Every Tuesday night, as he has for the past year and a half, Stephen Elliott gets together with a group of friends and plays poker into the wee hours. Bets hover around $20, but money isn't really the point, Elliott says. It's what you can learn about people--including yourself--while pushing chips across a beer-stained table. Players come and go, but ten of the regulars and their wins, losses, and notable bursts of shit talking have been immortalized in the Poker Report, a semiregular poetic bulletin the Chicago-bred novelist E-mails to about 100 subscribers from San Francisco, where he lives now as a fellow at Stanford University's creative writing program.
Like most literature on gambling, the Poker Report goes beyond dry recital of the stats or strategies for winning. Questions rattle around the table about how to lose gracefully, who likes whom (a romance has bloomed between two of the regulars), and how to escape into a deck of cards as Enron screws the pooch and kids in the Middle East blow themselves up. Elliott usually doesn't have the answers to the questions he poses in the report--sometimes he's too drunk to remember who won, much less pontificate at length on world peace.
Elliott, now 30, is the son of Evanston writer Neil Elliott, who covered Vietnam for Newsweek and has published books on euthanasia, Al Capone's piano player, and Scandinavian sensuality. But his father was "a thug," Elliott claims, and he ran away at age 13. (The elder Elliott, who's been supportive of his son's career in print, has admitted to yelling at the boy and handcuffing him to a pipe, once, to try to keep him home.) He spent several years on the streets of Rogers Park, living for a time on the roof of a 7-Eleven and in group homes; he did drugs and at one point stripped for money. His three novels--Jones Inn, last year's A Life Without Consequences, and the new What It Means to Love You--are semiautobiographical, set in Chicago with a supporting cast of addicts, prostitutes, and runaways.
At 16, after flunking his way through two years of group-home high school, Elliott struck a deal with his principal: if he got straight As for a semester, he'd be allowed to attend Mather High School in West Rogers Park. He graduated from Mather in two years, got a degree in history from the University of Illinois in Champaign, and in 1996 earned his master's in film from Northwestern.
His first experience with poker was just grisly enough to pique his interest. En route from Chicago to Seattle, where he was heading to live with a girlfriend after Northwestern, Elliott stopped at a "saloon" in West Yellowstone, Montana, joined a private game, and lost most of the $600 he had to his name. "I think I had about $20 left after that...just enough to get into Seattle on fumes. I showed up with nothing, and it was just terrible for our relationship." Nevertheless the couple stayed together for another year and almost got married--a gamble Elliott chickened out on. "I wish I had gone through with it--because then I could've gotten a divorce," he says with a laugh. "I'd have already gone through the whole marriage experience, gotten all that out of the way."
Elliott's taken a beating at the card table a few more times since, but he insists that he doesn't have a gambling problem. "For the most part, I play within my limits," he says. "I'm like a recreational heroin user--I've overdosed once or twice, but usually I do just enough to get myself high."
Perhaps his greatest gambling high came in March on a road trip to Las Vegas, where he says he won $15,000 for his publisher, David Poindexter of the San Francisco indie press MacAdam/Cage, at craps--"a sucker's game," Elliott says. (Elliott's editor at the press, Pat Walsh, is one of the Poker Report regulars.) He steadily added to Poindexter's original $1,500 stake as the night wore on; by the time he finally decided that "there would be no more action," Poindexter had already gone to bed. In that week's missive, "The Poker Report Goes to Las Vegas II," he wrote: "I walked fifteen thousand in chips to the cashier but I only cashed for five thousand otherwise they were going to report me to the IRS. It was ridiculous." Poindexter tipped him two grand.
Elliott is keen on the metaphorical resonance between writing and gambling: "They are both bad ways to make a living. You spend a lot of time at a card table with no return. You can even lose money." And winning and losing don't matter in the long run. "Writing, like gambling, is the end in itself," he says. "You're in it for the thrill."
The Poker Report is archived at www.stephenelliott.com. Elliott will read from What It Means to Love You on Thursday, November 21, at 7:30 PM at Barbara's Bookstore, 1350 N. Wells, 312-642-5044.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anthony Pidgeon.