What The Hell Does He Know About Poker?

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

A number of years ago I happened to read that playing cards are descended from Tarot cards, and since both of those have particular intrinsic glamours and perils, I decided to see if I couldn’t write a book that combined them. Poker seemed to be the most dramatically fruitful use of playing cards, so I dutifully set about learning how poker is played. (At first I didn’t know whether a flush beat a straight, much less what “blind bets” were.)

Poker, I discovered, is sort of a sit-down version of fencing. Bets are feints and disengages and lunges and stop-thrusts, and merely having the best cards is no more a guarantee of winning than having a longer reach with your weapon arm. As in fencing, the play is largely a manipulative dialogue, probing for weaknesses and exploitable habits.

I wound up reading way more about poker than the book required—Herbert Yardley’s Education of a Poker Player, Frank Wallace’s Advanced Concepts of Poker, Doyle Brunson’s monumental Super System, and a dozen more. My wife and I drove to Las Vegas, where I got into a number of minimum-limit games. My first time, in a seven-card stud game, I was so busy trying to keep track of whose turn it was to bet, and what the bet was, that I forgot to look at my hole cards—and when I finally did look, and folded my worthless hand, the other players clearly wondered what it was about the last card that had dashed my hopes for the hand. I tried, not very effectively I’m sure, to look as if I had some idea of what I was doing. I believe I do that a lot.

I wrote the book, and through the efforts of a Las Vegas bookstore and a friend, Tom McEvoy, who has won four World Series of Poker bracelets, I wound up doing a book signing right in the midst of the World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in 1992—tables get emptied as players are eliminated, and I was set up with a stack of books at one of the vacated tables. I signed one for Doyle Brunson himself!

And one of my great memories is of the legendary grand old man of poker, Johnny Moss, pausing beside my table; someone said to him, “Johnny, you should buy a copy of this book. You’re mentioned in it.”

Moss squinted skeptically at me, then turned to his friend and said, “What the hell does he know about poker?”

It was like having Albert Einstein look at you and then say to somebody, “What the hell does he know about physics?”

I mean—who’d imagine that people like that would ever have occasion to ask?

Poker continues to fascinate me. I watch YouTube videos of tournament games, awed by the way Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth and Annette Obrestad parry and feint and riposte, and I go to play in the low-limit games at the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles—I know I’m playing at the very top of my game when I’m losing only ten dollars an hour.

I’ll never play it well—I don’t have the knack of deducing what cards opponents hold, nor the nerve to put serious money behind my conclusions—but I do have a “final table” World Series of Poker 1992 jacket that Jack Binion gave me after that signing; I can’t in all honesty wear it anywhere, but it’s a fine memento to have.

Tim Powers is the author of numerous novels, including Hide Me Among the Graves, Three Days to Never, Declare, Last Call, and On Stranger Tides, which inspired the feature film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award twice, and the World Fantasy Award three times. His newest novel, Medusa’s Web, comes out January 19th.


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