They say the devil is in the details. The one story that I did the most research for and put most thought into was The Gambler. Of course, I wanted the terminology to be as accurate to the game of poker as possible, and so, not being a poker player of any sort, I delved into some history of the game. I turned to sites on poker terminology, read up on a few historical games, gambling houses, etc. There are numerous references to the game, though these appear as part of the environment, rather than a game of poker itself.
The narration of the story is third person omniscient, with a touch of subjectivity. It isn’t my most common, but yes, my favorite narrative style. I enjoy a crass and perhaps ironic narrator who may at times interject a word or two on the story being narrated. I’ve already pointed to one of my favorite lines of the story here, which pretty much exemplifies the narrator.
The story begins with Jack “…making a killing up on fifth and 28th.” There is a history behind that location, as it was the scene of an illegal gambling hall in NYC some 10 or so years ago. There was a shooting at the hall, which really shook up the underground gambling scene in New York. The New York Times article reads:
One player, Frank DeSena, a former math professor from New Jersey who was a familiar and well-liked presence on the poker club scene, was killed by an intruder’s shotgun.
It was actually Frank DeSena that I partially based Jack’s character on, as the mathematical card counting shark who, it turns out, had a costly bit of bad luck. Though he was well liked, the fact of Frank’s death inspired some possibility that this might not be the case. But this needn’t affect the interpretation of my story, as I won’t reveal whether Jack bites it.
Meeting the Devil
As the story began to appear before me, it took on new and darker undertones. A deathly figure emerged, perhaps death, maybe the devil, perhaps something else. The meeting of this character with Jack itself required some knowledge of New York City subway lines. The meeting had to be in some way realistic, explainable, and perfectly plausible. Very unlikely, but within the bounds of real chance that such a meeting could take place. From Fifth and 28th, the F train to Brooklyn has a stop at equal distance, so that Jack could take either one. I do not explain his choice, but it is a fateful one.
What’s In A Name
Jack Scrivner Ashley’s name is a combination of elements. Jack is obviously derived from the cards themselves. I mention Jack’s eyes three times, that he has two good ones, implying he isn’t a one-eyed jack. Scrivner is a play on the occupation of Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville. In it, we find the narrator (not Bartleby himself) to be an indecisive and ambivalent individual, so much so that he cannot take a stand against another man, Bartleby’s, decisive, almost robotic behavior. I found this ambivalence, in the presence of someone so certain about what he will and will not, to be a key quality of Jack’s personality and, combined with his mathematical nature derived from the late Frank DeSena, became an individual who both had deep knowledge of odds, yet found himself in the predicament of still being quite indecisive. This would lead in some cases to his habit of small occasions of cheating. The opening lines of The Gambler are a modification of the first two lines of Bartleby, the Scrivener, in which we read:
I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners.
Mine reads as follows:
Jack Scrivner Ashley was a fairly young guy. The nature of his occupation―he was a grinder―for the past eight years had brought him into the company of many a shady creature, none of whom would compare however with the man who would raise the stakes of an old poker game so high as his life.
His last name is Ashley, of course. This comes from Thornton Wilder’s great work, The Eighth Day, in which John Ashley is blamed for the murder of his best friend, Breckinridge Lansing. John also happens to be a mathematician of sorts, as well as a gambler. I just loved reading of this character and the circumstances of his life. In fact, Thornton Wilder’s work has had quite an influence on my writing, not alone in this particular story. We read in chapter two of The Eighth Day:
Ashley needed money… For the first two hours Ashley neither won nor lost; toward four in the morning he would occasionally have a sudden run of luck. When he resorted to cheating it was with limited ambition and great circumspection.
What a wonderful line this is, and upon reading it, the personality of Jack was complete. And so was his name. The devil, if he be one, remains nameless however.