Penguin Publishing Author’s Blog
I've gotten myself booked on a literary radio talk show where recent topics have included contemporary poetry, a book on the Weimer Republic, genocide, and the recent Eliot Spitzer scandal. To say that 52 Ways to Cheat at Poker doesn't fit the format is a bit of an understatement, which is why I’ve decided to go literary myself, and talk about the book via mythology, folklore, and the commonalities among deceivers.
The central idea is that card cheats and con men, especially the professionals, share attributes with mythic and folkloric tricksters, like Anansi, the spider god of Africa, Coyote of Native American lore, and the wily Odysseus in the Greek tradition. All trickster energy is creative energy. It's also problem-solving energy, directed at the immediate goal of getting the sweet, winning the war, taking down the pot, tricking crow into dropping the grape into sly fox's mouth. Trickster is shameless, greedy, and amoral and will do whatever it takes to win the prize. This naturally gives him an edge over those who take a more blinkered approach to life. Nothing is out of bounds for trickster because there are no boundaries. Which is why trickster figures are often described as liminal figures who move easily between one world and the next; just as card cheats and con men live double lives, straddling the straight world with its rules and conventions and the underworld where rules are for suckers.
"Give me an effect," said the great English magician David Devant, "and I'll figure out a way to do it." Thinking magicians attack magical problems from all angles, devising multiple solutions and then choosing the best method for the conditions at hand. Card cheats attack the rules of the game in the same way, seeing how many ways the rules can be subverted. That explains why there are so many ingenious solutions to the same basic problems: how do you overcome the cut, how do you shuffle without changing the order of the cards, how do you discover what cards your opponent holds?
I don't mean to glamorize the inventive powers of cheats, but there's no denying it. Trickster skills are universal. The ability to deceive seems to be hardwired, an evolutionary artifact or a gift of the gods, depending on your point of view. Kids discover how to cheat and lie around the age of five. Chimps engage in deceptive behavior; in captivity they will lure a human close to the bars of the cage and then spit water on them, or worse. Dogs and birds fake injuries.
We all possess an inner trickster. That's why we enjoy books and movies which feature virtuoso displays of deception: The Sting, Oceans 11, House of Games. It's not only the cleverness of the scam that appeals, but also an appreciation of the multiple levels of reality that are being played out simultaneously. And there's also the pleasure of putting one over on the man.
Card cheats have been at it for more than 400 years and have come up with some very diabolical thinking—like how to get the victim of a scam to supply the marked cards that lead to his undoing. This is not unlike Odysseus tricking the Trojans into pulling the wooden horse inside the walls of Ilium.
This could be an interesting show.