Literature’s Final Table: An Imaginary Poker Match

Thanks to all of of you who responded to last week’s post about how Literature’s Final Table would play out. Here was the question I raised:

If William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, Henry James’ Isabel Archer, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Florentino Ariza and Mario Puzo’s Michael Corleone were at the final table in the World Series of Poker, who would win the million dollars?

After careful study, I have prepared the following summary which I believe represents the most likely outcome. I was glad to see that many of you came to the same conclusions I did about these “characters”, and I was also interested when some of you came to different conclusions. I stand by this account:

Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab is not cut out for the game of poker. He’s permanently on tilt, which makes him a fish (if you’ll pardon the pun). Personal vendettas and revenge fantasies don’t mesh well with no-limit poker games, and Ahab’s poker defeat will be simple and quick. He’ll probably ride his first two pair all the way up against anything, even against an obvious straight or flush or full house, just to prove how tough he is. He won’t feel very tough as he’s knocked off the table, the first player removed.

Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote is another terrible player. I admire his idealistic fervor, but delusions of grandeur do not bode well for a poker career. A guy who can’t tell a windmill from a giant has no chance at being able to tell a busted flush from an ace-high straight, for instance, and therefore he has no chance. Quixote is also, for all his generosity and idealism, a selfish and self-obsessed person, oblivious to those around him (just look at the way he interacts with Sancho). Poker is brutal to players who underestimate their neighbors, and this is one of the great knight’s flaws. Don Quixote is a disaster; deal him five full houses in a row and he’ll find a way to lose money on it. He quickly joins Ahab in the loser’s lounge, the eighth player out.

It would be nice if Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty had a chance, because he’s a lot of fun at the table. Unfortunately, he has none of the focus and patience required to win a game of poker that does not involve clothing. Dean is also too friendly and generous to bully anybody around, and he rarely raises unless he doesn’t have the hand. Deal him a high pocket pair, and he’ll probably flash it to a neighbor to share the good news. Everybody will be sorry to see Dean Moriarty go down in seventh place.

Henry James’ Isabel Archer is in a better category of player than the above three, and she becomes a crowd favorite for her dignified demeanor and intelligent decision-making. However, she is a classic example of a type of player known as “tight weak”. In Portrait of a Lady, this promising and charming young woman rejects one desirable suitor after another, only to finally and grandly make the choice that turns out to be completely wrong. A “tight weak” player is overly careful, folding too many hands and giving up too many chances to capitalize on the luck that comes their way, until they are finally forced to make an undesired choice. Isabel Archer will lose it all on the river in a particularly tragic showdown. She exits the game in sixth place.

We all know F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby can bluff, and he would be a strong player if he only had the ability to read others. He doesn’t. Just as he fell like a fool for every one of Daisy Buchanan’s silly bluffs in The Great Gatsby, he will be a pushover here. Also, Gatsby’s overwhelming sense of boredom and anomie will harm his stamina. He will slink sadly away from the table in fifth place.

Now we’re down to the final four, and the game takes on a new intensity.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera presents us with Florentino Ariza, a man who has one great superhero-like attribute: patience. In Marquez’s novel, Ariza loves Fermina Daza so much that he devotes his life to waiting for her, convinced that her husband will eventually die of old age, and when this finally happens countless decades later Ariza makes his belated move and attains his lifelong dream. In poker terms, Ariza is a “rock”, a player with infinite ability to wait … and wait … and wait for that killer hand (or that killer chance to bluff). Of all the qualities a person needs to be a great poker player, patience is one of the hardest to hold on to, and this quality gives Ariza a great advantage. However, it is not enough to secure him the victory, and he exits the table in fourth place, a satisfied smile on his face.

William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet is the crazy-style player, like Paul “Quack Quack” Malgriel or Phil “Unabomber” Laak. These types of crowd favorites like to distract their opponents with bizarre behavior while leading them into bidding traps or sneaking their own way out of bad hands. Does this technique work? It sure as hell does, and if you hang around a poker room long enough you’ll find yourself up against an opponent who seems to be clearly either insane or … just very very clever (as he rakes in your chips). The crazy act gives Hamlet a big advantage at the final table, but in fact the melancholy prince also has another rare quality that makes him great at poker, which is his empathy and sensitivity towards those around him. Notice how, in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s personality changes depending on whether he is speaking to Horatio, or Ophelia, or Polonius. This ability to sense, absorb and rapidly adapt to the mental energies of those around you is exactly the empathetic skill that Don Quixote lacks. Hamlet’s only problem is that he’s slightly distracted due to that little incident with his mother and his father’s murderer, and who can blame him for being on tilt? Still, Hamlet fights it out to the grueling end, finally exiting the tournament in third place, a crowd favorite but not a victor.

Now we’re playing heads-up with the two potential champions. Becky Sharp is simply a great poker player. She’s all force, always raising, always controlling the game, in the super-aggressive style associated with star players like Gus Hansen and Doyle Brunson. In Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, we see Becky go all-in time and again, as she schemes and cajoles and sweet-talks her way from an impoverished childhood to the finer realms of high society. Becky Sharp plays like her life depends on it, and poker statistics show that this type of play is most likely to prevail in a high-stakes tournament.

Still, Becky Sharp is up against no ordinary opponent, but rather Mario Puzo’s dreaded Michael Corleone (okay, let’s admit it, it’s actually Al Pacino’s dreaded Michael Corleone we all know and love, but this is a literary site and not a film site, so I’m going to talk about Mario Puzo’s dreaded Michael Corleone). Corleone is Sharp’s opposite, a master of the quiet slow play who loves to make his enemies underestimate him. Like Chris Moneymaker in the 2004 World Series of Poker, Michael Corleone doesn’t want you to fear him. That would ruin his plan of attack. And, just as much as his opponent Becky Sharp, Michael Corleone is focused on nothing but winning. You cannot distract, exhaust or confuse either player, and Literature’s Final Table will spend an incredible twelve and a half hours in back-and-forth heads-up play before a bleary-eyed Michael Corleone finally takes it all with a straight to the six over Becky’s trip deuces. And that, my friends, is how Literature’s Final Table plays out.

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