Friday, May 22, 2009

Currently Reading: Big Deal

I don't know how much of a review I can do of a book I haven't finished yet, but so far Big Deal by Anthony Holden has been pretty awesome. This was part of a haul of books I picked up in the bargain section out in front of Borders heading there to use a coupon the Real Coupon Wife (i.e. my wife) found. Which makes sense, I guess, the book is 20 years old, but it was only re-issued two years ago. Writin' ain't easy, I guess.

That's OK, though, because this book is a classic of poker. I'm one of those guys who likes to read about stuff because it's more fun than actually doing it ("Books about War!"). I really suck at poker, and I hate even more being the guy that people teach how to do something; I have a lot of stupid anxieties and I suck at math. That having been said, I am fascinated by the social aspects of things like poker and the lives of professional gamblers in general, and Tony Holden so far has got this shit locked down.

His education shines through - check inside the jacket, this dude has translated Ancient Greek - but isn't unbearable. The man likes to play poker and hang out in Vegas so he's not your stereotypical "antiseptic" Brit who writes angry Internet posts about how everyone here is fat and voted for Dick Cheney. Check out this bit:

Why not practice, instead, what I preached: take the money - well, some of it - and set out on the road, for an experimental year, as a professional poker player?
It was an inspirational moment, much as if the road to Damascus had been rerouted through our kitchen. I would set out along it at once; and like Saint Paul, I would write an account of the journey, complete with epistles, home.

Tony Holden, it turns out, is the Cool Brit. Sort of like David Niven. At first you think he's all standoffish and thinks you're an idiot. You're intimidated by his education, gained before Western Civilization was Not Cool Anymore, because he keeps quoting lines from the Aeneid and and Noel Cowards and shit at you and you don't get the joke. But then you play poker or something with him, and that breaks the ice, and when ninjas attack, he is down. And later, he mans the gun on the back of the technical as you race through the mean streets of some forgotten African city, and now it's like Dogs of War or something, and he takes out a low-flying chopper with the fifty-cal and shouts "Rule Britannia!" and gives you a thumbs-up. He is not such a bad guy after all.

Another good thing is that his descriptions of the various poker hands he's involved in that move his story forward are about as good as they could be, considering that not even Ian Fleming could make a hand of cards interesting to read about (though, to be fair, that was bridge). I only had to re-read them a couple of times to "get it" (again, REAALLY BAD at cards). He helpfully provides a glossary at the back as well (though I already kinda knew most of the terms).

What really blows my mind about this book is how popular and world-wide poker was before TV shows like "Poker After Dark" and all that, the Poker Boom that supposedly raised poker out of obscurity. These guys don't seem all that obscure and the World Series was a big event outside of Vegas even during the time Holden was writing this. The current narrative way downplays this part of poker's history so it's eye-opening in many ways. I guess it doesn't help that, while Holden was No-Limit One-Handed Kansas City Fireball or whatever, I was seeing the Ninja Turtles movie for the fifteenth time.

Overall I'm really enjoying this book, especially as a counterpart to the near-contemporaneous Poker Faces, which is more for the scientifically-trained reader but a still-enjoyable sociological account of the lives of pro card players centered around the card rooms of Gardena, California. Not suprisingly, it's in Holden's biliography.

I will, of course, seek out Bigger Deal when I'm done with this one.

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