In my last piece about poker narrative books, I covered two titles that came from the mid-80’s and the early 90’s. Here we leap forward into the ‘oughts. One book that came just before the dawn of the Moneymaker/TV era, and one that describes seeing that dawn and the insane days that followed on Situs Poker Online. And one extra dessert treat just because.
POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET
How can you not love a book whose title is a riff on a Dylan song title? In 2000, Jim McManus set out on an assignment from Harper’s to cover the Las Vegas trial of two people charged with murdering Ted Binion – yes, of the Binion’s Horseshoe family.
It turned out that the trial was going on during the World Series of Poker. And McManus did the most poker-player thing ever – he took his writer’s advance and bought into a satellite to the main event. Won it, and eventually ended up at the final table of the main event. Were it not for some kid named Moneymaker who showed up three years later, McManus’s journeys through the field at Binion’s would certainly go down as the most “You couldn’t script this stuff” story in the history of the WSOP.
Be that as it may, Joe Blow from Chicago will be damned if he’s going to cover the entire event from the sidelines, not when he’s got over $4,000 in his pocket. Hilariously steep odds say I’ll only embarrass myself by paying $1,000 each to enter four winner-take-all satellites (one-table feeder events designed to fiscally democratize the main competition), and that I’ll have no chance at all against the no-limit maestros who dominate the actual tournament. But like most poker players these days, I’d give a digit and maybe a testicle for a chance to sit down in the Big One.
McManus lets us tag along as he lives every poker player’s dream. Presented as surf-and-turf with a lurid murder trial (the details of which are more bizarre and unbelievable than McManus’s run in the WSOP). For a while, this book was literally #2 on the Amazon best-seller list, behind only some story about a kid wizard in England.
FOR RICHER, FOR POORER
Victoria Coren Mitchell is a mainstay of British media, not least for her dozen years (and counting) as host of Only Connect, a TV game show. She hosted a BBC documentary about the life of Mary Poppins author PL Travers, and she writes a weekly article for The Observer. And her pedigree is unquestionable – she’s the daughter of celebrated comedian and writer Alan Coren, and an Oxford graduate. But inside her beats the heart of a true poker player. And she is a beast on the felt. She is the only person (I didn’t say woman – I said person) to have won two European Poker Tour titles, a feat that is unlikely to be matched. Long before she was particularly famous in British media circles or international poker circles, she was a fixture at the Grosvenor Victoria casino in Edgware Road, London (aka “The Vic”) and at various home games around town.
It was from that milieu that she wrote For Richer, For Poorer. It’s poker that we all know and love, writ heroic by a true Writer’s pen:
I am standing in the doorway next to 7-11 in Notting Hill, clutching a bottle of whisky. The door is opened by a delicate, laconic little fellow with an explosion of black hair that makes him look, somehow, as if he is a Victorian street urchin who’s spent the afternoon up a chimney…
The hellos take about eight seconds before I am asked for money, given chips and dealt in. The entire conversation is about poker. There seems to be an intense group fascination for each hand, each deal, each variant, each card. If they’re not talking about the hand in play, they’re talking about a hand that just finished or a hand that was played last week. If it isn’t a hand they played themselves, it’s a hand that somebody played ‘in the Vic’.
The game itself seems easier than the ones I’ve played before… And yet it’s completely engaged and engaging, involving and enthralling. Within an hour I am not just playing poker, I’m debating poker, arguing about poker, laughing about poker, inhaling poker. I even win some money.