by Steve Almond, The Best American Short Stories, 2010, p. 1
Dr. Raymond Oss has the difficult situation of being a psychoanalyst with a gambling problem. The severity of his problem is minor, though–he keeps it to the $3/6 table at a dump called Artichoke Joes. Yet, he still keeps his addiction hidden from his wife, mostly because he loses more than he wins. When his wife finds out, he quits the game entirely.
This is fine until a poker champ named Gary Sharpe appears in his office for counseling. Sharpe is an angry man, which, combined with his tendency for self-destruction and loud-mouthed lambasting, makes him hard to like. When he loses the World Series of Poker to someone he was sure he could beat, he comes to Oss’s office demanding that Oss help him figure out his tell. Oss knows that his ear turns red when he’s angry or nervous, but refuses to tell him. Instead Oss delves deeper into Sharpe’s background, focusing particularly on his father, who, Sharpe insists, was “a gambler in denial.” Sharpe slips deeper in to despair, eventually showing up to their meetings drunk, continuing to abuse Oss and demand repayment “for failure to deliver the contracted services.” The issue of payment becomes the center of their conflict, and they eventually sever ties. Oss continues to see Sharpe, though, on TV, being an ass. Oss himself slips back into a routine of clandestine poker games.
In the climactic scene, Sharpe shows up to Artichoke Joes while Oss is playing a hand. Oss reluctantly accepts Sharpe’s offer to play. The hand immediately goes well for Oss, and with Sharpe beginning to drink heavily Oss begins to feel pity for him. Sharpe’s ego is unrelenting, though, and the wager skyrockets out of control. In the showdown, Sharpe lays down his hand, which beats Oss. Oss is left shocked, beat by a straight flush. Sharpe reveals that his wife tipped him off to his tell (the flushed ear, which also happened when he began drinking), and the whole game was just a ruse of revenge on poor old Oss. The story ends with Sharpe cruelly saying, “The man who can’t lose always does…Did you learn nothing from our work?”
The Craft – Here’s what I liked about it.
Rhythm/power of the opening line:
“Dr. Raymond Oss had become, in the restless leisure of his late middle age, a poker player.”
This just smacks of rhythm and the effective draw that gets a reader interested. The form of the sentence alone — the parenthetical phrase (“…in the restless leisure…”) breaking up the central conflict of the story — is enough to steal for my own use. It is a sentence of pausing, a re-evaluation occurs, closing with a 5-syllabic phrase of hard-stressed words: “PO-KER PLAY-ER.” The result is both accusatory and honest (“leisure of his late middle age”).
The parallels between Oss and Sharpe: Oss was clearly the sympathetic character here, but he isn’t entirely enjoyable, either. Sharpe’s anger at his father parallel’s Oss’s own patriarchal distaste. One of the themes of this story is these characters gamble to stand on the edge of ruining their lives. Both think they have it under control, but neither actually do, and in the end the matter is decided through luck. Oss, furthermore, seems to get his rocks off by psychoanalyzing Sharpe (the fact that he hides his knowledge of Sharpe’s tell is just one sign of this). And Oss’ hubris, like Sharpe’s, gets him into trouble.
The buildup to the ending: Perhaps I was naïve, but I was certain that Oss would win. Almond seems to expertly weave our sympathy for Oss by highlighting Sharpe’s misanthropic nature.
Yet, Almond is transparent in his characterization of several characters. Oss himself is given the visual cue of “hats that did not suit him.” His wife confronts his gambling problem in a theatrical display, and even his son’s back-talking banter is not enough to make the characters seem full. Perhaps in Almond’s most blatant display of weirdness-for-characterization, the author relies on non sequitur to both distinguish Oss’s colleague Penn and to up the level of humor. Many of these attempts fall short; an attentive reader can easily pick up on Almond’s puppet strings. The clearest character is Sharpe–he’s given a history from which several of his current problems have their genesis (though the disapproving father trope may be borderline cliché, Almond works it well), and his arrogance make him bad enough for the reader to dislike while still caring about what happens.
Ultimately, it becomes apparent that this story, like other sports/game lit, can end either one of two ways. Oss can win or Sharpe can win. This simplified binary might make the story run the edge of predictable, but, speaking subjectively, I didn’t see it coming.
It’s a good short story because it does all the basics–plot and character development (even if this story’s characterization technique is a one-trick pony), and two characters with enough tension between them to carry you to the end.
- Subjective Score: 3/5
- Technical Score: 2/5
- POV: Third-person limited
- Main Character: Dr. Raymond Oss
- Secondary/Impact Character: Gary “Card” Sharpe
- Tone: Humorous
- Main Conflict: Sharpe’s antagonism
- Main Dramatic Question: Will Oss successfully cure Sharpe?
- Positive Takeaway: A good twist can come out like a surprise hand, shocking both the reader and the characters.
- Negative Takeaway: Watch out for transparency in characterization; the people should come alive without unnecessary idiosyncrasy.
- Beginning: Oss quits gambling, begins treating Sharpe.
- Middle: Sharpe loses World Series, demands that Oss find out his tell.
- End: Final showdown at a card table shows Oss that hubris is his biggest fault.