose name gives the book its title.
This is a classic MacDonald plot device — sexual infatuation leading to trouble. But what I remember most from the book is a scene around a poker table, one in which the hero is described sizing up his competition. He notices one player, glancing furtively around the table after the deal:
For a moment Craig was puzzled, and then he knew exactly what the expression was. It was that of a man in a poker game who has been dealt his cards, but feels there is more to be gained by watching the way the others pick up their cards and sort them. His cards are always there. He can look later.
That shows a deep understanding of the game and its human dynamic, not to mention demonstrates a poker tactic that rings true today.
Travis McGee and “The Busted Flush”
In his crowning achievement, MacDonald wrote a 21-book series featuring Travis McGee, a kind of informal private investigator living on a houseboat in Florida. Poker comes up again and again to convey milieu and character in the McGee novels, and ultimately it becomes a metaphor for how McGee lives and experiences life.
McGee is a fascinating character, impossible not to like. He describes himself in the first book of the series, The Deep Blue Good-by (1964), as “that big brown loose-jointed boat bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl seeker, that slayer of small savage fish, that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, argufier, that knuckly scar-tissued reject from a structured society.”
“Reject from a structured society” is not a bad description of a poker player, someone who works hard to earn an “easy” living without time clocks or 401(k) plans or bosses.
McGee isn’t a full-time poker player, but he’s more than a little familiar with the game. In fact, he owes his home to a poker game. Narrator McGee tells the story of a five-card stud hand that paved the way to winning his houseboat:
I secured [the boat] in a private poker session in Palm Beach, a continuous thirty hours of intensive effort. At the end of ten hours I had been down to just what I had on the table, about twelve hundred. In a stud hand I stayed with deuces backed, deuce of clubs down, deuce of hearts up. My next three cards were the three, seven, and ten of hearts. There were three of us left in the pot, By then they know how I played, knew I had to be paired or have an ace or king in the hole. I was looking at a pair of eights, and the other player had paired on the last card. Fours. Fours checked to the eights, and I was in the middle and bet the pot limit, six hundred. Pair of eights sat there and thought too long. He decided I wasn’t trying to buy one because it would have been too clumsy and risky in view of my financial status. He decided I was trying to look as if I was buying one to get the big play against a flush, anchored by either the ace or king of hearts in the hole. Fortunately neither of those cards had showed up in that hand.
He folded. Pair of fours was actually two pair. He came to the same reluctant conclusion. I pulled the pot in, collapsed my winning hand and tossed it to the dealer, but that hole card somehow caught against my finger and flipped over. The black deuce. And I knew that from then on they would remember that busted flush, and they would pay my price for my good hands. And they did…
McGee dubs the boat “The Busted Flush,” a name famous among fans of the series. But the description of how that hand plays out sounds good to the modern player, right down to the accidental revelation of his hole card, “advertising” his bluff in the hopes of getting future action (that “somehow caught against my finger” is a nice touch).
Revelations of character
MacDonald reveals a decent understanding of the game repeatedly in the McGee series. In The Turquoise Lament (1973), McGee observes, “There is the precise point in the poker game when you have to give the impression of carefully computing the odds. Most people with a bust hand bet too quickly and smile too much. You hesitate a long time before you make your heavy bet into that hand across the table.”
No one would argue that poker is a central metaphor for John D. MacDonald, but some of his larger themes will also resonate with poker players, such as a character’s ability to deal with luck. As McGee says in A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971):
The only thing I know is that I am going to run out of luck at some point in the future, just as I have in the past. And when I run out, I am going to have to make myself some luck. I know that what counts is the feeling I get when I make myself some luck. The way I feel then is totally alive. In every dimension. In every possible way.
The good poker player is constantly “making” his or her own luck, using wits and wiles to turn bad hands into good situations (and ultimately into pots). But MacDonald is clearly writing about something larger here, about the role that lucks plays a role in our lives, for good and for bad. Sometimes (but certainly not always), we get a chance to make ourselves some luck.
I think this is part of the enormous appeal of poker — the chance to embrace luck and variance in ways that are relatively safe (assuming we’re playing within our means). And surely part of the challenge and exhilaration of poker is to figure out a profitable way to play the hand you’re dealt rather than — as I have done too often — to curse your bad luck.
Ultimately, poker in the fiction of John D. MacDonald is a way to reveal character, of his heroes and his villains or sometimes, his hapless losers. It’s no surprise that poker would be such a rich thread in the tapestry of MacDonald’s fiction — it mirrors the much bigger thread of the role of chance in our lives, the drama we play out everyday. It’s as timeless as human nature itself, and something we witness every time we sit down to play.