A sawdust joint is an end-of-the line kind of gambling parlor. It's a place without frills and pretension.This column will be about gambling and gamblers; about regular people who play games for money. Most won't be geniuses or savants. Some will win a little money. Many will lose a lot. But all of them will have a good sawdust story to tell.
Photo by the author
It was well past midnight when we pulled into the parking lot of a Greek diner on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. We had been driving around most of the night in search of a gin game that Josh heard about from a guy he played backgammon with in Bryant Park. It was supposed to be a modest game, a bunch of MaBSTOA guys who got together at this underground poker room once a week to play gin for a nickel a point. That sounds like chump change, but in gin it can add up to hundreds of dollars a hand.
It had been years since either of us had done anything like this. I figured our days of chasing action around the city were behind us—spending the night in strange industrial spaces playing cards with even stranger people, asking guys to vouch for us, yelling into intercom boxes that we know so-and-so and we’ve shot pool with so-and-so, late-night phone calls telling us that the game is really wild right now and get down here fast. We were adults now. We gambled like squares—out in the open in a smoke-filled racino, or huddled over a computer late at night like creepy perverts. This outing had proved that we had lost the ability to sniff out underground games, and this diner would be the site of our surrender. We corralled a booth, ordered eggs and coffee, stuck the knock card in an empty glass, and dealt the cards.
“Penny a point?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“You ever been to this place before?”
As a matter of fact, I had.
The Gambler’s Book Shop in Las Vegas is a modest little store, but it is filled with every kind of media on every gambling-related topic you could imagine. You can buy a DVD that teaches you how to control the roll of a die. You can buy a photocopied booklet that teaches you how to master Chinese Poker. Josh and I have taken many cab rides from the Strip out to the Gambler’s Book Shop over the years and have built up a couple of decent-sized gambling libraries of our own. On one such trip in 2009 we came for one book and one book only—a tome they kept behind the counter, safely locked away. When Josh asked for it, Howard Schwartz, the shop’s owner, looked skeptical.
“Do you know how much that book costs?” Schwartz asked.
“I know how much it is.” Josh replied. Schwartz knelt down, unlocked the display case, and carefully laid the book down on the counter in front of us. It was a deep hunter green square with leather binding and gold inlaid lettering on the cover. It looked like a bible, perhaps intentionally. Josh fingered the cover’s gold lettering. “Gin Rummy – A Predator’s Guide.” And there below the title, in smaller letters: “Michael Sall.”
Josh fished out a roll of hundreds from his pocket and peeled two off. He handed the money to Schwartz, who still looked skeptical.
“I guess you boys play a lot of gin?”
Josh ran his hand across the leather cover of his new book.
“Not yet,” he said, smiling.
Michael Sall, author of A Predator’s Guide, climbed his way up from playing in country club games in Philadelphia in the 70s to being the best money gin player in New York City by the 80s. By 1996, the year he started working on A Predator’s Guide, Sall had made enough money from gambling on gin that he would never need to work again. He decided to cement his legacy by writing the authoritative book on the game. About a year ago I had the pleasure of meeting Sall. “It stroked my ego to write it,” he confessed. “I thought it would be easy and I thought I knew enough to write it. I was wrong on both counts.”
It took a year and a half to complete. He went through multiple drafts because, according to him, “as I wrote the book I realized that a lot of what I took to be true, wasn’t.” He reconsidered some of his core concepts. In spending so much time thinking about the game away from the table he was able to develop entirely new concepts that had never occurred to him before. “Gin has two elements. One is peeling back the layers of ideas and discovering new ones. The other is to apply the new ideas to your game, to integrate them with your existing ideas.” He found that while writing the book his game was improving in ways that surprised him.
The book is a legend among card players, as is its enigmatic author. “It’s the definitive book on gin,” he boasts. “It’s not the great American novel, but it will be a long time before anyone does anything like it again.”
I had been to this diner before.
“You see that train right there?” There was an elevated subway that ran along the street outside. “That’s where I met Katie.”
We rode the train together from work. She was headed to the end of the line. She was living in Yonkers at the time. I got off at that stop out the window and came here to this very diner to meet a friend. I’m pretty sure I even sat at the same booth. I tell this to Josh.
“Small world,” he grunted as he rearranged the cards in his hand.
I drew the five of clubs. I considered keeping it to pair the five of diamonds I already had in my hand, making a triangle with the six of diamonds.
“You see that park over there?”
“Yeah, what about it?” Josh asked, not looking up from his hand. He was barely listening to me, tracking the hand.
“That’s where Katie and I broke up.” He stopped fingering the corners of his cards and looked up at me with his eyebrows raised.
“What’d you do, cheat on her?” I didn’t appreciate the accusatory tone in his voice.
“Not exactly.” I played the hand back in my mind, trying to go back through every discard one at a time. I remembered that earlier in the hand he discarded the five of hearts, leaving only one more five potentially in the deck.
There’s always someone else, even when there’s not. The whole thing about breaking up with someone is that you’re already imagining the person you think you should be with. In taking stock of the things you do and don’t like about someone, there in those recesses, those empty spaces, there is the composite of someone else.
But this time, there really was someone else.
I met the other woman right around the time things started to get serious with Katie. We hung out in a group of people and were never alone. We flirted. At the end of the night I drove her home. In the car our hands touched and we let them stay that way for a moment longer than we should have. It may have been nothing. It may have been everything. What happened next happened right there in that park.
“Beware of falling in love with a card,” reads the Predator’s Guide. “Falling in love occurs when a player continues to hold the card in the face of new information, stubbornly refusing to abandon his earlier beliefs.” The Guide teaches you to play an aggressive, decisive game. Players who overthink it, who hold on to cards they are sure are live, “turn off their thinking and thereby close their mind to new ideas.”
I’m not sure if I was in love with Katie when I broke up with her. I knew I was interested in someone else. I also knew I wasn’t going to cheat on Katie. I was an emotional dunce with a wandering eye, but I knew better than to cheat. There are surely some readers who will consider what had already transpired a transgression. I’d refer them to the Predator’s Guide’s chapter on cheating. It quotes Oscar Wilde without attribution: “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.”
Josh is good at memorizing every discard. It is the weakest part of my game. When we first started learning and playing gin I complained to him that there was simply too much shit to remember. But there are no shortcuts around this. It is so fundamental to winning that it is on the first page of the first chapter of the Predator’s Guide. Play the game over in your head to remember the discards. Think of each card as part of a story. Michael Sall told me that the ability to memorize the discards, to see the whole deck, was essential to being a winning player. “As you grow in gin, you can see the ways to play quickly,” he told me. “You have to visualize 52 cards.”
The Predator’s Guide says that “when a player makes a mistake, he does not do it to cause you pain. (It may seem that way sometimes.) Why react with anger? You only hurt yourself and everyone else.” Gin is a game of human relationships. You have your partner, your opponent, and yourself to manage. The key, according to the Guide, is to “be careful not to play egocentric gin. Yours is not the only hand in the game.”
“I still remember the day Katie and I met. I remember sitting in this booth and telling my friend about her."
“You think you can remember who’s turn it is, Cassanova?” Josh was evidently less interested in the less painful part of my Katie story. I ignored him.
“I told this guy that out there on that train I had just met a woman so goddamn perfect that there was little chance of me not asking her out, even if it meant I’d make a fool out of myself.”
The waitress interrupted us with much-needed coffee. I fixed mine while Josh obsessively rearranged his cards.
“It seems like so long ago, but I can remember it so clearly. I can remember what she was wearing that day. I can remember our conversation word-for-word. I can remember what I ordered in this diner, even.”
“And did you make a fool out of yourself?” Josh asked me without looking up from his cards.
The thing about gin is that things that happen early in a hand become more and more important the longer the hand goes on. Like how I was sitting here, years after the fact, staring at the place where I first touched her on a train sitting in the station. And in between that moment and this one I was having right now there were several years and countless more moments in between. And in between Pelham Bay and Park Slope there were countless other places bearing memories of those other moments. Josh and I would drive right past many of them on the way home without even giving them passing mention. There was just so much shit to remember.
It helped to think of the places in the city as part of a story. The theater where Katie and I met up on her birthday and I begged her hat-in-hand to take me back. The sidewalk by our old job where I swallowed hard and asked her to marry me. The park in Washington Heights where we danced in the rain under a tent at the reception for our wedding. The hospital where, after 30 hours of unfathomable pain and suffering, our first child was born. The apartment where she and the baby waited on me tonight.
After thumbing the corner of the card for a few moments I thought better of it and discarded the five. He snapped straight up in his seat then looked at his hand to double check. He reached over and picked up the five of clubs and stuck it in his hand. Shit.
After rearranging a few cards he layed down his discard, face-down, then fanned out the rest of his hand on the table in front of him. The five of clubs I discarded was nestled in between the five of spades and the five of hearts I was sure he threw away. He didn’t even say gin, just started writing down the score before I could show him my hand.
“Well, did you make a fool of yourself?” He asked again.
“Not yet,” I answered, smiling. “Not yet.”