Monday, July 10, 2006

Raymond Chandler Said a Lot of Things

Poker is about deception. We try to deceive others. We often deceive ourselves. He must be bluffing with a busted draw, we say, justifying a river call. Sometimes evidence to the contrary sits right before us, yet we see what we want to see. Makes us wonder, sometimes, why we do it. Why play a game that causes us to act in ways that contradict what our brains tell us are reasonable ways to proceed?

There’s a quote posted all over the internet attributed to Raymond Chandler that says “poker is as elaborate waste of human intelligence as you could find outside an advertising agency.” A great line. No wonder it gets cut-and-pasted as signature files, on poker blogs, and just about anywhere someone wants to make ironic reference to his or her obsession with the game.

A great line, all right. Even if Chandler never wrote it.

I’ve had occasion previously to refer to Chandler, one of the first-tier writers of hard-boiled detective fiction. None of Chandler’s novels deal specifically with poker. Some carry Phillip Marlowe, the private dick who narrates them all, into various gambling or “dine and dice”-type establishments, such as Eddie Mars’s Cypress Club in The Big Sleep or the Montecito, a gambling ship, in Farewell, My Lovely. But even there, Marlowe (and/or Chandler) doesn’t really offer much in the way of judgment upon gamblers or gambling.

As far as I am aware, Chandler (or Marlowe) never said much of anything about poker, positive or negative. No, the quote that keeps getting passed around like a yawn in an elevator is actually a revised version of a line that turns up in The Long Goodbye.

As a way to kill time while awaiting a meeting or some other rendez-vous, Marlowe sometimes pulls out a chess board and plays out famous matches as a kind of intellectual larking about. At one point about halfway through The Long Goodbye, Marlowe receives a phone call from Eileen Wade, a woman who had earlier hired him to locate her drunkard husband. After their conversation, Marlowe decides to spend the rest of the evening working out another famous chess puzzle. Here’s how that particular chapter ends:
She hung up and I set out the chessboard. I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen and inspected them for French shaves and loose buttons, and played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency.
Someone somewhere along the way decided to rewrite the line as referring to poker, not chess. Probably right after a bad beat. In fact, it is easier to find the inaccurate “poker” version of the quotation on the internet than the actual quote. That’s the internet. A mile wide and an inch deep.

Like I said, often we see what we want to see, not what’s really there. Even an ad exec could tell you that.

Photo: Promo portrait photo of author Raymond Chandler, Fair use.

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