Saturday, June 30, 2007

Summer Camp

The Northeastern Writers' Conference, or Necon, is a pretty special event. The conference is held at Roger Williams University (which I almost attended for Grad school, but alas it was not to be), giving myself and two hundred and ninety-nine writers, artists, and fans a chance to relive the glories and horrors of dormitory life. We sleep two to a room, eat our meals in the cafeteria, and attend panels in lecture halls. I attended my first Necon last year and was hooked. Being able to hang out and shop talk about writing with a group of professionals I've long admired, as well as to be able to rub shoulders with a number of up and coming writers just starting to make their bones in the field was an experience I won't forget.

I can't write about certain details of the conference, as the conference motto is "what happens at Necon, stays at Necon". This will be the twenty-seventh year that the conference is being held; why the organizers haven't sued the Las Vegas tourism bureau yet, I don't know. Suffice to say that the the conference is three hundred writers, artists and fans, and they are all staying in a college dormitory--you can fill in the blanks.

There are a few things that I think I write about without fear of reprisal; I don't think the conference omertà extends to the dealers' tables and Olympic events. My particular event is what the Neconites call Hi-Lo Jack. When I was in college we called it Setback, and my roommate and I were a formidable team, almost as formidable as my partnership with my cousin Matt. Hi-Lo Jack uses one deck of cards and has four points which the players bid on, the High, the Low, the Jack, and the Game. The High, Low and Jack are only worthwhile in the bid winners' trump suit, whereas all Game cards count for game. In totaling Game, Aces are four points, Kings three, Queens are two, the Jacks are worth a point, and tens are ten points. The game at Necon is Cutthroat, meaning that the four players are out for themselves and not partnered, and they play a version where the dealer can steal a matching bid, i.e. take a three bid away from another bidder for three and not four the way the rest of the non-dealing saps would need to.

Anyhow, I always considered myself pretty good at Setback. I'd never played it Cutthroat style, however, and I'd certainly never played Rhode Island Cutthroat Hi-Lo Jack, which left me pretty nervous, actually. Like I was afraid the Necon Police would drag me out and throw me into the bay if I didn't put up a decent showing.

Unfortunately, my nerves must have caused my already grim expression to set throughout the competition, because after I won the first round to advance to the finals I overhead one of the campers say, "What the heck is with that guy? You think maybe he could have smiled once, like when you dealt him Ace-King-Queen of hearts?"

Her companion, rightly, pointed out that there wasn't a whole lot you could do when one person got the cards, and the other three didn't.

I'm not normally unfriendly, and I'm not really shy, but there was something about playing in a tournament with a bunch of people (writers!) who knew both the rules and each other that caused me to present an unpleasant, boorish card sharp image to my fellow players, an unfeeling automaton like one of those World Series of Poker jerks who sits in reptilian repose, not even twitching as they coldly game their way through a million dollar hand.

It didn't help my likability at all when I won the finals in four hands. First to eleven wins (and you need to win by two), so I would have needed to have at least three three bids and a two bid. Not bad when you consider that the quickest you could win a game of Hi-Lo Jack is in three hands.

My fellow players were a gracious bunch, and were very kind to me after I explained that I was really not some grifter playing a short con, that it was really just nerves and social awkwardness that caused me to play like the Borg. They joked with me about it over drinks in the quad, and even clapped and cheered for me when I accepted my gold medal (although there was one fellow camper who I think was gritting her teeth at me throughout the ceremony, and I thought about the ladies' at my Mom's bingo hall when I was ten years old, how they pinched my cheeks with intense fervor on the night I won the forty dollar fill-the-card Blackout jackpot).

There actually was a gold medal, and I'm thrilled to say that it was designed and cast by none other than Gahan Wilson, whose cartoons have graced The New Yorker and Playboy among others. Mr. Wilson has created a few of my favorite cartoons ever, including my all time favorite, the caption of which is "I paint what I see, child."

Had I known about the actual medal ahead of time, I think I would have been even more nervous and loathsome, because I would really, really have wanted to win.

Here's a picture of my *ahem* Hi-Lo Jack Gold Medal:

I'll write about my adventures at the dealer tables a little later. Gripping, edge of your seat stuff, I know.

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