Thursday, May 08, 2008

Hammett's Op & the Perils of Stirring Things Up

'The Continental Op' by Dashiell HammettWas looking back through a volume of Dashiell Hammett stories, all of which feature that nameless private eye who is an operative of the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco -- a character usually referred to as the “Continental Op.” Hammett started his career writing stories about the Continental Op, the earliest of which appeared in Black Mask way back in the early 1920s. Would end up writing over thirty stories featuring the savvy, hardened detective, some of which got compiled and refashioned as his first novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse.

Anyhow, was reading one particular story titled “The House on Turk Street” and was reminded of a situation that comes up now and again at the poker table. In fact, it recalled a particular hand of pot limit Omaha ($25 max. buy-in) I’d played earlier in the week.

In the story, the Op has been assigned the task of tracking down a particular person -- we’re not told why -- and so has been going door-to-door on a particular block of Turk Street with a fabricated tale designed to uncover the man’s whereabouts. After several unsuccessful visits, the Op finds himself having been invited into an elderly couple’s home for a cup of tea. The trio chat aimlessly, then with one sentence the light mood turns swiftly dark:

“Something cold touched the nape of my neck.”

It’s a gun, all right. Turns out the house is the hideout of a gang who has just pulled a bank heist in Los Angeles (they’ve paid the old couple to cover for them). Completely unrelated to the job for which the Op had been originally assigned. Before long, the Op is tied to a chair wondering how he’s gonna get out of the house on Turk Street alive. I won’t go through the rest of the plot, but eventually the Op succeeds in getting the gang members to turn against each other, thereby managing to wiggle himself free of a tricky spot.

What’s familiar here is that situation where you find yourself trying “to stir things up” (a favorite phrase of the Continental Op), then get into an entirely unexpected jam that forces you to find a completely new strategy in order to survive. You aren’t innocent, here. Like the Op, you were trying to get something from others and were using a bit of subterfuge to accomplish that task. But suddenly you feel something cold on the back of your neck and yr caught in an entirely different imbroglio than the one into which you thought you were entering. (Or creating.)

Here’s the hand. I was sitting in late position with 9-8-7-6 unsuited and it folded to me. I raised it up, as I’ll sometimes do with these rundown-type hands, and ended up getting two callers. The pot was around three bucks. (Sorry, don’t have the hand history.)

The flop wasn’t so hot -- Qd4h8d. Really only three viable outs for me there. The early position player thought a sec and bet two dollars, and the guy in between us calls. What do we have here? Coupla draws? I ended up calling. Not so hot, I know. That’s the moment where the entire situation had changed. Like the Continental Op, I started out thinking I was in charge of the proceedings, but now I’d found myself tied to a chair, wondering what exactly I’d gotten myself into.

The turn was the 2s and both players checked to me. This is one of those situations where it is probably better to be up against two players than one. They’re worried about each other, perhaps more so than about me. I checked as well, though I was starting to see a way out of this pickle.

The river brought the Kc, a card that completed no draws. Both checked to me again. I quickly made something like a two-thirds-pot-sized bet into the $9 pot, and both folded instantly.

Doesn’t always work out for me the way it tends to do for Hammett’s Op. Sometimes in that spot a player who flopped bottom set -- or who is sitting there with K-Q-x-x -- will look me up there, and I’m cooked . . . .

The Op usually winds up in the clear, though. Not conscience-wise, necessarily. But breathing-wise.

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