“I call.” I flip over my set. The guy identifies it. Strained with laughter, I tilt down. The guy enters the casino excited to play a bit of honest poker, he patiently watches me bluff all sorts of bullshit, then when his big hand arrives I ruin him with a completely hidden twenty-two to one shot. Chuckles bounce me on the seat. He’s frozen, still staring at the board. I pull in the chips with my head tilted as far as possible. I’m an awful human being.”
Jonathan Maxwell’s Cards lacks interesting characters, has no plot outside poker, revels in its own offensiveness, and is riddled with typos. It’s also one of the most engrossing poker novels you’ll read.
The action follows Mike Jameson, a 28-year-old poker pro who’s rejected everything—family, friends, romance, a career—in favor of the felt. Chasing ever-steeper swings, he travels to Los Angeles for limit hold’em, Paris for pot-limit, and Las Vegas for no-limit.
The strength of this obscure little book is its realism. Unlike most poker media, which favor big pots and bigger drama, Cards shows what grinding poker is really like:
Next hand: 2-3 offsuit. I throw it away.
Next hand: 7-9 offsuit. I toss it. I feel fine. I can fold all night.
Next hand: 4-4. Alright, I slide in three chips. The flop hits J-10-6. I fold. The turn comes a 4 which pisses me off a little. Now I delve into a long series of calculations to see if, including all the implied odds, it pays to call one flop bet with a low pocket pair. I soon lose track, then dismiss the idea as absurd.
Next hand: 7-5. Toss.
Under the gun I receive AK-offsuit in middle position. I raise. At these lower limits I usually don’t raise with A-K because I need to hit a pair to win, but when I’m running good I build a pot. Three players call. The flop comes 4-2-J. I bet, call, call, call. On the turn arrives my beautiful ace. Two players call to the showdown and lose. I rise and ask the dealer to send my food to the 6-12 table. Ahh, if poker was always so easy.
Moving up in the world. The floorperson places me in a seat one. I post the big blind, the dealer changes my chips. I peel the corners of my first hand: 3-5. No raises. The flop comes 9-5-8. I check. It’s bet, then raised. I might have called the single bet.
Small blind: 9-3. Fold.
Next hand on the button: K-4. I call. The flop comes Q-J-J. I fold to a bet. 6-12 play is a little better than 3-6. At 3-6 everyone would have checked that flop.
Next hand: 6-8.
7-9 spades. I call. The flop comes Q-9-5 with a diamond draw. I fold. No problem. This is the discipline.
Hand after hand after hand after hand after hand. The first-person narrative puts us “inside” Mike’s head, forcing us to live this monotony and repetition. We also cultivate an important poker skill: empathy.
Hold on. Why is empathy important at the poker table?
Because it can help us to avoid what psychologists call “projection”: the tendency to assign our own emotions or attitudes to others. In poker, bluffers often believe that others will bluff them; trappers suspect monsters under the bed; creative players expect similar creativity from their opponents. This is a mistake.
Want to improve your poker game or your people skills? Try reading good fiction. By meeting a character in a piece of fiction, you can imagine yourself being, not just somewhere else, but someone else.
Let’s be clear. Cards isn’t Great Lit. But it gives us an exceptional window into the mind of a flawed grinder. Mike is skilled but undisciplined. He makes smart folds, bold bluffs, and lots of mistakes—all while mocking those around him. “I despise the people at these lower limits,” he says, “thinking they know what’s going on, thinking they’ll win, thinking they’re anything but wastes of space on planet Earth.” Small-stakes players are, to him, “pea minds” whose lives have no value beyond their money. Sounds like Mike might benefit from some empathy…
Mike has abandoned everything—and everyone—for the bittersweet allure of cards, and he eventually wonders:
“Am I happy with no finances, family, future? If I am then why do I complain? If I am not then why don’t I change? I’ve been strong enough to resist society. Am I too weak to resist a silly game or am I so strong that I martyr myself with it? Without answers I know no other way than to attack with chips, chase flashes of opportunity through the night, through the morning, through the night again.”
Apart from scattered references to Zen and Hermann Hesse—and some wacky advice from Mike’s mentor and personal ATM, Ryan—these existential musings don’t go anywhere.
And that’s OK. Cards doesn’t deliver wisdom, but rather an authentic poker experience. As Maxwell himself put it, “Poker is very mentally draining. If you really want to make the best play every time, you really have to be in shape. And I’m not in shape anymore, I’m retired, but it was one hell of a ride. In my book you can experience that for yourself.”
Enjoy the trip.