Friday, February 1, 2013

A Piece of a Novel

Now that the fall semester is behind me and the spring semester begins on February 10th, I find myself with a week to waste, which is typically what I would do . . . waste it.  Laziness is like beer to me.  I keep reminding myself, however, of my monthly goal from last October: to write for 50 hours.  Turned out that food poisoning knocked me on my ass during the week leading up to Halloween, and so I was unable to finish my goal.  Then laziness and the rigors of the semester set in.  So I haven't done any fiction writing since October.

On the bright side, I did manage to finish a rough draft of the first two chapters.  And with a week to burn, I think that I can finish chapter 3 before I head back to classes.

All of this leads me to a question.  I create a game that is similar to poker at the beginning of chapter 2, and I was looking for some feedback.  To give you a bit of background, the setting is a medieval period on a place other than earth.  I begin with a society that values games, and chapter two starts off with one of the most popular games.  It's called "shills" and will obviously seem very similar to poker--actually a cross between NL holdem and Omaha.  However, I try to use different language to describe the game: for example, all in is a "death" play, the flop is called the "kick," etc.

Anyway, my biggest question is: Do you think that the language and description of the action will be confusing for an average reader (one who doesn't play poker)?  Sort of a difficult question, because most of my readers play poker.  Also, is the description of the strategy too simplistic--or simply wrong?  I wanted the scene to result in an uncommon decision that could only result from an advanced playing out-thinking himself.

Anyhoo, enough setup.  I'd appreciate any and all feedback.  Here goes:

*     *     *

An hour before dawn, Zevernester awoke to light tapping.  He sat up without delay, sleep still clouding his mind, and crossed the room to the door.  Never make royalty wait.  It was one of two firm rules that guided him.  As always, the boy slipped past him, made a beeline for the round table near the darkened window, and began to light candles.  Zev followed him, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.  He knew that he would have to shake the grogginess shortly or else find himself defeated in the first and second matches, an occurrence more and more common since the last red moon.  The throb in his jaw of a dying tooth helped push his dreams away.  If Zev had lacked confidence, he might have wondered whether his skills were deteriorating.  Shills, after all, had long been considered a young man’s game, perhaps because it rewarded aggression.  His victory in the harvest tournament had dispelled any doubts, however small, in his mind.  And he knew that the boy had improved vastly under his tutelage.
            After losing to Zev, the other players in Eb Vark’s court often muttered about the chancellor’s luck.  Zev had scoffed inwardly at such excuses.  Losers lost repeatedly for one reason—because they were idiots.  Luck is an excuse for failure.
            The boy twirled the deck between shuffles and began flicking each card from his fingertips so that it floated momentarily in the air.  Who is teaching him such silliness?  They were the cheap, flashy maneuvers of a card wit, and a poor one at that—perhaps Xavier, Duke Resnor’s youngest son.  Zev would soon correct these shows of ostentation.  Do not encourage your opponent to overestimate you.  Not a firm rule but a wise rule nevertheless.  Card wits tended to end up in alleyways, a red smile across their necks.  A king displaying such traits could begin the slow rot of dynasty.  The prince should intimidate with his playing ability, not his shuffling.
            Their coin stacks had remained untouched since yesterday when their game had been cut short.  Zev peered at the three cards he had been dealt.  Dwarf of waters, knight of islands, and maid of beasts.  The kick of four cards on the table helped him little.  Zev made a pass at the pot with a tiny bet that could mean anything—cobbles, a weak union, or a vice grip of a hand.  Nathanael pushed out a small stack of silver, quintupling his bet.  Overmuch.  Without hesitation Zev pushed his cards into the stash of discarded cards.  The second and third hands had the same result.  All the while, the chancellor made a show of watching Nathanael’s eyes, which showed the chancellor nothing, so that the boy averted his gaze.  Small victory achieved, Zev began to monitor unobserved the pulse beneath the boy’s ear.
            Nathanael continued to push his advantage, taking the next three hands with large bets.  Zev let him.  The young prince, unable to disguise his enthusiasm, seemed to sense a trampling afoot.  The seventh hand turned out to be the decisive one.  To even an amateur player, the kick would have seemed harmless, devoid of promise.  As before, Zev made a small bet; again, the boy raised too much.  The pulse beneath Nathanael’s ear seemed light and quick.  Zev increased the boy’s bet, tossing out three gold coins stamped with a whale leaping through waves.  The boy reraised yet again, committing two-thirds of his stack, a tower of gold.  Am I now fully awake?  Zev thought.  His tooth sent a jolt throughout his head.  He counted slowly to ten, announced “Death,” and pushed all of his silver, gold, and copper in front of him.
The prince did three things that pleased him.  His left hand clenched; he sighed; and the pulse beneath his ear disappeared.  “Tell me,” said Zev.
“More than half of my stack is in the pot,” he said.
“Two thirds.”
            “Even worse.”  Nathanael said, beginning to number his reasons.  “One, you know that I have no choice but to match you.  Two, I kicked a triple union.”
            “Strong kick,” Zev agreed.  He knew where Nathanael’s mind would wander and was pleased with its destination. 
            “A strong kick,” the boy agreed, “but a hand well within your expectation.  Three, the only possible reason that you would make a death play is if your hand beats my expected hands.” 
“All of your expected hands?” Zev said.  “You oversimplify.”
“You beat a flood,” Nathanael continued, ignoring him.  “A low rush fails.  A triple union loses by a fingernail.  Four, my large raises make me seem too eager.  You anticipate—nay, you know—that I must match.  You are hoping that I have a triple union, so that I will match your death play.  And lose.”
            “Unless I am larking.”
            “You are no fool.  No one larks when I must match.  I submit.”  He tossed his cards into the stash.
            To show or not?  Better to teach the boy now, the chancellor decided, rather than later.  He is ready.  Zev exposed his cards.  The prince stared at them, his mouth opening slightly.
“You were larking.”
“How could you be such a fool?”
He felt a flicker of annoyance.  Motionless, his face frozen despite the throbbing in his jaw, he wondered if the boy knew that similar words from a knight or even lesser royalty could lead them to an underground cell.  Especially a chancellor with a toothache.  Instead he said, “Reason it.”
The prince kept staring at the cards in disbelief.  He shook his head and said, “You had no reason.  It was my most advanced play.  It was brilliant.  Perhaps you are not fully awake.”
Zev began to collect the cards, sensing an end to the game.  Quit before you worsen your defeat.  If Nathanael had played one more hand, he would have inevitably made an ill-advised death play.  At least the boy knew when to stop.  Such restraint in a boy of fifteen years showed promise, but today Zev saw despair—anger?—clouding Nathanael’s eyes.
I was wrong.  The lesson was too soon.  He is not yet ready.
Zev set down the deck of cards.  “You have become an advanced player,” he said.  “Your recent victories prove it.”
“Unless you are coddling me.”
“You were almost champion of the harvest tournament.”
“Until I faced you.  My other opponents lost on purpose.  It is poor form to defeat a prince.”
“You played strongly anyway.”  Zev felt another flash of annoyance, in part because the boy’s words were true.  He seeks a challenge from everyone he sees, but his subjects already fear him—because he is the only son of Eb Vark.  “If I had made that death play against you a half moon past, you would have matched me in a heartbeat and started dancing around the room.”
“I never dance around the room.”
“And I never coddle.”  Zev stood, signaling an end to their play.
Nathanael remained seated.  “You say I would have matched you in the past.  In other words, I would have won when I was weaker.  How does an advanced player lose in a spot where a novice wins?”
“You assume that I would have given you the opportunity.  I avoid larking novices.”
Crossing to the door, Nathanael muttered, “Riddles.”  Before leaving, the prince added, “Tomorrow.”  A command.  Before, he had always asked for another predawn game, a request that Zev had always accepted.  The boy was gone before the chancellor could respond.  He noted the development with pride.  He is becoming a king before my eyes.  Eb Vark would be pleased to hear of his son’s improvement.


  1. I think non-poker players will understand. You help by writing the player said "Death" then adding that the same player pushed all his coins in front of him. I think that that clarifies it.

  2. Great. Thanks for the feedback. It's hard to tell sometimes what makes sense and what doesn't.

  3. i want to reply before i read any other comments or read it more than once. i think the end is magnificent. and the beginning. and the rest of it too actually, especially doing things in italics. very clever and well done. i think they only part that might be tricky is hand rankings, where you mention things like unions etc. i think they probably need some description, not necessarily for the hand, but in the dialogue as to how good/bad they are.
    i also assume you will describe the kick and death prior to this scene...

    the only sentence that isn't immediately clear
    "cobbles, a weak union, or a vice grip of a hand. Nathanael pushed out a small stack of silver, quintupling his bet. Overmuch."

    its hard to tell if vice grip is the description of the hand or the hand ranking. i think a description is important here to qualify which are good/bad. weak union implies bad, but later on union's are seen to be quite good eg triple union just failing.

    in conclusion, please write more. also finish the quincy story. i want to see how it ends.

    1. Really detailed and helpful. I will get right on that. Thanks! Yeah, I had trouble with this--comparing it to poker when poker doesn't exist in this place. A weak union is one pair, but much weaker than poker's one pair because six cards count. Triple union is three pair, a hand stronger than a flush-like hand but weaker than a full-house-like hand. "Vice grip" was descriptive. Glad you made that comment, because this section was exactly what I was worried the most about. Immensely helpful! And thanks much for the compliment. It'll help keep me going.

  4. forgot to write that kick and death are actually pretty clear from the scene, as mojo already said.