I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 as a teenager. It wasn’t assigned, but the book was in our school library, a sober-looking hardback with the title in stark white capitals and no picture on the cover.

I date myself by revealing there was no internet then, nor even that much in the way of cable television or video games. The fact that I took lots of books out of the library to read perhaps disinguished me somewhat, though others did the same. Most of us were readers then, and a few of us especially avid about it.

Perhaps you have read Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel about a bleak future in which a totalitarian government uses various means to exert complete control over the lives and thoughts of citizens, with the outlawing of all books being a crucial element toward acheiving that goal.

If you did, you’d remember the book burning. The central character, Guy Montag, works as a fireman in this imagined future. However, rather than putting out fires, he and his colleagues start them after being called to action whenever someone is discovered with a hoard of books.

Even if you haven’t read Bradbury’s book, you’re probably at least aware of it. There have been film adaptations, including a remarkable one by Francois Truffaut in the 1960s. The story has also been transformed into plays, radio dramas, comics, and computer games. The title — a reference to a statement made in the book regarding the temperature at which books burn — was repurposed by Michael Moore for his documentaries Fahrenheit 9/11 and Fahrenheit 11/9.

Ironically, the book has itself occasionally been banned and/or censored by groups over objections to language and certain scenes, including the burning of a Bible.

In the novel, books represent a threat to government thanks to the way they encourage readers to think independently, thereby potentially inspiring questions about how they are governed. Great works of literature are especially dangerous, since the richness of such texts invite readers to consider multiple points of view, including opposite sides of issues worthy of debate. Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Swift, and Matthew Arnold are among the dozens of writers whose works are referenced.

“None of those books agree with one another,” says Captain Beatty, the fire chief, by way of summarizing the threat such works pose to those in power. As he later explains to Montag, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”

The preoccupied populace

Like Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell in Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Bradbury in his book delivers a prescient warning about the dire consequences of individuals and groups allowing themselves to be convinced not to think for themselves and instead submit blindly to the authorities who have found ways to control them.

Written during the nascent era of television, the book accurately predicts how TV would subsequently consume the attention of others, a development dramatized by the wall-covering screens where Montag’s wife spends most of her waking hours binge-watching her “family” (as she calls them).

“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary,” explains Faber, an elderly academic and discreet rebel whom Montag consults. “The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.”

Fahrenheit 451 takes place after there have been more wars (including ones using nuclear weapons). And the government is planning another one, about to begin any moment. Better to keep everyone distracted by the stories being projected from their TV walls.

There are other distractions, too, such as the entertainment, music, and government-controlled news delivered via tiny headphones called “seashells” people like Montag’s wife wear throughout the day including when falling asleep. Anyone reading the book today comes away thinking how “seashells” uncannily resemble the earbuds most of us seem constantly to be wearing.

Advertising, pop music, comics, “three-dimensional sex magazines,” and sports also serve to preoccupy everyone’s attention and divert them from whatever their leaders are plotting. (Sound familiar?) There is also one other, similar kind of diversion that comes up in the story.

Poker.

Hiding his hands

While waiting at the firehouse to be called, the firemen play poker, presumably five-card draw. It’s an ongoing game, introduced briefly in an early scene, then returning for a longer one in which Montag again takes a seat along with Beatty and the others.

By this point, we know Montag has secretly squirreled away some books out of curiosity regarding what they might contain. We also know Beatty knows what Montag has done. In fact, Beatty has spoken with Montag about it, making it clear to him that a fireman who finds it necessary “to scratch that itch” is given twenty-four hours to do so. After that he must burn the books himself, or they will be forced to come burn them for him.

We get to witness Montag’s internal struggle, and so we know when he sits in the poker game that he’s harboring a secret — he’s not going to burn the books. In fact, he’s overly preoccupied with his own hands. Not his cards, mind you, but his actual hands, the ones at which he marvels for having pilfered the books.

Twice during the game, Montag gets up to visit the restroom in order to wash his hands, as though they have been sullied by touching the forbidden books. When he returns the second time, he keeps his hands under the table.

“Let’s have your hands in sight, Montag. Not that we don’t trust you, understand,” says Beatty, and everyone laughs.

Beatty continues to torture poor Montag as the game continues, lecturing everyone about the evils of books and how those who argue in favor of them — a position he makes Montag occupy, even though he isn’t responding — are misguided.

As Beatty rails against books and ridicules Montag for his (apparently) temporary weakness for them, our hero is also listening to Faber, the professor, telling him via a secret earpiece why Beatty is wrong. It’s a little like the old conceit of a character with an angel and devil hovering over each shoulder, each of whom is trying to convince the character which way to go.

The situation also suggests a different kind of “poker game” happening between friendly Faber and bad guy Beatty, with Montag himself being the “pot” for which they are “playing.”

Suddenly the station bell rings. While still holding his cards, Beatty tears off from a ticker the address to which they’ve been called. The game will have to wait.

Not to give away any spoilers, but I’ll let you guess where the firemen are headed.

Conclusion

The poker game in Fahrenheit 451 most certainly serves to heighten building suspense regarding Montag’s private, ongoing rebellion as we wonder whether or not any involuntary “tells” he exhibits might give himself away. The game, however, also appears to represent yet another empty diversion meant to distract individuals from contemplating or questioning what is happening around them.

There are other, much more serious targets at which Bradbury takes aim in Fahrenheit 451. Technology is of special concern, particularly the way its advances potentially aid authoritarians’ ability to control and keep close watch over their subjects. That’s one reason why just before Bradbury’s passing in 2012 he wasn’t terribly pleased about his novel being made available as an e-book.

For poker players, though, one lesson might be not to become so engrossed in your game you fail to notice or care about what’s happening away from the table. Take a break now and then. Maybe even pick up a book.

More “5-Card Fiction”

“5-Card Fiction” is an ongoing series examining fictional poker hands from film, television, and elsewhere. Have a favorite fictional poker game or hand you’d like to see discussed? Tweet your suggestions @PokerStarsBlog.

Images: “Book burning” (adapted), mangostar; “Fahrenheit 451” (adapted), DaveBleasedale; both CC BY 2.0.

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