Saturday, November 12, 2011

Raymond Chandler & Poker

Some time ago I wrote a post in which I referred to a quote about poker I often see erroneously attributed to the great hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler. The quote has Chandler professing that “poker is as elaborate waste of human intelligence as you could find outside an advertising agency.” Pops up all over the intertubes. Even saw it in print once -- on page 26 of a book with the silly title Poker Wit and Wisdom: Everything You’ll Never Need to Know About Poker.

As I explained in that earlier post, the line refers to something Chandler’s private detective, Philip Marlowe, utters in his next-to-last novel, The Long Goodbye (1953). And it doesn’t have anything to do with poker at all.

During a quiet interlude in the middle of a case in which he’s been hired to track down a missing husband, Marlowe is described pulling out a chess board to reenact famous championship matches. Some mental calisthenics for an over-active mind unable to rest. Marlowe describes himself completing one such match, which he characterizes as “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.”

So it’s chess (not poker) that Marlowe (not Chandler) lightheartedly dismisses as a fruitless enterprise.

At the time I said I wasn’t aware of any specific references by Chandler to poker. I knew then that none of his seven novels included any memorable instances, although I was aware that Marlowe does find it necessary to visit the occasional “dime-and-dice” gambling establishment from time to time. Since then I’ve happened to run across a couple of poker references in Chandler short stories, both fairly incidental.

There’s a casual allusion to poker at the beginning of “Killer in the Rain” (1935) when a character is described having “arranged five century notes like a light poker hand.” Another pops up on the last page of the excellent “Red Wind” (1938). That’s the story with that famous, much-referred-to opening paragraph that gets quoted a lot as the epitome of Chandler’s hard-boiled style:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen . . . .”

That passage foreshadows the story of blackmail and murder that follows. (Some chess in that one, too, actually.) In the story’s closing moments, Marlowe refers to a deceased character as a “four-flusher” as a way of confirming his idea about the dead man’s character. (He was a bluffer.)

Finally, I came across one more reference, this time in a letter Chandler wrote to Charles Morton. Morton was the editor at the Atlantic Monthly who once asked Chandler to write an article about detective fiction. Eventually Chander would write the article, which was published in December 1944 under the title “The Simple Art of Murder.” Still a great introduction to the tradition to which Chandler contributed so significantly.

Before that article was published, Chandler and Morton exchanged a few letters discussing other article ideas, including one Chandler refers to as “an article of studied insult about the Bay City (Santa Monica) police.” Writing about that idea to Morton, Chandler relates in detail a true story of the Bay City police getting a tip about a “chip and bone parlor” (i.e., a gambling hall) over in nearby Ocean Park. Chandler tells how the police succeeded in closing the place down, and “several alleged gamblers were tossed into the sneezer and the equipment seized for evidence (a truckload of it).” (Does this scenario sound at all familiar?)

The next day, however, when the District Attorney’s men arrived to survey the evidence, “everything had disappeared but a few handfuls of white poker chips. The locks had not been tampered with, and no trace could be found of the truck or driver. The flatfeet [the cops] shook their grizzled polls in bewilderment and the investigators went back to town to hand the Jury the story. Nothing will ever come it. Nothing ever does. Do you wonder why I love Bay City?”

Chandler concludes that a “real clinical study of such a town would be fascinating reading.”

Again, not a lot here to go on as far as determining Chandler’s ideas regarding poker, although I think it is relatively clear from his tone that Chandler doesn’t think cops busting “chip and bone parlors” are all that vital to maintaining a stable, functioning society.

No . . . there’s a lot of other stuff happening that’s way more important than that. Like what happens when those Santa Ana winds start to blow . . . .



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