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Saturday, April 03, 2004

Anthony Holden's Big Deal
I finished reading Anthony Holden's Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player yesterday. The quick verdict: What a fantastic read. This is a classic of poker literature, with tons of glowing reviews across the Web, so I'll just throw in my 2 cents: There were few a lulls in the middle, and I started the book with some expectations that weren't quite met, but it starts off great and ends on such a bittersweet, downright moving final note that I'm sure I'll be rereading this one before the year's out.

Big Deal is a really great book. My main disappointment with it comes from its subtitle: "One Year as a Professional Poker Player." I was really hoping for scenes of high stakes poker playing and a glimpse into what it would be like to earn one's daily bread at the tables. But as good as Big Deal is, you never get the feeling that Holden's experiences were anything but those of a writer gathering material for book (and having a fantastic time doing it). He plays mostly tournaments (and mostly loses) and a little $20/$40 Hold'Em. He explains on pages 109-11 that the regular casino games in London are too tight and high stakes for him, so he basically takes a series of poker vacations. He uses his poker winnings to pay for his poker-related expenses (mostly travel), but at no point is he ever really making a good living from poker. If he were really "going pro," I think he'd have to learn to beat the London games--or move to Las Vegas.

Lest I sound too critical, I'll again emphasize that Big Deal is a fantastic book. Holden is a great writer and made the right choice in sticking with writing rather than truly going pro and making poker his profession. But for glimpses into the life of a poker pro, poker blogs such as Richard Brodie's Lion Tales and Paul Phillips's Live Journal offer tales of the tournament scene, and Matt's Poker Chronicles talks in detail about "grinding it out," a part of the poker pro life that Holden basically skips over. (I'm still working through all the other poker blogs out there so I'm sure there's more.)

The last (non-strategy guide) poker book I'd read was Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker, by James McManus. That book came after Big Deal, and is unusual in that it chronicles both the 2000 World Series of Poker and the trial of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish for the murder of Ted Binion. There's also a lot of background on McManus's youth and his love of poker. I liked the WSOP stuff, but didn't like the "true crime" element and thought that McManus came off sounding pretty pretentious.

Holden covers the 1988 and 1999 Word Series of Poker. No true crime stuff, and his exploration of his obsession with poker wasn't as self-involved as McManus's. Holden finished 90th in his first WSOP, whereas McManus made it to the final table, but Holden's poker writing was more engrossing. And McManus did too much calling! I was disappointed that there wasn't more "play by play" poker action in both books.

Both discuss the history of poker, the history of Binion's Horseshoe, and Dostoevsky's The Gambler. Much of this stuff was covered in another poker I read over a year ago, the somewhat disappointing Poker Nation, by Andy Bellin. In fairness to Bellin, his book is decent but pales in comparison to its predecessors. In fairness to Holden, the parts of his book that I found somewhat boring were the history-of-poker parts, because I've read some of that history 3 times now. I'll probably end up reading a lot of that stuff again when I get around to reading The Biggest Game in Town and The Hand I Played, both of which preceded Holden's book. But the very next book on my to-read list is Stewart Reuben and Bob Ciaffone's Pot-Limit & No-Limit Poker.

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