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Poker Face

“He wasn’t playing for the money. He was playing for the chips. The value of each chip had only hazy meaning. It was the disk itself that mattered, the color itself.”~ Falling Man by Don DeLillo page 228

It is strange that in light of the struggle and grief survivors of 9/11 went through that Don DeLillo would choose to tell the story of a self-absorbed man who abandons his life and runs away from his emotions. Keith witnessed the towers falling and managed to walk out of the ashes alive. Yet he chooses to live out the rest of his life playing a pointless poker games alone.  Even before the attack he preferred to be alone, separating himself from his wife and child, only socializing through poker games with a close group of guys. Their games were centered on rules—rules that banned food, vodka, gin, cigarettes, and sports talk. “But, there were always things to ban and rules to make.”(99) They narrowed their game of poker down to a strict game of five card stud; and from that they formed a tight bond that they hoped would never break. Unfortunately when the towers were hit, two of the players are killed and their bond broken. In the aftermath of September 11th, Keith returns home in a daze and spends a brief period of time with his wife Lianne and his son Justin. However, when the dust settles he becomes restless and bored; deciding to leave home and travel cross country to play poker tournaments where the money does not matter. The physical space he puts between him and his past serves as an emotional block so that he does not have to be reminded of the friends he lost. “He wasn’t playing for the money. He was playing for the chips. The value of each chip had only hazy meaning. It was the disk itself that mattered, the color itself.”(228)


Keith uses poker as a way to bury his emotions, as a numbing way to lose track of time. When playing poker you have to put on a poker face that hides your thoughts and feelings, so that your opponents cannot read your emotions and judge if you are lying. The antisocial atmosphere created by the poker table is an opportune place for him to bury his emotions rather than confronting them and bringing them to the table. He did not want anyone to see how damaged and hurt he was; he did not want to be haunted by the memories of his dead poker friends. Afraid of making any personal connections for fear they be taken away from him, Keith cowardly hides behind his cards.

3 Responses to “Poker Face”

  1. Marta says:

    I think this is a very insightful and valid interpretation of Keith’s character. It hadn’t occurred to me before I read this that playing poker for social reasons like he used to could be a painful reminder of the loved ones Keith lost, and that that could be the reason why he isolates himself from his peers. When I was first reading the story, DeLillo’s focus on the poker aspect seemed sort of random and strange to me. But thinking of it in terms of the literal poker face that one must put on in order to play the game makes it seem positively designed for someone like Keith. Great post!

  2. Olivia says:

    I’m struck by what you pointed out in your post about Keith’s lack of change even in light of what he survived on 9/11. It is not that I had not considered the stagnancy of DeLillo’s characters in the novel, but I really appreciate the new perspective you’ve provided in pointing out that most people, having survived such horror and come so close to death, would want to take advantage of life and change what had been negative or unfulfilled before.

  3. Michelle Copeland says:

    Thanks for your post