Qwertyman No. 4: Subversive Sisters Having Fun

Qwertyman for Monday, August 29, 2022

(Image from danbooru.donmai.us)

“WHY IS IT,” asked Sister Edwige as she threw a couple of green chips into the pot to call Sister Augustinha’s raise, “that every time we nuns have a little bit of fun, someone out there screams like we were indulging ourselves in some carnal revelry?”

“Sister Edwige!” said Sister Loreto, as she put her hand on her cheek, a sure tell that she had some pretty valuable cards in the hole, like a pair of jacks or an ace-king. “People might think that you—that we actually knew what you were talking about!”

“It’s no crime to know what we’re not supposed to be doing,” said Sister Edwige, who was wondering whether Sister Loreto was going to reraise, or was going to play it dumb, like she held the lowest pair. Some sisters were so transparent, which was why they chose to play Scrabble or bake muffins during their recreation hour instead of facing the likes of Sister Edwige at Texas Holdem, but with Sister Loreto, even letting on that she had a superior hand when she very possibly did not was part of the game. “Crafty” was the word for her, Edwige decided, something not necessarily malicious but with the possibility of being so.

“So are you going to call or fold?” Sister Augustinha said, annoyed that Edwige apparently didn’t feel threatened enough by her raise, and that Loreto might even move all-in.

“I’ll… just call,” Loreto said, whereupon the remaining sister, Sister Maryska, tossed her cards down, sensing imminent disaster. Acting as the dealer, Maryska drew the turn card—the king of clubs—eliciting a groan of agony from the playacting Loreto.

“Do you think it’s possible they’ll haul us off to prison and then try us for witchcraft, like they did in the old days?” asked Edwige with a chuckle.

“But whatever for?” said Maryska. In a previous life, she had been a nursery-school teacher, but had chosen to enter the order when the Virgin Mary appeared to her from a kaimito tree. “Everything we’ve done has been for the greater glory of God, hasn’t it?”

“Check!” said Sister Augustinha.

“Check!” said Sister Edwige.

“Hmmm…. Let’s make a tiny bet, shall we? Say, two hundred? Just to keep things exciting?” Sister Loreto ever so slightly pushed two even stacks of chips into the pot.

“Two hundred!” said Sister Maryska! “Why, that’s more than I can spend in a week on cookies and three-in-one coffee!”

“It’s only play money, Sister Maryska,” said Augustinha dryly. “It’s not like you or anyone here will starve to death if she makes a dumb call—which I’m not doing!” She folded her hand. “This is pretend-poker. We’re pretending that we’re escaped convicts disguised as nuns, that we stole these habits from a convent’s clothesline, and since our funds are running low and our runaway car is out of gas, we have to stake everything on a game of poker at the local bar, against the woman they know as… Madame Stolichnaya, a retired pediatric nurse and reputed mistress of the Master Demon himself, Dom Athanasius.” A shiver swept the table as Augustinha’s voice descended into a raspy whisper.

“Oooh, that’s exciting!” said Sister Maryska. “Tell us more! What did we do to become prison convicts?”

Before she joined the nunnery, Augustinha had been part of an avant-garde theater group known for its complete lack of inhibitions onstage and offstage, and it was rumored among the novices peeling potatoes in the kitchen that Augustinha had led a blissfully debauched life, complete with boyfriends, banned substances, and (dare they say it) aborted babies. That she was now one of the order’s most devout and dedicated sisters—the one who bathed lepers and tended to terminal patients—could not dispel the impression that she knew more about life than one was reasonably entitled to. 

“I fold!” said Sister Edwige, finishing the hand and letting Loreto scoop up the pot. “I think Sister Augustinha’s game is more fun. Let’s play that instead!”

“Awww, just when I was winning!” said Sister Loreto, pouting at her suddenly worthless chips. 

“Did we rob a bank?” asked Maryska. “Did someone get killed?”

Loreto said, “What do we know about robbing banks? Even if we did get some money, what would we have used it for? We made a vow of poverty—” 

“No, no,” said Edwige, “we didn’t make any vows, we’re not sisters, although we later pretend to be so. We’re villains, we like money, we like spending it on cars, houses, perfumes, vacations to Paris—” 

“Men? Did we spend on men?” asked Loreto.

“I don’t even know what it means to spend on men,” sighed Maryska. “Does that mean you—you buy them nice things, like watches and shoes and iPhones—”

“Or you can just buy them,” said Augustinha with a shrug.

“Really? For what?” said Maryska.

Edwige laughed. She had three brothers—an airline pilot, a cryptocurrency trader, and a police captain—all of whom had been left by their wives and girlfriends for various reasons. “So you can keep them as pets, snuggle up to them on rainy days, smell their body hair—”

“Ewww, I don’t even want to think about, please, please, take that thought away!” said Loreto, shaking her hands in the air. “No wonder we got caught! We had all of these impure thoughts! We robbed a bank so we could get and do all of these nasty things!”

“Technically, the bank robbery alone was enough to land us in jail. The motive doesn’t matter. We could’ve robbed a bank to give its money away to the poor. We’d still be criminals in the eyes of the law,” said Augustinha.

“It must be fun to be bad—sometimes,” said Sister Maryska, looking out into the garden, where other sisters were watering the begonias and watching the clouds turn pink.

“Do people even know what bad means anymore?” said Sister Edwige. “Or good, for that matter?”

Sister Loreto shuffled the deck of cards and said, “Let’s play another hand! And somebody close that window—I can feel a chill coming.”

Penman No. 378: My Retirement Library


Penman for Monday, January 6, 2020


I RECENTLY had occasion to reorganize my personal library, which involved trimming down hundreds of books into what could fit into a large aparador and three long shelves running along the wall of my study. Having retired for a year now, I thought that it was time to start bringing my worldly possessions down to the core, down to things I would actually live with in my old age, however short or long that grace period is going to be.

As you can imagine, this was easier said than done. Downsizing a library takes a lot more than a physical effort. It means going over a virtual history of your own mind, every book bought and kept being a marker of sorts of whatever it was you found interesting at that moment.

To force my hand and speed things up, last November I picked out and donated four large boxes of over 150 books to a benefit sale being held by students in my department in UP, mostly literature books and texts only an English major could love. As I was packing them up I remembered how, in my student days, we scoured the sales at Alemar’s and the old PECO as well as the used-book bins along Recto for bargains, clucking like well-fed chickens when we came across a prize catch (for me then, an orange-spined Penguin book by the likes of Graham Greene or John Updike).

Having a fixed space to move my books into also obliged me to choose well and wisely. In the end I decided that for simplicity’s sake my retirement library would contain only books that fell into certain categories: (1) books I myself wrote (around 40) and edited or contributed to (another 60 or so); (2) books signed by fellow authors; (3) books that were good or important to have, including antiquarian books, Filipiniana, Rizaliana, books on pens, machines, art and design, and collecting in general; and (4) most importantly, my personal favorites—the books that, for the past 50 years, I loved to read or would want to re-read, and, for some new ones, will want to read in retirement. It’s that last shelf I’ll dwell on for now.

As a fictionist, my favorite books of fiction are of course represented: William Kennedy’s Ironweed, J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, John Gardner’s Grendel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which Franz Arcellana told our class was the most disgusting book he had ever read, prompting me to rush out and look for it. (I still have to find my copy of D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel.) Anthologies and books by my favorite poets include those by Robert Graves, Constantine Cavafy, Philip Larkin, and Federico Garcia Lorca.

There are also books about the practice and culture of writing: Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, The Story of English by McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil, William Harris’ Ancient Literacy, and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (a gift from F. Sionil Jose, who asked me to pick a book off his shelf).

If my Pinoy writer-friends don’t see their books among my favorites, that’s because they’re on the shelf of autographed books, alongside those signed by John Updike, Edward Jones, Junot Diaz, Romesh Gunesekera, Charles Baxter, Lawrence Durrell, Frank McCourt, Kazuo Ishiguro, and J. M. Coetzee, as well as, of course, the Filipino standouts: Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, and even Carlos P. Romulo (who, let’s not forget, was one of five Filipinos to have won the Pulitzer Prize, mainly for journalism).

For fun, I keep books on poker (James McManus’ Cowboys Full and Positively Fifth Street) and books about Apple and Macs (Michael Malone’s Infinite Loop, Young and Simon’s iCon: Steve Jobs and the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, Leander Kahney’s The Cult of Mac), as well as E. S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which guided and inspired my shortlived career as a printmaker in the 1970s.

Perhaps most surprising is the predominance of history and nonfiction on this shelf, a tip of the hat to what I might have gone into as a profession if not for creative writing, although it’s mostly popular history for the enthusiast: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and James Burke’s Connections, Yuvel Noah Harari’s Sapiens, the Hakluyt edition of Morga’s Sucesos, Brian MacAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902, Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli, Dava Sobel’s Longitude, David Howard Bain’s Sitting in Darkness, Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire, Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, Nick Joaquin’s Manila My Manila (and his Reportage series), Richard Selzer’s Confessions of a Knife and Mortal Lessons, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ken Adler’s The Measure of All Things, and William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I often cite as the most influential book of my young life, because it made rebellion sound romantic, and encouraged me to carry a placard).

When I step back and survey what I’ve chosen to put together (perhaps too unabashedly male), I can still see that boy who was fascinated not so much by fiction but by how things worked and by what the world out there was like (Sobel’s Longitude will tell you that). Because (no thanks to poor math skills) I couldn’t become an engineer and make clocks and centrifuges, literature and creative writing became my second choice—to see how words worked, like cogs in a fine machine.


Penman No. 91: The Pinoy McManus (Part 2)

ButchMetroMSEPenman for Monday, April 7, 2014

IN CASE you’re wondering where “The Pinoy McManus, Part 1” is, it came out in this corner almost two years ago, on May 28, 2012; and in case you’re wondering who or what a “McManus” is, let me reprise what that first piece was all about.

Jim McManus is a prizewinning journalist, novelist, and director of the Master of Fine Arts Program at the Art Institute of Chicago, whose fiction won him the Carl Sandburg Prize for the novel in 1996, and whose journalistic pieces—on everything from stem cell research to poker—have been published by the New York Times, Esquire, and Card Player Magazine, among many other periodicals. He’s been a Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellow as well.

In other words, in the writing game, Jim’s no slouch, and you’ll pardon me if I’ve felt a certain affinity to him, having shared the same interests and experiences—not the least a passion for poker. The fact that Jim and I are both writers and creative writing teachers is my official excuse for posting this column-piece in Arts & Culture rather than in the sports page. Now let’s get to the fun part.

Jim McManus was assigned by Harper’s to cover the 2000 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas as the backdrop for a murder investigation, but rather than watch the game from the sidelines, he decided to use his advance to buy a satellite seat (a kind of pre-tournament tournament, with a much smaller entry fee). That started an incredible run to the main event itself and, against all the odds, to the final table, where he finished in fifth place, beating out many established pros to win almost $250,000. He later chronicled that miraculous ascent to poker stardom in the book Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker, a copy of which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop some years ago.

Some years ago—about eight years now, to be more precise—was when I began playing no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em poker semi-seriously, starting with beer-soaked Friday-night home games among friends and progressing to the Pagcor-vetted Metrocard Club in Pasig’s Metrowalk, where Manila’s pokerati regularly converge. Since then, I’ve spent many a night at Metro, usually on 16-hour binges, playing low-stakes poker while pecking away on a biography or an essay on my laptop and subsisting on dry saltine crackers and hot tea and black coffee.

My excuse to indulgent Beng for these excursions is that I’m gathering material for my third novel, on which I’ve been at work for three years now, and which features a call-center agent who moonlights as a poker grinder. But heck, I’ll admit it, the game’s addicting, and while other old guys might prefer golf, my turf’s the green felt table, and the swish of the cards is music to my ears. I’ve learned a few things about the game and have even won a few small tournaments, but I’m still basically what the pros would call a fish, an amateur whose rank enthusiasm for playing will often get the better of him.

As I wrote for a magazine a couple of years ago in a piece titled “Confessions of a Fish,” I’m in it more for the rush than the money: “For fish like me, winning is less an outcome than a moment—a surge of adrenalin, a flood of endorphins—that can pass very quickly, but is a high well worth buying. It’s the high you get when you hit your flush or your inside straight on the river, busting your cocky opponent’s three aces or two-pair. Never mind that that rush is followed by a long, slow slide back into the doldrums, and that you’ll be driving home in the wee hours many thousands of pesos poorer. All a fish has to do is to remember that instant—that look of utter horror and disgust on the other guy’s face—and all the pain of losing fades away, like dirty water down a drain.”

Part 1 of my McManus article came out because I’d just then placed 20th in a big million-peso tournament at Metro, my best-ever finish at that point. Jim McManus actually read my Star column online and congratulated me for it; we exchanged messages and pleasantries, and I promised to take him up on his invitation to have coffee or a beer with him in Kenilworth, Illinois one of these days and have my copies of his books signed (I also have his definitive history of poker, Cowboys Full).

Now, Jim, if you’re still out there, here’s an update from the fanboy and wannabe: last week, I did myself one better, and made the final table of another major tournament, the P1-million Metro Summer Event. A million pesos is small beans by Las Vegas standards, but the first prize could have wiped out my credit-card bills and bought me a Montblanc or two, so I was all worked up for the four-day marathon.

Like Jim, I entered the MSE through a pre-tourney satellite, winning a ticket to the big game. We started out with 15,000 in chips, and at one point on Day 1—among over 400 other players in the pool—my stack went down to 7K. On Day 2 and with the pool down to a hundred, I hit a lucky streak and nursed my 40K stack to almost 380K; on Day 3, that ballooned to over 1.2 million (these are just chips, folks, not real money, so don’t get too excited). On Day 4, down to the final table of ten players, I went in as second chip-leader, but also as the oldest guy and the biggest fish in the pool of sharks.

The technical details that follow will fascinate only the poker cognoscenti: I got that far in the tournament because of some of the most incredible, heart-stopping suckouts or last-card, last-second turnarounds you ever saw. At one point, my opponent drew a flush on the flop against my Q-10, but I hit trips on the turn and a full house on the river. The wildest hand of the tournament had me going all-in against the chip leader with a pair of 9s; he called, and tabled a pair of 10s: I was, 90 percent, a dead duck right at the start. The first three cards or the “flop” rolled out, none of them a 9 or a 10, but with two clubs; the fourth or turn card was the 6 of clubs. My opponent held the 10 of clubs, so he wasn’t just leading from the get-go but also had a backdoor flush draw.

Only one card in the whole deck remained that could beat him, the 9 of diamonds; if any other card showed up, I’d be homebound (even if the fifth and last or “river” card was the 9 of clubs, he would still hit his flush). At this point, I got up and shouldered my man-bag (loaded with crackers, a cellphone power bank, and Splenda sweetener); I needed the Splenda, as I could smell and taste the bitterness of certain defeat. Then the dealer drew and turned over the river card—hallelujah, the 9 of diamonds, the absolute, 2-percent one-outer. My opponent collapsed against the wall as I heard choirs of angels singing “Ode to Joy.”

On the final day, after a good night’s sleep, I got up at 6, and did a 10-kilometer walk around the UP campus, running the “Chariots of Fire” theme in my head. This was my day of days; I showered, did my students’ grades and turned in my grade sheets, worked on one of the biographies in the pipeline, got a foot massage, then put on my “University of the Philippines” baseball cap and blue jacket—my battle gear—and went to the final table.

I held on that night, scribbling messages to myself over the breaks on a notepad with my faithful Agatha Christie, reminders like “Keep your head!” and “Patience, endurance, opportunity!” (It was probably the doodling more than the messaging that relaxed me.) With uncharacteristic smartness, I played it safe, tossing away nine out of every ten hands, preserving my stack while I let the others duke it out. Eventually I finished in second place, bowing to a friend and previous champion, a genial and exemplarily cautious player, TV and film director Tofie Runas.

The next day I brought Beng with me to Metro to claim my prize, to ensure that the money would go to good causes (I might treat myself to a pen or two, as a souvenir of the experience). “Heck, this beats the Palancas,” I told myself, remembering my first Palanca short-story win nearly 30 years ago, also a second-place finish. I could see Jim McManus grinning in Kenilworth, Illinois. He’d addressed me in his messages as “brother,” so here’s to you, brother Jim, and to all of us 60-somethings chasing thrills and spills on the green felt table.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 9: Confessions of a Fish

For Esquire Magazine / July 2012

THERE’S A saying among poker players that if you can’t figure out who the fish is at your table within the first half-hour, then the fish is you. The fish is, of course, the prey in the ocean, regular lunch fare for the sharks, the poker player who’ll go all-in on a pair of Queens because they’re the best hand he’s had all evening despite an Ace and a King showing on the table.

But let’s make this easy without having to wait for 29 more minutes: I’ll admit it, I’m a fish, 90 percent of the time. I go into a poker game not really to win—though I’ll be happy if I do, and thank you very much—but to play cards, which can be very different from playing to win. How so?

First of all, let’s define what winning in poker is. Logically speaking, winning is a positive outcome—literally, a result at the end of the day that yields you a bigger bankroll than you started out with. If you’re a poker pro, which I’m certainly not, this can be your only definition of winning: going home with even just a couple of thousand pesos more in your pocket, whether from a tournament or a cash game, after having risked, say, anywhere between P5,000 and P10,000 in play.

For fish like me, winning is less an outcome than a moment—a surge of adrenalin, a flood of endorphins—that can pass very quickly, but is a high well worth buying. It’s the high you get when you hit your flush or your inside straight on the river, busting your cocky opponent’s three Aces or two pair. Never mind that that rush is followed by a long, slow slide back into the doldrums, and that you’ll be driving home in the wee hours many thousands of pesos poorer. All a fish has to do is to remember that instant—that look of utter horror and disgust on the other guy’s face—and all the pain of losing fades away, like dirty water down a drain.

A “grinder” or a “rounder”—someone who’ll play hundreds of hands in a day, on the felt table or online, just to come out with a little more than what he would’ve made driving a cab or flipping burgers or calming down irate Texans from a call-center cubicle—can’t afford that kind of drama. That’s one way of spotting the pros: they’ll fold pocket Kings when they have to with the faintest cluck of the tongue, almost as easily as if they’d been holding a Seven-Deuce.

Like you might have noticed, I observe my fellow players a lot. That’s my official excuse for spending 16-hour binges at the tables—typically checking in after lunch and playing in the 2:30 tournament, busting out by 6 pm, signing up for the 7 pm tournament, and again busting out by midnight, just a few places short of finishing in the money, and staying on at the cash tables until 5 am, when UP’s gates open and I can drive home with a little back massage from the rosy fingers of dawn. I’m writing a novel with a poker player in it—a call center fellow whose wife has been sleeping with her boss and whose only consolation, if you can call it that, is the draw of the cards and the gambler’s unflinching conviction that, one inevitable day, he’s going to strike it rich. Throw in a messy love story—a cute dealer with a thuggish boyfriend—and you have a novel.

So I’ve been taking notes about the game and its practitioners, in between throwaway hands. Seriously: I get a lot of writing done over those stretches, and it used to be easier when I was using a BlackBerry instead of an iPhone. I sit at the tables for so long that I have to bring an extended battery for use from about 2 am onwards, and I wouldn’t have traded the BlackBerry for the iPhone’s crappy battery life if I didn’t need to surf and look up my eBay bids while playing (more fish tells: impatience, distraction).

And so I dutifully observe the comings and goings of the cross-dressing diva whose girlish giggles disguise a strong, solid game; the starlet whose privates I’d met in a sex video before I met the rest of her; the loudmouthed balikbayan cursing the last card, or the “river”; the dealer bouncing back from pregnancy to another kind of succulence; the masseuse in hospital scrubs kneading a bare, shiny back as large and as dark as Africa. They used to play “Pokerface” to death on the PA but that’s been replaced by B.O.B.: “Beautiful girls all over the world I could be chasing but my time would be wasted….” How could I be wasting my time when I’m meeting people and learning songs like these? Never mind that any dude my age is addressed as “Daddy” or “Tatang” at the tables; put on shades, a hoodie, and Sennheisers, and you’ll feel 30 years younger.

I’ve written down lines like “The ceaseless murmur of chips sounds like a forest of crickets” and “There’s nothing more cruel than the indifference of cards” and “The dealer’s fingers darted like a skittish crab across the felt, picking up chips at every stop” (let’s add this for the wannabe Hemingways out there: copyright, Butch Dalisay, 2012). I’d like to think that, one of these days, those lines will turn like Moses’ snake—whapak!—into a novel that will win a prize that will recoup all my losses from all those donkey calls.

Ah, the donkey. Anatomically and taxonomically, donkeys have very little to do with fish, but in poker, they might as well be the same animal. The donkey will make a bad call holding an insufferably bad hand—something like a Three and a Seven off-suit—in the deathless hope that the flop, the first three community cards, will be Four, Five, and Six. And you know what? Sometimes it happens. And that’s what the donkey-fish lives for, to the dismay of the pros, who also have an attitude problem of their own, to the effect that “Unless you’re holding at least an Ace-King, you have no right to call my pocket Queens.”

As for the cards themselves, I’ve seen and had them all: a royal flush (three times), an Ace-high flush beaten by a one-outer straight flush (my best hand ever), a four-of-a-kind beaten by a straight flush (my worst hand ever). In the middle of a boring meeting at the English department, I run these games through my head like YouTube videos, savoring every flip of the cards, almost forgetting that, in many cases, I was on the losing end.

That’s why I’m a fish. I’m here for the endorphins, and they don’t come cheap.

(Photo courtesy of pilipinaspoker.com)

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 5: What a Fish!

We played this hand at the 10-20 table at the Metrocard Club last night (or make that early this morning), and it shows exactly why I’m such a fish who can’t resist making awful donkey calls, despite my illusions to the contrary.

The flop was A-4-4.

The “villain” (not a derogatory term in poker–just the guy or gal you’re betting against) bet 100. I said, what the heck, and called.

The turn was a 10. The villain thought a bit and bet 160. I tanked, figured that I had lost more than a thousand already and had to go home soon, and called.

The river was a 5.

I sighed and went all in with my remaining chips, bringing the pot to around 3,000. The villain tanked for about three minutes, trying to figure out what I had. “Please make him call,” I prayed to the poker gods. “Please, say call!” Finally, wanting to fold but too curious to let go, the villain called, and showed an A-10, good for top two pair. I turned over a 2-3 offsuit for a baby straight. I thanked him, slugged the chips into a rack, and went home. What a fish!