Ron Abell. Tap City. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1985. 274 pages.
This is hardly a new release, but I just read this book for a class I might be teaching about gambling and media. And it’s a book I should have read a long time ago.
Tap City is about a fictional Seven-Card Stud Tournament (definitely not the World Series of Poker) hosted by fictional celebrity poker player Stretch Jackson (definitely not Amarillo Slim) in a fictional Reno casino, the Taj Mahal. The first part of the book sets the scene, describing several of the eventual participants in the game at various points over the previous few months, and the second half is the telling of what happens during the three-day tournament.
Instead of setting the tournament in sweltering Las Vegas, where the unrelenting heat would be an apt metaphor for the growing pressure of the tournament, Abell sets his first (and to my knowledge, only) novel in Reno. In January. He’s a skilled enough writer that he makes the reader (or at least this reader) pine for Reno in January. If you’ve ever been in Reno in January, you know that’s quite a feat. His description is so pitch-perfect and unvarnished that the reader is absolutely drawn in.
Abell creates memorable characters, like Lee Sherman Tobias, an aging poker warrior who might be a synthesis of Johnny Moss and Nick Dandalos; William “the Owl” Avery, who seems to have a touch of a more academic Puggy Pearson; Vic Houston, who might be based on Doyle Brunson;and several characters based on no obvious real world counterparts, like the embittered former dealer Shayna, a cross-dressing down-on-his-luck actor named Jerry Corbett, Doug McGowan, cursed with beginner’s luck, and insecure body builder and real estate scammer Brian Bates.
But the characters (and indeed the action) take a back seat to Abell’s prose, which passably advances the story while setting up some of the greatest prose about gambling, poker, and Reno that I’ve read yet. The opening description of Stretch Jackson sets the tone. I’ll excerpt a few sentences that don’t do it justice:
He was called Stretch Jackson and his markers were honored from London to Las Vegas. He weighed a hundred and fifty-five pounds and would have stood six and a half feet tall if he ever straightened up, but he had a lazy man’s posture. He never stood if he could sit and he never sat if he could slouch. He had a hollow chest and no waist and when he walked he went slowly, like a man moving through water….He had good teeth and an easy smile and his blue-gray eyes were every bit as compassionate as a wolf’s.
Here’s some more:
Poker had almost nothing to do with cards. It has to do with people. (p.7)
She learned that the losers in Vegas weren’t beaten as much as they were pulverized. The mills of the casino grind slow, but they grind relentlessly. (p. 28)
That was Reno for you. It was a tank town compared to Vegas, but it had a heart sometimes. (p.48)
As a group, the players bore up under the weight of enough rings, wristwatches, cuff links, bracelets, pendants, and neckchains to founder a galleon (p. 61)
“Playing Vic Houston’s like trying to nail Jelly to the wall.” (p.112)
That’s just a small sampling. You’ve got to read the book to really appreciate Abell’s turn of a phrase–it’s remarkable.
But pretty language isn’t all that distinguishes Tap City. Through the device of the tournament, Abell distills, into a single event that must produce dozens of losers and one winner, all the drama of poker and gambling. There are real insights here into psychology–maybe stressed a bit too much by having a psychologist as an ancillary character, but interesting nonetheless. Tap City explores not just the dramatic nuts and bolts of poker playing–to raise or fold, bluff or check–but the soul behind the game, and by extension Reno.
It’s a shame that this is the only novel Abell published. I definitely would read more from him. As it is, Tap City has both literary and historic value. It’s funny to hear a character comment that next year, the World Series of Poker might have 200 players, and that it’s gotten far too big. The mid-1980s also saw the beginning of the changing of the poker guard, as the road gamblers started to fade away, supplanted by a new rank of champions.
In short, Abell’s novel is an engaging read (I got through it in just about one sitting) that also sheds light on the nature of gambling, the game of poker, and the city of Reno in a way that few other novels do. It’s a highly recommended read.