Eric had the art. He learned his first stud poker lessons in penny ante games with newspaper boys and warehouse workers: when to raise, when to check a cinch, how to buy a pot. By the time he was seventeen he knew he was cut out to be a member of the quiet, all night world of rambling-gambling men. Soon, from Covington to Miami, from Vegas to Brooklyn, he became known as The Cincinnati Kid, "a comer, with a way about him."
Lancey Hodges was The Man, the recognized king of the three-river gambling circuit. No nerves at all. "That sonsabitch is cold," an old-timer said of Lancey. "I ain't got much faith in nothin' that will take him. He likes being The man."
These are the principal characters of The Cincinnati Kid, a new novel by Richard Jessup which explores the world of professional card playing: its drama, its code of ethics, and the emotions which lie behind the deceptively expressionless faces at a poker table.
The Cincinnati Kid wants to be The Man. From The Shooter, patriarch of the rambling-gambling fraternity, he learns that he may get his chance to become number one.
"The say Lancey is in town."
"Well," The Kid said, "I gotta know."
"Sure you gotta know," The Shooter said sympathetically. 'That's what made me tell you he's around."
"We all gotta know," The Shooter said. "Sometime or other we gotta find out how much juice we got."
The Cincinnati Kid has a jarring impact. Jessup describes the men and The Game in sharp, crackling prose; there is hardly a word of excess verbiage in his writing. Jessup's novel is one of those rare books you want to read again and again, to re-experience the tension of the story, and the starkness of his language and dialogue.
Jessup's book is short, but all his characters seem clearly drawn. Or, more accurately, we know them all--probably because they all appeared in The Gunfight at Dry Gulch on the late show the other night. Lancey is The Fastest Gun in the West. The knot of poker dilettantes who watch The Game are the drunks who scamper out the door of the Golden Horseshoe Saloon before the showdown gunfight.
But Jessup's writing is so hypnotic that one can easily overlook the time-worn plot.
Before the Kid's showdown with Lancey, a veteran gambler warns him: "don' mess 'around with The Man jest yit kid. Jest learn a little mo' poker. Right now, Lancey'd take skin and leave you dried out like a sucked orange in the sun, juice all gone." Ready or not, the Kid won't back out, and he and Lancey play in a plush St. Louis hotel room. "Once you go in," the Shooter says, "you can't quite. Two of you go in and only one of you can come out, 'cause there ain't room for two at the top, see it?"
The Game drags on through the night and the next day. On the second night, in a single $15,000 pot, Lancey breaks The Kid, with a straight flush to a full house queens up. (This seems to me the only implausible part of the book. Lancey bets $2,000 after the third card, holding a seven-eight-jack of hearts. You play like that, brother, and you ain't gonna be The Man very long.)
The Kid is broken, not only financially, but spiritually. His woman tries to console him that "for every number one man there is a number two man, and that, because of this, a man cannot retreat from life." But in a world where The Game is everything, he has no choice.