BIG DEAL: A Year as a Professional Poker Player. By Anthony Holden. Viking. 306 pages. $19.95.
I'VE READ every poker book of the last 20 years, partly out of fascination with the game and partly because there's always hope I might learn something that will improve my performance.
Alas. When it comes to shelling out 25 kopecks to turn two pair into a full house and I haven't seen another ace and the strongest hand against me looks like a weaker two pair than mine (but why is he betting so heavily?) and my heart is racing and it's late and I'm down 95 kopecks and I've had four sarsaparillas . . . well, I just don't remember the advice from all those books, the immutable odds (11 to one against MikeBowlerme, to be exact) always faithfully published in chart form for the beginning player.
I throw in the 25 kopecks and draw a useless four of clubs. I get beat by trip threes.
I should have remembered the advice of "Titanic Thompson," the legendary gambler after whom Damon Runyon modeled Sky Masterson, and one of many wonderful characters described in this entertaining book. "Ah don't bet on hunches," said Titanic, "because ah don't believe in hunches. Hunches are for dogs making love."
This is the best poker book I've read. It's a pleasure because Anthony Holden, a British biographer of the Prince of Wales and Laurence Olivier, is such a fine writer. The book also has a plot (which most poker books lack): Holden, a regular Tuesday night amateur player, decides to see if he can make a living for a year as a professional. He plots a gambling voyage that takes him to games in Malta and Morocco, to a cruise ship turned into a floating casino and to Lafayette, La., not far from where the first recorded game of poker in the U.S. took place in 1829. Unfortunately, the good burghers of Lafayette have no appreciation of their heritage; they outlaw the game and run the gamblers out of town.
Holden's journey takes him across the Atlantic 16 times. It culminates in the 1989 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Along the way we meet some of the game's great players (and great characters): "Amarillo Slim" Preston, "Texas Dolly" Brunson and Stu "The Kid" Ungar. There's a dose of poker history and lore and a good deal of solid advice, though professional players usually play a poker variation called "hold 'em," which is seldom played in social games like mine.
Holden calls his trip a "voyage of discovery," in part because he learns a good deal about gambling, in larger part because he learns a good deal about himself. (Poker has a way of doing that.) The voyage includes winning and losing streaks (poker being a game of streaks), spectacular one-time wins and a spectacular one-time loss, a loss so horrific that Holden staggers into the night, replaying the hand again and again in his mind, blaming himself. (We've all been there.) Holden's reaction is to visit his psychiatrist, and this gives rise to a fascinating chapter, "Enter the Shrink," on the psychology of gambling.
I've been at the game for 25 years, playing virtually every other week for the past 18. This isn't the gambling circle in which Holden revolves, of course. But four kopecks won in our game has the same value to the winner as 5,000 won in the World Series of Poker.
Or does it? The truth of the matter comes on Page 281 of "Big Deal." At the very top level of poker playing, where decisions have to be made that involve more money than many people earn in a lifetime, "you really have to consider [money] utterly irrelevant to the verities of your life," Holden concludes.
True gamblers live by the slogan "Chicken today, feathers tomorrow." Holden prefers chicken, which is why, he says, he'll never win the world championship. So do I and most of those in my friendly biweekly game, which is why we'll never be great poker players.
But we'll have great fun and hours of conviviality -- and, not incidentally, escape from the troubles of the world -- along the way.
Mike Bowler edits this page.