Wednesday, September 07, 2011

"The Superuser"

Last week I saw a flurry of Tweets about the release of a new poker novel, The Superuser, by Collin Moshman and Katie Dozier. It cost only $2.99, and I was kind of curious how the Kindle application would work on my PC and on my Android phone, so I bought the book, downloaded the software to both devices, and dug in. It's a fast read, and I finished it the night before last.

Basic story: Some high-stakes online players suddenly start losing a ton of money to a few unknown accounts. They start investigating and quickly come to understand that there must be one or more superusers, players who have access to their opponents' hole cards. As they probe deeper, they find themselves entangled in a web of deception, scapegoats, conflicting motives, political power plays, and murder.

Most of what I'm going to write here is going to be negative, but I don't want the volume of words that I use for my critiques to obscure or overwhelm this central fact: It's a fun read. If having a few hours of distraction from your cares, immersed in a fast-paced story of crime and intrigue in the poker world, is worth three bucks to you, you will no doubt enjoy yourself with this novel. It's hard to beat it for value on a dollars-per-hour-of-entertainment basis. Most blessedly for the sake of my steam gauge, all of the poker details are correct, without the kinds of howlers that authors unfamiliar with the game tend to include through their ignorance. (The co-authors--husband and wife--are both successful online pros.)

There are some amusing nuggets tossed in for those in the know. For example, one rich online player is said to have a condo with a slide installed for getting from upstairs to downstairs. Hi, Phil Galfond! Another character's name appears to be a slight variation on that of Jimmy Fricke. Assuming that was deliberate, the authors must have gotten a laugh out of making him a sniveling, weasely cop. One online player is said to play under the screen name of "hotjenny314," which is Dozier's Twitter handle. At one point in the investigation they produce a graph of money won against hands played, and it looks just like the famous one that in the actual UB/AP superuser scandal first convinced everyone that there was no explanation except cheating. (In fact, it might be the actual graph from that history--I didn't try to compare them to find out.) And so on. I appreciate little bones like that thrown quietly to those paying attention.

Now for my gripes. There's one potential spoiler, but I'll let you know when it's coming.

First, the high-stakes players hire as an investigator the book's protagonist, Grisham Stark. This makes no sense at all. Stark has three possible qualifications for the job: He's a former cop, he has had some success in poker (he has a WSOP bracelet), and he has been caught cheating at poker, in a live tournament. We are supposed to believe that these multimillionaire, sophisticated online pros pick this guy to investigate the superuser on the theory that it takes a cheat to catch a cheat. But Stark knows absolutely nothing about the subject. He plays so little online that he isn't even aware of the existence of hand-tracking software and heads-up displays. (It is, frankly, implausible that somebody who has won a bracelet and has an online poker account--as Stark does--could be this clueless about the modern state of the game, but that's what we are asked to accept.) He doesn't know how to trace IP addresses or online money transfers. He is a loser at life and at poker. He is utterly unsuited to such a technical investigation. It strains credulity to the breaking point that he, of all people, would be the one hired to crack the case. It seems obvious that the only reason he is chosen is so that he can have a character arc of redemption from his cheating past, but within the universe of the book, his selection is completely ludicrous. Stark's investigation keeps running up against the limitations of his own incompetence, which causes the reader (at least this reader) to keep wondering, "Why did you pick this moron to track down your criminal???"

Next is the typos. There were only a couple of glaring ones, but there are many, many spots where commas are used incorrectly--or, to be more specific, where commas are needed but not to be found. This happens especially around words such as "however" and when a person is being addressed and his or her name is not set off with commas, as would be standard usage. These things bug me a lot, as an inveterate proofreader. They probably won't annoy others as much as they do me, but I'm a stickler for grammar and punctuation, so such errors leap off the page and grab me by the throat, yanking me out of the world of the book for a few seconds every time.

But my biggest complaint is structural--how the novel is put together. In this category I have three specific irritants.

First, these authors are way, way, way too fond of the cliffhanger. The chapters are short--often the equivalent of what would be just one or two pages in a paperback novel--and nearly every one of them ends with some sort of drama bomb. Just now I picked a spot at random, went to the end of the chapter, and there was a typical example. A character is reading an email, and the chapter ends with this: "Then he looked again, and realized that the attachment was far from standard." You can almost hear the Dramatic Chipmunk music playing as the scene ends. The next chapter then picks up with some other character's action somewhere else, and we are forced to wait for the completion of the story from which we were whisked away. I picked another random spot and tried again. This time the chapter ended with, "As he looked inside, he clasped his hands to his face." Of course they don't tell us what he saw that was so horrific. Instead they jump to another character's story.

This kind of thing is completely artificial. It breaks how we expect things to be presented. As a general rule, a movie scene or a novel chapter should be one logical whole. If a character sees something important, well, tell us what it is. The cliffhanger has a place in novel writing, but, like most devices, needs to be applied sparingly. These authors seem to know no other way to end a chapter. The extreme overuse of this technique made me feel like I was watching a badly written TV show, with the writers desperate that I not change the channel during the commercial break. I found it seriously annoying.

The second structural gripe I had was that the authors don't play fair with crucial information. Without revealing too much here, there are important relationships between some of the characters, which these characters are perfectly well aware of, yet Moshman and Dozier withhold these details much longer than is logically necessary simply in order to heighten the "Aha" sensation when they are finally announced. This is, in my opinion, authorial cheating. It's one thing if, say, two characters are brothers separated at birth and they discover that fact in the course of interacting with each other, and we as readers learn it along with them. But the relationships I'm talking about here are known to the characters, and it feels completely artificial that we're deeply into the book before we are allowed to know what the characters know, when we otherwise are given full access to their thoughts and actions.

A related "cheating" problem is that the authors seem to love starting a chapter by describing the action, but not telling us who is involved. They just use pronouns without identifiers, then finally let us in on who we're watching after a few paragraphs have gone by. For example, Chapter 42 begins, "The distinctive beeping surprised him. He opened the text on his work phone. Look at Poker Times news forum top. With a sick feeling in his stomach, he logged on to the poker site and navigated his way to the specified section...." All we can do is guess at who this is we're supposedly watching, until the authors deign to give us a name. This is pure amateur hour--the sort of thing I'd expect to see turned in for a high school creative writing assignment. It does nothing to further either the story line or the reader's emotional experience, in my opinion. It's just irritating.

My final structural critique contains a semi-spoiler. That is, I'm not going to tell you what specific details we learn at the end of the book, but I'm going to tell you the way in which those details are revealed. If you think that will ruin part of the fun of reading, then skip the next paragraph.


There was a great sketch on Saturday Night Live in its early years, in which (as I recall--it's been a very long time, so forgive me if my memory is faulty in some details) a villain is admonishing other villains about what to do when they capture James Bond. "Just kill him. Don't tie him up while you tell him your master plan. Just shoot him and be done with it." It went on at some length about all the times that other baddies had made this same mistake, spilling their beans to Bond because he was about to die anyway, so what harm could it do? This cinematic device was ripe for parody by SNL, because it's both cliched and dumb. Surely mastermind criminals aren't actually that stupid, are they? Sadly, though, Moshman and Dozier resort to this tired old mechanism for finally explaining who did what and why. One or more of the bad guys literally have one or more of the good guys at gunpoint, about to kill them, when a good guy pulls this old ploy: "You're going to kill me anyway, so it can't do you any harm now to tell me now how it happened," and the bad guys go along with it, telling how the whole plot fit together. Seriously, all you aspiring novel writers, do NOT do this. It is maybe the single most lame, hackneyed way ever devised for revealing to your readers the back story that finally makes everything fall into place.


OK, that's it for my list of nits to pick. Even though it took a lot of words to lay them out, I want to reiterate that their net impact is not enough to cause me to feel cheated, or hate the book, or wish I hadn't read it, or withhold a recommendation. Things like I've listed may well bother me more than they would most readers, and even with my heightened sensitivity for errors and irritants, I still enjoyed the ride the authors took me on. There's a good chance you will, too.


NT (aka Cardgrrl) said...

Most of the structural devices you point out in your critique are straight out of the Dan Brown school of best-seller construction. They are designed to elicit the "It was a real page-turner!" response.

I find them incredibly annoying too.

hotjenny314 said...

Hi Poker Grump,

We wrote this thriller to be a quick-paced and fun book to read. Being as you finished it in only a few days, we hope you agree that we succeeded on that front. :)

As the first commenter pointed out, the cliffhanger device we employed is common in best-selling genre fiction. Does that mean that it is the most intellectually stimulating technique around? Certainly not, but it does contribute to making the book fast-paced and within the thriller genre.

I am glad that you found the poker specific references entertaining. One that you left out, but may interest you, is that we named an influential Senator Theodore Monroe.

I am sorry that you found the hiring of Grisham Stark to “make no sense.” An additional reason in the text for the hiring was that Predator felt strong empathy for Stark, since he was once an outcast in the poker world as well. Coupled with the fact that Stark used to be a cop, he seems a reasonable choice to investigate the case.

As for the typos, would you mind citing them specifically? Without your doing so it is hard to assess what you mean when you say there are many spots where commas were used incorrectly. I disagree that a comma needs to be used with every mention of a “however,” and using commas before and after any person’s name is often not adhered to in genre fiction due to how commas slow down a text.Perhaps we will have to agree to disagree on that front.

I’m also sorry that you disliked when we did not announce a character’s name at the very beginning of each scene. I still feel that it helps create a sense of mystery, but if we over-used this technique, then I apologize for that.

As for your critique of the ending, it is standard in genre fiction to explain things at the end. Yes, SNL did make a funny skit out of it, and yes it is clichéd. However, (there’s your comma :) ) just because something is a cliché, that doesn’t mean it is wrong. People don’t like to be left hanging at the end of a book, and that’s why it’s a very accepted trick in thrillers, despite perhaps being a little hokey.

Some of your critique makes me wonder if you were possibly under a misimpression as to the goal of our text, and if you are not normally a reader of mainstream thrillers. Our goal wasn’t to write the next 1984 or Moby Dick. It was to entertain our readers for a few hours for less than the price of a happy meal. Being as you said that you “enjoyed the ride the authors took [you] on,” I feel that we fulfilled our goal in your case.

I really do appreciate your feedback, and one thing’s for certain: no one will ever accuse you of being a shill for The Superuser. :)

Katie Dozier

Rakewell said...


I did notice Teddy Monroe. But I didn't take notes, so when I was trying to list some of the shout-outs, I just forgot that one. Nice touch.

I got Predator's empathy for Stark. But there's millions of dollars at stake here. You're going to hire for such a highly technical investigation somebody who wasn't even aware that hand-tracking software existed? That doesn't pass the smell test, no matter how kindly you might feel towards him. Hire him as a bodyguard or personal security consultant or something to throw him a bone, but not something where he will be entirely outgunned in technical sophistication by the criminals he's trying to track down.

I didn't note the typos for later listing.

This seems an odd forum to debate whether "however" (in the sense of "nevertheless") needs to be set off by commas, but oh well. I don't have any style guides in the apartment. As a rather arbitrary appeal to authority, I checked a handful of the web sites cited as references for the Wikipedia entry on "comma." The first four that I checked all agreed about always setting off "however" with commas: (at "Rule 5") (page 54)

I found nobody saying that it was optional.

As for setting off the name of a person being addressed (e.g., "I saw your cards, John, and you really need to work on hand selection"), again I have to say that I've never seen anybody argue that it's optional.

I adamantly disagree with your assertion that commas slow down the text. It is the absence of punctuation where it is expected and needed that slows down the reader.

Rakewell said...

I can't say that declining for a while to identify who is performing an action is wrong in some absolute sense, or a violation of well-established rules of writing in the same way that nontraditional comma usage is. It's just my opinion that it gets in the way of telling the story. It's a device that calls attention to itself. The reader's focus should be on the story, not the mechanics by which it is told. Writing devices that glare at the reader from the text subvert that goal, in my view.

I don't dispute the need to explain to the reader the whole back-story of the criminal plot. But the manner you chose is too cheap and easy. It's the literary equivalent of deus ex machina. The protagonist doesn't ferret out the truth by his superior cunning or hard work or by brilliantly piecing together clues. It's just *handed* to him by the bad guys. I find it both unrealistic and emotionally unsatisfying. It's as if you're admitting that Stark could never have figured out the identity and motivations of the Superuser by his own lights. After all, if he could, then that's how you'd write the story, right? (And if he couldn't, well, that would seem to support my argument that he was a poor choice for an investigator.)

You're right that thrillers are not my usual cup of tea (though I find Michael Crichton's books so engaging that I literally can't get my eyes to read as fast as I want the story to unfold). I've read perhaps five in the last five years. If, however, (ha!) your argument is, "That's how everybody does it," well, I'm inclined to repeat everybody's mother's counterpoint: If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you do that, too? Commonality of bad writing techniques does not transform them into good ones.

Of course I wasn't expecting a work that would win the Booker Prize. I can enjoy a rollicking good story for its own sake and on its own merits without denigrating it for not being something more than it was intended to be. But none of my criticisms can fairly be read as asking your book to be something fundamentally different than it is. I'm only pointing out things that I think would make it a better thriller, not things that would turn it into a David Foster Wallace heavyweight.

Rakewell said...

BTW, Katie, if you want to see what a Grumpy book review is like when I HATE a poker-themed thriller, look here:

and here:

Despite my criticisms, your book was better in nearly every way than Swain's--which is why I finished it in three or four days instead of three or four months.

geezer said...

I'm going to buy the book, loved the commentary between you and the author. Look forward to being entertained while waiting for a game