The producer called me at two o’clock sharp. The sound guy had gotten into a car accident on the corner of my street. Stepping onto the porch, I surveyed the scene: three bewildered men, two dinged-up cars, one woman sulking alone on her phone. Two of the men walked over and introduced themselves. The producer was short with spiky black hair and designer sunglasses. It was unsurprising to learn that he lived in Brooklyn. The camera guy was an Englishman who looked like John Krakauer—rugged and refined, with a trimmed gray beard.
“I feel like I should apologize,” I said, sheepishly shaking their hands. A few weeks earlier, the producer had asked me to do an interview for a documentary about poker’s origins. I’d warned him that I wasn’t an historian, but he didn’t seem to mind. The pickings were slim, probably, even in poker’s birthplace. We arranged to meet at my house in St. Roch, a neighborhood a mile or so to the northeast of the French Quarter. I had cautioned them about the enormous pothole in the middle of my street, but I hadn’t thought to warn them about New Orleans drivers.
The producer politely waved me off and said that, aside from the accident, the trip was going well. They had already interviewed Lawrence Powell, an emeritus Tulane professor whose book The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans details Louisiana’s lengthy romance with chance. From the moment when Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville settled on a swamp in 1718, New Orleans wasn’t only an ideal hub for commerce; it was also vulnerable to flooding, hurricanes, and disease-infested mosquitoes and snakes. Powell argues that such a precarious environment contributed to the city’s polyethnic, risk-loving culture. “Kind of like with poker,” the producer said.
I asked if he was still planning to interview David Parlett, a scholar of games who lived in England. He nodded. “I was on his website when I was looking at Primero, to see what that game is all about, and—” The camera guy nudged the producer, pointed across the street, and whispered, “There’s chickens walking around.” Even from a distance, you could see their ruby-red combs and oil-black tail feathers. He looked at me and said, louder, “There’s chickens walking around.”
“They’re part of the neighborhood,” I said.
“Do they belong to anybody?”
The chickens, as far as I could tell, were vagabonds. Step outside and you’d spot packs of them, roosters and hens both, strutting across pothole-ravaged streets and abandoned lots, underneath rusty fences and raised-up shotgun homes. In 2013, the New Orleans City Council amended an ordinance that made it illegal to keep the following “exotic animals” as pets: monkeys, raccoons, skunks, wolves, squirrels, coyotes, foxes, leopards, panthers, tigers, lions, lynxes, venomous snakes, tarantulas, alligators, crocodiles, and—here’s the amendation—roosters. Hens were fine, but roosters and their relentless crowing were apparently too much to bear. Plus the city wanted to discourage cockfighting.
“Is cockfighting a thing?” the camera guy asked.
It was very much a thing. Also in 2013, city officials discovered an underground cockfighting compound with 700 roosters and over one hundred 55-gallon oil barrels that had been altered into makeshift cages. Louisiana was the last state to ban cockfighting—“in 2007,” I said. “Can you believe that?”
“That’s insane,” the producer said.
As we continued to wait for the sound guy—there was still no sign of the police—a sudden flurry of activity erupted on the street. After weeks of municipal malingering, my neighbors were taking matters into their own hands. Two of them were dumping shovelfuls of dirt into our resident pothole, while a third was chainsawing a tree in an overgrown lot opposite my house. Others, observing the ruckus from porches or the sidewalk, pointed at the pothole, to the chickens, to the accident, to us.
“Did this part of town flood during Katrina?” The producer asked.
The worst flooding was a few miles to the east, in the Lower Ninth Ward. Parts of that neighborhood felt like a wasteland.
“‘Cause people know it’s gonna happen again,” he answered, almost proudly. Suddenly I felt defensive. Who did this Brooklynite think he was, briefly swooping into town for a few stories? I wanted to tell him about Washboard Lissa and Nervous Duane, about Rain and Floyd and Joey and Paul and Jim and Chris and all the others, the porch-sitting great-grandmothers, the hoopsters hustling in St. Roch Park, the extravagantly besuited geezers shuffling into church, the dreamy fishermen hoping to get lucky on Lake Pontchartrain. I wanted to tell him about all of the chance-takers who had lived and died here for three hundred years and who will live and die for three hundred more, or for however long this stubborn catastrophe-battered city endures. But I didn’t. I just nodded soberly, in the manner of a grizzled native, when in fact I was an outsider—a New Yorker, like the producer—and I would always be an outsider. “Living here,” I finally said, “you opt into risks that you might not encounter elsewhere—storms, crime, potholes.”
“Another connection to poker,” the camera guy said.
We started setting up in the living room, which was sparsely furnished with a few old couches and a lamp resting atop a Fender drum. My housemate had recently redone the floors, and the room felt polished and fresh. The camera guy arranged a tripod in front of a wooden chair and affixed black curtains to the windows. After waiting in vain for the police to arrive, the sound guy finally joined us. He was a pleasantly ornery southerner in his sixties with curly, cottony hair. “Apparently you need to be in the extreme left lane to make a turn,” he said, shaking my hand.
“I can’t even tell that there are lanes on these streets,” the producer said. He pulled a chair to the right of the tripod, facing me, and balanced a MacBook on his lap. He had emailed me questions in advance. What is unique about New Orleans? Could poker have developed elsewhere in North America? What were some of the factors that drove gambling from various gambling dens in the city to the Mississippi riverboats? What can you tell me about poker on the riverboats? If early poker was known as “the cheater’s game,” then why on earth would anyone bother playing it? I had cobbled info from books, articles, and YouTube vids, invented “answers,” and converted a makeshift script to memory—or so I hoped. If I strayed from my script I might easily get lost, like an overbold hiker straying from a marked trail.
“This is gonna be Ben Saxton, take one,” the sound guy said, snapping the clapperboard.
“Finally, here we are,” the producer said, smiling at me from behind the camera guy and his camera. “Why don’t we start with early poker? When was that first played?”
It’s not entirely clear when early poker was first played, I said, or exactly how the game evolved from its antecedents—French poque, Persian As-nas, and English three-card Brag. I segued into an example from my mental script: The first time that the word “poker” appeared in print was in James Hildreth’s 1836 memoir Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains. The reference is accompanied by a vague footnote: “a favorite game of cards at the south and the west.”
One evening Hildreth, a young soldier who was stationed at Fort Gibson in the Arkansas Territory, found himself after curfew with a hankering for whisky. Low-ranking soldiers were forbidden to leave the barracks after dark without permission, and they also couldn’t drink alcohol. Hildreth crept quietly past the officers’ cabin, knowing that he risked double jeopardy if he was caught, and peered through a window. A group of officers sat on crude stools around a candlelit pine table that was filled with crumpled bills and silver coins. They were playing poker. The major, a bearded bulldog of a man, spoke aggressively, in the manner of someone goading another into action, whereas the captain was slim and soft-spoken.
I’ll bet you another ten! the major said.
The major hesitated and furtively double-checked his cards. The captain’s cool confidence seemed to unsettle him. Finally he pounded the table with his fist and roared gruffly that he wished to bet a hundred.
Done, the captain replied.
The major showed his hand—four kings—and glared in outraged triumph. Nodding grimly, the captain slowly turned his cards over—one ace, then another, then another, then another—and began to collect his winnings. Four Aces beat four Kings.
DAMN! The major exploded from his seat and, channeling every ounce of strength into his fists, like a human sledgehammer, cracked the pine table in two. Recoiling in shock, Hildreth staggered into the shadows and resumed his search for whiskey.
I paused. The producer seemed distracted, but he nodded, so I kept talking. The Hildreth anecdote, I said, established two things. First, the author’s surreptitious search for booze introduced poker as a game barely sanctioned by the law, played in a secretive setting—not something that a young soldier should witness. Second, the book was penned within a nineteenth-century literary tradition that was less concerned with accuracy than with spinning a good story. Hildreth’s Dragoon Campaigns, Solomon Smith’s Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years (1868), Mark Twain’s The Professor’s Yarn (1883), George Devol’s Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi (1887)—all of these stories featured the incredibly improbable occurrence of quad Kings losing to quad Aces. Embellishment wasn’t only common; it was expected. “These early anecdotes contributed to poker’s reputation as ‘the cheater’s game,’” I added. “The decks were often stacked in order to engineer huge confrontations.”
The producer looked like he’d sipped sour milk. Something was definitely wrong. “I just imagine that getting into the edit,” he said, nodding at the window. Outside, the chainsaw buzzed. He restlessly paced the room and joined the sound guy by the recording equipment. “Ben, tell me about when you moved to New Orleans, just so I can hear you talk.”
“I moved here four years ago,” I said. “I live in this lovely neighborhood called St. Roch where there’s chickens and potholes and guys cutting down trees with tiny chainsaws—”
The producer winced and shook his head. “It’s way too loud.”
“You get this feeling like you’re at the dentist,” the sound guy agreed.
There was nothing to do but wait. The producer peeled back the curtain and followed the commotion in the street. “There you go….Keep working…Chop the whole forest down.” He stamped his foot like a petulant kindergartener. “C’mon, just get it done, bro.” More hopeful waiting, and then: “Oh, shit! Now he’s taking out a leafblower!”
“That thing looks like a jetpack,” the sound guy said. He chuckled. “Years ago I worked with the Wheel of Fortune people. Every noise Vanna White heard, she stopped and identified. ‘Jet plane.’ ‘Ambulance.’ ‘Crows.’ She was very savvy.”
“This is Production Nightmare 101,” the camera guy said. “Chainsaw, leafblower—”
“The sound guy in a car wreck,” the sound guy said.
Through no one’s fault, the afternoon had devolved into a grotesque joke. I couldn’t help but wonder if the afternoon was a metaphor for my life in New Orleans. It was almost four, and daylight was running out. There was no telling what, if anything, would be salvageable.
Suddenly there was silence on the street. “Are they gonna whip out a jackhammer now?” the producer muttered. The three of them exchanged hopeful glances. The sound guy shrugged and looked at the camera guy, who looked at the producer. It was now or never.
“OK,” the producer said, sitting back down. “Let’s go for it.”