Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bullsh*t and Herenton's House of Games

The familiar card game known as Bullsh*t is enjoying a sudden revival in Memphis-area gaming establishments.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 9, 2009 at 4:41 PM

Bullshit (and variations such as Liar's Poker and I Doubt It) is a simple, suspenseful game played with a deck of cards or a stack of dollar bills. Or in the case of the federal government, with trillions of dollar bills, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The strategy relies on the ability to bluff or spot a bluffer, in which case the player calls "bullshit" and the declarer must show his or her hand.

In the variant played at Herenton's House of Games, proprietor Willie Herenton has opened a game of Liar's Poker by boldly declaring that he is holding three aces in his new budget -- a three-percent raise for city employees, no layoffs, and no property tax increase. After he formally presents the hand later this month, it will pass to the Memphis City Council, which can either accept it or call "bullshit" if enough members think the mayor is really holding a busted hand.

If the council accepts the hand, it can draw new cards to slightly improve it, knowing full well that the final outcome depends on other games underway at the Memphis Board of Education and the Shelby County Commission. Then the council must announce a better hand than the mayor's and pass the cards.

Herenton is a veteran player known for bluffing. He has the advantage of going first and seeing the next cards to be flipped before anyone else does. Also, he has been known to call an eight a 10 and a jack a king, to invite players to "step outside," and even to claim that the game is rigged against him. Still, he has not been defeated in nearly 18 years, although he threatened to quit the game a year ago and play instead with the board of education, which declined to let him in.

A different strategy is employed by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, also a shrewd player. Wharton's favorite ploy is to announce a crappy hand, maybe a pair of fours with a queen kicker at best. This makes for a duller but equally high-stakes game. And, many say, a more honest one, too.

Over at the Shelby County Assessor's Office, there is a lively game of I Doubt It underway, made all the more exciting because of the large number of players. In this quadrennial favorite, homeowners and business owners are mailed an estimated market value of their property determined by a team of chimpanzees throwing darts at numbers ranging from "down 10 percent" to "up 50 percent."

Proprietor Cheyenne Johnson, who apparently lives in monkish isolation and has not read a newspaper or watched a television news report since 2006, is dealer. A player who says "I doubt it" to a reappraisal gets to be waterboarded by her staff. The proceeds of the game are shared with the city and county.

The dealer's advantage in I Doubt It comes from the late call for antes, which increases the pressure on players to declare "in" or "out." Jokers, or "foreclosures" as they are called, don't count. High-dollar players known as "whales," who must have a minimum stake of $750,000, have not even been informed of their antes yet. This is known as "getting the kiddies off the street" before the killer cards are dealt. Whales are often assisted by people called "tax reps."

The most popular game of all is run by the federal government and is called simply "1040." Everyone can play, in fact, everyone has to play. This variant features numerous wild cards called "stimulants" and "deductions." Be warned, however, that winnings are "taxed to the max," while deductions for such things as stock market losses are limited to $3,000, even though the average loss is more like $100,000.

The game 1040 takes a really long time to play, and the rules are more complicated than Chinese trigonometry. Players must declare their hand by April 15th and pass it to the IRS, which has until 2026 to play. If you get a thick letter in about five months that doesn’t have a check in it, there is no need to read the fine print.

The gist of it is "bullshit."

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