Jessup was born in Savannah, Georgia on New Year’s Day in 1925. He grew up in orphanages, then in his late teens ran away to become a merchant sailor, a career he continued until he started writing novels in his mid-twenties. Thus by the time he started writing, he had travelled widely and experienced much. He’d also read a great deal; in a 1970 interview he said he “read himself around the world” when working as a seaman, reading a book per day. At some point he also had a job as a dealer at a gambling joint in Harlem, an experience he certainly drew from when writing The Cincinnati Kid. Jessup would eventually pen 35 novels (or more), including a series of spy novels featuring an operative named Montgomery Nash. He also wrote a number of well-received westerns under the pseudonym Richard Telfair. He died of cancer in 1982.
The Cincinnati Kid is a novel of modest length (probably 35,000 words or so) that genuinely exemplifies a lot of the qualities one expects to find in “hard-boiled” fiction. There are no detectives or crimes or murders to investigate, but several other hallmarks of hard-boiled writing are evident. Looking at Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian’s attempt to define the genre (in the introduction to their anthology, Hard-Boiled), Jessup’s novel certainly follows their guidelines. According to Pronzini and Adrian, a hard-boiled story first and foremost “deals with disorder, disaffection, and dissatisfaction.” The Kid’s dogged pursuit to beat “the Man” (Lancey Hodges) clearly signals his unease with his present circumstances. His ambition -- understood by some within the gambling world he inhabits, but incomprehensible to most of “straight” society -- also marks him as a “loner”-type operating outside the “system” (as hard-boiled protagonists often do). Furthermore, as Pronzini and Adrian point out, “good does not always triumph,” in such stories, “nor is justice always done.” Again, The Cincinnati Kid fits the bill.
So even though it isn’t a crime novel, there are a lot of reasons to liken Jessup to other hard-boiled authors. As Pronzini and Adrian explain, “A hard-boiled story must emphasize character and the problems inherent in human behavior. Character conflict is essential; the crime or threat of crime with which the story is concerned is of secondary importance.” Not surprising, then, to see the blurb from The Chicago Tribune reviewer claiming “Richard Jessup does for poker much the same thing that the late Raymond Chandler did for murder.”
I recommend the novel -- to fans of hard-boiled writing, certainly, but also to poker players. The novel offers a detailed look at the underground “rambling-gambling” poker scene, circa 1950s. (The film pushes the action back a couple of decades or so.) The reader is exposed to a lot nifty poker-related jargon here. The loose-aggressive player willing to take risks is described as having a lot of “cock” in him. The player who busts out of a game and must accept a loan from other players has gone “Tap City” (and is not allowed to play again until he’s paid back those debts). In five-card stud (the featured game) there is playing “no stay” (i.e., folding), and those players left in the hand vie for “no stay” money (i.e., dead money). When the players examine new packs of cards by sniffing their wrappers, it is explained they are looking for “the tell-tale odor of a hot iron and a tampered seal.” (The players perform this action in the film as well, and in his commentary Phil Gordon admits he has no idea why they do.) Such details -- clearly gleaned from Jessup’s dealer experience -- significantly add to the novel’s verisimilitude.
The story is set in St. Louis (the film moves the action to New Orleans), and Jessup’s descriptive style presents a succinct yet wide-ranging overview of the scene and many of the characters who populate it. Jessup frequently delves into the psychology of poker, carefully establishing the various reasons why poker and nothing else has the potential to satisfy Eric’s yearning to become “the Man.” Other pursuits fail him, as do other card games. Blackjack he dismisses as “a game of short bluff and limited scope.” “He gave bridge a try, but didn’t like the idea of partners.” He found craps harmless fun, “but still there was something in him that wanted a game where there was more personal control.” At last he comes around to poker, “first to draw poker and then he found stud to be the game that was right as rain.”
Incidentally, the film gives Eric a last name -- Stoner -- apparently meant as a reference to his poker face (and not intending any other connotations). In the novel he’s simply Eric, or, more often, “the Kid.” The Freudian implications in the nicknames of the story’s two combatants are more than a little obvious, of course. Jessup doesn’t shy away from exploring the connection between Eric’s wish to “be the Man” (i.e., be regarded as the best five-card stud player) and his struggle to mature into adulthood (i.e., to be a man, and not a “Kid”).
As in the film, the novel explores the subplot of Eric’s relationship with his girlfriend, Christian, and considers the extent to which that relationship interferes with his poker-related goals. When Eric visits Christian’s family (prior to his big showdown game with Lancey), her father quizzes him about the importance of his beating “the Man.” “Are you doing it for fun, then? Just to see if you can be king?” he asks. “No,” replies Eric, “it’s important to me.” “Now . . . which is more important to you, this king business, or Christian?” “If you got the guts to ask that question . . . I’ve got the guts to answer it. Christian, if you came right down to it, is not as important as doing what I have to do.” Christian’s father respects Eric’s position. “Son,” he says, “there never was a man worth a damn to my mind that let a woman -- his woman -- stand in the way of a thing he had to do.” Eric understands the principle. But can he live accordingly?
(Maybe I’ve just got the late, great James Brown on my mind, but Eric’s struggle in some ways reminds me of the one dramatized in the Godfather of Soul’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” -- first recorded in early 1966.)
As you might expect, Christian’s name also possesses symbolic value. During this same conversation her father asks Eric if he’s a believer. “In what?” responds Eric. “Religion.” “No.” (Although the film does take a number of chances, it doesn’t broach this particular subject.) Eric is pretty clearly presented here as an existentialist. “And you only play cards for a living?” incredulously asks Christian’s father. “Only play cards,” he responds.
The novel also presents the character of the Shooter differently than does the film. In Jessup’s story, the Shooter is more obviously a mentor figure for the Kid, having gone through precisely the same trial at an earlier stage in his poker career. He, too, took his shot at (his version of) “the Man,” unable when younger to resist making the attempt. Now the Shooter has settled into a less-risky, more methodical style of play. Unlike in the film, the Shooter has no woman here (and so there is no subplot involving her). He’s also a much more admirable character here than in the film, one who is clearly respected by others -- and deserving of such respect.
To say much more would indeed spoil the plot for those unfamiliar with it, so I’ll leave it there. Suffice it to say, the novel has a lot going for it, and ultimately stands as an important (though infrequently discussed) contribution to literature about poker.
The film is even better, though -- one of those rare instances of the adaptation exceeding the original. As I said before, I’ll review the film proper in the next post. I’m also going to add a fourth and final post to discuss that famous (or infamous, according to some) last hand that culminates the story, particularly concentrating on some of the differences between the way that hand is presented in the novel and the way the film portrays it.