Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Good Guys Lose Two More

James M. Cain's 'Double Indemnity' (1935)One of my all-time favorite hard-boiled novels is James M. Cain’s 1935 thriller Double Indemnity. If you haven’t read it, you might’ve seen or heard of the terrific 1944 film adaptation directed by Billy Wilder and co-scripted by Wilder and Raymond Chandler. The story concerns an insurance salesman, Walter Huff, who comes up with what he thinks to be the perfect plan for a murder. Walter is partly inspired by femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger, the woman whose husband stands to be the victim. The idea for the plot originates with Phyllis, although it is Walter who is the first to articulate the idea out loud. And it is Walter who ultimately hatches the scheme to kill her husband and recover a large insurance claim for “accidental” death (i.e., double indemnity).

I say Walter is partly inspired by Phyllis, because the way I read the novel he seems even more motivated by the cynicism he’s developed after fifteen years in the insurance business. Having been so intimately involved with the business, he thinks he knows how to crack it. In fact, Huff has come to believe that insurance isn’t a “business” at all, but “the biggest gambling wheel in the world.” It’s all an elaborate game, he’s realized. “You bet that your house will burn down, they bet that it won’t, that’s all,” as he puts it. Some try to cheat the game, but they usually get caught. Indeed, Huff has learned all of their tricks, seeing all of the “awful things that people had pulled to crook the wheel” in their favor. All of which has led Huff to adopt a pretty dim view of human nature.

It isn’t just the insurance business that’s a game to Huff. It’s life itself. There are those who control the game -- life’s croupiers, so to speak -- and the rest of us suckers who are merely players. “If you don’t understand that,” says Huff, “go to Monte Carlo or some other place where there’s a big casino, sit at a table, and watch the face of the man that spins the little ivory ball. After you’ve watched it a while, ask yourself how much he would care if you went out and plugged yourself in the head. His eyes might drop when he heard the shot, but it wouldn’t be from worry whether you lived or died. It would be to make sure you didn’t leave a bet on the table, that he would have to cash for your estate. No, he wouldn’t care. Not that baby.”

Here Huff instinctively employs the metaphor of an unfeeling casino to describe a cutthroat world where everyone is in it for him or herself. Some real-life casinos live up (or down) to this characterization. On a recent episode of Bluff Poker Radio, host Nick Geber told a story about having witnessed the untimely demise of an elderly female slots player at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Geber then invited callers to phone in similar “crazy casino” stories. The first caller described an episode at the Tropicana in Atlantic City where he saw a player having what appeared to be a heart attack at the poker table. The entire poker room was “freaking out” about what was happening, but that didn’t prevent the casino operators from following what sounded like standard procedure in such cases: “Long before any paramedics or any medical personnel got to the poker room, all of the security guards came into the poker room and locked down all of the dealer trays on every table . . . . That was the casino’s first response to this guy dying in the poker room -- to get in there and lock down every table.”

One encounters varying levels of treatment from online poker sites as well. There are still some good ones left for us American players, but the number is dwindling rapidly. You no doubt heard this week that Doyle’s Room has left the U.S. market. Interestingly, players at Doyle’s have been invited to transfer their accounts over to Full Tilt Poker. Saw something similar ten days ago when Tony G Poker decided it could no longer serve U.S. customers. Facing head-on what would have been a difficult, arduous procedure for American players to withdraw their funds, the site instructed players to transfer their funds to “Tony G” himself, then send an email to support listing their player IDs, the amount they had transferred, and the name of the poker site to which they’d like their money moved (UltimateBet, Full Tilt, or Poker Stars).

Both sites appear to be trying their best to do right by their customers. It has been reported that Doyle’s wasn’t exactly forced out of the U.S. market (not yet, anyway), but instead allowed Full Tilt to buy it out, customers and all. And I have no idea how smoothly (or roughly) the transfer of funds is going over at Tony G Poker -- I can’t imagine it has gone trouble-free. Still, it seems to me that here we we’re seeing two more customer-friendly sites pulling out of the U.S. market. We Americans still have a small number of sites (Stars, Full Tilt, Bodog, Absolute, UltimateBet, and with favorable reputations and acceptable customer service. Although these, too, are starting to feel the pinch thanks to dwindling payment options.

Such is an expected consequence of “prohibition” -- which is precisely what we’re being made to endure here. Trustworthy businesses (poker sites, third-party vendors) who actually concern themselves with running afoul of the law pull out, leaving the arena free for less savory types to take their place. How long before all of the legitimate sites go away, leaving us with less than reputable, fly-by-night outfits with attitudes resembling that of Huff’s Monte Carlo croupier?

Don’t ask me. Just another player, here.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great tie in with Double Indemnity.

Really sad and darkly humorous about the guy having a heart attack in the pokerroom and then have all the guards protect the chips.

Anyway, I play at Doyle's Room and am not happy about this change. But I think that's because I'm so used to the site's players and software. But the other part is I don't want to have to deal with deposit and withdraws.

2/21/2007 7:04 PM  
Blogger Swifty said...

A neat summary/analogy there.

Vanishing point marches ever closer.

2/22/2007 2:52 AM  

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