There isn’t much in the way of specifics about the stories’ origins or even the names of the people who appear in them. I believe all of the stories appeared during the previous couple of years in the New York Sun, one of the three big newspapers in NYC during the late 19th century (along with the Times and Herald).
The 13 tales in the book are presented in literary fashion by Curtis -- they really read like short stories -- with a number of them introduced as related to Curtis by an unnamed “gray-haired young-looking man” after a game of cards. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about one of the stories for the Epic Poker blog, one titled “For a Senate Seat” in which a party’s senatorial nominee was allegedly determined by a poker game.
All of the stories are engaging and highly readable, but I wanted to share the first one -- probably my favorite -- titled “Why He Quit the Game,” which neatly introduces the theme suggested by the book’s title. The story also uncannily reminds me of a certain situation involving an online poker site on which a lot of us once played. Let me summarize the story here and I’ll let you decide why it might evoke such a connection.
“Why He Quit the Game” does not feature the narrative frame of the “gray-haired young-looking man.” Rather Curtis just launches into the story of a wild session of five-card draw jacks-or-better that took place at a regular underground game at an uptown club in New York City.
The five players are all referred to generically by their professions -- the Editor, the Congressman, the Colonel, the Doctor, and the Lawyer. The game usually featured a one-dollar ante, but thanks in part to a series of remarkable hands and big pots the stakes on this night had gradually been increased tenfold.
Indeed, a lot of “queer luck” had marked the session. “Fours had been shown several times... and beaten once,” we’re told. “Straight flushes had twice won important money,” too, and players were routinely being dealt “pat fulls and flushes.”
For a while no one remarked on the oddity of so many big hands routinely turning up at showdowns. “It was as if each man feared to break the run by mentioning it,” Curtis explains. At last one does make a reference to what has been happening, jokingly noting that “the devil himself has been playing with his picture books to-night,” and the others agree.
The Congressman then deals a hand, announcing the ante would be doubled to $20 for this one. The Lawyer is dealt a four-flush with two tens, the Doctor gets a pat king-high straight, the Congressman has a pair of queens, the Editor has three deuces, and the Colonel has at least two aces (he doesn’t look at his other three cards).
The Doctor opens for twenty, everyone calls, then comes the draw. Again the Doctor leads with a bet of $20, though with all of the big hands that have been shown he doesn’t feel very confident his straight is going to be best. The Editor didn’t improve on his three deuces, and sharing the same lack of confidence folds to the Doctor’s proportionately small small bet.
Both players were correct to be timid, as we learn the Congressman has improbably drawn three sixes to match his pair of queens (perhaps again evoking the idea that the devil might well be involved). He raises to $40, then the Colonel -- who when looking at his remaining cards had found a third ace before he drew -- reraises to $90.
The Lawyer, who had pitched one of his tens and kept , calls, and at that point the uncertain Doctor folds his straight. The Congressman then makes it $140 with his full house, to which the Colonel pushes it up a hundred more. Then the Lawyer reraises a hundy on top of that. The Congressman just calls, but when the other two continue to add more to the pot he finally folds his sixes full of queens, giving up the more than $300 he’s contributed to the pot.
The reraises continue unabated, with the Lawyer eventually going into his pocketbook to pull out a stack of hundred dollar bills to add to the pot. Ultimately the pot has been built up to more than $5,000 when the Lawyer finds himself facing yet another reraise from the Colonel for $1,000 more.
The Lawyer is about to reraise again when he suddenly stops himself. “The bills were still in his grasp,” writes Curtis, “and, instead of laying them down, he sat for a moment rigid as a statue, while his face grew white.” Thinking of various poker stories in fiction, one might assume the Lawyer is about to drop dead of a heart attack here, but this apparently true story goes in a different direction.
The Lawyer rechecks his cards -- which baffles the others -- then merely calls the Colonel’s last raise. The Colonel turns over four aces, but the Lawyer had drawn the to make a winning straight flush. He then rakes the huge pot, though everyone remains tense, still feeling as though “some strange climax was coming, and none could even guess what it could be.”
Indeed, there is more to come here. The Lawyer counts up his winnings, then surprisingly hands $2,000 of it back to the Colonel. Then he delivers a speech.
“I am done with poker,” he begins, going on to explain that while he loves the game -- "To my mind there is no other sport that equals it" -- he recognizes that he “stepped across the borderline of dishonor” when playing the previous hand. And having done so, he now thinks the only appropriate response for him is to quit playing poker.
What was his transgression? Did he cheat? No. He had put money into the pot that was not his, but rather belonged to a client.
“If I had lost,” he explains, “I could not immediately have replaced it.” In the excitement of the hand he’d lost track of what money was his and what was not, and so had mistakenly used some of his client’s money that he had been carrying to continue. The amount he gave back to the Colonel corresponded to the amount the Lawyer had won with money that wasn’t his.
The Lawyer then asks the others if they believe he owes them as well. They recognize the Lawyer’s integrity, and noting how they were friends (having played the game regularly for over a year), agree that he owes them nothing.
The story ends with the Colonel extending his hand to the Lawyer, who “grasped it nervously. One after another, the three others shook hands with him also, and the game was over.”
As I said, I’ll let you work out how or whether this story might recall that online poker site alluded to above having transgressed “the borderline of dishonor” in the way it managed its operation. Instead I’ll just recommend the rest of Queer Luck as book containing many more surprisingly suspenseful and thought-provoking poker tales. The book is available online in the Internet Archive (via the University of California) as a .pdf file (about 7 MB) by clicking here.