What Makes Mystery Writers Ante Up for Poker? (by Peter Hochstein)

Peter Hochstein is a former newspaper reporter and advertising copywriter and the author of a number of paperback original novels, most under various pseudonyms. A few years ago he began writing a series at short-story length starring P.I. Rich Hovanec. The first entry appeared in the anthology Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block. The second in the series, “The Client, the Cat, the Wife, and the Autopsy,” was published in EQMM’s January/February 2017 issue and was subsequently recorded for our podcast series. In our next issue, September/October 2017, on sale August 22, Hovanec appears again, in a characteristically offbeat case. EQMM only recently learned that Peter was one of the early (and ongoing) players in the legendary poker games that include several of mystery’s best-known writers. Thanks to him, we’ve discovered how it all started—and what the appeal of the game is for mystery writers.—Janet Hutchings

One evening in New York, back in 1960, two college students, three struggling young writers, and a just-starting-out literary agent decided to pass an evening playing poker. None of them was wealthy enough to own a set of poker chips at the time, but the stakes were so low that they could play with the loose nickels, dimes, and quarters in their pockets.

One of the writers was named Lawrence Block. Yes, that Lawrence Block. Another was the late Donald E. Westlake. Yes, that Donald E. Westlake. The third writer, Hal Dresner, landed in Hollywood a few years later, earning screen credits, according to the IMDb database, that ranged from Zorro: The Gay Blade, to the screenplay of Catch-22, to various episodes of M*A*S*H and Husbands, Wives & Lovers.

The literary agent was Henry Morrison, who now is perhaps best known as the agent who discovered the late Robert Ludlum and who, to this day, represents the Ludlum estate.

The players enjoyed the game so much that they decided to play at regular intervals. Fifty-seven years later, the game is still a ritual. Westlake has since passed away, and Block currently prefers to join the players just for the pregame dinner, but the list of players who have been dealt into the game over the years or who currently play in it reads like a Who’s Who of authors, editors, and agents who have serious muscle in the mystery world.

Morrison is still there. Otto Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Press, the Mysterious Book Club and to this day operator of The Mysterious Bookshop, played in the game for about 20 years. Robert Ludlum sometimes joined the game when he was alive and not too busy chronicling the adventures of Jason Bourne.

I was invited to join I think after the third game back in 1960, and have cycled in and out of it ever since. With the exception of one or two mere dabblers in the crime-fiction business like me, the current roster of players is still formidably impressive.

One of them is Jim Fusilli, mystery writer and Wall Street Journal music critic. In addition to his eight mystery and crime novels, Three Rooms Press recently published his Crime Plus Music, Fusilli’s anthology of twenty mystery stories by 19 other authors and himself.

Justin Scott, the author of the Ben Abbott series of mystery novels set in small-town Connecticut is another player. So is Parnell Hall, author of the Puzzle Lady series of mystery novels beloved by crossword puzzle fans, and the Stanley Hastings series. In the last few years, a new mystery author, Ira Berkowitz has joined the game. He is author of the Jackson Steeg novels, set in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, a made-for-noir neighborhood. His most recent book is Sinners’ Ball.

But the group is not exclusively male. S.J. Rozan, a Shamus and Anthony Award-winning author who writes under her own name and several others, often deals herself in when she isn’t in Asia gathering material for her next work of fiction.

Over the years, I’ve listened to their talk and noticed something remarkable about this group. When they find themselves on the road with other mystery authors—typically at an out-of-town Bouchercon conference—what they tend to do at night, just about every night, is play poker. Lots of poker. And when they come back and play poker in New York, they’re still talking about the poker at Bouchercon.

They might have been in New Orleans where the jazz runs both hot and cool, but were they at the Fountain Room or the Saturn Bar or the Maison soaking up trumpet riffs? No way. They were back at the hotel, playing seven-card stud until 3 a.m. In fact, no matter where the conferences are held, you’re more likely before and after the day’s proceedings to find many mystery writers holed up in a hotel room shuffling a poker deck than you are to find them shuffling around town, checking out the nightlife, the bar scene, or simply seeking locations for a juicy murder in their next novel.

So what’s up with that? Why do crime writers have so much affinity for poker?

I put the word out that I was interested in hearing from mystery writers who could explain the phenomenon. And sure enough, I got an earful.

For example, here’s Thomas Pluck, author of Bad Boy Boogie, which he tells me is “the first in the Jay Desmarteaux crime series.” Pluck writes in an e-mail:

“A game of poker, high stakes or not, is a tale of intrigue in itself. There’s a balance of chance and skill, where your bluff is as important as the cards in your hand . . . or up your sleeve.”

Up your sleeve? For a moment there, I wondered if I could ever dare sit down at a card table with him. But then Pluck then continued and effectively revealed that he’s merely waxing poetic. Or dramatic. Or dramatically poetic. He waxes on:

“There’s a morbid cachet to it, with the Dead Man’s Hand held by Wild Bill Hickok when he was murdered, though ideally, it’s a duel of wits, without blood. But whether there’s cash at stake or it’s a ‘gentleman’s game’ where your dignity and standing are all that’s wagered, no one gets out unscathed.”

Among those who have failed to leave unscathed is Gary Phillips, editor of the anthology The Obama Inheritance: 15 Stories of Conspiracy Noir, scheduled for October publication.

Referring to the professional hit man in a Don Winslow novel, Phillips writes,

“Every time I sit down to a game I imagine myself as the card savvy Frankie Machine. But by game’s end, reality has set in and I’m Elmer Fudd again, coming up bust.”

By contrast, Ira Berkowitz was as brutally staccato and to the point as any narration in one of his Jackson Steeg novels. “Okay,” he wrote. “Couple of things, and none of them is about money. The camaraderie. Betting on myself. Pitting my skill against the other players. Does that work?”

Yeah, it works—and please, Ira, don’t shoot me.

For any out-of-town mystery fan who comes to New York, an almost obligatory pilgrimage would have to be Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Book Shop on Warren Street in the Tribeca neighborhood. Open the door, decorated with a sign that invites you to “come in and snoop around,” and you’ll find yourself surrounded by what is perhaps the world’s largest collection of for-sale crime fiction. With decades of analyzing mystery stories under his belt, I was certain Penzler would have something analytical to say about why crime writers love poker. And I wasn’t disappointed.

“Poker is about the cards your dealt,” Penzler wrote, “but it’s also about trying to deduce what the adversaries at the table are up to, what they’re hiding, and what secrets they want to keep from you—much like the guilty party in a detective novel. Trying to make sense of a betting pattern, observing the cards played and the bets made, and attempting to bring coherence to those clues, is not unlike the task of a detective as he follows clues. It’s an intellectual chess match.”

Penzler adds: “The poker mysteries in Dead Man’s Hand, a book I edited for Harcourt in 2007, touched on some of this in stories by Michael Connelly, Jeffrey Deaver, Joyce Carol Oates, and many others.”

S.J. Rozan, author of the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mystery series, had a strong pair of thoughts about poker. First, she mused, “While not quite criminal, it’s a game that requires reading other people and a willingness to take risks. These are the skills we use when we write crime.” And then she added, “It’s also a way to hang out with other agreeable people, which as writers, isolated at our desks, is in itself a great gift.”

Rozan may be on to something big when she talks about authors and isolation. If you’re a mystery writer full time, your workday social life consists of just you and a cold keyboard. There’s no group to shmooze with at the water cooler. And there’s no next cubicle, whose occupant you can go out to lunch with, much less bounce ideas off. Jim Fusilli also commented about this.

“I’ve always thought of the poker games among writers as a way to foster community, however briefly, among people whose careers are conducted in solitude,” he said. And that reminded him of something. “There are people I’ve played poker with at Boucheron that I’ve never spoken to at any other time. I once told a writer that I had never seen the right side of his face: For consecutive years, he sat to my right at the poker table.”

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5 Responses to What Makes Mystery Writers Ante Up for Poker? (by Peter Hochstein)

  1. Pingback: Poker, Television, and a visit to New Hope | Thomas Pluck

  2. I joined the poker games for two nights at Bouchercon in New Orleans and one night a few years ago at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe. Playing poker with fellow mystery writers is unlike home games with friends/family and unlike, in a different way, playing in casinos. The experience makes me wish I lived near other poker-playing mystery writers and could attend more conventions.

  3. Nice job, Peter. But the Frankie Machine I refer to is the original in Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm.

  4. Peter H says:

    Sorry about that, Gary. That’ll teach me to rely on Google and Wikipedia instead of checking back with my original source. Sorry to you, too, Nelson.

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