Saturday, October 13, 2012

“Where do you get your ideas?” NO LIMIT

Note: This is the second in a series of posts in which I discuss the “inspirations” behind my YA novels.

Back in the 1990s and the early 2000s, I played a lot of poker, mostly in casinos. My first few books (Drawing Dead, The Mortal Nuts, Short Money, etc.) were poker-themed adult novels. Poker, for me, was a hobby. I never won much, because I lack the discipline to play well on a consistent basis. According to my records, I earned about eighteen cents an hour, including driving time, gas money, and food purchased at the casino. Pretty pathetic, but better than losing, which is what most players do.

Casino poker makes for fascinating people-watching. You are sitting at a table with nine or ten strangers, sometimes for hours, while trying to take each other’s money. Poker is different from most other forms of casino gambling in that you are playing against the other players, not directly against the house. (The house earns money by taking a few dollars out of every pot.) I made some friends during my poker years, and learned some things about what drives people, and learned a lot about my own limitations.

One thing I learned was to recognize the signs of gambling addiction. You don’t have to look far. Take a stroll through the rows upon rows of slots and watch the glaze-eyed gamblers pumping money into the machines. See the haggard souls lining up at the ATM. Observe the red-faced, shouting men at the craps table, talking to the dice as if the little plastic cubes were sentient beings.

Gambling addicts can be found at the poker tables as well, chasing unplayable hands, raising on a hunch, throwing money at luck, fate, justice, and the wind. Most addicts are losers. But in poker, a game in which skill and discipline can produce consistently profitable results, there are gambling addicts who win more than they lose. This is analogous to being addicted to heroin and being paid for it. The more heroin you use, the more money you receive.

This was the core concept upon which I based the YA novel No Limit.* Denn Doyle is a teenager who finds out he is an amazing poker player. He starts raking in the cash, and becomes consumed by the game. He wins all the money, but is it worth the price of becoming obsessed and addicted? Heck if I know—that’s why I wrote a book about it.

I don’t play poker very often these days. I’m not talented enough to make it financially viable, and the social aspect of casino poker has become less interesting to me. But I still enjoy a casual game with friends—a few hours of stories and banter interrupted from time to time by a hand of hold’em. I almost always lose, but I love it.

*No Limit was originally published under the title Stone Cold. The title was changed at the publisher’s request. Long story—I may address it in another post sometime.


Philip Heckman said...

Be sure to tell us how Owen Smith happened to do the cover art for Stone Cold. (I've always enjoyed his New Yorker covers.)

Pete Hautman said...

I don't know how Owen Smith got that assignment. It was back in 1997. It was a pleasant surprise!