Freddy "Ace" Anderson is in a melancholy mood. He has just been fired from his job. On the drive home, he talks to himself and blasts the radio because he cannot bear silence. A Pontiac pulls up next to him at a red light and the teenage driver makes fun of Ace for singing along to the radio. He angrily retorts, calling the kid a “miserable wop” (145) and is pleased when the youth’s car stalls out as the light turns green. This improves Ace’s mood, and he continues on and picks up his infant daughter Bonnie from his mother’s house.
When he arrives, he announces that he has been fired. Ace’s mother is pleased because her son is not upset, and she always thought he worked too hard anyway. However, she speculates that his wife Evey will be furious at him. To Ace’s chagrin, she begins to criticize Evey’s Roman Catholic religion. Although he tries to change the subject, she continues to work jibes about her daughter-in-law into the conversation. Ace's mother also tells him his name was in today's newspaper.
Since his mother lives only half a block from his apartment, Ace leaves his car and jogs home with Bonnie in his arms. He thinks about advice from his old coach - "Never ride when you can walk." Although she wants to play when they get home, he gives Bonnie a rattle and goes to the bathroom to comb his hair alone. He worries about how Evey will react to the news of his firing, and regrets yelling at the teenager in the Pontiac. Ace looks at the morning paper and finds his name. A points record he set as a basketball star five years ago in high school is in jeopardy of being bested by a current student. Ace angrily tosses the paper aside.
Bonnie starts to cry, and Ace turns the television on “to drown her out” (147). He remembers that he also felt depresed in high school, but playing basketball and hanging around in the locker room made him feel better. When Evey gets home from work, she is in a sarcastic mood, teasing Ace and making fun of his mother. She found out from his mother that he has been fired, and does not seem upset with him.
Ace explains to her why he lost his job. His boss, Goldman, had asked Ace to parallel-park Goldman’s Chevy for him. The space was too small for the car, and Ace accidentally grazed another car when he tried to park it. Evey suddenly becomes vindictive, asking Ace what he plans to do now, and mocks his fantasies of becoming a professional basketball player.
When she adds that she is “ready as Christ to let you run” (150), Ace mutters about her Catholic faith, which prohibits divorce. As her parents fight, Bonnie vies for their attention by putting an ashtray on her head. Ace comments that she has sure hands and would make a great athlete if she were a boy. He asks Evey to stay with him so they can have a male child.
Evey wants to talk about the couple’s dire financial problems, but Ace is distracted now. He asks her to have a cocktail and dance. Evey is resistant to all of this, especially Ace’s idea that they should have another child. He forcefully seizes her and begins to dance. Although Evey is tense and uncomfortable, he feels better, remembering his fun times in the locker room in high school.
The title of “Ace in the Hole” is a double entendre, referring to Ace’s problems parallel parking (he calls the parking space as a “hole”) as well as his difficult position in life—he has just been fired; his relationship with Evey is tense; he is consumed with nostalgia for his high-school glory days. These meanings are an ironic play on the origin of the phrase "ace in the hole." In poker, when a player is dealt an ace - the best card in the deck - face down or, "in the hole" he or she has a secret weapon and will likely win the hand. Ace himself has no trump card and all of his plans or grand ideas are dismissed as fantasy by his wife.
The parking scene may seem trivial; after all, the narrator does not even describe it, but rather includes it as part of Ace’s conversation with his wife. However, it serves as an analogy for many of Ace’s problems in life. He describes the parking space as “tight,” an adjective he also uses for the feeling in his stomach, itself a manifestation of his depression. As he recounts the parallel-parking story his wife, he laughs about Goldman’s anger. This is indicative of his general resentment for other people, particularly men. Ace feels as if he is in a tight space in his life.
For Ace, personal fulfillment is a zero-sum game and his own happiness must always come at someone else’s expense. Ace's one joy in the piece comes at the beginning. After Ace gets into a verbal altercation with a kid at a red light, the kid's Pontiac stalls out. Ace takes devious pleasure in this event, likely what he views as retribution for being called "Dad" - an illusion to his faded glory and youth. Ace does feel bad for using a racial slur against the kid, signaling he is not totally hateful. Ace is immature and consumed with victory going hand in hand with loss. This complex, flawed worldview is apparent in the way he describes the car's damage to Evey: “Just looked like somebody took a planer and shaved off the bulge ... at the back,” he says. “The Chevy, though, didn’t have a dent. It even gained some paint.” (149) If one car is damaged, the other car must come out scot-free, and even "gain some paint.” This also serves to pain Ace as nearly "innocent" of his crime. He is not taking responsibility in his life.
Ace and Evey’s parenting style may shock 21st-century readers. Little Bonnie is allowed to play with an ashtray, finally wearing it on her head. Ace regrets that Bonnie was not a boy because he believes girls cannot and should not play sports. Much of this is innocuous and was simply part of the culture in 1950s America. However, Ace and Evey’s disregard for their infant daughter is real; Evey snaps at her to “shut up” and Ace would rather comb his hair than play with her. Bonnie grounds the story in reality and adds a level of gravity to the story that would be missing if her parents were childless. Evey and Ace seem very much like kids themselves, especially as Ace gets fixated on his boyhood basketball record being shattered. They are stuck in a prolonged adolescence that makes them irresponsible and self-involved and they are threatening Bonnie's future as much as their own.
In this story, Updike fabricates some cultural references, inventing a pop song called “Blueberry Hill” and the band that sings it. This is an early stylistic tic that would become increasingly rare over the course of Updike’s career. For example, A & P is a real grocery chain, and “Short Easter” is replete with references to 1980s pop culture. In the later stories, Updike’s painstaking verisimilitude plays into his satire of materialism in popular culture. But in “Ace in the Hole,” commercialism is depicted relatively uncritically. Updike transcribes the advertisement for Emu Shoe Gloss, but it serves to emphasize Ace’s discomfort with silence rather than as an overt critique.
Published in The New Yorker in 1955, "Ace in the Hole" is Updike's first short story and sets a precedent for themes explored throughout his career - the transition from adolescence into the adult world, indifference to authority and self-delusion. Ace is also considered a precursor for Updike's famous character Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom first seen in the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run. Rabbit is 26, a former basketball star also making a difficult transition into adulthood. Like Ace, Rabbit's glory has faded and he finds himself wanting to escape from what he sees as traps of a middle-class life.