I recently wrote that, despite some flaws, Cards is one of the most engrossing poker novels you’ll read. In an email interview this week, I asked the author, Jonathan Maxwell, about his own impressions of the book, which he considers to be his “proud masterpiece.” We discussed the novel—now 10 years old—the richness of pre-Internet poker culture, and his chow/lab mix Kitkat.
“Discussing Cards 10 years after its release is a therapeutic experience for me,” Maxwell told me. “It allows me to express and thereby expel my disappointment with its lack of commercial success. In short, it was very well enjoyed by those who did read it, but read by so few that it passed largely unrecognized.”
Why did you choose to set the book in Los Angeles, Paris, Atlantic City, and Las Vegas?
I chose these locations for two reasons. Firstly, much of my literary aim was to illustrate a comprehensive display of poker culture. Such an illustration would be incomplete without these three American poker hubs. Paris is included as a representation of international poker—how different yet the same the game is outside an American’s native society.
Secondly, all good fiction is really just creative non-fiction—the core experiences are authentic, it’s just the details that are improvised. These four discussed cities comprise most all of my poker career. Much of the Parisian details are historical. I had no reason or desire to create something from whole cloth.
How does your protagonist, Michael Jameson, seem to you now?
Michael “Mic” Jameson was the most interesting protagonist I could create. Was I to write about a subdued mysterious champion? Can you think of anything more boring and phony? Mic Jameson’s tone is consummately unapologetic. This manifests great strength. He is also offensive and witty, which manifests pain and intelligence. The result is a page-one character that is immediately both interesting and real, so obviously the reader wants more. This is the consequence of premeditated literary effort.
Mic’s technical poker and bankroll management reflected what I though Mic would do at each moment. Sometimes I concluded he would play incorrectly, and sometimes I needed him to play incorrectly to advance the story. As a matter of fact, it hurt to write some of his incorrect play. A writer becomes affectionate towards his characters, especially when a character contains significant representation of the author.
How much of Mic Jameson is Jonathan Maxwell?
I’d say about 40 percent. Mic represents my poker playing style, erratic emotions, personal confidence, and, most importantly, my disillusionment with mainstream society. We differ in that I’m an empathetic and gentle guy. Mic is capable of kindness, and he is clearly vulnerable and honest, but his disillusionment has turned him ugly so that he no longer cares to temper his emotional pain, but instead manifests it, often comically, both inwardly and outwardly. I thought this to be the most interesting choice.
Unlike most poker media, which favor big pots and bigger drama, Cards foregrounds the monotonous, repetitive nature of the grind. It includes many hands that seem trivial or inconsequential. Why did you emphasize this aspect of the poker experience?
I emphasized the monotonous aspect of poker because monotony is the dominant experience of “professional” poker. The trivial, inconsequential hands are absolutely the most relevant to an authentic poker experience. The saturation of these hands throughout Cards is an essential part of the work—it is the authentic un-tearable fabric from which the tapestry is allowed to emerge.
As I said previously, the best fiction is improvised non-fiction. While I take no pleasure in criticizing, and I freely admit that I’m outstandingly poor at spelling and punctuation (though I flat-out disagree with many punctuation rules and norms,) I must admit that I simply cannot stomach most poker fiction because it is painfully phony. The reason for this is that the authors are writing for their audience. A writer should never write for an audience. He should only write for himself. That is the first requisite of quality writing.
Do you have any favorite passages or scenes from the novel?
This passage is a favorite of mine:
“Forty-eight minutes later I flop two pair with A-J to win my first pot. As I stack the chips, the drunk blonde who replaced boring guy next to me orders another cocktail. She tells me I have nice skin, and I tell her it’s because I don’t get any sun, and that I never use soap because it strips the body’s necessary layer of oil, and imbalances pH levels. She says she’s an optometrist presently on call. Thirty-nine years old, her cute face is marred with crooked teeth and smeared lipstick. In purple stonewashed jeans squeezes a marginally slim body. I’m finding her more attractive than I should. She’s raising the pots almost every hand, and winning too many of them. I toss my cards and begin thinking seriously if I’m gonna lay this woman. The car ride to her place could get kinky, then we’d have nasty sex. But after I finished I’d look over and feel disgusting, then need to be nice for twenty-five minutes. Later she might try to find me to show her friend. Still, I bet sex with the drunk optometrist would be worth it. She’d really let me have my way with her. I lean back to examine her feet. Well, that’s that.
I enjoy East Coast players more than California players, perhaps because I grew up in New York, but it’s more than that. I don’t know if it’s the harsher weather or the concrete of the many metropolises, but people from here care less about what the hell others think of them. They have more of what I call religion. They brawl with less provocation, listen more to illegal business proposals, complain less when luck pummels them to the ground. Look at this drunk optometrist: she could lose her whole career with her antics. I suppose that’s what was sexy about her. Eastern conference basketball teams are tougher this way as well. They grind with defense and win with 78 points. I think it all goes back to the weather.”
The novel contains scattered references to Zen, Herman Hesse, and Eastern spirituality. How do you think Mic’s spiritual journey informs the novel as a whole?
Good question. Mic’s spiritual journey is the core of the story. The essence of this story could be embedded in any vocational persona—a baker, a soldier, a real-estate agent. It is the story of a man understanding, and finally accepting his unconscious rejection of mainstream societal definitions of value and success, and embracing definitions he creates for himself. Mic never achieves full understanding, but he understands enough that he gains a desperately needed peace. Though this brutal and relentless poker world has cost him his friends, family, and beloved girlfriend, its spirituality is what he needs most, so inside it he remains.
You’ve mentioned that you can’t think of any topic as rich as pre-Internet poker culture. Why?
Pre-Internet poker culture’s richness derived from its consummate lack of social filter. In the card halls, at the tables existed social exchange as intoxicatingly fresh as mountain air. People didn’t smile if they didn’t want to. A guy needled you if he felt the whim. Another empathized only because he felt the whim. No one sold anything except bluffs, and they directly paid you premium for the opportunity. Thus, each utterance was of very high expressive quality—pure emotional sharing. I’ve never experienced such social purity anywhere else.
Then, Internet poker arrived along with the movie “Rounders.” Suddenly was spawned a plethora of revenue streams—online and TV advertisements, poker shows, poker products, poker personas. Now players and the surrounding culture had financial reason to infect poker with the ubiquitous saccharine social dishonesty we call political correctness. Even still, present poker culture is relatively one of the most pure social settings I can suggest.
By the way, let me take a moment to state that during these years it is interesting how rapidly did evolve the average player’s skill level. My friends, poker used to be a lot easier. Few players read technical books. People weren’t aggressive. You could roll the average table. Nowadays you can rarely maintain such play, especially in tournaments. This average increase in skill has made the luck factor more pronounced.
What has poker taught you about life?
Poker has a lot of lessons to teach, such as the necessity of patience, the rewards of discipline, the rewards of technical study, the requisites of courage and conviction. For me, the main lesson of life reflected in poker is that fairness is not a dominant quality. The fact that you play badly or well will often not translate to losing or winning. In both poker and life the amount of luck is literally overwhelming. Thus, to be wise is to be humble—if you are doing well, without exception, it always means at least you are presently lucky, and your luck can change immediately.
The back cover of Cards includes a picture of you with a black dog. Why did you choose this picture? Is your dog still alive?
That makes me happy that you asked about her. That was my love-of-a-lifetime chow/lab Kitkat. I’ve had two serious girlfriends and Kitkat, and the peace and joy Kitkat brought me was miles ahead of the other two. She lived a fantastic life until March 2013 when I euthanized her a month before her sixteenth birthday.
I chose this picture for three reasons. Firstly, the book was self-published, so I took the privilege of simply putting the thing I loved most on the back. Secondly, the warm picture of the author kissing his dog provides a helpful softness to the largely abrasive literary style. Finally, because typical humans are obsessed with their egos, I worried that displaying a direct picture of me would lead people to believe the point of the production was pride, and it truly wasn’t. It was the literature itself.
You spend most of your time teaching chess to children. What else are you up to these days? Do you have any plans of returning to poker?
I live a wonderfully boring life, and I have no intention of screwing it up with poker. I teach kids chess most school-days, and study chess at night in my mountain cabin. And I play chess tournaments. That’s really all I do. I don’t even own a TV set. When I’m sick of chess I surf YouTube. Theoretically I’d like a wife, but I’m too financially poor for most, and I have small tolerance for drama. She’d also probably need to be a chess player, but that’s negotiable.
In the last few years I’ve played an occasional poker session purely with the goal of making some desperate money, and invariably lost.
Here is an honest account of my last poker hand: It was June 2015. I’m in late position with Q-2 off-suit. One middle position very weak player limps. I make it four times the blind. Only the big blind and the middle guy call. The flop comes a beautiful 5-8-8 with a club draw. The first guy checks, now the second guy makes a transparent 1/4-the-pot tester bet, so I raise twice his amount. The blind folds. Middle guy calls. The turn is a perfect red 3. He checks, I bet about 4/5 the pot. He thinks for a long time then calls. The river hits a red king which actually I liked a lot, but he suddenly lets out a huge moan, so I know I’m doomed, but I just can’t understand what the hell he could have hit, and also I have about 1/10 of my stack left, and at 41 years old I’m just too old to play with such little chips, so I fire all-in. He snap calls and shows 4-7 of diamonds—he hit runner-runner flush.