Playing the Odds
In poker, when I call half the pot with a straight draw and middle pair, against one other player, in late table position, I know where I stand. I know it’s the right decision. However it shakes out, I will regret nothing. But in writing, when I put my protagonist, Gus, in the aisle of a home improvement store for the scene when he gets the call from Priscilla, how can I gauge this choice? As he eyes the mole/vole repellent package midconversation, finding the cruelty unexpectedly tantalizing, can I be assured there’s not a better symbol in the lumber aisle? Or lighting, or plumbing? Maybe Gus should be kinder. Maybe he shouldn’t be talking to Priscilla at all! Uncertainties stack up in a hurry, as numerous as cards in a deck.
In poker and in writing, it’s in your best interest to get comfortable with precariousness. Odds can help. Odds are irrefutable mathematical backing that places the sanity of your decision on a linear spectrum, somewhere between zero and 100 percent. In poker lingo, if you play close to zero percent, you’re a donkey. If you’ll only bet on a sure thing, you’re “tight.” You don’t want to be either all the time, but you do want to be each some of the time.
Let’s say Alice moves all-in at me, and I’m holding pocket nines (that means a pair of nines in hand). I know that if Alice has the best starting hand available, a pair of Aces, she’ll come out the victor 80 percent of the time. That’s a pretty dim prospect for me. But if she’s just a little weaker, holding an Ace and a King, all of a sudden, I’m on top: run that race with all possible outcomes, and my nines prevail in 55 percent of them. So how do I know what Alice has? I don’t. But I know that my losses are capped by the amount of chips she has. Can I afford to lose that amount? It’s a calculated risk. Odds are a consolation. They relieve a player of the onus of personal judgment and help him avoid acting on specious passion.
Is the same true in writing? I’d say yes. Writing doesn’t have odds so to speak, but it does have coherence, believability, the logic of story. You want to follow your zaniest plot idea and see how it pans out, or vent that overheated description of the open-pit mine at dusk. It might bring unexpected rewards. But don’t chase all the long shots. Can you afford to lose your reader’s attention or confidence? Get back to nuts and bolts: action, dialogue, conflict. If an off-the-wall scheme bears fruit, keep the story tight for a time. After all, that’s how you’d follow up a loose play at the card table.
It’s a balancing act between temerity and timidity.
In poker, you’re selling a story. The flop comes Ace, four, four, and I bet the pot out of the small blind. I’m trying to convince my opponent across the table that I’m holding a four and just lucked into three-of-a-kind. Does he buy it? I’m looking for signs that he does, just like I listen for laughter when my wife’s reading my work (a comic story, that is).
Sometimes in poker you have to change your story. You get reraised, and you didn’t have the three-of-a-kind. Happens all the time at the card table and in fiction. In poker it’s “slowing down.” In writing, revision. In both, if no one’s buying it, best to rethink.
In poker, you take it hand by hand, pot for pot. That’s how I’m taking it in my novel now. Chapter by chapter. I make notes about the upcoming work—what I want to happen to Gus, what I want Gus to make happen. I treat the themes and motifs and characters that come to me like the cards I’m dealt. When they’re good, I get aggressive with them. Marginal, I see what pans out. Junky—let ’em go.
In both, be prepared to lose. In every hand there are cards in the deck that can render your strong hole cards weak. And with every good story, poem, article, there will be journals, agents, and publishers who inexplicably pass. But by knowing your strengths and honing your game, word by word, sentence by sentence, project by project, you will, as we say at the poker table, “get in with the best of it” and come out on top.
Ben Obler is the author of the novel Javascotia. Visit www.benobler.com. This winter, Ben is teaching “Literary Fiction: Everyday Drama” at the Loft.