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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Last Call by Tim Powers
So in my last post I talked about how I play less poker in the winter--and seem to do worse--than in the summer. That reminded me of a book I've been meaning to recommend since I started this blog: Last Call, by Tim Powers. The title does not refer to closing time at a bar, but rather to the final action in a poker hand.

It's one of my favorite books. Before I try to describe it, let me say that it does have an element of fantasy--in the sense of mysticism and mythology rather than the sword & scorcery that most people associate with the term. But it is found in the "Fantasy/Science Fiction" section of most book stores, and I know some people don't like to read anything from that section. To them I say, "Give it a shot anyway. There's poker in it."

The story centers on Scott Crane, a retired professional poker player. Scott retired because, 20 years prior to the start of the book, he lost his soul in a poker game where they were playing with Tarot cards. So let that be a lesson: Never play poker with Tarot cards! :-)

At the start of the book, Crane decides to come out of retirement, and there's a great opening scene where he takes a home game for a decent amount of cash, but loses a few pots at the end, on the theory of why chase the fish away when you can keep them coming back for more.

But I digress. Turns out that playing poker was a bad idea, because doing so alerts the Bad Guy who stole Crane's soul. Decks of playing cards, as symbols of fortune, have a ton of mystical significance in Last Call. Crane himself has a glass eye, and throughout the book the turn of the one-eyed Jack of Hearts always means something big is about to happen.

The reader soon learns that the Bad Guy is the mythical Fisher King of the West (think King Arthur), and his seat of power--this is great--is at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. In the weird history that the book spins, Bugsy Siegel was the previous Fisher King, and that's part of the reason that Las Vegas originally flourished. Crane ends up going to Las Vegas and, well, I don't want to give anything more away.

So to sum up: There's a lot of mystical craziness going on, but there's also several cool poker scenes (including one in an LA card room), and most of the action happens in Las Vegas, around 1990.

Last Call actually spawned two sequels: Earthquake Weather, which is set in Los Angeles, and Expiration Date which is set in San Francisco. Both involve the Fisher King, but not poker. Instead, the LA book has a weird theme in which the bad guys consume people's souls as if they were drugs, and the San Francisco book centers around wine and to a lesser extent, alcoholism. So it's sort of a trilogy about America's 3 great western cities and its 3 vices (gambling, drugs, and alcohol).

Oh yeah, back to the winter/summer thing. The Fisher King is mystically tied to the land; he prospers as it prospers and vice versa. The king is at his full strength in summer, and weakest in winter, and roughly the same goes for the fortune of those who inhabit his realm. In the book, Crane's poker mentor taught him this, and so when they were grinding out a living at poker they would only play in the spring and summer.

Not that I really think there's anything mystical about my recent bad streak ;-)

Reminds me of the old Steven Wright joke:

"I played poker with Tarot cards one time. I got a full house and 40 people died."
I loved the movie Excalibur. I may have to try this book out, thx for the recommendation.
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