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Chutzpah & Hearts: MARTHA FRANKEL,
Author of Hats & Eyeglasses

Highlights from Issue 35: Gambling

Photography courtesy of Tarcher/Penguin

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Friday, June 13, 2008

By Annie Nocenti

What follows is an unabridged interview that appears in Issue 35: Gambling. For more information on this issue, click here


Martha Frankel knew, when interviewing a very young Leonardo DiCaprio, that the way to get him to open up would be to challenge him to a spitting contest. Frankel won — and got a great interview — because she has game.

She was raised on the laps of gamblers, chin-high to her mother’s smoky mahjongg board and her father’s wisecracking poker table. They ate “the usual” (bagel with a schmear), read the Yiddish papers and played. Her father, good with numbers, was “The Pencil,” and his idea of a bedtime lullaby was to have his little girl count backward by sevens. Frankel learned to read with the Daily Racing Forum, and her first kiss was at the Belmont Racetrack.

She went on to have a successful career as a celebrity journalist, her interviews ranging from Liz Taylor to Sean Penn. One day, when researching poker for a screenplay, she fell back into playing and was instantly hooked. In her memoir, the hilarious, tragic and engrossing Hats & Eyeglasses: A Family Love Affair with Gambling (a title which refers to all that’s left floating on the surface after a gambler has lost it all), she writes, on playing in the casinos, “I’m wearing cleavage, attitude, and what might be, anywhere but here, a bit too much perfume.” Now a self-proclaimed “poker slut,” she kept doing her celebrity interviews, but with a new flair. She once talked actress Jennifer Beals into coming with her to the Hollywood Park poker room and got Beals to pull up a chair behind her, tape recorder in her lap, so that Frankel could keep shoving chips and winning hands of stud while conducting the interview.

Then one day Frankel discovered you could play online, in your pajamas. She became a self-proclaimed “poker junkie.” She lost $60,000. She lied to her friends and family. She writes of online poker: “It’s like crack cocaine — very fast, very mindless, and impossible to stop. The perfect game for a generation that grew up with MTV, fast computers and instant messaging.” A conversation with her beloved mother, who tearfully assumed her daughter’s AWOL status was her fault, finally shocked Frankel into quitting. Frankel’s memoir of addiction and loss is in some ways also a love letter to her late mother. “My mother smoked like a grand old dame, making it look glamorous, and even erotic,” writes Frankel. “Every memory of my mother has smoke curling up around the edges.” In the end, Hats & Eyeglasses is a redemptive but cautionary tale for all would-be poker players out there: Watch out.

Stop Smiling: Do you think you would have found poker, or had the proclivity for game-playing, if you hadn’t been born into a gambling-friendly family?

Martha Frankel: I don’t think I would have, but I certainly know enough people who weren’t born into it who became gambling addicts. When that friend of mine took me into that first poker game, it felt so familiar and good. I loved spending an entire night with guys who never once talked about their personal lives, because I’m usually around women, who don’t stop. On the way home I asked my friend Sal, “Is that guy married?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know.” I said, “So, did he just start playing?” And Joe said, “No, about five years ago.” Can you imagine six women sitting around for five years and not knowing who was married? That really got to me. I liked these guys, and wanted them to respect me, so I said, I’m going to do what I do, which is to do my research and make my myself good at it.

SS: And we know from psychology that people try to recreate their origins.

MF: I didn’t have to even try. I walked in and it was exactly like my father’s poker games. I had been away from it for so long. One of the guys smoked and had a Zippo. That alone sent me over the edge.

SS: Why were you away so long if you grew up in it?

MF: Part of it was that I turned my back on it when my father died, purposely. I thought, “This is not going to work without my father.” And the other part of it was that Steve doesn’t understand gambling at all. He’s so risk-adverse in many ways. And yet, there he is right now on top of a 25-foot sculpture, welding. (laughs) [Frankel’s husband, Steve Heller, makes monumental sculpture] When I started playing poker, Steve said, I don’t get it. And then when all the kids started coming over to play, he liked that. But he kept saying, why do we have to play for money? And I said, you can’t learn if you don’t play for money. And the kids we even made play for money.

SS: That’s interesting. “You can’t learn unless you play for money.” A. Alverez, in one of his poker essays quotes Big Julie as saying: “The guy who invented poker was bright, but the guy who invented the chip was a genius.” I think what he was trying to say was that the further you remove gambling from real money and you are just pushing chips around, which is even more true playing online, the more abstract it seems, and the more you will risk. Is that what happened to you when you played poker online?

MF: Everything that I am particularly good at was not there online. I couldn’t read anybody!

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