Ephraim Kishon’s Jewish Poker
Celebrating the Israeli writer on his birthday
Israeli writer Ephraim Kishon once explained:
“I’m not a writer. I’m just a humorist. Only when you are dead you become a writer.”
Well, Kishon is technically now a writer, having passed away in 2005, but his humor is enduring. For those not familiar with Kishon, he was a leading satirist of his time. Anyone who reads the work of writers like Etgar Keret will see flashes of Kishon on the page.
Here’s an excerpt from Kishon’s story “Jewish Poker,” which you can read here. It starts with an explanation of the rules:
You think of a number, I also think of a number, Ervinke said. Whoever thinks of a higher number wins. This sounds easy, but it has a hundred pitfalls. Nu!
All right, I agreed. Let’s try.
We plunked down five piasters each, and, leaning back in our chairs began to think of numbers. After a while Ervinke signaled that he had one. I said I was ready.
All right, thus Ervinke. Let’s hear your number.
Eleven, I said.
Twelve, Ervinke said, and took the money.
I could have kicked myself, because originally I had thought of Fourteen, and only at the last moment had I climbed down to Eleven, I really don’t know why.
Listen. I turned to Ervinke. What would have happened had I said Fourteen?
What a question! I’d have lost. Now, that is just the charm of poker: you never know how things will turn out. But if your nerves cannot stand a little gambling, perhaps we had better call it off.
Without saying another word, I put down ten piasters on the table. Ervinke did likewise. I pondered my number carefully and opened with Eighteen.
Damn! Ervinke said. I have only Seventeen!
I swept the money into my pocket and quietly guffawed. Ervinke had certainly not dreamed that I would master the tricks of Jewish poker so quickly. He had probably counted on my opening with Fifteen or Sixteen, but certainly not with Eighteen. Ervinke, his brow in angry furrows, proposed to double the stakes.
As you like, I sneered, and could hardly keep back my jubilant laughter. In the meantime a fantastic number had occurred to me: Thirty-five!
Lead! said Ervinke.
Kishon appears in Tablet in an article about his work on the script for the film Sallah Shabbati, which endures as one of the first great Israeli comedies, paving the way for a generation of increasingly successful Israeli films.
Happy birthday, EK!