Chips that pass in the night
Part of Jewish Book Week, an online discussion looks at kosher poker... and literature. Dan Carrier shows his hand
25 March, 2021 — By Dan Carrier
IT was an extraordinary hand. The late Hampstead-based writer and poker player Al Alvarez had been invited to one last game at the home of playwright Patrick Marber.
It was to be his last face-to-face session with friends before he became too frail to join them – and there, in his possession, were four aces.
Discussing poker, literature and Jewish culture at this year’s Jewish Book Week, author Peter Alson, playwright Patrick Marber and writer Shelley Rubinstein discussed their fascination with the poker table.
“I got know Al Alvarez through [poker player and author] Anthony Holden,” recalls Patrick.
“Al came to see my play Dealer’s Choice and I knew about his work. I adored him.
“I started a game for him in my flat on a Tuesday night, and this one evening, which turned out to be the last game he played in, saw about 25 of us there.
“He got four aces – an absolutely extraordinary hand – but… then I got a royal straight flush. It too is an extraordinary hand – and is even better than four aces.
“I bust Al out – it was an awful feeling, seeing him leave the room. I felt very guilty later, thinking this was his last game with us.”
Patrick, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of the Belsize Park-set film Notes On A Scandal, revealed he had long been fascinated by poker and it prompted him to write Dealer’s Choice 25 years ago. It enjoyed a West End run with the late Kentish Town actor Roger Lloyd Pack in the cast – and Patrick revealed he would often join Roger and the actors after a show for a poker session.
He said: “I thought at first it was wrong for the playwright to play cards with actors – but it has been fun. It is a great way to get to know the cast. The problem was, I did not want to take too much money off them by winning, and I did not want to lose either.”
He added learning the nuances of Texas Hold ’Em helped them perform.
He said: “They are forced to co-operate and learn the game together. This communal activity tends to bind.”
And Patrick believes his play shows how even for those who have no interest in playing poker, the game holds an enduring fascination.
He said: “When Dealer’s Choice was first on, I said to the producers, we have to market this at the casinos – the gamblers will love it.
“He said: ‘Dear boy, gamblers like gambling. They do not like going to the theatre.’ He was absolutely right. Instead, the play reached a mainstream audience.”
The three writers discussed whether they recognised cultural traits while playing.
“It is curious from an ethical stand point,” said Alson.
“It is an unethical game where you lie, cheat and deceive your opponents – it breaks the Ten Commandments.
“I am not observant and I feel no surprise I was drawn to poker – but I play in lots of games with Orthodox Jews.”
Patrick said he was first dealt a hand because of his lack of sporting prowess.
He said: “It’s not a sport as such, but it is a sport we can do while eating, drinking and talking. There is a lot to admire in that.”
Alson – the nephew of Norman Mailer, to whom he taught poker and revealed he roundly beat – has written poker-based non-fiction and fiction. His novel, The Only Way To Play, is set in New York’s underground card scene. Gambling is still illegal in New York, so poker fans have to find games in homes – or access the shady world of gambling dens, an experience Alson is well versed in and shared with Shelley Rubinstein as she visited the Big Apple.
He said: “I like to think Talmudic scholarship is all about interpretation – and poker hands are the same way.
“Players are always discussing hands and how to play them – there is no right way of doing things. It’s a subject open to interpretation, second guessing and lively discussion. Perhaps that is why we enjoy it so much.”