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I'm writing a scene in which four characters play a high-stakes poker game. So far my narrator has been an omniscient third person, who just does not wish to enter into the characters' heads.

I started going around the table. I have the fingers fumbling with the corners of the cards, the tapping of cigars on the greasy tablecloth and the occasional sip of liquor. I even added background crickets and the smell of freshly cut grass. Then I slowly uncovered the hand, and went on with the bidding. It feels gimmicky. Dull.

Do I need to show the characters' thoughts in order to get some believable tension? Can it be done with a mere description? Is it the timing, or perhaps I'm not focusing on the right elements?

In one question: how to slowly and credibly raise the tension using pure description (no dialogue) as a poker game unfolds on the table (two rounds at most)?

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    Former semi-pro poker commentator here - this won't help you keep it from being gimmicky per se, but in general, to really spice up poker writing, remember that some of the biggest tells aren't in the physical traits, but in the decisions. "This guy always checks big hands post flop." is a good example. Watch high stakes poker streams on twitch and listen to what the players say about the people at the table for good insights into how to read people, and you'll be able to drop a lot of what they say nearly line for line in your book! – corsiKa Apr 9 at 2:26
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    Have you seen Rounders? Go watch Rounders. It does a great job of using poker as its central narrative. – Adam Smith Apr 9 at 4:54
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    @corsiKa You should make that an answer post. You have useful personal experience and that usually makes a great answer. Just expand it with tips for how to apply the knowledge to writing and I'll be slamming the upvote button. – linksassin Apr 9 at 6:43
  • If you want to see how to write an exciting card game, go read Ian Flemming's Casino Royale. The baccarat scenes in that book are as exciting as any car chase or gun fight. – fiend Apr 9 at 12:21
  • @linksassin I considered it but unfortunately it isn't an answer because it doesn't answer the question, no matter how useful it might actually be otherwise. – corsiKa Apr 9 at 16:37

11 Answers 11

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Ditch the omniscient viewpoint

Tension comes from the unknown possibilities. By using an omniscient viewpoint the readers don't feel any of the tension the characters do because they already know the outcome. Instead I would use an 'over-the-shoulder' 3rd person view.

You don't need to get inside a characters head, just show things from their point of view. If the readers know only one hand and have to rely on actions and cues from the other characters in the scene there will be tension from the unknown.

Add more rounds

You said "two rounds at most", this is completely unrealistic for real poker. Poker is a game of growing odds and tension over hours and dozens of rounds (hands). To show the growing tension I would suggestion description 1-2 hands at the start and then skipping over a few to the key hands.

The first step to make this seem tense and exciting is to make it seem believable. Research actual high stakes poker games and how they played out. Avoid "fluke" wins where possible and try to keep the game realistic.

Once you have a believable game you can show the increasing tensions by describing the events below. There are likely others but these are a good start:

  • Increasing bets
  • Diminishing chip stack of MC
  • Non-critical players being eliminated
  • Increasing number of spectators
  • Increasing the time taken per bet/turn

Focus on the people not the cards

Describing a series of card draws, bets, checks and reveals will feel lame or gimmicky. The thing that makes games like poker interesting is the people who are playing it, their reactions to the game and the by-play between them. Focus most of your attention on the reactions to the cards that are played. Who flinched, who smiled, who didn't even blink? matildalee23's answer has several other good examples.

Use traditional plot elements to drive the tension

The five elements of plot conflict are a staple of good story telling. You can use them on a smaller scene scale as well.

  1. Exposition: the opening hands, players are feeling each other out, no big bets but possibly a few bluffs.
  2. Rising action: bets increasing, players eliminated, the key players are revealed.
  3. Climax: The big hand, often this will mean someone is all in but it doesn't have to be. Cliche would have the MC throw in the thing they can't afford to lose to meet a big bet.
  4. Falling action: the closing hands, finish out the game but the likely conclusion is known now.
  5. Resolution: What happens next? This game meant something what are the outcomes?

Clearly if this game is bigger than just a game you can end the game itself at any point. Your climax could result in someone pulling a weapon or flipping the table, some kind of breaking point for the growing tension.

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    In practice I ended up using suggestions from every answer, but yours became the backbone of it all, hence the selected answer. First I increased the number of hands. Next, I got rid on the omniscient viewpoint gradually, in two hands the reader is fully immersed in watching the game unfold. Finally, I slowed the pace. The first hands are dry and they move quickly with just a few dialogue lines. The last hand lasts half a chapter chapter, and now reeks with tension thanks to all the advice I received. – NofP May 15 at 16:35
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You don't need to show the characters thoughts to know what they are thinking. Well written body language should be enough. Instead of portraying standard card playing behavior, give your characters individual tells and gestures.

Player A sips water instead of liquor. Player B twists his wedding band, it's missing a stone.
Player C keeps staring at Player D's well manicured hands Player E is allergic to fresh cut grass, he's rubbing his watering eyes, trying to stay focused on the game.

Put things in the setting that are unusual, but not too distracting. If they are playing in a private room in a classy casino, there might be a crayon sitting on a side table. One of the characters notices it, then looks back at his cards.

If you are playing in a greasy bar, get rid of the greasy table cloth, make it pristine white. Then when you tap your cigar on it, let the ashes spill across it.

How are you characters interacting with each other? Who are they avoiding eye contact with, who are they smiling at?

You can use pacing to help hold the tension. Keep your sentences short, but not choppy. The more specific you are with your descriptions the better the imagery will be.

  • The suggestions here do bring about tension in the reading, but they are not about events intrinsic to the game (as in, how and what hands and bets are played). So it will depend on what the author wants to talk about. – Pablo H Apr 10 at 11:40
  • @PabloH I hope the author is able to use information from several of these answers. Others have included useful information about gameplay that I am not as familiar with. – matildalee23 Apr 10 at 14:02
  • These were excellent suggestions to add color to the scene! Great characterization with just a few strokes +1 – NofP May 15 at 16:36
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In addition to what others have stated, I'd add this: Do not use any of the "famous" hands. The minute you have someone pull out 4 aces or a royal flush, it becomes cliche and loses all credibility. The odds of a hand like that coming up in a normal game are so rare they almost never occur outside of magic tricks. It may seem less dramatic to have someone win on just 2 pairs, but it's far more realistic.

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    It depends on the type of poker. If someone plays 100 hands of Texas Hold 'Em a day for 100 days, they will get a four of a kind about 17 times, and chances are good that one of them will be aces. And the probability that someone at the table will get four aces is even higher. – Acccumulation Apr 9 at 17:56
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    Yeah, that's - 10,000 games? Divide by 17 for any 4-of-a-kind, and multiply by 13 for it to be aces, and we have a 1 in ~7,647 chance of 4 aces in any given game. Even divided by 5 or 6 people at the table it's still a bit of a long shot, and still very much a cliche. – Darrel Hoffman Apr 9 at 18:23
  • Your answer makes it sound like it would be unlikely for a poker player to see such four aces at all, rather than it being unlikely to see it in a particular hand. – Acccumulation Apr 9 at 18:25
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    On the other hand, if you've got two card sharps facing off, you can get some dramatic tension (or comedy) out of having them try to out-cheat each other with hands everyone knows shouldn't be showing up. – Mark Apr 9 at 20:45
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    @Mark "I'll see your four aces and raise you - five aces! Read 'em and weep!" (I mean, yes it'd be possible if playing with 3+ decks, but still...) – Darrel Hoffman Apr 9 at 20:49
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Have the MC play the players more than the game. Poker players need to minimize their body language or bluffing would not work.

I would have a PoV character either in the game or watching surreptitiously over someone's shoulder.

I am integrating a poker scene in mine and will do something like this:

He looked at his cards, jack of hearts and eight of spades. Not even suited, but he might be able to do something with it. He had the blind so had to bet anyway.

Leaning back slightly, he noticed that Jeff was caressing his chips - he had something. Dave was trying to look cool, clear sign he had nothing at all. Gordon was looking at him, checking for his tells. What were his?

Dave would have to fold, having nothing, Jeff was the real threat. Gordon was a bit of an unknown being new to the group. He'd wait for the flop. The dealer dealt the flop, Ace of Diamonds, four of clubs, ten of spades.

Jeff was looking like a proud father when he looked at his cards. Bluff? Did he have the king? Maybe king and queen?

Dave folded, smart play. The odds were against him, math was unforgiving and statistics were worse. Placing his cards on the table, he folded. Jeff smiled. Damn.

  • "He had the blind so had to bet anyway." Somehow, a player in the blind "has to bet" preflop with 4 other in the pot? Did they all limp? In that case he's just checking...Is he completing from the small blind (in which case it's a call)? – f41lurizer Apr 11 at 5:01
  • +1 That is a nice excerpt. I ended up showing that with dialogue, though. The players place bets, reveal cards, swear and comment on each other's luck. That, I thought, should give enough of an idea of who was bluffing, and who had an unusually lucky hand. – NofP May 15 at 16:45
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Trying to explain a game that not every reader is knowledgeable about or interested in is rather hard. If you don't want to scare off your readers or bore them, one solution is to completely ignore the game itself and focus on the reactions.

So I would take @matildalee23's answer a step further:

Don't describe that a player had the third royal flush in a row, but describe how after he makes his play every players eyes widen in awe and doubt, how a few of the players close to him are getting nervous and back away and how your main character feels the rage starting to boil in him.

The reader will fill in the gaps and at this point it doesn't really matter which game is played. They may not care for or understand poker but they understand and care for human reactions because that is a pretty universal language. TL;DR: The use of emotion is just as important as the portrayal of the rules of the game.

  • It is a good suggestion in general, but for this specific case I drag the reader gently into the game now with a few quick hands described by no more than a couple of lines of dialogue. – NofP May 15 at 16:42
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What you describe in the question sounds perfectly fine to me. So if other people are telling you (or you're telling yourself) that it's not quite right, the problem isn't what you're doing, it's how you're doing it.

After all, some people love to watch TV coverage of poker games. There the narrator can only describe what the camera sees, and maybe add some outside information (like a player's history). There's no way to know what's happening in the players' heads.

While adding in POVs from different characters might work great, it could also be very confusing and busy and turn the reader off. Do it only if there's a strong reason for it and not because you're worried the narrator you have is too dull.

For those who like watching poker (not being one of them, I can only guess), I assume they get to know the players some. The way that watching the Olympics is more fun if you know some of the backstories of the top competitors (how he slipped on the ice half a second before the finish line 4 years ago and lost the gold, how she trained in a country that doesn't even get snow and still made the Olympics). But pausing the action to stick in one more "heartwarming" story is enough to make you barf (don't do this).

So get to know the characters ahead of time (I don't know your story so I am guessing you do this but I don't actually know). We need to know what's at stake for each character as s/he plays. Reputation? Money? Proving something? or? Then each change in the cards and bets has meaning.

The sounds, smells, sights, and physicality of the scene you describe help set the mood. Not just for the reader but for the characters. You can also show what some of the characters are feeling by their actions and what they do and don't notice. Distracted, nervous, focused.

When you're done writing it, show it to someone you trust to tell you the truth. See what does and doesn't work and write it again.

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    your advice on giving a bit of backstory was a very good suggestion! I use that in the dialogue, when, at the end of each round, some players feel the need to vent their frustration, and they refer to other past games, how unlucky they were then, how big was the pot, and even how some other players tried to cheat. – NofP May 15 at 16:51
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I love the psychological answer of Klaws.

To add a bit more poker content, tensions builts up when there is a confrontation of good hands (like AA, KK, or AKs) and bad hands like (46o, o means off-suit) on a dynamical flop where every one has caught something. Keeping it simple with two players, both AsKs and 4h6d are happy on a 3s4d6s flop.

The preflop action could be AKs opening and 46o 3-betting as a bluff and then AKs just trap-calling instead of 4-betting. Another possibility to get a huge pot is 46o opening, AKs 3-betting, 46o 4-betting as a bluff and now AKs has not a real incentive to 5-bet as it is turning its hand into a bluff and should fold if stacks are huge and the opponent 6-bets all-in, so he may just call with a huge pot developping.

Now the 46o player can put a lot of pression on AKs because he was the last to raise and he is now virtually in position.

On the flop which has two spades, the 46o player should continuation bet to protect his vulnerable hand with two low pairs on a wet board, but he can also decide to trap and hide the force of his hand by just checking, which builds more tension.

On 3s4d6s, the AsKs only has a flush draw (8 outs) plus two over cards with 6 more outs (3 Kings and 3 Aces which would give him a pair of Aces or Kings) with a total of 14 outs which usually makes him a favorite but with so much preflop action indicating a possible monster for his opponent, and being out of position, he should be carefull and bet the flop about one third pot bet size.

The 46o player can then raise him as he would do with AA or KK without the As or Ks which the omnicient spectator knows he can't have as it is in the hand of the AKss player.

On this raise, the AKs player can just call and wait to find a spade on the turn or river to put more money in the pot.

An innocent 2h turn could slow down the action as the 46o player should not feel threatened by this card not being a spade and as a river 5 would give them a straight.

So if they go check/check and try to see any tell of fear or weakness in each other composure, you can elaborate on that.

The river is of course the 4s which gives the highest flush to AKs player and a full house (boat) to the 46o player and depending on the level of the players, a serie a check, bet, raise, re-raise could end up on a rere-raise or a fold from the AKs player. The fold being even more dramatic because of the uncertainty for the folding player, not being sure even if he decided on the right decision that he has not being bluffed.

Another interesting river card would be the Ace of heart with reverse pressure applied by the AKs player who could potentially represent a set of Aces and try to make the 46o double pair player fold...

A river J, where the AKs player knows he has lost and his only hope to make the other player fold and win this huge pot, sensing false weakness by the turn check or imagining that the other player having KK could fold to an all-in raise representing he having JJ for a set of Jacks, the action would be: 46o player checks again to trap, AKs player bets, 46o player raise with his invisible two pairs, AKs player raises, 46o player is a bit concerned not being sure his two low pairs are any good and should just call but decides to bully by re-raising. AKs player knows his only chance is by going all-in, having more JJ than his opponent, so he does. And 46o player has to fold the better hand ! Of course you need monster stacks and ego for this to happen.

  • Well... I am speechless. That was the writing of someone who knows way more than me about this game. It feels very compelling, the kind that makes you think you almost understood the inner workings of Chance. On the other hand it was a bit too specialized for the rest of the writing. Great contribution nonetheless! – NofP May 15 at 17:00
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What is the point of your scene? It's probably not just to show some people dealing cards and winning hands. The scene is there to advance the plot or reveal character, right?

So I'd handle this scene the same way I'd handle a scene where four people are having lunch or walking down the street. I'd focus on their interactions. They talk. They gesture. They notice the things each other does. They glance here and there.

Because it's a game you'll have to sprinkle in details like who wins significant hands, who is good and bad at it, how it stresses certain characters, and so on. But this stuff feels secondary to me. Focus on the interactions that work toward the point of the scene.

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    It was indeed a central scene in the plot, where some characters were tricked into rising the stakes beyond what they had initially planned. Writing a strong and quickly paced dialogue at the beginning of the game was a game-changer (pardon me the pun) in the writing. – NofP May 15 at 16:53
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The thing about talking about poker is that description of the action naturally involves taking about players' thoughts, even if you're not in their heads. Let's say Alice has limped into the flop, then the board comes up all hearts, and Alice bets big. The other players are going to start putting Alice on a hand based on this; you don't need to be a mind reader to know what the other players are thinking. Every player in a poker game is constantly modeling the other players, and modeling the other players modeling them, etc.; that's the core of poker. You don't need to have your narrator being in the players' heads, so much as telling the reader what any poker player can be expected to be thinking.

Alice pushed in a large stack. She was clearly representing a flush. Slow playing high pre-flop cards wasn't her style, so the other players would be putting her on low hearts. Bob raised. Did he have high hearts? He had limped into the flop as well, but he had been under the gun. Did he have two hearts, or was he semi-bluffing with one? Alice called, signalling she believed it was the latter. The turn was another heart. Now if Bob had been semi-bluffing, he wasn't anymore.

  • Sorry, but your example paragraph is a bunch of gibberish. English words, but not used according to any definitions I know. Flop as a noun? How does one limp into it? – Martha Apr 9 at 20:00
  • @Martha Are you familiar with poker? – Acccumulation Apr 9 at 20:02
  • Not a bit, but the point is, I shouldn't have to be. – Martha Apr 9 at 20:03
  • This actually I skipped. I do some of this in the dialogues, but I don't try to second-guess the characters. I only describe what they do, and what they say. Their indecision, or their sudden uttering when they see the bets doubling are hints of what may be going in their minds, but they remain nonetheless a mystery. – NofP May 15 at 16:55
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I slowly uncovered my hand and tried to control my tension. The stakes were high, not unreasonably so, but still high enough that I need to win this or the next round or I would out. And broke. Across the table Quiny had a face like a glacier, as always. He seemed to be breathing a little bit deeper than usual, though Did he have a good hand, maybe a better one than me? Or was he just feeling how close he was getting too close to the edge of losing again this round? Does he notice my tension? To the left of me, Peter's eyes darted from left to right, as if unsure about everyone, including himself. Only Richard was relaxed, ogling the waitress like all the time, inquisitively raising an eyebrow at me as he noticed me watching him. He appeared to be care as little about this game as he did about the ongoing divorce from his wife. Admittedly, the only time one has ever remembered Richard getting emotional, even violently raging, was when he has discovered a tiny scratch on his beloved Lincoln Continental.


Note that this has been suggested by linksassin already ("focus on the people"). I suspect that this will work well in the "first person perspective", possibly enticing the reader to somewhat identify with the narrator (and his goals and feelings). However, it should also work if told by omniscient third person, albeit with more emotional distance. Note my crude attempts to convey a little bit of insight into the emotional background of the other players, but less than a omniscient observer could provide.


We tried to control Richard, but he was too strong in his rage. I had had no idea that my innocent remark about his divorce would throw him in a frenzy like as if someone had totaled his Lincoln. Suddenly, he collapsed into a weeping pile inside his expensive clothing, and I felt sorry for him - all his wealth and all his luck during the poker match had not protected him from the harsh truth about how deeply he loved his wife.


Yep, even the other players are vulnerable to strong emotions.

This is just meant as an example on how to possibly convey some sort of emotional tension by adding a bit of background and chatterer to the characters. I am no writer, and neither do I recommend to write Heinrich Böll style (well, I tend to somewhat long sentences but I am still far away from Böll).

  • Thank you for the examples Klaws! I am writing in third person, so it was a bit trickier to show the psychology without showing the thoughts, and without having a personified voice running through. Despite that, yours are very good suggestions. – NofP May 15 at 16:57
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What is the point of the scene?

High stakes games can happen in an extremely relaxed atmosphere if all the players are emotionally stable, understand poker and what to expect from it, and are properly bankrolled.

If you're hoping to magically get tension just because it's a "high stakes" poker game, you will fail - you really need to figure out where the scene fits into to the bigger story, how it impacts characters after the results of the game are known, what each player brings to the game, what the relationships between the players are and how they evolve during the game, etc, then you have a chance of writing an impactful and memorable scene.

As far as elements of poker that can help you make the action more dramatic, assuming the scene actually makes sense in the larger arc of the story, think of these, and see if they apply:

  • Maybe a player does not understand poker, is gambling with too much money, and just loses without understanding what's going on? Does the damage done by gambling fit into your story?
  • Maybe a competent player is somehow forced into playing higher stakes that he's not bankrolled for, gets into a situation that would be fairly standard in poker, but being "money scared" because of the higher stakes is making the decision extra difficult for him.
  • Maybe losing money is not the issue, but some other factors may be at play.
  • Do you want to show a player outplaying another player?
  • Do you want to show lady luck being harsh and letting a worse player hit the one-outer?
  • Do you want to show a standard situation that only impacts the players bankrolls in a statistically nominal way, and demonstrate that high stakes players can take bad beats and coolers in a professional manner?

In short - I'd suggest figuring out what role you want the game scene to play in your bigger picture, and then asking an actual good player to figure out the poker action that might help bring the readers along for the ride. If you try to write the poker action without understanding poker, you will end up with this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfrcQ2EKVtA

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