In this deftly crafted story Haxton explores the propensity for abstraction, logic, and memory all good poets and poker players share, all the while taking readers on a rollicking tour of complex, intertwined topics, ranging from game theory and financial strategies, to medical mysteries and lost love, to chess, Magic cards, and Texas Hold ‘em. Guided by the through-line of a father’s love and admiration for his talented son, Fading Hearts delivers a unique perspective on professional gambling and one family’s experience playing the odds.
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Under the floodlights on the veranda of the Atlantis Casino the chip leader leaned over the table with face hidden behind dark glasses and shoulder-length brown hair. By the time I watched him on the video I knew what was about to happen, because he was my son Isaac, and this had been the start of his career in tournament play, but to see him in action, counting out chips and sliding a raise of more than forty thousand dollars into the pot felt unreal.
In his jeans and T-shirt he still looked to me like a kid who wants his friends to let him front their grunge band. He liked grunge. But the bloggers now were calling him the Lizard King. When I was in high school I would have met the Devil after midnight where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog if he let me bear that nickname. But I looked nothing like Jim Morrison. The closest I have ever come was in late middle age when wise-ass friends said they had learned my true identity, as the love-child of James Taylor and John Malkovich. Isaac, if you brush the hair back from his face and take off the dark glasses, looks like me: sensitive with his guard up, brainy and ironic.
His opponent, Ryan Daut,was clean-cut. He looked sad and pensive, almost monastic, sitting still with his head tilted to one side, hands folded, while he studied Isaac’s body language. The raise was a problem in his mind. Ryan had come here on his break from the Ph.D. program in mathematics at Penn State. Isaac was taking time off after three years in computer science at Brown. The odds against either making it this far into the tournament had been about five hundred to one.
At their age I planned, like them, to teach college math. But I took a chance instead. I spent hours every day writing poetry. I could see the odds: a tiny percentage of those who try write memorable poems. Meanwhile, I wanted to support myself as a teacher of writing, and this was a long shot too. Of course, playing against the odds in poetry has developed ways of thinking different from what poker requires of my son. Still, I want to understand him.
On the floodlit veranda the odds seemed to be turning in Isaac’s favor, though the wind kept driving storm clouds over the lagoon and riffling the edges of hundred-dollar bills in bundles on the felt. A few summers earlier, both Ryan and Isaac worked temporary jobs and spent their weekends with the other gaming geeks from their respective high-schools, calculating strategy in StarCraft and Magic: the Gathering. Isaac and one of his closest friends were competitive against the best Magic players in the country.
Ryan and his StarCraft friends did measurements one night, he told an interviewer once online, and the one who took the honors earned the screen name BigBalls. Now, in his favorite poker forum, people knew him as BigBalls. In Isaac’s favorite poker forum people knew him as Ike, but his usual screen name at the tables was F33DMYB0NG, the logic behind which was to sound like such a brainless stoner people would underestimate the intelligence of his play, and make mistakes which helped him, paradoxically, to feed his bong. More importantly, to my way of thinking, his opponents’ errors had been paying his tuition.
Dozens of math nerds all over the world had taken silly screen names and started winning more per hour than most doctors and lawyers make. For each of these regular winners online, at any given time, by Ryan’s estimate there were four losers. The losers burned out fast, but newcomers were plentiful.
In tournament play, as I was saying, the odds were worse. Among the nine hundred and thirty-five players who entered this tournament, including some of the most skillful in the world, six out of seven lost the entry fee, leaving the prize pool for the others at more than seven million dollars. First place alone was $1,535,255, far more than I had earned as a teacher and a writer in my whole life. But for Ryan and Isaac the play of numbers and the flow of the game had more reality than what the numbers were supposed to represent.
In the next five years of tournament play Ryan and Isaac would not meet in another serious tournament match. They would see each other only a few times. After this tournament Ryan would win less than he spent on entry fees. His worst-case scenario for this particular evening, however, was to win eight-hundred-and-sixty-one thousand dollars, more than a hundred times what he had paid to enter. Several weeks earlier, Isaac had paid one hundred and seventy-five dollars to play a satellite online. By finishing first in the satellite, he had won a seat here in the main event, together with a trip to the Bahamas, all expenses paid. Now the smallest return Isaac could expect on his one hundred and seventy-five dollars was five-hundred-thousand percent.
With both players guaranteed to win so much, it might have been healthier to consider the money and the odds at this point inconceivable. What rattled me, as usual, was trying to make sense of things. The sum they would be divvying up in the next few hands was not quite 2.4 million dollars. But it was slightly more than 2.397 million, forty-four dollars more. In my home game no one has ever won as much as forty-four dollars.
Had I been there on the veranda with Isaac’s girlfriend Zoe, where my wife Francie and our thirteen-year-old twin daughters were, just off the plane, it would have been unbearable for me to follow what came next. I would have been a wreck all day. It was difficult enough to think about it at a distance.
Isaac and Zoe told me later that he felt exhilarated that morning when he went to meet the other players for the final table. Before she left the room, Zoe chose an outfit, dressed, took one last look, and started over. Later, on camera, she looked beautiful. But she was as anxious as I would have been. Every time she stood up at the rail, her head was swimming with the idea of huge sums of money risked on the fall of a single card. Her knees lost strength. They trembled under her. They were giving out. She understood the game, but she was too worked up to follow what was happening. Francie and our daughters Miriam and Lillie could follow less. Isaac’s friends kept having to tell them what was going on.
From where I stood then, hundreds of miles away, it was impossible to watch at all. By the time the video was broadcast on the Travel Channel six months later, I knew what would happen, but even when I watch it now the match is a gut-wrencher toward the end.
And what happened after the match none of us saw coming, not even Isaac who would have told you at the time that he was keeping his eye on the ball.