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Jerusalem Poker
Jerusalem Poker

Jerusalem Poker
Edward Whittemore
Powell's Books.

Editor's Note: We've expanded the Bookshelf to include Bookshelf "Classic", occasional articles about obscure and neglected literary classics, whether in print, newly reprinted or long out of print.

Nominally, Jerusalem Poker is a somewhat surreal account of a twelve-year poker game played by three jovial scoundrels in an obscure location in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. At stake is no less than control of the Holy City.

In fact, the action only occasionally takes place in Jerusalem, never focuses much on actual poker gameplay and requires no technical knowledge of the game. On the other hand, some knowledge of the Near East, the Balkans and Japan over the last two or three thousand years would come in handy, as that's the approximate scope of the saga. Also, some rudimentary understanding of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic religions and their conflicts would not be amiss.

Thinking back on the book, it occurs to me that there's another way of defining its geographic scope, though it requires a little inside knowledge. It meshes pretty closely with the areas in which the author served as a CIA agent for ten or more years. I say "or more" because there are those who doubt that his relationship with the agency was ever severed while he was alive (he died in 1995).

Jerusalem Poker's cast of characters, places and events is so vast that I gave up drawing diagrams showing how they all inter-related (if at all) on my second reading. Anything I say about the story will be on a strictly stripped-down basis, which will absolutely fail to do justice to the full panoply of this epic.

We'll start with the main characters -- that is, the main poker players. First, there's O'Sullivan Beare, who leaves his native Ireland disguised as a nun, hotly pursued by elements of the British army. Without really planning it, he ends up in the Holy Land in the company of some Sisters on a pilgrimage. During his stay there, he amasses a fortune perfecting skills he learned as an Irish revolutionary -- namely gun-running, but now for the Jewish Stern gang. He also sells mass-produced fake icons to gullible Christians and other Holy Land visitors.

There's also a blue-eyed Islamic African, Cairo Martyr, heir to a trove of mummy remains which were widely believed throughout the Middle East to possess Cialis-like qualities. A Jewish Hungarian heir to a banking empire, Munk Szondi, is the third player. Szondi supported himself by speculating in diverse commodities while dreaming of a Holy Land that would be a peaceful home to adherents of all three Near Eastern religions. Eventually, Cairo Martyr and Szondi learn that they are half-brothers, sons of a Swiss mathematician who later became a celebrated Arabist.

These gentlemen meet entirely by chance -- or so they believe -- in a crowded Arab coffee shop on New Year's Eve, 1921. There can be no certainty of this, but I suspect that the year 1921 was chosen as the starting point in order to be early enough to encompass the Turkish slaughter of a million and a half Armenians. Furthermore, I would not be greatly surprised to learn that the year in which the story ends, 1933, had something to do with the year of the author's birth. In all events, it will not come as much of a surprise to learn that the final hand is rigged.

No matter. Time flies in Jerusalem Poker, in all directions. This is somewhat facilitated by the recollections of the fourth major character, Haj Harun, said to be 3,000 years old and the perennial defender of the Holy City, albeit always on the losing side. To explain further would be spoiling a grand story.

Edward Whittemore has been dead for more than a decade. His books, Jerusalem Poker included, were extravagantly praised in leading literary journals in Europe and America, but they never sold very well when first published. Old Earth Books recently re-issued this book and its three successors in what the author called the Jerusalem Quartet, firm in the belief that Ted's writing deserves a wider audience than it has received. I completely agree... but I add the caution that you will not get your money's worth from this book on your first reading. It reveals its subtleties over multiple rereadings.

Editor's Note: For more information on Edward Whittemore, visit the excellent Jerusalem Dreaming.

-- William Alfred Kern (Editor's Note: We call him "Jenny's Dad".)

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About the Publisher:

Old Earth Books is a small press specializing in reprints of classic sci-fi, fantasy and related material -- books with enduring appeal, but deemed "unprofitable" by the major houses. For more information, visit or read this interview with owner/founder Michael J. Walsh.



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