ERB and Poker:
“ … it’s a lot of fun. Especially
when you win”
by Alan Hanson
“The fiction writer should read most anything but fiction.
He should be able to find enjoyment in every form of sport, whether he
is able to take an active part in it or not. He should enjoy a variety
of games and other activities that keep his mind young and supple.”
Edgar Rice Burroughs offered that advice to prospective
fiction writers in a 1930 magazine article. We know he enjoyed participating
in a number of physical sports — golf, tennis, swimming, horseback riding
— and often featured them in his fiction. He did the same with a “variety
of games” that kept his mind “young and supple.” Through his
letters and non-fiction articles, Burroughs revealed that he enjoyed playing
a number of card games, among them poker, bridge, rummy, and cribbage.
Of those, poker and bridge were the two games that he
most often utilized in his fiction. Burroughs explained the philosophical
difference between the two games in his 1924 novel, Marcia of the
Doorstep. “More of a man’s man,” the author labeled one
of his characters. “[He] likes poker, polo, golf, things like that,
better’n he does bridge, or tea, or small talk.” Burroughs enjoyed
playing both the manly game of poker and the cerebral game of bridge, and
used both as elements of characterization and plot design in his fiction.
Setting aside for now the author’s fascination with the game of bridge,
let’s take a closer look at his personal and fictional experiences with
the simpler but more emotional game of poker.
First of all, Burroughs saw no harm in the gambling component
that is the motivating foundation of poker. In the following passage from
one of his “Laugh It Off!” columns in 1945, the author criticized
Hawaiian laws against gambling.
“Nearly every day we read of a bunch of poor boobs
being arrested and fined for trying to get a little pleasure and relaxation
while passing through this vale of tears. They are usually found in CHA3,
Aala Park, or some Alley, seldom if ever in the homes of doctors, lawyers,
policemen, merchants, the lousy rich, or War Correspondents. Yet gambling
goes on in thousands of such homes every evening — bridge, poker, rummy,
cribbage, and so on ad infinitum. To say nothing of dominoes in those dens
of iniquity — our better clubs — during the lunch hour. Why not leave the
poor guys alone? There is nothing criminal or vicious about gambling, and
it’s a lot of fun. Especially when you win. Nor can it be stopped any more
than prostitution or breathing can be stopped while life remains in men
— and women.”
One game of chance that was definitely not “fun”
for Burroughs occurred in 1903 when he and his young wife traveled to Idaho,
where his brother Harry was operating a gold dredging operation on the
Snake River. ERB briefly described that disheartening poker game in a 1929
“We arrived on a freight wagon, with a collie dog and
$40. Forty dollars did not seem much to get anywhere with, so I decided
to enter a stud game at a local saloon and run my capital up to several
thousand dollars during the night. When I returned at midnight to the room
we had rented, we still had the collie dog; otherwise we were flat broke.”
An Early ERB Poker Game
When Burroughs began writing commercial
fiction eight years later, memories of those adventurous days in Idaho
were fresh in his mind and often resurfaced in his stories. And while years
later he may have professed that there was nothing inherently “criminal
or vicious” about gambling games like poker, in his fiction such games
of chance were often portrayed as extremely emotional and potentially explosive.
Burroughs created such a scene in one of his earliest
stories, For the Fool’s Mother, a short story written in 1912, but
first published in the 2001 Guidry & Adkins compilation, Forgotten
Tales of Love and Murder (and in ERBzine 5359) It’s the story
of “Kid” Turner, a young man who saved eleven hundred dollars
after three years of hard work in Arizona cattle country. Before he could
catch a train back to his Illinois home, however, a tinhorn named Penwell
lured the boy into a saloon backroom poker game. A prospector friend of
the “Kid” witnessed the game’s violent conclusion.
“Penwell laid down a hand of cards upon the table,
and as the ‘Kid’ threw his, face down, on the deck the gambler raked in
a great pile of gold and silver and chips.
“Then the ‘Kid’ leaned forward across the table and
stared at something in the gambler’s lap. Both men sprang to their feet.
“You’ve robbed me, you ___ cheat,” cried the “Kid.”
There was a flash, a puff of smoke, the bark of a gun, and then The Prospector
sprang into the room in time to see Penwell crumple to the floor as the
boy cowered back — a smoking revolver in his hand.
“He robbed me,” sobbed the “Kid.” “He cheated, and
robbed me of all my money, and now I can’t go back and buy the little place
for Mother and Sis.”
An Idaho Poker Game Recalled
Burroughs included a similar scene
in The Girl From Farris’s, written the following year. In
it, Ogden Secor, once a successful Chicago businessman, suffered a physical
and financial breakdown following a head injury. His precipitous fall from
grace led him to Goliath, Idaho, where one night he sat in on a stud poker
game at the local saloon. “The gentleman next to him developed a crouching
manner of inspecting his buried card, placing his eye on a level with the
table and barely raising the corner of his own card,” Burroughs explained.
“This permitted him to inspect Secor’s buried card at the same time.”
In his autobiography, Burroughs described virtually the
exact same behavior on the part of one of the other players in the 1903
Idaho poker game mentioned above. ERB retired humbly after losing all his
money, but his fictional counterpart, Secor, refused to leave so meekly.
Burroughs described the encounter as follows:
“A dozen hands were dealt before Secor discovered why
he always won small pots and lost the large ones. Then he saw that his
worthy opponent not only looked at Secor’s buried card, but immediately
thereafter passed obvious signals across the table to a crony upon the
“At the following deal Secor did not look at his buried
card at all. He merely remained in on the strength of what he had in sight.
From the corner of his eye he saw that the sly one was becoming nervous.
Secor had an ace and two deuces up — there was still one card to be dealt.
“At the betting, Secor raised for the first time, then,
purposely, he turned his head away from his cards and the man at his left
to take a drink that stood at his right hand. He guessed what would happen.
When the drink was half way to his lips he turned suddenly to the left
to discover the sly one in the act of raising his, Secor’s, buried card
to learn its identity.
“Like a flash Secor wheeled, dashing his glass with
its contents full in the face of the cheater. With the same move he came
to his feet. The other whipped a revolver from beneath his coat …
“As the gun flashed beneath the electric light, Secor’s
left arm went up to parry it as if it had been a clenched right fist aimed
at his jaw. The bullet passed harmlessly past him, and with the report
of the exploding cartridge his own right landed heavily upon the point
of the cheater’s chin. The man went backward over his chair, his head striking
heavily upon a massive pottery spittoon. Then he lay perfectly still.”
A Game of Honor
Burroughs allowed both “Kid”
Turner and Ogden Secor to escape legal punishment for killing those who
cheated them at cards. In both instances, the author portrayed cheating
at cards as a serious transgression that warranted execution on the spot.
Of course, ERB never killed a poker con artist, but in a 1943 letter
to his daughter Joan, he revealed his contempt for dishonesty at the
“In my last letter to you I mentioned playing poker
at Shafter. During the game, I acquired a $25 check. It bounced back on
me the other day. I told Phil (an army friend) about it, and he promised
to see the officer who gave it. Yesterday, when he came in, he was wild
eyed. A $50 check that he had come by in the same game, issued by the same
man, had bounced back to him. Now he’s really going after the guy. It’s
a court martial offense. An officer can be cashiered for it.”
In The Return of Tarzan, written in 1912,
Burroughs described how a man’s reputation could be irreparably damaged
by an accusation of cheating at cards. The scene took place in the opening
chapter aboard a steamship returning Tarzan to France after he had renounced
his birthright in America. By chance, Tarzan noticed four men at a table
playing cards. Although Burroughs didn’t identify the game specifically
as poker, it was almost certainly some form of that game.
In the reflection of a mirror, Tarzan saw a man who was
standing by the table slip a couple of cards into the coat pocket of Count
Raoul de Coude of France. Burroughs then described how the conspiracy to
brand the count a cheater at cards unfolded.
“The play went on for some ten minutes after this,
until the count won a considerable wager from him who had last joined the
game, and then Tarzan saw the fellow back of the count’s chair nod his
head to his confederate. Instantly the player arose and pointed a finger
at the count.
“Had I known that monsieur was a professional card
shark I had not been so ready to be drawn into the game,” he said.
Instantly the count and the two other players were
upon their feet.
De Coude’s face went white.
“What do you mean, sir?” he cried. “Do you know to
whom you speak?”
“I know that I speak, for the last time, to one who
cheats at cards.”
It turned out that two Russians, Nikolas Rokoff and Alexis
Paulvitch, had hatched the scheme with the intention of blackmailing Count
de Coude into revealing French military secrets. When Paulvitch, the accuser,
insisted that the count be searched, Tarzan stepped forward and exposed
Rokoff as the one who planted the cards on the count, thus saving the count’s
reputation and honor.
Through the card game affair on the liner, Burroughs introduced
the arch villains Rokoff and Paulvitch, who would play major roles not
only in The Return of Tarzan but also in the novel that followed
it, The Beasts of Tarzan. Also, Tarzan’s thwarting of the
plot served as the basis for the Russians’ intense hatred of the ape-man,
which led to their attempt to kill him later in the story.
Poker Games in Plots
In his first decade of writing, Burroughs
tried his hand at some mainstream fiction in addition to his commercially
successful Tarzan and Martian stories. In doing so, he continued to incorporate
the “poker-game-gone-bad” scenario in his plots. In his obscure
1915 story, The Man-eater, a dishonest card game served as
the reason a single African safari divided into two separate ones, and
in The Efficiency Expert, written in 1919, the victim of
a cheating conspiracy at the poker table was driven to murder.
In that story, Harold Bince was engaged to the boss’s
daughter, but his salary as assistant manager of his future father-in-law’s
company failed to cover his gambling losses. Burroughs used Bince’s appetite
for high-stakes poker to jump-start the story’s plot.
“It was two o’clock in the morning before Bince disgustedly
threw his cards upon the table and rose. There was a nasty expression on
his face and in his mind a thing which he did not dare voice — the final
crystallization of a suspicion that he had long harbored, that his companions
had been for months deliberately fleecing him. Tonight he had lost five
thousand dollars, nor was there a man at the table who did not hold his
I.O.U.’s for similar amounts.”
Bince’s poker creditors had agreed to carry his promissory
notes until the upcoming wedding improved his financial status, but when
one of the I.O.U. holders threatened to go directly to Mason Compton, his
fiance’s father, if payment wasn’t made soon, Bince decided to get control
of the Compton family fortune sooner than later by hastening the death
of his prospective father-in-law. This poker-instigated murder led in turn
to a series of plot twists and turns reminiscent of a Perry Mason episode.
Poker and Cowboys
When Burroughs tackled his first Western
novel in 1923, he must have recalled how poker was an integral element
in the cowboy lifestyle he had experienced as a young man. In The
Bandit of Hell’s Bend, the author included a scene in which four
ranch hands played at poker on an improvised bunkhouse table one night
after a day’s work.
“I raise you ten dollars,” remarked Idaho, softly,
as the lamp resumed functioning after emitting a thin, protesting spiral
of black soot.
“I see that an’ raise you my pile,” said Bull, shoving
several small stacks of silver toward the center of the table.
“How much you got there?” inquired Idaho, the others
having dropped out.
Bull counted. “There’s your ten,” he said, “an’ here’s
ten, fifteen, twenty-five —” He continued counting in a monotone. “Ninety-six,”
he announced. “I raise you ninety-six dollars, Idaho.”
“I ain’t got ninety-six dollars,” said Idaho. “I only
“You got a saddle, ain’t you?” inquired Bull.
“My saddle’s worth three hundred an’ fifty dollars
if it’s worth a cent,” proclaimed Idaho.
“I’ll cover it an’ call you,” announced Bull.
“What you coverin’ it with?” asked Idaho. “I don’t
To cover his call, Bull then pulled out a bag of gold
dust, the producing of which was Burroughs’ reason for inserting the poker
game in the story. Bull’s possession of the gold dust created a suspicion
in the minds of the other boys and ranch owner Diana Henders (not to mention
some gullible readers), that Bull might be the masked bandit of Hell’s
By the way, Bull won that pot with four aces to Idaho’s
four kings. Two decades later Burroughs would be the victim of a just such
a “bad beat” during a poker game in Hawaii. He described what happened
in a 1942 letter to his daughter Joan.
“Last night one of the inmates at the Niumalu [Hotel]
asked to hold a poker session in my room. I don’t enjoy these games, as
a couple of the fellows are better fitted to play slap-jack than poker.
Their idea of poker is sixes, tens, and one eyed jacks wild; spit in the
ocean, and baseball. Furthermore, you can’t play poker with guys who meet
every raise even though they may hold nothing higher than a bob-tailed
flush. I held four of a kind against one of them last night, and after
exhausting all the chips I had in front of me, I called his last raise;
because I felt sorry for him. He held a royal flush! You just can’t figure
Playing for a Woman
Like “spit in the ocean” and “baseball,”
there are a myriad of poker spinoff games. One of them, apparently, was
played by the villainous Russian, Leon Stabutch, and the Italian scoundrel,
Dominic Capietro, in Tarzan Triumphant, written in 1931.
Both of the outlaws wanted the captive Midian girl, Jezebel, and they agreed
to play at cards to determine who would possess her.
“Five games, eh,” suggested Stabutch, “and the first
to win three takes her.” As the cards were dealt, Jezebel “sat looking
on in ignorance of the purpose of the bits of pasteboard, and only knowing
that in some way they were to decide her fate.” The Russian won the
first game, but the Italian took the next two. Stabutch won the fourth
game to set up a winner-take-all final game. The girl wondered about the
water the two men drank from a bottle while they played. “She noticed
that it wrought a change in them. They talked much louder now and shouted
strange words when the little cards were thrown upon the rug, and then
one would appear very angry while the other always laughed immoderately.”
“I win!” Capietro cried after the last card was
played. “Come, friend,” he said. “Drink with me to my good fortune.”
The Russian, however, turned out to be a poor loser. He stuck a knife in
Poker in Paradise
Poker was one of Burroughs’ chief diversions
while living in Hawaii from 1940-45. During those years, he often mentioned
his participation in such games in his newspaper articles and in his letters
home to Joan. In a September 1941 letter, he outlined his philosophical
attitude about winning and losing at poker.
“The boys have invited us out there (Hickam Field)
to play poker at the officers’ club. They were in the other night to play
with us, and Hulbert feels that we should give them revenge. He’s just
big hearted with a fine sense of honor. If they want what I took away from
them, they’ll have to come and get it. Nobody who ever won from me ran
after me trying to give it back — they just tried to get more.”
In a January 1943 article in the Honolulu Advertiser,
Burroughs described how poker helped pass the time on a long flight from
Hawaii to Australia.
“We took off without breakfast and crossed an awful
lot of water with a name that heretofore has been, for me, only a name
on a map. It was a long and tiresome trip … and then I played stud poker
with Capt. Ronald F. Adams of Jessup, Georgia, until I had accumulated
his spare change.”
In another article some weeks later, the author related
a poker game in Australia that proved much more lucrative for him than
the collection of Captain Adams’ pocket change.
“I played poker one day with a couple of other Americans.
We used Australian paper money. It had a strange psychological effect on
me. It was just like playing with stage money. Ordinarily, if I make a
25 cent raise with U.S. money, I’m splurging outrageously. But I flung
around pound and half-pound notes with utter abandon for an hour. Fortunately
for me, Lady Luck was smiling. After that session my compatriots refused
to play poker with me any more — and I had all the paper money. I found
out later that I could buy things with it.”
Gambling a Natural Impulse
Edgar Rice Burroughs obviously enjoyed
playing poker. He declared that gambling, in general, was “a lot of
fun. Especially when you win.” But Burroughs had a much deeper understanding
of the gambling impulse in human nature. He believed that it shouldn’t
be regulated by law, and that doing so would never eradicate it “while
life remains in men — and women.” Underlying much of Burroughs’ fiction
is his view that gambling was, from the beginning, woven into nature’s
plan. He explained that view in the following passage from Tarzan
"The gambling instinct is not strong among creatures
of the wild; the chances of their daily life are sufficient stimuli for
the beneficial excitement of their nerve centers. It has remained for civilized
man, protected in a measure from the natural dangers of existence, to invent
artificial stimulants in the form of cards and dice and roulette wheels.
Yet when necessity bids there are no greater gamblers than the savage denizens
of the jungle, the forest, and the hills, for as lightly as you roll the
ivory cubes upon the green cloth they will gamble with death — their own
lives the stake."