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Public Displays: how to play 52-card draw 

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Once a week for the past two years, Mark Struzynski and about 13 friends have gotten together to play a little poker. Before this, Struzynski, a painter who runs an art space called the Green Room Gallery in the front of his Milwaukee Avenue loft, wasn't much of a gambler. But his friends Samantha Peale and John Welter had caught the bug in James McManus's class on the literature and science of poker at the School of the Art Institute, and they passed it on to him.

"I got hooked fast," says Peale, a fiction writer. "It really does make your heart race to get into that rhythm....It's exciting as hell to hold good cards and just sit tight, slow playing some fabulous hand while your neighbors toss their chips into the pot, completely unaware of how you are about to take all their lunch money, or gas money, or rent money."

Last month Farrar, Straus and Giroux published McManus's latest book, Positively Fifth Street. A novelist and journalist who teaches creative writing at SAIC, McManus is an avid poker player; the book chronicles his journey to the 2000 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, where--on assignment for Harper's--he came in fifth, taking home almost $240,000. A "middle-aged married guy" with shin splints, McManus isn't shy about the appeal the game holds for him: poker makes him feel like a man.

"Macho one-upmanship strikes many people as trivial and pathetic," he writes, "and no doubt they're right, but it's also a fact that without this competitive ardor, humans would long be extinct. One reason we're not is that the sociobiological legacy of our days as hunter-gatherers causes levels of testosterone to rise by as much as a third when the local team does well. He shoots, he scores! And later that night, so do we."

Struzynski's rationale is a bit tamer. "I find it incredibly interesting to sit at a table with a bunch of people and try to figure out what they're doing," he says. "It's not really a macho thing for me, though it becomes macho for a lot of people....[I like to] read other people; to try and tell what they're doing and try and get a grasp of their personality and things like that. I've always been a kind of observant person. I think that's why I became an artist--because I see things that I don't think other people do."

Struzynski inaugurated the Green Room Gallery last summer with a group show of work inspired by the music of the Handsome Family, whose Brett and Rennie Sparks had occupied the loft before moving to New Mexico in 2001. In December he organized a monthlong show of work by three artists around the theme of "generosity in the practice of art making." After that show closed in January he started mulling over ideas for the next exhibit, and his thoughts quickly turned to cards. The result is "Muck on the Button," a poker tournament and art exhibit that opens this weekend. (The name refers to a situation in which the dealer has a crappy hand.)

His poker crew--most of them artists of one stripe or another--had been talking about staging a tournament for a while, says Struzynski, and he decided to put their creative talents to use. "The original idea was for everyone playing in the weekly game to design a card," he says, "and then we would make a deck of cards and we would play in a tournament. So it would be this circular thing." But some people didn't have time to design cards, and others didn't want to commit to playing, so he decided to open the show up to anyone who was interested.

He sent around an E-mail soliciting submissions, and after beating the bushes a bit wound up with 13 contributors. The finished cards vary widely, from Steve Walters's aces--intricate silk-screened images of a peacock, two bats, a stingray, and a fly whose positions imply the shapes of the suits--to Mike Stahl's nines, which use a simple line drawing of a hen surrounded by nine eggs. The sixes, by Roctober editor Jake Austen, feature ink-and-watercolor portraits of Tommy Lee (hearts), Angus Young (clubs), King Diamond (diamonds), and Lemmy Kilmister (spades, of course). Struzynski had 300 decks professionally printed by the Liberty Playing Card Company in Arlington, Texas--the place that makes the Iraqi Most Wanted decks. They'll be sold for $25 a pop at "Muck on the Button" and on the gallery's Web site (see below).

This Friday, May 16, Green Room hosts the preliminary round of the tournament; the game is no-limit Texas hold'em, and there are spots for 50 players, not all of which had been filled at press time. The buy-in is a $50 donation to the gallery, and advance registration (even last minute) is required. First- and second-place finishers at each table will advance to the championship round, to be held the following night, during an opening for the exhibit of the original art for the cards. The exhibit will stay up through May 31.

Green Room Gallery is at 1375 N. Milwaukee, third floor. Friday's game starts at 6 PM, as does Saturday's party. Play at the final table will be accompanied by an audio piece Adam Fitz made by sampling casino sounds. Breaks in the game will feature cabaret music by Amanda Beaudin and Eddy Dixon. And before the action starts, Jake Austen, Rob Elder, James Porter, and John Battles will read selections from A Friendly Game of Poker: 52 Takes on the Neighborhood Game, an anthology of poker writing edited by Austen and due in October from Chicago Review Press. Call 773-227-6512 or see www.greenroomgallery.com for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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