An Ode to Martin Amis, Esteemed Novelist and Poker Player

Martin Amis

British novelist Martin Amis, who also loved playing poker, died last week. [Image:]

“The repercussions cease”

If you haven’t already, go read Money. Or London Fields. Or my favorite, The Pregnant Widow. Now is the time.

a brutal loss to the world of words

On Friday evening, Martin Amis died at the age of 73 from cancer of the esophagus. The day before that, he was probably the most significant living author writing in English. It’s a brutal loss to the world of words and a tough beat for those in the poker world who played with him.

There is a danger when writing about Americans of imitation. Read a review of his work and you can almost feel the writer breaking the spine of their thesaurus for the first time. Or reaching—as in the previous sentence—for a way to rearrange or punch up a borrowed phrase like “reaching for the dictionary.”

Dead language

Imitation is a danger one should probably embrace. Amis’ prose style is what many will remember him for, and imitation—however, poor—is the highest form of flattery.

A counter-resort to Hemingway-style declaratives would seem odd when writing about a man who, in Lionel Asbo, once described Calpol as “the infants opiate—the syrupy suspension of the purple paracetamol.”

Americans loathed dead language. When asked to read his best friend’s favorite novel (Christopher Hitchens and 1984) he couldn’t get past the first page where appears the phrase “ruggedly handsome.”

The collection of Amis’ literary essays published in 2001 is not called The War Against Cliche for nothing.

On poker

In that collection, you can find a section titled Obsessions and Curiosities, with the subheadings: Chess, Football, World Records, Modern Humor, and—of course—Poker.

poker-talk is clandestine, male-supremacist, and incurably Yankophone”

Under the last heading is a review of Al Alvarez’s book The Biggest Game In Town, that opens, “To anyone who began sitting down early in life will always be susceptible to the cool ostentation of poker […] Like drug-talk and crime-talk, poker-talk is clandestine, male-supremacist, and incurably Yankophone tending toward self-dramatization and heroic monologue.”

He goes on to add that his “big poker period” was during his teens, but the obsession with the game and language of poker did not fade.

Poker barely appears in any of Amis’ fifteen novels and only appears in his non-fiction from time to time. However, as you might expect from the 73-year-old “bad boy of literature,” poker was a significant part of his downtime.

Written in the cards

Anyone in the London literary scene who hustled cards on the side seems to have a story about running into Americans in a poker game or watching him play high-stakes Scrabble with people like Salman Rushdie.

Amis appears from time to time in Victoria Coren’s poker biography For Richer, For Poorer (when he appears, so does that imitative style).

he recounts his painfully short run in the 2006 World Series of Poker

He played cards with David Mamet for a GQ article. His quotes adorn the cover of Anthony Holden’s Bigger Deal. In his essay Losing In Vegas, he recounts his painfully short run in the 2006 World Series of Poker.

Coren, Alvarez, Holden, and Amis appeared together in 2000 on the first-ever televised celebrity poker game. Late Night Poker, with its early iteration of the hole-cam, invited along Stephen Fry, Patrick Marber, and Ricky Gervais to join them.

Goodbye to all that

Losing In Vegas ends with a fantasy of going pro at a seedy Las Vegan cardroom:

“I can see myself at the bar, enjoying a second skull-chilling margarita and a fajita (but where in Christs name is the whole enchilada?) before I head off to work. Some outfit called the D-Cup Divas would be warming up on the trampoline. And Id tell anyone whod listen about the day I caught four hours of rags at a World Series that was mine for the taking.”

The list of people whose bad beat stories I would volunteer to listen to was pretty damn short.

As of Friday evening, it shrank to zero.


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