The Poet’s Poker
October 27, 2011 | by David Zax
For Rita Dove, it was an unusual Saturday. It began ordinarily enough: Dove had spent the afternoon at the Academy of American Poets, where she is one of fifteen “chancellors.” By 8 P.M., though, the day had taken a strange turn, and Dove, who is fifty-nine, found herself in the basement of the Chinatown Brasserie, sitting in a recessed booth illumined by a red lantern, looking out over five poker tables ringed with players who had each paid $1,500 just for the privilege to sit there.
“I’m terrified of those tables,” she said. Even so, she added, referring to poets, “We’re supposed to be open to new experiences, so here I am.”
She was by no means the only noteworthy author present. At one table sat the novelist Walter Kirn; at another, the comedian, writer, art collector, and banjoist Steve Martin; at a third, the novelist Amy Tan, the evening’s host. Her invitation to the poker tournament had begun, “This may be one of the most unusual dinner invitations you’ll ever receive.” The evening, she explained, was a fundraiser to benefit a group called Adventures of the Mind, which describes itself as a “mentoring summit for 150 of the smartest high school students in the country.” (Players were competing for prizes of the “lunch with a luminary” sort, rather than money. The house was absolutely winning tonight, and no one was complaining.)
Still, it seemed an unlikely crowd for an evening of Texas Hold ’em, a game defined, after all, by the “poker face,” that emotionless mask meant to obstruct communication. Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings;” it came as no surprise when Dove confessed, “I don’t think I could pull off a poker face.”
“When literary types gather together,” mused Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, observing from the sidelines, “they might play Hearts, or Go Fish, or Bridge.” But poker? She associated it sooner with Wall Street traders. Journalist Amanda Fortini, also in attendance, had only learned to play the night before, at Tan’s apartment. “They were saying ‘raise,’ ‘call,’ what’s the other one—‘check,’” she told me. Her sole experience with poker chips had been in adolescence, when her mother, at the suggestion of a family therapist, implemented a rewards system: good behavior earned chips, which could be exchanged for television privileges.
If Fortini embodied the poker-averse writer, her fiancé across the room, Walter Kirn, embodied the opposite. Years back, he had replaced an alcohol addiction with a fervor for gambling. “I’m playing better because I’m using the dynamic that I don’t like to embarrass myself in front of a woman,” he told me, gesturing to the woman beside him, World Series of Poker Champion Annie Duke. “I’m also playing worse than my best,” he admitted.
After losing a few hands, Kirn began to talk to his fellow players about money and fiction, and the ways in which money was a fiction. “In a leisure society people become addicted to token economies,” he said. “Even our real economy is a token economy.” The conversation turned to his 2001 novel Up in the Air, whose protagonist is obsessed with accruing frequent flyer miles. “The dollar is now just slightly more real than frequent flyer miles,” he said. Then he lost another hand. “The fact that I’m ineluctably losing my chips is causing me to play to my core competency, which is talking fast,” he said quietly.
A tournament representative soon approached, asking, “Would you like another re-buy, Mr. Kirn?” Players could make additional donations of $500 for a replenishment of chips.
The author nodded.
“Thank you, Mr. Kirn.”
Though not playing his finest game, Kirn nonetheless gave the lie to the idea that poker was somehow unliterary. He pointed out that the editors Adam Moss, Will Dana, and several other publishing giants have a regular game. Poker, Annie Duke told me, could be seen as “an exercise in storytelling and listening to stories.” Even to place a bet or to abstain from doing so was a story, she said, a way of “talking with each other with your chips.” Others have made even bolder claims about the relationship between poker and storytelling: “Humanities professors should recognize that the ways we've done battle and business, made art and literature have echoed, and been echoed by, poker's definitive tactics, as well as its rich lore and history,” James McManus argued in an article drawn from his 2009 book Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker.
As the night wore on, and six tables whittled themselves down to one, it became clear that in this room at least, literature and poker were two sides of the same chip: It seemed that nearly every author in the room had a secret love of poker, and every poker player in the room a secret (or not-so-secret) book. “I’ve written about 74,000 words of my autobiography,” the night’s emcee, Poker Hall of Famer Phil Helmuth, told me. Meanwhile, even the poet was trying her luck, at a special table set up for the poker-phobic. “The language is great,” Dove said of the Hold ’em lingo—“the flop,” “the turn,” “the river.” “I start to daydream about the language, and I miss the next call.”
By a little after 11, the room’s energy had converged on the finalists’ table. Still representing the scribbling class were Steve Martin, nursing a Tsing Tao beer, and his wife, the former New Yorker staffer Anne Stringfield. Tan was also in the game, as was her husband, Louis DeMattei, a tax attorney (“she writes and I write off,” he said). Six others, including a chess grandmaster, Phil Helmuth’s sister, and a fellow from New Zealand whom no one seemed to know, also remained in the running. Soon Stringfield was out, and then Tan. At 11:40, Martin raked in an impressive pot, $80,000 in chips, but by a little after midnight, he too was out.
The top slot went to the Kiwi gentleman, a stocky and bespectacled young man whose name was Kahn Mason. He was a quantitative analyst with a Ph.D. in applied statistics. For his prize, he chose a private lesson with Annie Duke, over her protestations that the dinosaur dig with paleontologist Jack Horner was a better value.
I asked Mason what it was like being a math guy playing against writers. “We tend to be good at the odds,” he said of quantitative analysts, “but we’re really bad at reading people.” Fortunately, he said, writers were easy to read.
David Zax is a writer living in Brooklyn.