Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Detour: Four Years of Hard-Boiled Poker

Title screen for 'Detour' (1945)Four years ago today I decided to start a poker blog. Was pretty much a total whim. I’d been playing online for a while, had read a number of books, and was following a few different magazines and news sites. Was also starting to listen to poker podcasts, was spending some time reading around in the forums, and had begun to visit some of the other poker blogs.

At the time, many of those poker blogs seemed to take the “journal” approach of chronicling one’s own progress as a poker player. Lots of hand histories and discussions, along with reports on how much the player/blogger was up or down. Some would include anecdotes and other fun poker-related stuff, too. And a few would diverge entirely from poker to discuss just about anything of interest to the writer -- e.g., an update on the writer’s relationship status, a review of a movie recently seen, a report from a recent vacation, what have you.

It was clear there were many ways to go when it came to poker blogs. Having little clue which way I’d be heading, I thought it would be fun to try one myself.

'Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories,' ed. Pronzini and AdrianAs I say, it truly was a whim. The title of the blog came to me at the end of no more than five minutes of meditation on the decision, inspired by an anthology on my bookshelf, Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian. I’d long been a fan of those stories and writers, guys like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, James M. Cain, and so forth. And when it came to writing myself, most of my attempts at fiction had been in the same vein -- including a draft of what eventually became my novel, Same Difference.

So when I thought of writing, I thought “hard-boiled.” And there seemed a reasonable connection between poker and these sort of detective stories. All poker players are detectives, more or less, right? Some very good, some hopelessly inadequate. And every hand is a sort of miniature mystery with its own dramatic arc of exposition, climax, and resolution. Some potential there, I thought.

The “Shamus” character was also pretty much an on-the-spot-type invention. A “shamus” is a detective. My understanding is that it’s a slang term that originated early in the 20th century, probably first used with reference to New York City cops, some of whom were of Irish descent. It’s an Americanization of the popular Irish name “Seamus.”

Some have wanted to argue that the word also has a connection with the Yiddish word “shammes” which comes from the Hebrew “shamash” or a synagogue beadle. The idea there is that the beadle -- a parish officer -- is a person who knows everyone and thus is a good one to go to for information about what is going on (i.e., like a detective). I’ve always thought that was a bit of a stretch, but there could be something there.

In any event, writers of hard-boiled fiction picked up the word and routinely used it to refer to their detective protagonists. Comes up in the movies a lot, too. Go watch the beginning of The Big Sleep, where Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) introduces himself to Carmen Sternwood by saying “I’m a shamus.”

So I started the blog, and in fact thought early on I’d try to write “in character” and employ more of that hard-boiled lingo in my little first-person narratives of my pokery adventures. Found it hard to keep that up, though, and so soon settled into a voice that came a little closer to my actual self.

Poster for 'Detour' (1945)However, as part of that “character” I was creating, I decided to borrow the mug of Tom Neal as Al Roberts in the 1945 noir film Detour. Shot in less than a week for practically nothing (around $20,000 say most), the movie tells the story of Al’s efforts to hitchhike across the country to meet up with his fiancee, though as the title suggests those efforts get sidetracked along the way.

Lean and mean, I recommend this 68-minute gritty marvel directed by Edgar G. Ulmer every chance I get. I liked Neal’s look in the film (I mean, really, doesn’t the poor sap look like he’s short-stacked?). Additionally, the film is in the public domain, which made me less hesitant to borrow them there images. That also means Detour can be easily found online, if you are curious to see it.

I also soon decided I didn’t want exclusively to write about my own low limit struggles. There was a lot else of interest happening in poker. Indeed, not long after I began the blog, we were all blindsided by that Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, and for a short while there I actually thought I wouldn’t even be able to play online poker anymore. Suddenly there were other topics to discuss, and somewhere in there I came up with the different “sections” (On the Street, The Rumble, Shots in the Dark, High Society, and By the Book) for which I’d write.

Those first six months or so I had very few readers, and even though I got a great deal of enjoyment from writing, I did wonder sometimes why I even bothered. Vera Valmore encouraged me to continue with it, though, and so bears a lot of responsibility for my having kept at the sucker.

After a year or so I’d picked up a few more readers, and soon after that got the chance to do some poker writing for other sites, too. Then came an invitation to go cover the World Series of Poker (in 2008), something I described to many at the time as one of those “life detours” I never really would have expected even a few months before.

Shamus loosens his tieOther opportunities came along, and now I find myself about to head back to the WSOP for a third time. There’s been another significant development, too. For a variety of reasons -- this here freelance writing career being just one of them -- I’ve decided to move on from the current “day job” to pursue other possible futures, most of which involve doing a lot more writing.

Not quite at the moment of official transition yet, so I won’t go into other specifics. But the decision has been made. I’ve put on the turn signal. Just waiting for that green light and I’ll be going down a different road.

It has been apparent to me for a while now how that choice of the film Detour to help flesh out the blog’s motif has turned out to be weirdly prophetic, given that Hard-Boiled Poker has itself had a lot to do with the change in direction I’m now taking. Am excited, for sure. And a bit anxious, too. But again, I’ve encouragement from Vera. And, less directly, from many others, too, including all of you who have stopped by here from time to time.

So thanks again, everybody. Will let you know where this detour leads.

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Blogger Pauly said...

Happy blog birthday!

4/28/2010 11:00 AM  
Blogger Cardgrrl said...

Exciting and interesting news... I look forward to hearing all the details!

4/28/2010 1:44 PM  
Blogger bellatrix78 said...

Congratulations on going strong (and stronger) after 4 years, can't say that about many, many blogs out there.

4/28/2010 2:24 PM  
Blogger BWoP said...

Happy blogiversary!

I wish you all the best as you travel down your new path.

4/28/2010 2:45 PM  
Blogger Angry_Bert said...

Congrats Shamus! On the blog-iversary & on the upcoming change in direction. I've always enjoyed your musings...Keep it up & good luck!


4/28/2010 2:51 PM  
Blogger Julius_Goat said...

Well done sir.

4/28/2010 5:30 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Happy Anniversary to you/your blog! I look forward to following your journey as you change course. :)

4/28/2010 6:08 PM  
Blogger Irongirl01 said...

congrats on the blogiversary Shamus!! I always look forward to your insight.

Best wishes on the new journey you are about to embark on.

And of course looking forward to your updates from the WSOP.

4/28/2010 10:31 PM  
Blogger OhCaptain said...

Happy blogaversary! It's been a joy watching this blog grow over the years. I've very much enjoyed the ride. Congrats on the detour, I look forward to seeing where it leads.

4/28/2010 11:51 PM  
Blogger MacAnthony said...

GL, sir. You have always been one of my favorite poker bloggers and I look forward to following any of your future endeavors.

4/29/2010 1:25 AM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Big big thanks, everybody!

4/30/2010 5:51 PM  

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