Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Thompson Street Poker Club

Not long after Life magazine first debuted in 1883, a series of comic stories began to appear in the weekly publication describing happenings of a fictional group of poker players called the Thompson Street Poker Club.

The series belongs to a familiar category of poker-related storytelling that marks the late 19th and early 20th centuries, namely, collections of linked tales presenting a kind of historical account or chronicle of a poker club’s regular games, sort of resembling colorful versions of the minutes of a committee’s meetings. I wrote about another such collection here a while back called Queer Luck by David A. Curtis (published in 1899).

Life‘s associate editor Henry Guy Carleton wrote the Thompson Street Poker Club stories. The son of a famous Union general, Carleton was also a playwright who would later have a few of his plays performed on Broadway. He was additionally an inventor who is credited with early versions of smoke detectors and fire alarms.

Thirteen of the stories were collected in a slim volume published in 1884. Interestingly, the book is dedicated to Robert C. Schenck, described as “that noble expounder of the game.” Schenck was the U.S. congressman who happened to write an early draw poker primer that was published in England and then reprinted in the U.S. in 1880.

A sequel appeared five years later, titled Lectures Before the Thompson Street Poker Club, again penned by Carleton, containing six longer stories featuring the same cast of characters. This one even more closely mimics the committee-meeting conceit, with each story starting with references to a speaker and those in attendance and even a point to note how the “minutes” of the previous meeting were read at the start of each new one. The lectures sometimes recall incidents from the first volume, with the club’s members revisiting earlier conflicts while debating the club’s various rules and procedures.

The Thompson Street stories are notable for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that they are illustrated with drawings by E.W. Kimble, best known for having illustrated Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In fact, it was after seeing Kimble’s work in Life that Twain got in touch with Kemble and eventually got him signed on to illustrate Huck Finn.

The other is that the players in the Thompson Street Poker Club are African American, and thus the stories are sometimes referred to as the first ever poker books to feature African Americans. They are also sometimes considered along with other late 19th-century examples of “black humor” or “slice of life” representations of urban blacks (even though they were written and illustrated by whites).

Reading through the collections, the initial 1884 title contains several grins, as well as some very familiar scenarios from poker fiction. For example, one story titled “The Scraped Tray” reaches a climax with a draw-poker hand being bet and raised with all the two players possess, then ends with a showdown of four kings versus four aces, perhaps recalling the climactic hand of Mark Twain’s story “The Professor’s Yarn” written just a few years before.

A twist here is the manner of the cheating involved to produce such a showdown -- one player has used a razor to scrape a three of diamonds to appear to be an ace.

Indeed, the “razzer” is the favored weapon used to settle disputes in the games, unlike the pistol Backus draws in Twain’s story. In fact, the first story in the collection -- “Two Jacks an’ a Razzer” -- might be read as a variation on the old Wild Bill Hickok story in which the lawman claims to have a full house with three aces and one six, then produces his pistol and announces “Here is the other six.”

Of course, anyone who reads The Thompson Street Poker Club today is immediately struck by the sometimes-hard-to-parse patois devised by Carleton to represent his characters’ speech and heavily employed throughout (again mimicking Twain). Such is evidenced in story titles like “Triflin’ Wif Prov’dence,” “Dar’s No Suckahs in Hoboken,” and “Dat’s Gamblin.’” (It goes without saying the n-word is frequently and casually employed as well.)

The characters aren’t too deeply developed although are suggestive of more thorough comic types, with Kemble’s drawings adding a great deal to the reader’s ability to imagine them. Most are given inspired names like Professor Brick, Mr. Cyanide Whiffles, Mr. Tooter Williams, Elder Jubilee Anderson, and the like.

The Rev. Thankful Smith is also a frequent participant, one of several churchmen who participate in the game and who in one story gets involved in a humorous exchange about the relationship between poker and religion (or lack thereof).

“I rises hit,” announces the Rev. Thankful amid the play of a hand, who then “put up such a stack of blue chips that Mr. Whiffles nearly fainted.”

“‘What yo’ go do dat for, Brer Thankful?’ inquired the Deacon, in wild remonstrance. ‘Dat’s not de speret ob de Gospil.’”

“‘Whar -- whar yo’ fin’ draw-poker in de Gospil?’ testily rejoined Mr. Smith. ‘Does yo’ tink do Possles ’n de ’Vangelists writ de Scripter after rasslin’ wid a two-cyard draw agin a flush?’ he sarcastically inquired,” later adding “‘Dis ain’t no prar meetin’.’”

Both titles are readily available online, if you’re curious (I find the first collection of the two more engaging). There’s much more to say about them, as well as about their status as representations of blacks by whites (and more or less for whites) which appears mostly sympathetic, although I’m hesitant to say more without looking further into the texts and their reception.

Incidentally, the Thompson Street titles would later get sold along with another collection from 1888 titled The Mott Street Poker Club written by Alfred Trumble in which the activities of a group of Asian poker players in Chinatown are described (with markedly less racial sensitivity).

Another footnote to add is that the song “The Darktown Poker Club” -- a hit for Bert Williams way back in 1914 -- was apparently inspired by the Thompson Street stories. And speaking of things from way back, I included that song in the first episode of The Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show.

Click the titles below to read:

  • The Thompson Street Poker Club (1884)
  • Lectures Before the Thompson Street Poker Club (1889)

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