Independent Pursuits: Gambling

INSIDE EVERY poker player a monologue is going on, beneath the surface of the game. It's a kind of inner reflection on your state of play - the mistakes you made, how you feel about the other players and how they are doing, the equation of getting back to even or hanging on to some notional figure of profit - elusive, personal things that are not really related to the cards and hands as such.

The troubadour of this inner discourse of poker, reciting these fleeting, funny, often painful thoughts like a song-line, is a young American writer named Jesse May. His novel Shut up and Deal is like a stream of consciousness about the game, rather than a story with a plot .

"Yeah, everybody's got their own ideas about keeping a ledger, but one thing's in common - they're personal. I mean a guy might say to you, Yeah, I'm ahead 20,000 this month, or, I lost six plays in a row, or, I've had pocket aces hold up 16 times running, but you're never gonna see that ledger. People keep it to prove to themselves that they should keep playing, that they're ahead. Keep it under their pillow to consult like a Bible on those dark and stormy nights. Like anything on paper is gonna make sense of the chaos of the gambling world, when your stomach jumps in your mouth and your heart's a-pounding..."

And so on. Like many first novels, this is clearly an autobiographical piece - many of the characters in it can be identified as players on the professional circuit. What gives it its special interest is the sweet- and-sour insight it conveys of the poker life, the ups and down (mostly downs) of the emotional switchback seriously addicted players endure. They suffer and, like religious martyrs, they embrace their suffering.

A few years after getting into the poker life, Mickey, the "hero" of the story finds himself with the same guys he started out playing against. "I mean they got different faces and accents and all but I'm sitting with 'em and now they take all my money and laugh loudly at my expense and say as long as I'm around they'll never go broke... I don't know what level I'm on. I just know that I crossed a line somewhere... I'm left sitting alone at the table. Big loser."

Mickey's aim is to survive, with money to play. To him, that's all that's important. It's the only thing. I think there is more to poker than Mickey realises, but his account is a compelling read.

`Shut Up and Deal' by Jesse May (Anchor Books, $12.95)