Notes from a Screenreader: Texas Hold ‘Em

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Photo via Go Into the Story.

The difference between a yes and a no in the first round of a screenplay competition can be summed up by a hand of Texas hold ‘em. You fold early, you didn’t post a blind, and your cards were bad enough to make you think, Why am I being punished like this?

Now you’re just the captive audience for the rest of the hand. Exactly like a reader. No investment, just hoping to be entertained.

  • No. Everyone, all of them great friends, takes a long time to decide to check (pass their turn), a couple of guys fold, while they chit-chat and catch up and tell old, very familiar jokes and stories. The last guy puts in 50 cents, so you go all the way around the table again, taking just as long to decide to put in 50 cents or not. The flop comes. Three totally unrelated cards that don’t really help anyone. Everyone checks but that one guy.

    Another 50 cents. He probably has a pair of eights. Around again. And the same thing twice more at the turn and the river. At the end, everyone folds but one guy, who puts in 50 cents and shows a pair of sevens. The other guy did have two eights. He collects his six bucks.

  • Yes. Fireworks right out of the box. Someone opens big, that one wiseguy who’s a trash talker and a sore winner, and he always wins. There’s a raise. A second raise! No one folds! One guy down to his last 50 bucks goes all in! What? Game on! Everyone is in, even the timid little guy who always folds at the end.

    The flop comes. Two jacks and an ace! Two hearts! Another big raise. It’s riveting. The air is electric. Everyone is eyeing all that money in the pot. You’re trying to figure out who’s bluffing, who’s got another ace, or another jack, and who’s holding out for the straight. Or the flush. The turn comes. Another heart! A bet from the timid guy. A long pause from the trash-talking big opener. He stares the timid guy down. The trash talker raises. The timid guy looks down at his little stack. If he’s bluffing, he’s done. He bets. There is over $5,000 in the pot. The river comes. Another heart! The trash talker confidently tosses in a hundred. Heartbreak, a couple of disappointed folds.

    Everyone looks at the timid guy. Do or die. He always folds. Not this time. He raises, going all in. The trash talker condescendingly tells him it’s a dumb bet, gives him a chance to take it back, he’s beat. The timid guy looks straight into the heart of his biggest fear, and says “I’m all in.” The trash talker cracks and folds. The room erupts. The new confidence in the timid guy is palpable as he rakes in the pot.

A great hand of Texas hold ’em is a rush. The stakes get ridiculously high; the reveals of the flop, the turn, and the river are all big events that suddenly change the field. Big bets turn into terrible mistakes, nerve is king, the odds all point one way — but that’s only half the game, and something is always hidden, keeping you guessing till the big payoff.

It is a showdown after a long buildup of increasing tension and suddenly changing possibilities: The Texas Hold ‘Em Structure Model.

ANNIE LABARBA 

Annie is a screenwriter, story consultant, and reader for major screenplay competitions.

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