Poker Reads

A large crop of poker-related books this year add to the game’s unique history

Poker is more than a game — it’s a pastime with a rich history and culture. Every game has a story — from the kitchen table to high stakes casino outings. Poker offers unique settings and tales — an Old West saloon (Wild Bill Hickok) to a Mississippi River steamboat (Mark Twain) to a McMansion in the suburbs filled with computers (the teenagers from the great 2013 book “Ship It Holla Ballas!”). What makes poker great are the stories and lore behind the game, and there are several interesting books out this spring and summer that add to this rich history and culture. And while your summer reading list may depend on whether you’re grinding away at the World Series of Poker or relaxing poolside, there are plenty of poker-related books for some great summer reading.

“Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker”
By Doug Swanson, $27.95 (hardcover, release date Aug. 14)

Blood AcesStreet thug. Crime boss. Shrewd businessmen. All certainly identify legendary founder of Las Vegas’ Horseshoe Casino and the World Series of Poker. Doug Swanson, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and investigative projects editor for the Dallas Morning News, uses recently released documents to craft a tale of a man who rose from poverty to become THE mob boss in Big D (and later Las Vegas) — with underground gambling rackets, mob hits, and lawmen on the take. When his pick for sheriff lost an election, Binion packed up his outfit and headed to Las Vegas. The Horseshoe Casino was born — as was the WSOP. Binion was character that not even Hollywood could invent, and Swanson thoroughly examines his wild life.

Ever the promoter, Binion viewed the WSOP as a way to draw attention to his casino and downtown Las Vegas. “The poker tournament gave tired, tattered downtown Vegas new life in the form of a spectacle unmatched anywhere in the world,” the author writes. “… at the Horseshoe — the funky, smelly old-school Horseshoe — Benny Binion had nothing less than create a new dimension in the world of gambling.”

“The Moneymaker Effect: The Inside Story of the Tournament That Forever Changed Poker”
By Eric Raskin, $16.95 (paperback)

Money Maker EffectLongtime poker writer and editor Eric Raskin offers up a unique entry into poker lore and literature. On the 10th anniversary of Chris Moneymaker’s unlikely win at the WSOP in 2004, the author examines his role in the poker boom that followed. And while Moneymaker’s place in poker history has been examined again and again, Raskin takes a unique approach — retelling the events in a unique fashion with behind-the-scenes anecdotes and long accounts from big-name players and insiders from poker legend Phil Ivey to ESPN analyst Norman Chad. The narrative plays out well, and the asides add great depth to all that was happening that summer at the Horseshoe.

Raskin retells the story of Moneymaker’s heads-up battle with the older and much more experienced Sammy Farha. Before battling on the felt, Moneymaker asked to talk to his opponent in the restroom. Despite having a 2-to-1 chip advantage, Moneymaker offered to split the $3.8 million in prize money ($2.5 million for first and $1.3 million for second) evenly. Farha at first asked to make it winner take all, and then agrees to a split, but only if he received more in the deal. Moneymaker said no deal, and the rest is history. Moneymaker recounts in the book:

“I knew Sammy’s game going into heads-up. The conversation in the bathroom helped me figure out what he wanted to do. Sammy normally likes to play big pots; he likes to gamble it up. But I knew that if he thinks he’s that much better than me, he’s going to want to keep the pots smaller and use his experience to try to whittle me down and get back close to even, and then he might start applying the pressure.”

“Poker Tilt”
By Dutch Boyd and Laurance Samuels, $24.99 ($9.99 Kindle edition)

Poker TiltDutch Boyd lives the life of a professional poker player including owning two WSOP gold bracelets. In his new book, Boyd offers up insight into the “new world” of professional poker — from the jet-set tournament scene to the high-stakes life in the Wild West of online poker. Boyd, who grew up in Missouri, drifts from law school graduate to California poker room regular. His account of his life gets extremely personal including reconnecting with his father, who had left his family as a child.

Like Raskin, Boyd offers a unique take on the poker narrative with his personal life, poker action, and general advice on playing the game weaved together throughout. The author even enlightens readers on his own forays into creating an online poker site, with an enlightening in-depth analysis of the early days of online poker. Boyd even retells the creation of his own site, Pokerspot.com, from concept to fruition to dodging legal entanglements. Describing that first launch day, he writes about his team watching the site:

“A few players downloaded the software. Then a few more. A player made a credit card deposit into the site. Then a few more. A player signed up on the $3/6 list. Then another signed up and a table session started on the server. They were dealt in and the game started. Once that first hand was over, and the first Pokerspot player was awarded his pot, the three of us held our breaths a technical glitch wouldn’t keep the next hand from being dealt.”

“The second hand was dealt.”

“Alligator Blood: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of the High-Rolling Whiz-kid who Controlled Online Poker’s Billions”
By James Leighton, $11.99 (paperback)

Alligator BloodThe story of 26-year-old Australian Daniel Tzvetkoff, whose online service company would cater to the burgeoning online poker and gambling industry in the 2000s — disguising gambling revenues as legal payments. Tzvetkoff’s site brought in big bucks, a freewheeling lifestyle, constant lawsuits, and criminal investigations, including the FBI. The story sheds light on the underbelly of international payment processing middlemen, and how Tzvetkoff seizes on the idea to join the fray with a high-risk financial service catering to these industries. In a world where many financial institutions refused to accept charges to poker, gambling, and other “seedy” sites, Tzvetkoff devised a system to filter payments to these merchants through a veil of legitimacy. The book traces the young entrepreneur’s journey through business start-up to hard-partying millionaire to FBI informant.

“Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker”
By Molly Bloom, $26.95 (hardcover, to be released June 24)

Molly's GameUnderground poker games are common and a deep part of the game’s lore. Recently convicted for her role in holding underground poker games for celebrities and Wall Street financiers, the 36-year-old Molly Bloom reveals all her cards in this memoir of the so-called “Poker Princess.” Hundreds of millions of dollars were wagered at the table in exclusive settings including New York’s Plaza Hotel. Then law enforcement moved in — and the game was over. Bloom offers behind-the-scenes insight into the game and the life she created — from small-town girl to big-city hustler.

“Fading Hearts on the River: My Son’s Life in Poker”
By Brooks Haxton, $24 (hardback)

Fading Hearts on the RiverUnique in its point of view, poet, writer, and teacher Brooks Haxton tackles the story of his son Isaac’s poker success. Isaac Haxton has won millions at the poker felt, but one can easily imagine his parents’ shock when he informed them of his career choice in 2006 after three years of studying computer science at the Ivy League’s Brown University. Haxton delves into numerous subjects from the math of poker to his own life in poetry to his son’s fight for survival in the intensive care as an infant. Haxton describes poker from an outsider’s perspective and touches on his own gambling experiences — the good and bad side of the lifestyle. He writes:

“The father of my best friend from an early childhood was a professional poker player, an alcoholic, and a deadbeat. I could not believe that my friend in her 20s made her living at the bridge table. Her appetite for gaming, like my son’s must have been inherited, but I find poker an improbable profession, even so.”

“The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death”
By Colson Whitehead, $24.95 (hardcover)

The Noble HustleThis Pulitzer Prize finalist details his adventures through the world of high stakes poker after getting staked into the WSOP Main Event as part of a magazine article. Whitehead writes in a stream of consciousness style introducing readers to interesting characters and players as he prepares for his big day. Similar in style to James McManus’ poker classis “Positively Fifth Street”  and served with a healthy dose of snarkiness, Colson Whitehead’s work has been labeled “Negatively Fifth Street” by some and seems a fitting title. Of his own table appearance, Whitehead writes:

“I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing twenty years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and four-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand.”

Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer and journalism teacher in Crandall, Texas. He is soon relaunching his blog, www.PokerTraditions.com, all about poker history, people, and lore. Email him at seanchaffin@sbcglobal.net or follow him @PokerTraditions. His new poker book is “RAISING THE STAKES: True Tales of Gambling, Wagering & Poker Faces” and available on Amazon.com and BN.com.

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July 2014