Portrait of a Poker Player

Author of the delightful I and Claudie stories which have been running in the Atlantic in recent years, DILLON ANDERSON is a Houston lawyer who enjoys nothing so much as a relaxing game of poker. The mentor of his poker table is his friend Billingsley, and Billingsley’s methods of wearing down the opposition will be relished by every Atlantic reader who ever tries to bluff with a broken straight. Mr. Anderson’s new book, Claudie’s Kinfolks, has just appeared under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint.


FROM the vantage point of a fellow player, I have frequently witnessed the nigh invariable success of Billingsley’s matchless poker — stud and draw — and have heard it described on countless occasions as defying analysis. Now, having finally mastered the subject, at the expense withal of many of the little luxuries that might otherwise have come to me at this stage of life — if not, in fact, a few downright necessities — I am setting down this analytical study for future reference.

Billingsley will come to the game late

Before writing the foregoing seven words, I carefully secured confirmation of the statement from several of the players whose memories are reputed to be as reliable as my own. Billingsley has never been to a game on time yet, even when we who always have to organize the evening attempt to trick him by naming seven as the starting hour for games that are scheduled to start at eight. He comes to games like that around nine-thirty. When we are honest with him he usually comes by nine.

Now the obvious result of such a course of conduct is that Billingsley will avoid having to help classify and count out the chips, and will likewise escape a number of other growing pains that attend every game, including: —

1.The argument as to “Who the hell is going to bank this game anyway?”

2.The discussion and arbitration over how the banker’s mistakes will be handled when the settling up is done. (This usually proves to be an academic problem for reasons which will be related.)

3.Putting the beer on ice, paying for it, and pinching the first pots to cover. This is usually over by nine or a little after.

4.Calling Ames, a regular player who never gets away from home until after he has been called several times on the phone.

5. The slow start when all pots are fairly small and hardly worth the employment of much virtuosity to garner. (In describing his attitude toward these early hands Billingsley employs a Latin quotation which escapes me just now, but the literal translation is “An eagle will not bite at a fly.”)

6. The dangerous play of Fielding, who usually has a date at nine.

7. The ringing of the telephone by the wives of some of the players who merely wish to check up on their whereabouts.

Thus it will be seen that by the time our hero arrives the coast is clear and the quarry is ready.

Billingsley arrives

He can be heard when he slams the door of his car outside. The windows all rattle in the house, and if there are any dogs in the neighborhood they will likely bark. Billingsley calls from the front door and says, good news, he has arrived; he wants to be counted in on the very hand we are then playing. If it is winter he has his coat and tie off by the time he enters the room. If it is summer he has his shirt off, but he often leaves his hat on throughout the first few rounds. If he does not like the looks or greeting of any of us, he tosses a shoe at us. He will belch and sit down calling for beer. He will be ignored in the request, but he will wait until another player proceeds to the icebox for his own beer; whereupon Billingsley will ask such player to please bring him two bottles when he comes back.

I do not wish to imply by the foregoing that Billingsley is rude, has bad manners, or, in fact, has any manners at all except what the reader will come to recognize as Billingsley manners. They are unique. And in order that we may do him no injustice in this respect, let it be understood that no ladies clutter up the regular site where the game is played; it is a bachelor household. It is, in fact, the home of Worthington, a really feeble player, whose aunt left it to him, along with a fine set of ivory poker chips and a cool million in tax-exempt bonds.

Billingsley will badger

This is literally true, and I stand steadfastly on every word of it. He will badger the dealer about the slowness of the deal and accuse him of holding up the game deliberately. If this should fluster the dealer — as often it does — Billingsley will be quick to notice it and step up the pace and severity of his heckling. Then, if the dealer drops a card, turns up one meant to be down, or vice versa, Billingsley announces that he has an idiot yard boy who gives dealing lessons on Thursday mornings, and suggests that the hapless dealer should enroll in the course. He adds that tuition will be free on a certified Billingsley scholarship.

He will badger a player who fails to make up his mind promptly whether he will call a bet or drop out. Of course I am no longer fooled about Billingsley’s real motives here. It is not alone that he wishes to get along with the game — turnover being calculated, as a matter of elementary mathematics, to enhance the chances of winning by the superior player; Billingsley’s real object is to study the demeanor of the player who is put to a decision under pressure. If such a player is possessed of a very heavy hand —I mean is really loaded — and is delaying merely for effect and in the hope of getting a call or a raise, Billingsley will thus elicit; some response and a consequent show of the badgered player’s emotion. In such situations where real strength has been disclosed, I have seen Billingsley throw in threes or better, advising the loaded player that his noisy heartheat, engendered by the heavy hand, has begun to disturb the peace and tranquillity of the whole neighborhood.

On the other hand, if the hesitating player has been badgered and thereby exposed in the process of running a windy, his nervousness will be brought fully to light, and Billingsley can run him out of the hand with one high card and one moderate-sized chip.

The moderate size of the chip flung at the frightened bettor has a subtle meaning which has not escaped my analysis. It reduces the amount of Billingsley’s exposure to loss in the unlikely event he has misread the badgered player’s reaction.

Billingsley will boost the ante

I confess that some conclusions set out elsewhere in this study may be debatable, but this one thing can be put down as fundamental and axiomatic: Billingsley will not tolerate the status quo ante. He will “up it.”If the game is knocking along at a reasonable rate with a quarter ante, he will call for a half-dollar ante on his deal until I, who am sitting on his left and feeling that I have already held up normal progress of the game long enough, break over and throw in a four-bit chip. Then soon no one dares to face the Billingsley glare and comment which would attend the recession to a quarter ante. Thereafter Billingsley will ante a dollar on his deal, throwing out, in response to any complaints ventured, a rhetorical question, “It’s dealer’s choice, isn’t it?" By morning any remaining players who should dare to name less than a dollar ante will simply be stared out of the pot.

Now it is my theory that the volume of the betting is built around the pot, and that the tempo of the whole play will follow somewhat the size of the ante. Once I spoke to Billingsley himself about this point, but he merely said “Nuts.” Or perhaps it was something else along the same line which he said.

So overweening is the desire of this great man to have the pot anted fully that he will count the antes often, and even before he has finished he will utter a general pronunciamento that someone has not come in yet. This usually garners two or three more chips from the more absent-minded players. Then, to those who have thus tacitly admitted their delinquency, he says witheringly, “It will be all right for you not to ante all the time. Just don’t withdraw any of my chips from our pot.”Such a scolded victim naturally has his next several hands spoiled.

Billingsley will draw two cards to a flush

It is really foreign to the nature of such a conservative player as I am to execute this incomparable play; nevertheless, I shall not hesitate to point out that I know all of its basic elements as executed by Billingsley. It comes about thus: when draw poker is dealt, Billingsley is annoyed. He would prefer to play stud, he insists. I record this because his annoyance is a psychologically component part of his two-card-draw-to-a-flush-and-follow-through play. Unless several hands have been passed for want of openers, he will not employ the particular technique in question; he simply sits looking into the next room with a pained expression in his eyes. He might even get up and stroll around muttering and scratching himself. Then, say there have been three hands passed, swelling the pot to a sizable amount. Thereupon the hand, let us assume, is opened by a pair of aces. A pair of deuces calls, matched by another caller holding a straight, open at both ends. Billingsley swoops down, raises the bet the full size of the pot, and explains piously that he is doing it merely to give a little protection to the opener. Stark terror grips all the players, but Billingsley usually gets two or three customers. Honest draws are made by the others, but Billingsley, looking as contented as Walter P. Chrysler might contemplating the Chrysler Building, says that two cards will do for him. After the draw he bets the first installment on a Jaguar and launches on his campaign speech. He insists that he hasn’t a damn thing. He wants to know whether we are mice or men to let him “bull the game" like that. He will even stand up in his address and call for a pitcher and a glass of water — which, of course, no one brings him.

In this particular act he will frequently go off into the next room while the rest of the players sweat. Then he will come back and, pretending to assume that nobody will call, will start dragging in the chips. Hart says he would have called him, but he didn’t catch, and Hart really would have. (Hart is positively the originator of that deathless morningafter quotation, so current these days, “I lost my shirt, Mother dear, but I kept the game honest.”)

Beads of perspiration pop out on the pair of aces, the openers, since the draw has produced another little pair. Similar beads cover the pair of deuces, now joined by a third. The straight is busted and flown. Finally Billingsley drags down the pot with no callers and shows his hand: three miscellaneous hearts and two orphans that look as if they belonged in a used pinochle deck. He announces in a loud tone that he would rather have three hearts in this game than three aces in any other game he ever played in. Also he sometimes laughs boisterously at this juncture and asks if there are any pitch players in the crowd.

The whole thing is simple. The two times that I called him on this particular play — once in 1938, just before I sold my car, and again last week — he wasn’t using exactly the same technique that I have described. The first time he really had a big pair and a kicker; then he caught two to match the latter on the draw — a cat hop, so called, to a full house. Last week he had filled his flush. But you get the general idea anyhow, and I have the satisfaction of knowing that Billingsley wasn’t bluffing either time. Successful bluffing, I have said a thousand times — and I say it again here — is a thing that can’t be allowed in a well-ordered game.

Billingsley will not bet on a “lock” — much

The quality of Billingsley’s game, which I now describe, is really one of the refinements that we doubtless find in all truly great technicians in poker. It has as its fount a sort of higher code, perhaps comparable to that which protects Red Cross institutions during war. It goes into effect in the following type of situation: in a stud game, let us say, Jones has queens back to back and has bet them so heavily that the down queen might as well be sitting on a neon throne. Naturally everybody but Billingsley is long since out of the game by the time the fifth card is dealt. Jones gets no pairs showing and no possibilities of a better hand. Billingsley’s ace in the hole gets a companion on the fifth card, and if there is any way he could lose to poor old Jones under these circumstances, I have never yet been able to develop it. Armed with a real “lock,”Billingsley will discount the limit moderately.

The same thing is true about four of a kind. If Billingsley bets slightly less than the limit, you can tell he has them. Here is a weak point in his game which I have pointed out to him several times, but he has only thrown back his shoulders and looked far away on each such occasion. He says it is a matter of noblesse oblige or, translated freely, “leaving a man carfare.”

Billingsley will bull the game

It is not an easy undertaking to describe that hard and smooth facet of Billingsley’s play to which I now address myself. Not that I do not understand it thoroughly — not at all, for I do; the difficulty, rather, is born of the realization that my description might put him in a slightly unfavorable light with readers of less than adequate appreciation of refined poker psychology. But this is an unexpurgated account, and I must reiterate my mild indictment in frankness and in candor: Billingsley will bull the game.

He will bet his chips, particularly during the early stages of a stud hand, in the same spirit of reckless abandon with which an Oriental war lord orders coolie troops into battle. The latter’s action, I take it, is explicable in the cognizance that they are breeding them faster in the zone of the interior than they are being slaughtered in battle.

Now this is precisely the impression which Billingsley seeks to create on the first card that shows in stud: reckless abandon. He discloses this rash and irresponsible attitude by betting inordinate amounts on the first card that shows in several successive stud hands. Since every player will know that by the law of averages Billingsley can’t have his hole card wired to a twin on every hand, he will gradually undermine the other players’ faith in his good judgment.

Thus, soon his heavy bet on the first card is bringing the hopeful players along in droves. They count his empty beer bottles on the floor and decide to get a crack at this easy money. Also by slaying they will each get a glimpse of their second card to show, and natural curiosity at this stage is always a factor to be reckoned with. When the second up card is dealt, Billingsley seems to go absolutely wild. He bets all the law allows — the game being, of course, pot limit — and some other players, though a little less avaricious by now, nevertheless stay because there are still two more chances to improve. Also they discover that they have a pretty substantial investment in the pot by this time.

When the third card up produces no pair showing, Billingsley’s technique calls for a marked change. If he is high, he hesitates but does not check the bet. He speaks of acting against his better judgment (in fact, any bet he makes, he will proclaim, is against his better judgment). There is absolutely no more transparent aspect of Billingsley’s game than this very one. Deception being important, in poker, his feigned dubiety is calculated to stir hope in the breasts of fellow players. Now the elemental parallel of this gambit is, of course, the broken-wing act of the mother hawk, which, like Billingsley’s technique, still works after all these years. The refinement, doubtless clear by now to the reader, is that Billingsley may have a broken wing in the form of a deuce in the hole.

In any event, whether Billingsley opens the next bet or has to be content with raising it the absolute limit, he will see to it that nobody stays in the pot at bargain basement rates.

The amount of money it will cost simply isn’t worth another draw to anyone with less than a big pair or a straight or a flush draw, and many a fat pot is thus won at this very stage by Billingsley and quite irrespective of the quality of his hand. He calls this “keeping the ribbon clerks away from the gravy.”

There is one other obvious contingency in this connection, and to it I shall now advert. Let us take a case where strength has shown elsewhere on the turning of the second or third card, and let us assume likewise that Billingsley’s big bet is raised right back into his teeth. He looks hurt, and the wounded tragedian emerges in his whole demeanor. His countenance resembles that of the dying Cyrano de Bergerac as done by Walter Hampden. His heart is plainly broken over the need to witness a vulgar display of strength in a purely friendly game; and unless he has an absolute lock on the player who raised him back, he will withdraw from the hand with the suggestion of a tear in his eye. (As to the size of the bet on a “lock,” see supra.)

Billingsley has unlimited endurance

We come now to an attribute of the man which I often suspect is the mother lode of virtuosity from which all other sparkling nuggets of his play are organically derived. Several years of costly and painstaking study enable me to comment on this aspect with the authenticity which the reader doubtless recognizes by now.

Billingsley is a man of miraculous strength of character and constitution. His indefatigable spirit, built, as it is, into an enduring frame, gains altitude with every hand.

Billingsley will not discuss the matter of ending the game before midnight. He will agree after that time to consider 1.30 as the time to take up the subject with a view then to setting some later hour as a time limit. By 1.30 we will have lost one or possibly two players who have reached a certain predetermined limit of loss and gone home. Along about two, if Billingsley is winner he will actually consider naming a time to quit — rather, I should say, to start the last round.

If he should be loser — I have to strain my memory to the breaking point to recall this testimony — he jumps up and down, gnashing his teeth and shouting until his veins stand out that he wants to play. “Deal!” he cries raucously. “Deal!” But the converse impression should not be gleaned from the foregoing that Billingsley will want to quit if he is winner. This is wrong. Billingsley doesn’t ever want to quit.

He “came to play” he keeps insisting as the night and the game become more stilly everywhere except where he sits. Some kind of second wind — or third — seems to come upon him, and the game never breaks up as long as any one player is willing to deal even one more cold hand for as much as a dollar.

Then, when Billingsley’s last adversary finally folds his tents, Billingsley will stalk out alone, grumbling to himself in what has often been described as a tone of contempt blended with disgust and disappointment. His words, when they can be made out, reveal that which, to my mind, is the real secret of his bountiful success. They are that he “came to play.”