Friday, December 03, 2010

Audacity and Poker

'Double Indemnity' by James M. Cain (1936)I haven’t added it up, but I probably spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-plus hours or so in airplanes getting to and from Marrakech, Morocco to help cover the WPT-Chilipoker event last week.

Spent much of that time either listening to tunes or reading. Music-wise it was Steve Hillage, Cheap Trick, Metric, Tortoise, Brian Eno, Eric Dolphy, and a few others filling out the playlist. And as far as reading went, I was in mostly hard-boiled mode for much of the time, including reading through a couple of novels, George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (1936).

Have probably read the latter a half-dozen times -- a short, tough, no-nonsense novel about an insurance salesman who gets involved with a femme fatale to plot her husband’s murder. Was first serialized in 1936, published in book form in 1943, then adapted as an excellent film noir in 1944, a film directed by Billy Wilder and co-scripted by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

While these travels have interrupted my progress a little, I continue to work on a second novel, another murder mystery as was the case for the first one, Same Difference. (Available via Amazon, Lulu, and elsewhere!) I’d certainly list Cain among a handful of writers whom I’d call direct influences, and would love to be able to produce a story as lean and mean as Double Indemnity.

I’ve always thought there were many links between this mode of storytelling -- the crime/detective/mystery stories typical of “hard-boiled” fiction -- and the kinds of stories produced by the game of poker. While Same Difference has no poker in it per se, there’s a lot of gamesmanship and strategy and “partial information” that one might say makes the unfolding of the plot not unlike the unfolding of a hand of poker.

Thus am I constantly reminded of poker while reading such books. Happened again with this latest read of Cain’s novel. More than once, in fact, although I wanted to share just one example.

Near the beginning of the novel, the insurance salesman, Walter Huff, and Phyllis Nirdlinger quickly decide upon the plan to murder her husband and collect insurance from a policy Huff himself has sold to them. It is an audacious plan, with lots of potential pitfalls that could sabotage it. But Huff believes he has everything worked out.

Speaking of audacity, when it comes to the murder itself, Huff insists that it must be carried out boldly -- that audacity, in fact, is one of “three essential elements to a successful murder.” The first element is having help to carry out the murder -- that is, a co-conspirator. The second, says Huff, is careful planning, knowing the time and place well in advance.

“The third is, audacity,” says Huff. “That’s the one all amateur murderers forget... [the one] only a professional knows.”

He goes on to describe to Phyllis the example of a gangster-style killing, with the victim being shot in front of a crowded movie theater: “right there, in the glare of the lights, with a couple hundred people looking on, they let him have it.” What happens, explains Huff, is the witnesses haven’t time to provide adequate eyewitness testimony, the spectacle of the shooting being too intense -- too wildly out-of-context -- for them to be able to say for certain what exactly they saw.

“They were only seen for a second,” says Huff of the killers, “by people who were so scared they didn’t know what they were looking at -- and there isn’t a chance to convict them.”

This ability to act with audacity is something that distinguishes the pros from the amateurs in poker, too. One could pursue the analogy further, I suppose, and talk about possessing a “killer instinct,” but that’s not necessarily what I’m getting at here. Rather, I’m referring more generally to being ready and willing to act boldly -- to make plays that are unexpected or perhaps may “expose” one, and be undeterred by worries about consequences while making them.

Such seems an important -- perhaps even essential -- skill that helps some players “get away with stuff” while others cannot. Put in such situations, only a few can act audaciously and “pull the trigger,” it seems, while most haven’t the capacity to follow through.

So... is Huff’s plan audacious enough to work? Go read Double Indeminity and find out.

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