Friday, December 29, 2017

Poker and Bluffing in Alas, Babylon

We’ve had a pretty good month here on the farm. Elsewhere, too, as earlier this month I made another trip over to Prague for the latest PokerStars tournament series.

As you might have heard, after a one-year trial with the different branding they’re bringing back the old “EPT,” “LAPT,” and “APPT” designations in 2018. Next month I’ll be back in the Bahamas as well where they’re going back to calling it the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, or “PCA,” which should be another fun trip.

Meanwhile the holidays were good and I’ve had a chance to do a little reading for pleasure.

I’ve had about three different novel ideas fighting for space in my jingle-brain these last few months, all of which could be referred to as “near future sci-fi.” As a result I’ve been reading (and rereading) some older SF, including some post-apocalyptic fiction imagining various civilization-concluding events and the aftermath. One of my ideas would involve something analogus to that type of story, although I’m finding myself a little overwhelmed by the idea of constructing something on that large scale.

One book I’ve enjoyed here lately is the famous post-apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank from 1959, one of those overt “cautionary tales” of the Cold War that tries to depict the consequences of nuclear war.

Frank was primarily a journalist, I believe, who wrote for a number of newspapers while also doing some consulting for some governmental bureaus. In terms of fiction he wrote some plays and a few novels, including another Cold War thriller called Forbidden Area (1956). He also authored a nonfiction manual called How To Survive the H Bomb And Why (1962).

Frank is quite gifted (I think) when it comes to creating believable characters and situations, and if you like stories in this vein Alas, Babylon is an easy book to recommend.

There’s a well-managed episode early in the book in which Frank incorporates poker into the story as a way both to introduce a minor character and rapidly provide some context for a brief conflict. The scene involves the book’s protagonist Randy Bragg and a banker named Edgar Quisenberry.

Randy’s brother Mark, a colonel in the Air Force, has given Randy advance warning that the Cold War may be about to turn hot. Mark arranges to have his family stay with Randy down in Florida, away from the base in Nebraska which would be one of many likely targets of a Soviet strike. Mark also gives Randy a check for $5,000, thus necessitating the visit to the bank.

We’re told the banker Quisenberry bears some sort of grudge against the Bragg family, a tidbit that adds suspense to Randy’s visit as we wonder whether or not Quisenberry might find reason to refuse to cash the check. Then comes the explanation for the grudge -- the brothers’ father, a politician referred to as Judge Bragg, once humiliated Quisenberry following a hand of pot-limit five-card draw.

Frank describes the hand well, one involving Quisenberry folding three aces after a pot-sized raise by Judge Bragg following the draw. Desirous to know if he’d been bluffed, Quisenberry grabbed the judge’s mucked cards and turned them over to find he’d had three sevens.

“Don’t ever touch my cards again, you son of a bitch,” the judge says very quietly in response to his opponent’s etiquette-breaching behavior. “If you do, I’ll break a chair over your head.”

Not only did Quisenberry lose the hand, but he lost face, too, with Judge Bragg adding some salt to the wound with an end-of-the-night parting shot in which he called Quisenberry “a tub of rancid lard” and “a bore and a boor... [who] forgets to ante.”

Years later, the banker tries to exact some revenge by making Randy twist a bit before cashing his $5,000 check. But Randy manages to make Quisenberry eager to cash the check after saying that “Mark asked me to make a bet for him,” thereby leading the banker into mistakenly thinking Randy is about to share a horse racing tip with him.

Once Randy has the money, he reveals the bet isn’t on horses, but on something else. “Mark is simply betting that checks won’t be worth anything, very shortly, but cash will,” Randy explains obliquely before leaving.

Unwilling to believe in any impending threat to the country’s financial structure, “Edgar reached a conclusion. He had been tricked and bluffed again. The Braggs were scoundrels, all of them.”

There’s something very nimble about the inclusion of the scene and the use of poker. By that early point in the novel, chess had already been mentioned as a kind of an analogue for nuclear brinksmanship. But by then it’s already clear as well that the “game” being played between the superpowers involves a lot bluffing, too.

Indeed, at that point in history, many others were making the same point about Cold War being like a poker game in various ways -- see “Chess vs. Poker in the Cold War: Planning Ahead vs. Reacting to the Last Hand” for more discussion along those lines.

Reading a little more deeply, the way Quisenberry loses the hand and is subsequently shamed could be related to Cold War diplomacy, too. After all, a big part of such interactions concerned finding ways for an opponent to “lose” a pot without losing face -- the Cuban Missile Crisis a couple of years later would be a most dramatic example of that.

As I say, I’m not sure about whether I want to try to stage a large-scale post-apocalyptic story or not. Of course, Frank’s example with Alas, Babylon shows how it’s very possible to tell such a tale while narrowing one’s scope to focus on just a few relatable characters -- kind of like how a single hand of poker can become emblematic of an entire session (or player, even).

Meanwhile, if you got an Amazon gift card for Christmas and are looking for something to use it on, consider my last novel, Obsessica, available both in paperback and as an e-book.

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