Never Leave Money Lying on the Table

24 April 034

GIVEAWAY: Shameless self-promoter that I am, I’m giving away five copies of my new book,  HOW TO WRITE GOOD  to the first five Unboxed Writers who reach me directly by email. I’m not posting my email address here, though, and Facebook and Twitter don’t count. Consider it a scavenger hunt. Ready? GO!

One of the quirks of my writing life is that I’ve pulled down a paycheck by writing about poker on a more or less consistent basis since 1988. How I came to do that is a slightly instructive tale.

Back in 1988, I was an up-and-coming member of the Writers Guild of America, but the WGA was on strike, so there I was, rattling around Los Angeles with time on my hands. I found my way into the Commerce Casino and discovered exactly how badly I could play poker. I mean, they went through me like a freight train through the wind. I thought, Well, this is great and this is fun, but I obviously can’t afford to suck at it. At that point, I invoked one of my favorite life strategies: When there’s something I want to learn how to do, I find someone to pay me to teach it. In this case, I contacted the only poker magazine in the market and – honest to God – made the following pitch: Look, I know nothing about poker, but I’m going to learn, and while I learn I want to write about it, and that’ll be my column, Notes From The Nervous Breakdown Lane. Well, that worked, and 25 years and three million words later, I’m still writing about poker.

One of the first lessons I learned in poker is the one you see in the title of this piece: Never leave money lying on the table. If the game is good, you stay in the game. I adopted that lesson and turned it into a philosophy of my writer’s life. All during that formative part of my writing career, I never left money lying on the table. If anyone, anywhere ever offered to pay me to write anything at all, I always found a way to say yes. Sometimes this created the problem of giving me too much work to do in too short a space of time, but that just taught me how to write fast and how to manage a workload. Sometimes I accepted assignments well outside my comfort zone, but that just expanded my comfort zone. Sometimes I found the work boring, but that just taught me to be a craftsman, and to take pride in my words even if they were only, say, the back-cover pimp copy for old movies being re-released on VHS (it was before DVD, kids; Google it).

In 2003, when poker got really hot, I told my agent that I thought I could sell a how-to book in that market. He told me he couldn’t sell one – but was pretty sure he could sell three. Well, I didn’t think there was any way I had three books’ worth of poker in me, but never leave money lying on the table, right? Thus did I churn out Killer Poker, Killer Poker/Online and The Killer Poker Hold’em Handbook. And that taught me how to write longer works, 80,000 words or more. Then my durn agent sold three more, and the world now has Killer Poker No-Limit, Killer Poker Online/2 and Killer Poker Shorthanded (when I say world I mean world; also available in Portuguese and French). That was my living as a writer then, and it was a good one. I never told myself I couldn’t do it, and I never let myself not do it. The opportunity was there; I took it.

At the same time, I really wanted to start publishing novels, and even though I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, I did what poker players do: I bluffed; I persuaded my publisher to let me take a whack at a poker novel, a combination murder mystery and teaching tool, a how-to whodunit called Under The Gun. In that book, our hero is a guy who’s never played poker in his life, but his brother is a big deal poker player, but his brother gets murdered, and our guy has to get game in order to solve the mystery of the death. He goes from, literally, “What beats what?” to the highest levels of tournament poker strategy, and takes the reader along, too. As I said, I didn’t know I had the writing chops to pull it off, but I did have a whole lot of poker knowledge and… write what you know, you know? So that worked out fine.

I’ve written three poker novels. I’ve written three con artist novels. I’ve written a coming-of-age story set in hippie times. With each book I write, I accept new challenges, and challenge myself to keep growing my game, keeping making discoveries, keep closing the gap between the writer I am and the writer I want to become.

But I still don’t leave money lying on the table. Ladies and gentlemen, I barely play poker anymore, but I’m still writing columns for that same poker magazine, and they’re still paying me the modest freelance wages I’ve come to expect from that gig. And even though I no longer play a lot of poker, once a month I sit down and think about poker, and turn my thoughts into copy, and my copy into a modest paycheck. I don’t consider it beneath me or beyond me. I consider it part of my healthy practice of writing.

I don’t imagine that too many of you play poker. It’s not the hotsky-totsky fad it was a decade ago. But you can still learn some lessons from the game, just as I have. One is bluff. If someone will pay you to write something, don’t ever give them reason to believe you can’t do it, even when you’re not entirely sure you can. Fake it till you make it; that’s how writers have always gotten by.

The other lesson is the one I have purely beaten to death in this column: Never leave money lying on the table. Hustle for gigs. Accept every assignment. Make the most of every opportunity. Everything you write will teach you something about writing. That’s how you grow your practice, and that’s how you build a career.


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!


  1. says

    Profound lessons, John. Loved the ‘fake it’ ploy. Reminds me of a seminar I took wherein the leader asked something innocuous like, ‘What do you think?’ When the person questioned said, ‘Gee, I don’t know’, the leader came back — surprisingly to me — ‘Yes, but if you DID know, what would it be?’ and, you know what? The person HAD an answer. Always. So, keep on keepin’ on even if you have to fake it or trust that it will come to you. Thanks for that.
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..The Clever Turn of Phrase

  2. says

    This is a great reminder that writers must be versatile and willing to expand their knowledge base. When I was a newspaper reporter I did a lot of bluffing, but with the help of knowledgeable sources I became well versed in such arcane subjects as budget and taxes, local zoning ordinances, education, public health and labor relations. What is key is the desire to learn and immerse yourself in a subject area. Thanks for an insightful post.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Book Review: “Wired for Story,” by Lisa Cron

  3. says

    Enjoyed your article. I love that you have been able to support yourself by writing, but I particularly liked that you connected all of your writing experiences as lessons learned. Writing is a skill, and like all skills, it must be practiced if one expects success. Although the style requirement differ somewhat, I’m sure you are a better writer of fiction for having spent so many hours writing expository text. Congratulations on well earned success!

  4. Charlotte Hunter says

    Bluffing believably: the shy writer’s nightmare. And a lesson to keep learning, trying, doing.

    Thanks for this; the lesson can never be taught too often.

  5. says

    Hi everyone!

    Thanks for flooding my inbox this morning with requests for HOW TO WRITE GOOD. The scavenger hunt is over (it was over long before I even woke up here in California, yo.) I hope that those of you who didn’t win will still be interested in scoring my book through Amazon. As for the winners, your ebook will be e-winging its way to you shortly.

    Write on, y’all! -jv

  6. Denise Willson says

    Great lessons, John, in both writing and life. Thank you.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  7. says

    “Sometimes I accepted assignments well outside my comfort zone, but that just expanded my comfort zone.” Excellent advice.

  8. says

    You’re so right about bluffing and about taking any assignments–or jobs. I stayed employed an entire summer by kicking butt at an interview for a job that made me responsible for organizing and allocating every cent donated to a large local charity. At the time, I knew nothing about computers, and to this day I remain organizationally challenged–but I got the job, over people who had to be qualified, because I so wasn’t.

    Luckily, I am actually a qualified and competent professional at my job, but now I need to apply that same skill to writing gigs.
    Steven E. Belanger´s last blog post ..Zero Dark Thirty

  9. says

    Again late to the party this week, but I always love your posts, John.

    I agree: I didn’t stop doing my freelance articles because I sold a book, either. I did consider it, but with some guidance from the lovely and wise Jan O’Hara and a couple of other writer friends, I decided to hang onto it, and I’m glad I did.
    LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..BURIED LEADS: The Next Big Thing

  10. says

    Years ago, an elderly lady attended my writer’s critique group regularly. Her younger friend drove her but didn’t write. She just listened.

    After over a year of this, the younger friend asked me if I thought she could write something for a magazine. I asked her what she enjoyed doing. Knitting. So, after a couple of queries, she snagged an assignment from a knitting magazine to write an article on teaching left-handed people to knit. From there, her knitting expertise brought her all kinds of work. Timid at first, she started taking photos of how to hold needles, etc. She is probably still at it!
    Quinn Cole´s last blog post ..The Deep End