Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Grifters

'The Grifters' (1963) by Jim ThompsonWas sitting at a LHE 1/2 table not too long ago where I witnessed a mildly interesting hand occur, followed by some slightly more interesting chat-box banter. The hand went like this: a player in EP open-raised and had just one caller. The flop came 9h6d4s and the raiser bet and was called. The turn was the Tc. Again, bet-call. The river was the 8d and yet again we saw a bet and a call. The EP raiser showed KcQc for king-high. The calling station showed Ac7d for a rivered gutshot.

There was a bit of generic whimpering from Mr. King-Queen (“did u even know u had it,” “idiot”). Within a few hands the river rat had already lost his booty (and then some) via similarly passive, low percentage plays. After a while, K-Q typed “like a sea gull eats up my seeds poops em out all over the table.”

The situation put me in mind of the opening scene of Jim Thompson’s 1963 hard-boiled novel The Grifters. The book begins with Roy Dillon pulling what should have been a fairly conventional hustle of a dim-witted soda jerk at an L.A. confectionary. I say should have been because as it turns out, the “large, dumpy-looking youth of perhaps nineteen or twenty” working behind the counter ends up giving Dillon a bit more trouble than he had anticipated.

Thompson describes the scam to us as “the twenties, one of the standard gimmicks of the short con grift.” Other gimmicks potentially land larger scores, but apparently “the twenties” is a safer way to go. Usually.

Having finished his limeade, Dillon goes to pay the kid whom he’s sized up as the underachieving son of the shop’s proprietor. “A package of those mints, too,” says Dillon. “Twenty cents,” the youth replies.

Dillon fumbles for a moment, then with an apology pulls a bill from his wallet. “Mind cashing a twenty?” The kid counts out his change and hands it to Dillon, who then animatedly claims he’s finally located deep inside his pocket two dimes. He hands the coins over, saying “Just give me back my twenty, will you?” The youth obliges.

Standing at the front of the soda shop idly looking at a magazine in the rack, Dillon is stunned when the clerk suddenly whacks him in the stomach with a baseball bat, yelling “Dirty crook!” A short time later, a woozy Dillon is described “seated in his car and re-examining the incident.”

“He could see no reason to fault himself, no flaw in his technique,” explains the narrator. “It was just bad luck. He’d simply caught a goof, and goofs couldn’t be figured.”

We’re constantly instructed “bad players cannot be bluffed” and the like. And we’ve all been there. Against the “goofs,” surprise bets don’t surprise. Spooky check-raises don’t spook. And bluffs aren’t read as strength. Or as bluffs. They simply aren’t read at all.

I have to assume that in the hand described above, Mr. King-Queen didn’t know he was dealing with a “goof” who’d call down with such a hand (even though he was ahead from start to finish). For K-Q to keep firing from out of position was certainly stubborn, but as his comments afterwards showed, he didn’t see any “reason to fault” his own play nor any “flaw in his technique.” He’d just saw himself as having unfortunately run into a “goof.”

One other point of comparison here, though. Something of which neither Roy Dillon nor Mr. King-Queen seem especially conscious.

Both are theives -- are grifters -- attempting to take something that never rightly belonged to them. While it is true that “goofs” can’t “be figured,” it is also true that when trying to steal something that isn’t yours, getting caught and punished should never be all that startling of an occurrence.

Can’t recommend The Grifters enough, by the way. Adapted into a slick film by Stephen Frears back in 1990, also worthwhile. Full of lessons for anyone out there trying to pick up a few pennies -- or twenties -- via the grift. (In other words, all of youse.)

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