Murphy’s Luck

I play entirely too much Solitaire. Sometimes, when I’m in a long run of games that end abruptly with too many cards unturned, I imagine one of my fictional characters is looking over my shoulder, giving me advice.

His name is Osiris Jonathan Murphy, and he also plays too much solitaire, though, for him, the game is a way of keeping away from his greater addiction: poker.

Murphy is a supremely good poker player, but he doesn’t look the part. He’s big, bulky, somewhat old, with the face of a former brawler and a limp of someone who has survived more than one donnybrook. He dresses so plain that you wouldn’t remember him, so that when he sits down to a game in an Atlantic City poker pit, you end up ignoring him and focusing instead on the guys with the white shoes, red bowties and Poker World Series hats, who end up leaving the table with a lot less than they had when they came in. Murphy? He leaves with a little more, but not so much more that you would suspect him of controlling the game.

He is the son of an Egyptian-born mother and an American soldier who married her when he was stationed in the Middle East. The soldier came home to find out that no one was interested in honoring him for service to his country, so he became a plumbing and heating contractor in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill, a rather wealthy enclave settled by people who must be able to say they live within the city limits, but would rather pretend they’re on the Main Line.

Murphy’s mother told fortunes with for the Chestnut Hill ladies who lunch. Their only child had an uncanny brilliance at math–he could do complicated calculations in his head and, in middle school, finished and handed in all the math homework sets for Algebra One and Two, Geometry and Calculus, in two weeks.

He was an indifferent student in high school and spent most of his time supplementing his family’s income by raking the pocket money from frat boys at Drexel and Penn, where he learned the hard way you can only take so much out of a game, without the other players trying to kill you. To escape a leg-breaker hired by one of the frat boy’s parents, he hid out across the river in Princeton, where he played the game with some of the math geniuses at the Institute for Advanced Study. After helping out one of these geniuses hold on to her property during a nasty divorce (by showing how her soon-to-be ex husband was stealing from a political action committee fund),  he was referred to the New Jersey Division of Special Investigations, where they called him Santa Claus, because could glance at a balance sheet, financial disclosure form or a 250 page tax return and know who was naughty or nice.

He became a consulting forensic accountant, a specialist in following the money no matter how deeply the bad guys try to bury it. He finds himself spending too much time in Atlantic City poker dens and gets a job with a local accounting firm that contract work for the casinos. Here Murphy makes two big mistakes: he discovers that the owner of the firm is colluding with a casino owner to hide assets in preparation for a bankruptcy filing and leaks that fact to his old boss at the State DIS, and he falls in love with the firm’s other forensic, Tucson “Tookie” Caynute, who is almost as good at poker as he is.

Or maybe better. The DIS fails to indict Murphy’s firm. Murphy is fired, and sued. The lawsuit is dropped when Tookie starts spending too many nights in the casino tower apartment of Gary Sligo, proud of owner of the suddenly bankrupt Silver City Casino Hotel.

Like many brilliant people who are hit with things they can’t understand, Murphy goes down. He drinks too much and then makes a third mistake in beating a mob-run underground game. But no matter how far down he spirals, he can’t escape his gift: he can spot the cheaters, he can identify the gaffed game, he knows who is naughty or nice. Sometimes, when the casinos have cheat working and their own people can’t figure out the scam, they bring in Murphy, and Murphy finds it, without fail.

When he doesn’t have a casino “consult,” he haunts the city’s poker dens, making just enough cash to live simply. He doesn’t have a cell phone. He doesn’t have credit cards. He spends most of his time with the Atlantic City Patience Society,  a room carved out of an old hotel lobby, where people of all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds, play numerous and various solitaire games, on computers and with “analog” cards, for fun, but no profit (solitaire is not a legal gambling game in Atlantic City).

Until…guess who walks in off the street?

I introduced Murphy in one of my published novels and wanted to write more about him.  But, like Murphy himself, agents and editors played me false. I had the best intentions–I wanted to write great stories about people we wish we could meet, who are faced with amazing challenges and–because I like happy endings–meet those challenges head on and triumph.

For every story you hear about dedicated agents and editors bringing a great story to into the bookstores, there are far more about how these very same people screw up, turn their backs or simply fail to do what they should.

I don’t blame them anymore. People you depend on screwing up, failing you, being merely incompetent, or naughty when it is so much easier to be nice–are part of life. We have to face these things, clean up the mess and, somehow, continue.

My wife loves Murphy as a character (she’s read some of the drafts in which he appears) and insists that his adventures find themselves in print.

Osiris J. Murphy still lives in my head, telling me that my solitaire game has “good depth” (that means I’ve turned over more than a few cards before I go through the pile), I should feel good that I got my “ace’s out” (the four aces are above the line, so I can start “building up” suits), and that the “field” has “nice color”–I have a few good, long piles of contrasting a red and black cards. He encourages me I should always play the game out to the end, especially when I think I know how it will end. “Because you can’t see everything in the game when you’re playing it, and what you think is there, isn’t always.” He concludes with gentle advice: “if you’re going to get anything out of all the time you put into this, if it you’re want to keep believing that miracles can happen and nothing we do is ever wasted, never forget why they call it ‘patience.'”

I forget far more often than I wish. But when I remember, I smile.




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