Friday, April 01, 2011

True Story

Truth... liesliesliesLast week I had the chance to chat with Jesse May, author of the poker novel Shut Up and Deal (1998) and much-traveled poker commentator. Great fun, that.

Our paths had intersected a couple of times before on the tourney circuit, and I always enjoyed talking with him as someone very knowledgeable both about the world of poker today as well as the history of the game. I am also a big fan of May’s podcast, The Poker Show, which is always entertaining and informative.

I decided to include Shut Up and Deal on the syllabus in my “Poker and American Film and Culture” class -- part of the literature unit -- and we read and discussed the book over the last few classes. I thought this would be a good time to speak with May, especially about Shut Up and Deal since my students and I were in the middle of discussing it.

May and I talked about a number of topics, but mostly concentrated on his novel as well as his involvement with the early years of the historically-important U.K. poker show “Late Night Poker.” Today on Betfair I posted the first part of our interview, focusing mainly on Shut Up and Deal, and next week I’ll be sharing his memories of “Late Night Poker.”

Many times when I interview someone there will be material that doesn’t make it into the final product -- “outtakes” that might be interesting but have to be cut out, usually as part of the effort to keep the interview a reasonable length. I thought I’d pass along one such item from the first part of my interview with May, something that I didn’t include over on Betfair but which I thought for a couple of reasons would be appropriate to share here.

One reason is that it relates to Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town, a book to which I not long ago devoted a series of posts. The other is it has to do with how difficult it can be sometimes to tell the difference between truth and fiction, a topic which somehow seems appropriate to write about on April Fool’s Day.

We’d gotten to the part of the conversation where I mention some of the themes I see present in Shut Up and Deal. One such theme is this struggle between “reality” and “romance” that occurs in the book -- how some characters seem to view poker “realistically” while others have a more “romantic” idea of the game. And a couple of characters seem to be going back and forth between the two points of view, including Mickey, the narrator and central protagonist.

Anyhow, when I mentioned that theme I noted how it also comes up a lot in The Biggest Game in Town. (In fact, one of my posts a few weeks ago about the book -- titled “Reality and Romance” -- focused squarely on that very topic.) I said something to May about how Alvarez's book addresses this same struggle in poker to be “realistic,” and May had what I thought was a very interesting response.

Jesse May“Listen, I love The Biggest Game in Town... it’s one of my favorite books,” said May. “But it’s a funny thing... [Alvarez] went out to Vegas and sat around and met Benny Binion and Moss and Amarillo Slim and Puggy and basically whatever they told him, he just accepted as gospel as [though] that’s the way it happened... [when in fact a lot of it] is about as far from the truth as possible!”

May noted how he’d researched a lot of the stories told in the book, coming to find that many aren’t quite as “realistic” -- and are more embellished or “romanticized” -- than we might realize.

“The amazing thing about those guys is that they basically [all] got their stories straight.... They knew that the reality was not for mass consumption. And [so] these stories were created and repeated with enough detail and by enough of them that they just became accepted as the truth. And maybe some of them even believe now that that’s what actually happened, but it’s not.”

May added that he’d talked with Alvarez about this a couple of times, and his response was that it was “incredible” how all of those whom he interviewed could have agreed upon all of the details of some of the stories, “especially stuff about Johnny Moss and Nick ‘the Greek.’” Indeed, I knew already that Alvarez’s account of that big heads-up match between Moss and Dandalos at Binion’s that took place somewhere around 1951 includes details many have since disputed, and that a great deal regarding that event is highly uncertain.

“Those guys know that to survive they have to be aware of their own reality,” added May, “but they certainly are not going to tell anybody about it!”

I told May how interesting it was to consider how Alvarez’s book talks so much about being “realistic” -- with quotes from several players furthering the exploration of that topic -- yet the book itself perhaps reports things as true that are in fact embellished or at least “romanticized” somewhat.

Like I say, I thought that was an interesting enough item to share here. Especially on a day devoted to trying to fool each other into second-guessing what’s “real” and what’s not.

Have a good weekend, all. And -- today, particularly -- don’t believe everything you read!

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Blogger Lorin Yelle said...

I suppose that the professionals have a lot to thank for this. After all, it is the romanticization and fairy tale endings that draws in the recs in droves, while truth of the matter is that it is all a gigantic mess of sweat and tears (and no blood).

Poker is the only game that has this working for it. In reality, poker is about as sexy as chess, but chess doesn't have celebrity groupies!

4/04/2011 12:29 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

You are truly a fine writer. I really enjoy your analysis of others' work.

4/04/2011 11:34 PM  
Blogger Spaceman said...

I've had a lot of my romanticism about the game fall away over the years as I've worked in the poker media, but I continue to romanticize Shut Up And Deal. It's hard to imagine enough great poker books being written over the next few decades to dislodge May's novel from my Top 3 favorites about the game.

4/05/2011 3:21 AM  

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