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Volume 7367

ERB and Poker:
“ … it’s a lot of fun. Especially when you win”
by Alan Hanson 

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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 autobiographical essay.

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 other side.

“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 poker table.

“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 got eight.”

“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 see nothing.

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 Bend.

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 ’em.

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 Capietro instead.

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 Terrible.

"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."

—The End—

From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
Marcia of the Doorstep

The Girl From Farris’s
The Return of Tarzan
The Beasts of Tarzan
The Man-eater
The Efficiency Expert
The Bandit of Hell’s Bend
Tarzan Triumphant
Tarzan the Terrible


LAUGH IT OFF! Hawaii Magazine ~ May 1945
The Open Road ~ September 1949
For the Fool’s Mother
December 29, 1943 Letter to Joan
July 18, 1942 Letter to Joan
September 14, 1941 Letter to Joan
January 1943 article in the Honolulu Advertiser
Wartime Journal - December 27, 1942: (Poker with Australian Money)

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Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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