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I’m willing to bet that Katy Lederer is the first (and last) person to make a living at both erotic verse and Texas hold ’em. Or at least I hope she is. After watching endless hours of guilty-pleasure TV hit The World Series of Poker and whipping through the card-playing poet’s deliciously cutthroat new memoir, Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers, I’m fairly certain that no one would ever want to read the boudoir couplets of such surly, nicotine-stained sharps as the author’s chief adversary, Mealy Joe, whose “skin resembled oatmeal, a yellow sort of brown, pocked on his cheeks and his neck by old acne scars.”
With an every-teeny-detail gift for recollection, Lederer checks and calls a casino’s-worth of characters here, and she continues to engage these (mostly) men flushing (and straighting) their lives away long after the rest of us would have left the table—and then checked if our wallets were still there. But her obsession with sketchy, single-minded gamers—what makes them raise, what makes them fold, what makes them push large sums of money across swaths of felt—stems from a desire significantly stronger than writerly curiosity or even the chance to win big. The youngest member of a family obsessed with games (card, con, head, and so on), Lederer anted up to find out just what had happened to her father, mother, brother, and sister—all of whom suffered setbacks at the hands of a dealer—and just what makes her feel so different.
“If money was what kept us at a distance from one another, then the playing of games was what brought us together,” she writes early on, of the time her as-yet-unsplintered family was barely squeaking by at the East Coast boarding school where her father taught English. “When all five of us gathered at the sticky pine table to play cards (our favorites were Hearts and Oh, Hell), I’d almost always lose, but I didn’t really mind….This was as close as the family ever got…”
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Once the games were over, however, things got chilly in the Lederers’ full house. When they were students at Harvard, Lederer’s parents had “fallen in love over a game of cards”—a meet-cute story since saddled with a somber footnote. As her father, consumed with the hobby of dreaming up puns and palindromes, sequestered himself in his study, her mother, a failed actress but a successful alcoholic, played endless hands of solitaire (she would “shuffle and cry”), watched umpteen hours of game shows, and finished the New York Times Sunday crossword “in twenty minutes.”
Meanwhile, sister Annie and brother Howard, seven and nine years older than Katy, respectively, would go to their separate, quiet corners as well, not so much playing cards as studying them, counting them—and already figuring out how kings and queens could bring them substantially more money than they filched from their mother’s “worn-out leather satchel.” When Katy entered her sibs’ domains, the cold Annie and the shifty Howard would swat her away. Lederer’s warmest non-card-playing moments back then—besides animating a doll she pretended was deaf—were covert booze runs with her mother, who would later ask her daughter to fib about the missions during the inevitable end-in-tears family battles.
Both biting and poignant, and with a tough-gal hipness that belies her penchant for loin-quivering verse, Lederer’s recollections of her younger years are reminiscent of Mary Karr’s award-winning, family-blasting The Liar’s Club—although Lederer seems to have an additional agenda item. “Our parents didn’t much care whether or not we got good grades in school. Winning at games was what mattered,” she writes in one of her more reproachful moments. Besides having the fantastical whiff of a twisted fairy-tale—parents who pooh-pooh school and celebrate playtime!—that sure sounds like the slap-in-the-face musings of a youngest, neediest child begging for attention. But if Lederer has her me-me-me moments—reading about her hypochondria is tedious, but not as yawn-inducing as learning about her love of test-taking—she’s also bright enough to know that she is by far the least interesting person in her brood.
She’s also well-aware that most of her readers are there, first and foremost, for the gambling. Although she essentially accuses her mother and father of fostering an environment where emotional uplift could only be had via a deck of 52, Lederer saves her harshest glare for big bro Howard, who would eventually become the family’s makeshift patriarch—and who drives the second-half of Poker Face, when the action moves mainly to the tables. An obese man with “vestigial breasts” and a penchant for getting arrested, Howard turned down college to live on a couch in a New York City’s bookmaker’s office, snorting enough coke so that he could play 72 straight hours of poker and simultaneously lay coin on as many football games as possible. When losses started turning into wins—and a drug-free Howard set up his own betting parlor—he lured his mother to the Big Apple. Away from the ho-hum life of her husband, she believed, she could finally become an actress. Instead, she finally became her son’s accountant.
Katy’s brother “was a believer in luck then, luck, which resembles nothing more than a mangled version of hope.” When Howard—looking at all facets of life in terms of how much money can be made—moved his odds-taking operation to Las Vegas, where he could play cards and bet sports without Johnny Law breathing down his neck, sister Annie, kids and hubby in tow, opted to join him. Torn between the scholarly wishes of her father—now utterly alone and punning to cover the pain—and the “perky novelty and lavish materiality” of Sin City, Katy attended Berkeley and the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, but spent her summers and holidays with her family in casinos. She knew she wanted to be a poet and yet found herself drawn, like her siblings, to the bright lights of the Strip: “I stood at the brink of the casino floor, the lights and dings of the slot machine ringing gaudy in my ears, the cranks of roulette wheels spinning and spinning. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel lied to.”
That’s a great line, and it nicely sets up the book’s last 100 pages, which work as both a deliciously sordid travelogue of glittery casinos and smoke-choked poker rooms and an amusing Texas hold-’em tutorial. Blessed with a gift for spotting people’s tells—and flirting with the idea of following her sibs into the profession—Lederer got her gaming education via the hands of such colorful adversaries as the Dragon Lady, who
played for keeps. Not that she would really play. She would mostly just wait, her hand moving mechanically from the ashtray to her mouth, her eyes staring coolly at the baize. She was careful, to a fault, and whenever she threw down a $1 chip, you knew what she was holding. Aces, kings, or queens.
And then, of course, there’s Mealy Joe, who, in the book’s most whiz-bang bit of poker play-by-play, sets up a cocky Lederer with a series of bluff hands—buying consecutive pots with nothing but a sinister smile. Then he makes her head hurt and her wallet sting with a nasty hand of one-on-one hold ’em that ends with a killer twist—and Lederer rethinking her career options.
At a little more than 200 airy pages, Poker Face succeeds as quick, juicy read; as a tool for Gamblers Anonymous, it fails miserably. Its ultimate lesson is: If you’re good, it pays to play. With lush mansions in Vegas and routine appearances on ESPN and the Learning Channel, Howard and Annie are now two of the best (and richest) poker players in the world, capable of making millions of dollars in just one weekend at the tables. Even Lederer’s parents got arguably happy endings: Her father is now the author of several mind-tickling books, including such titles as The Circus of Words, and her mother, after years in front of the tube, scored an appearance on a popular TV game show—finally winning that modicum of fame.
Lacking the break-or-be-broke mentality to gobble up an opponent’s last penny, the author herself ultimately decided to give up cards and pursue poetry. (A collection of her naughty verse is titled Winter Sex.) But not before poker—has there ever been a more guileful game?—blessed her with a comforting denouement. In a clever aside, she offers a rather romanticized link between the gambling life (her family) and the writing life (herself):
When things are going well, all is cheerful and bright in the world, but when things are going badly, a glumness comes to dominate the atmosphere….No matter the fluctuations in outcome or mood, however, the absolute worst thing imaginable is to never again be in action, to never again write a word; that would be like death, which, no matter what your stake or expectation, is infinitely worse than waiting for your luck to turn.
Who knows what her family will think of Poker Face, but one way or another, lil’ Katy has finally gotten her say. CP