Nerds : Poker :: Moths : Flame

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Stayed up too late last night reading Anthony Holden’s Bigger Deal: A Year Inside the Poker Boom. This is a sequel to Holden’s Big Deal, a book he published in 1990 about his year on the professional poker circuit (he played in the 1988 World Series of Poker). That was pre-poker-boom, when he was peering inside a little-known, hermetic subculture. Now that poker is big, commercial, mainstream territory, he goes over the same ground.

It’s a little depressing to read, since the scene has completely changed since Big Deal — now it’s dominated by hordes of sullen indistinguishable frat boys with buzz cuts, backwards baseball caps, iPods and wraparound shades, who pound the table and do a dance when they win, instead of colorful old-timers with good manners who give good quotes. And because tournaments are so much bigger, luck necessarily plays a bigger role than skill. Still, Holden is smart, cultured — he’s the music critic at the Observer in London — appealing, and neither annoyingly good nor cringingly bad at poker. (Though at one point he plays poker with Martin Amis and David Mamet — why isn’t my life like that?) And he gets what’s compelling about poker books, which is poker — lots and lots of dramatically-narrated card-by-card poker hands.

Personally, I love poker, though I suck at it — partly because I tend to drink too much, so that I can’t do proper arithmetic in my head, and partly because I’m generally lousy at reading people. In fact, I’ve always found it a little ironic the way geeks are drawn to poker. Sure, we tend to be good at the quantitative stuff, and we tend to have disposable income lying around. But as a class we’re horrific at picking up on non-verbal cues from strangers, which is what you really need to do to get out of the basement w/ Hold ‘Em. Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know.