Perhaps you know Ernest Hemingway from having been assigned his short stories or novels in school. When it comes to American literature from the 1920s to 1950s, Hemingway is a prodigious figure and inescapable influence, his literary achievements scattered across numerous short stories, nonfiction essays, and novels.
Most often assigned were the novels. If you read at least one of them, it was likely either The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or The Old Man and the Sea.
That latter titled turned up a lot in classrooms, as I recall, in part because it is on the short side. It’s about an old fisherman’s desperate struggle to land a huge marlin and get it back home to take it to market. Poker players should like it, given the way it meditates on luck and bad streaks — the old man is on a terrible downswing when the story begins — vividly depicting an individual’s struggle in a way that recalls tribulations at the tables
Even if you haven’t read Hemingway, you’re probably familiar with him for other reasons, including his (often exaggerated) image as an emblem of rugged masculinity. That idea is derived in part from some of the subjects of his writings such as bullfighting, warfare, boxing, hunting, and fishing. It also comes from a larger-than-life existence filled with various anecdotes involving those pursuits and others such as drinking, smoking, womanizing, and — of course — gambling.
Hemingway was a dedicated gambler, with horse racing a particular favorite of his. He also played poker throughout his life, starting with secret (and forbidden) games when a kid growing up in Illinois. Later come stories of Hemingway having played poker with luminaries such as filmmaker John Huston and actor John Wayne.
A friend recently reminded me of a poker-related passage from Hemingway’s book A Moveable Feast, a memoir he wrote late in life and published after his death about living in Paris as a reporter and writer in the 1920s. It’s a book that dwells in part on the so-called “lost generation” of those who like Hemingway grew up during WWI (a phrase he employed in the epigraph of The Sun Also Rises.)
I had remembered horse racing from that book, but I’d forgotten the mention of a regular hotel poker game in Austria involving Hemingway and a disparate cast of characters including the hotel keeper, a banker, a ski instructor, the public prosecutor, and the local police captain. (The last two participants were good to have around, as gambling was illegal.)
I also remembered the famous quote by Hemingway about Paris that appears as that book’s epigraph and provides the title: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
You could say poker is similarly a “moveable feast,” a game that tends to stay with a lot of us, even when we aren’t playing.
One of Hemingway’s earliest short stories was about a poker game, in fact. Aged 19 and working as an ambulance driver in Italy during the latter stages of the First World War, Hemingway revised a story he’d written before about a crooked poker game with a twist ending.
The never-published tale climaxes with a three-way hand involving the narrator, a hustling card sharp, and a “pigeon” who the sharp is aiming to clean out. The narrator ends up folding his hand, then watching the sharp get his mark to put all his money in the middle. The cheater shows four kings, but the other player has four aces to win.
The twist comes when the narrator reveals he actually folded two pair, aces and kings. In other words, both of the players were card sharps.
A game like poker obviously fits well with Hemingway’s macho persona. Probably his most famous pronouncements about the game came amid his correspondence with another avid poker player, New Yorker staff writer Lillian Ross.
Ross wrote a famous and controversial profile of Hemingway for the magazine in 1950, one that did a lot to affect Hemingway’s image while also making Ross a kind of journalistic celebrity. The pair remained friends thereafter and wrote a number of letters back and forth, with Ross sharing details of their subsequent relationship much later in another profile written in 1999 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Hemingway’s birth.
“In our letters, we also discussed some of my enthusiasms,” explains Ross. “For example, he tutored me on the poker fundamentals.”
“Never call; either raise or throw down,” writes Ross, ostensibly quoting or at least paraphrasing Hemingway. “Play your good cards for keeps when you hold them and ride out your bad ones. Also, don’t come in on every pot.”
There are a lot of good recommendations packed in those three short sentences. Ross is the author, though it’s obvious she’s mimicking Hemingway’s own way of delivering the advice. She evokes a hallmark of Hemingway’s much-imitated prose style — the pithy phrase that succinctly conveys much information and insight.
Be judicious with your starting hand selection, he’s telling her. Value bet your strong hands. Be disciplined and able to let go of poor holdings. And, perhaps most importantly, understand that aggression generally serves you better than passivity.
Raise or fold, don’t just call. That’s the poker advice that most suitably fits the Hemingway persona.
“5-Card Fiction” is an ongoing series examining fictional poker hands from film, television, and elsewhere. Have a favorite fictional poker game or hand you’d like to see discussed? Tweet your suggestions @PokerStarsBlog.
Images: “Hemingway working on his book For Whom the Bell Tolls at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, in December 1939” (adapted), public domain; “Ernest Hemingway fishing, Key West, 1928,” public domain.