Sunday, 9 November 2014

Ian Fleming introduces Yardley's 'The Education of a Poker Player'

When scriptwriters looked to update Ian Fleming's Casino Royale for the twenty-first James Bond film, they decided to replace the game of baccarat, which is played in the novel, with poker. Producer Michael G Wilson explained that while baccarat was no longer popular and few people would understand it, poker has worldwide recognition and is played as international tournaments online and on television. This is indisputable, but even so, given that Bond never plays poker in the books, is there something a little, well, un-Bondian about the game? Perhaps not. The literary James Bond may not play poker, but his creator did.

In 1958, Ian Fleming wrote an introduction to a slim volume by American author Herbert O Yardley called The Education of a Poker Player, which was first published in America in 1957. Fleming read it and was so taken with it, that he urged his publisher, Jonathan Cape, to issue the book in Britain. Cape agreed (the book was published in 1959), but on the condition that Fleming pen an introduction, presumably hoping that the attachment of Fleming's name to the book would boost sales.

Ian Fleming revealed in his introduction that he enjoyed playing poker, but confessed that he wasn't a good player. He claimed not to understand poker's myriad variations (at least, before he had encountered Yardley's book), and admitted that he drank and smoked too much to win at the game. Yardley advises poker players to “never drink while playing”, as “drinking leads to carelessness in cards”, advice, incidentally, that most of the players in the poker tournament that featured in the film of Casino Royale fail to heed, James Bond included. Herbert O Yardley would not have been impressed.

Apart from the intricate descriptions of games of Five-Card Draw (Jacks or Better, Deuces Wild with the Joker, Lo Ball), Five Card Stud, Seven-Card Stud, Seven-Card Stud (Hi-Lo), what particularly struck  Fleming was the tone of the book, which in his view was as tautly-written and as full of zest, blood, sex and wry humour as any Raymond Chandler novel (qualities, indeed, that filled the pages of Fleming's own writing).

Ostensibly a guidebook to how to win at  poker, Yardley's book is an autobiographical account of his own experiences playing poker, from his time learning the game as a teenager under the tutelage of James Montgomery at Monty's Place in Washington around 1905, to his games against Chinese officials while engaged between 1938 and 1941 by China to break Japanese codes during the Second Sino-Japanese war. All this time, Yardley writes that he never lost more than three sittings in a row.

Despite his enjoyment of the game, Ian Fleming never has James Bond play poker in his novels. Poker isn't excluded altogether, however, as Fleming made several allusions to the game, usually by way of metaphor. In 'The Hildebrand Rarity' (1962), for example, when Milton Krest goads Bond with aspersions about Britain's influence in the world, he says that the three remaining powers of America, Russia and China represented “the big poker game and that no other country had either the chips or the cards to come into it.”

Ian Fleming was fascinated by card games, and poker was no exception. That the game merits only passing references in the Bond books seems a little surprising, but may reflect Fleming's poorer understanding and experience of the game compared with baccarat, canasta and bridge, with which he was far more familiar  and which consequently found significant places in the Bond novels (Casino Royale, Goldfinger and Moonraker respectively).


Chowdhury, A, 2007 Bond Reborn, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 3, 26-33
Gilbert, J, 2012 Ian Fleming: The Bibliography, Queen Anne Press
Yardley, H O, 2002 The Education of a Poker Player, High Stakes


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