“Poker!” — A Short Play by Zora Neale Hurston

POKER! by Zora Neale Hurston


Place—New York

Cast of characters—
Black Baby
Sack Daddy
Tush Hawg
Aunt Dilsey


A shabby front room in a shotgun house.

A door covered by dingy portieres upstage C. Small panel window in side Wall L. Plain centre table with chairs drawn up about it. Gaudy calendars on wall. Battered piano against wall R. Kerosene lamp with reflector against wall on either side of room.

At rise of curtain NUNKIE is at piano playing…. Others at table with small stacks of chips before each man. TUSH HAWG is seated at table so that he faces audience. He is expertly riffing the cards … looks over his shoulder and speaks to NUNKIE.

TUSH HAWG Come on here, Nunkie—and take a hand! You’re holding up the game. You been woofin’ round here about the poker you can play—now do it!

Yeah, I plays poker. I plays the piano and Gawd knows I plays the devil.
I’m Uncle Bob with a wooden leg!*[Handwritten: Last sentence crossed out
in pencil in manuscript.]

BLACK BABY Aw, you can be had! Come on and get in the game! My britches is cryin’ for your money! Come on, don’t give the healer no trouble!*[Handwritten: last sentence crossed out in pencil]

NUNKIE Soon as I play the deck I’m comin’ and take you alls money! Don’ rush me.

 Ace means the first time that I met you
Duece means there was nobody there but us two
Trey means the third party—Charlie was his name
Four spot means the fourth time you tried that same old game—
Five spot means five years you played me for a clown
Six spot means six feet of earth when the deal goes down
Now I’m holding the seven spot for each day of the week
Eight means eight hours that she Sheba-ed with your Sheik—
Nine spot means nine hours that I work hard every day—
Ten spot means tenth of every month I brought you home my pay—
The Jack is three-card Charlie who played me for a goat
The Queen, that’s my pretty Mama, also trying to cut my throat—
The King stands for Sweet Papa Nunkie and he’s goin’ to wear the crown,
So be careful you all ain’t broke when the deal goes down!
(He laughs—X’es to table, bringing
piano stool for seat)

TUSH HAWG Aw now, brother, two dollars for your seat before you try to sit in this game.

(Laughs sheepishly—puts money
down—TUSH HAWG pushes stack of chips
toward him. Bus.)
I didn’t put it down because I knew you all goin’ to be puttin’ it right
back in my pocket.

Aw, Y’all go ahead and play.
(TUSH HAWG begins to deal for draw
poker. The game gets tense. SACK
DADDY is first man at TUSH’s left—he
throws back three cards and is dealt
three more)

SACK DADDY My luck sure is rotten! My gal must be cheatin’ on me. I ain’t had a pair since John Henry had a hammer!

(Drawing three new cards)
You might be fooling the rest with the cryin’ you’re doin’ but I’m
squattin’ for you! You’re cryin’ worse than cryin’ Emma!

(Studying his three new cards)
When yo’ cards gets lucky, oh Partner, you oughter be in a rollin’ game.
*[Handwritten: get you foot offa my chair etc]

AUNT DILSEY (Enters through portieres—stands and looks disapprovingly) You all oughter be ashamed of yourself, gamblin’ and carryin’ on like this!

BLACK BABY Aw, this ain’t no harm, Aunt Dilsey! You go on back to bed and git your night’s rest.

No harm! I know all about these no-harm sins! If you don’t stop this
card playin’, all of you all goin’ to die and go to Hell.
(Shakes warning finger—exits through
portieres—while she is talking the
men have been hiding cards out of
their hands and pulling aces out of
sleeves and vest pockets and
shoes—it is done quickly, one does
not see the other do it)

(Shoving a chip forward)
A dollar!

Raise you two!

BLACK BABY I don’t like to strain with nobody but it’s goin’ to cost you five. Come on, you shag-nags! This hand I got is enough to pull a country man into town. *[Handwritten: Last sentence crossed through in pencil.]

TOO-SWEET You all act like you’re spuddin’! Bet some money! Put your money where your mouth is *[Handwritten: els my fist where yo mouf is.]

TUSH HAWG Twenty-five dollars to keep my company! Dog-gone, I’m spreadin’ my knots!

And I bet you a fat man I’ll take your money—I call you.
(Turns up his cards—he has four aces
and king)

TUSH HAWG (showing his cards) Youse a liar! I ain’t dealt you no aces. Don’t try to carry the Pam-Pam to me ’cause I’ll gently chain-gang for you!

SACK DADDY Oh yeah! I ain’t goin’ to fit no jail for you and nobody else. I’m to get me a green club and season it over your head. Then I’ll give my case to Miss Bush and let Mother Green stand my bond! I got deal them aces!

That’s a lie! Both of you is lyin’! Lyin’ like the cross-ties from New
York to Key West! How can you all hold aces when I got four? Somebody is
goin’ to West hell before midnight!

BECKERWOOD Don’t you woof at Tush Hawg. If you do I’m goin’ to bust hell wide open with a man!

(Pulls out razor—Bus.)
My chop-axe tells me I got the only clean aces they is on this table!
Before I’ll leave you all rob me outa my money, I’m goin’ to die it off!

I promised the devil one man and I’m goin’ to give him five!
(Draws gun)

Don’t draw your bosom on me! God sent me a pistol and I’m goin’ to send
him a man!
(FIRES. Bus. for all)

(Enters after shooting bus. Stands.
Bus. drops to chair)
They wouldn’t lissen—
(Looks men over—Bus.)
It sure is goin’ to be a whole lot tougher in hell now!



Poker Night — Thomas Hart Benton

Win a Copy of James McManus’s History of Poker, Cowboys Full

Biblioklept and the kind folks at Picador want to give you a handsome new trade paperback copy of James McManus’s history of poker, Cowboys Full but you’ll have to ante up by taking our literary poker quiz. The first person to post correct answers in the comments section to all three questions will win a copy of McManus’s books.

UPDATE: Commenter Aspher correctly answered the initial questions–only he happens to live in Australia. And the contest is only open to U.S. addresses. Which I knew, but forgot to include in the original version of this post. So. Big sorry out there. I suppose this may confirm one of those American stereotypes–you know, that we see ourselves as the center of the universe. Fortunately, Aspher, via his cordial emails, confirmed a positive Australian stereotype: a good-natured easygoingness about the whole mistake. Mea culpa.

So anyway, there are some NEW questions to answer, under the first set.

1. What Edgar Allan Poe tale of doppelgängers features a duplicitous card sharp?

2. What Faulkner story about two brothers involves a poker game that will decide not one but two marriages? (Hint: although this story can stand alone, it is rightfully part of a collection that is sometimes classified as a cohesive novel).

3.  Which British essayist and critic said “Cards are war, in disguise of a sport”?

1. Which Tennessee Williams play ends, significantly, during a poker game?

2. Which Mark Twain story features a poker game set on a steamer headed from Acapulco to San Francisco?

3. Which Russian writer wrote a novel about gambling to pay off gambling debts? (Name the novelist and the novel).

Cowboys Full – James McManus

Jim McManus’s Cowboys Full is a thorough and energetic history of poker. Or, perhaps more accurately, Cowboys Full is a history of how power, will, and guile intersect with luck to shape national destinies. McManus examines poker’s political and cultural influence, from its origins in China to the game’s explosive popularity online today. McManus delineates his program in his first chapter, “Pokerticians,” an overview of the book that details how poker has had a lasting impact on world politics. Covering the gambling habits of Presidents and generals, kings and clerics, McManus’s book makes a strong case for poker as a metaphor of power and capitalism.

This is no dry history tome, however. McManus is a professional poker player and a professional writer, and Cowboys Full reads with a vigor that approximates the energy of a good game. While American presidents and politicians dominate his narrative, there are also outlaws, cowboys, and confidence men. And writers. Lots and lots of writers. McManus draws not just from earlier histories of poker, but also from novelists like Herman Melville and Mark Twain. He prefaces each of his chapters with a quote, usually from a novel or short story or poem, and I’ll confess I warmed quickly to the book after the first two chapters led with some heavy lines from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (McManus also quotes from No Country for Old Men and uses The Road as a visual reference point). He’s also keen on Bob Dylan.

Of course, this is a history of poker (or “The Story of Poker,” rather, as its subtitle declares), and there’s plenty of poker here–famous games, cheating scams, and today’s big names–but not so much to elicit a yawn from a non-player (or a casual player like myself). The second half of the book moves to Las Vegas, detailing the ins and outs of big tournament action. It also seeks to explain how Texas Hold ‘Em became a spectator sport by the middle of the aughties. But McManus’s book does not fetishize (or unduly valorize) the superstars (and wannabes) of big time poker, and the narrative never falls into the kind of catty tell-all tone that often marks insider stories. McManus is more concerned with philosophy and game theory.

At its core, Cowboys Full is a cultural history of poker, and like the talk at many friendly games, there’s a rambling fluidity to McManus’s narrative, a willingness to run on and overflow in disparate directions. At the same time, there’s a considerable syntactic focus: McManus is handy with punchy sentences and sharp anecdotes, and he keeps most of his chapters short and lively. This is a fun book to read. Cowboys Full is well-researched, with a helpful index and a glossary of terms, but it should not be mistaken for a didactic theory manual or a comprehensive account of everything that ever happened in poker. Instead, McManus has given us a rewarding a volume that uses its subject to enlarge our understanding of both our past and our present–and maybe our future. Recommended.

Cowboys Full is new in trade paperback this week from Picador this week.