The Barnes & Noble Review
If Frank Sinatra had a prep school education he probably would have sounded a lot like writer and poker player Andy Bellin. When Sinatra crooned, it was a sure bet: He always got the girl -- all the girls. Bellin has but one object of desire, and he pursues her relentlessly. No, not Lady Luck. He knows she is a fickle, unreliable lover. Bellin sings of the virtues of mathematical probabilities and analytical reasoning, and his mistress is the game of poker.
Smart, smarmy, and seductive, with just enough self-deprecating humor to keep it from being too cocky, Poker Nation allows us a long, slow glimpse into the dusky world of high-stakes poker and professional gambling. It provides an insider's view most of us won't see outside of an old movie. Bellin leads us into the smoke-filled rooms and underground clubs, offering us a seat at the green felt tables where he spends much of his time. A five-nights-a-week poker player, Bellin gets plenty of practice perfecting his craft.
After ten years as a serious player he's learned quite a bit, and he shares the pot with the reader. Part exposé, part poker primer, and full of the history and folklore surrounding the game, Poker Nation imparts the tricks of the trade from a uniquely intimate perspective. This book is a great read for anyone looking to improve their game, as it offers chapters on everything from the theory of probability (Bellin pursued a graduate degree in astrophysics) to betting strategy ("the worst hand in poker is the second-best one at the table") to reading your opponents "tells" -- unconscious twitches and quirks that can give away a bluff. "Don't watch the cards while they are being dealt," Bellin advises, "watch the faces of the players watching the cards being dealt."
Hobby? Compulsion? Obsession? Addiction? If you liked Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis but crave a little more danger, Poker Nation is the sexy new game in town. Luck be a Royal Flush tonight. (Ann Kashickey)
Read an Excerpt
It's My Deal
If you look around the table and you can't tell who the sucker is, it's you.
playing the role of Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show
I am an excellent poker player. If I had to be more specific, my guess would be that I'm in the top .01 percentile in the world. That's a fancy statistic if you're talking about SATs or something like archery, but when it comes to poker, it can create an enormous problem. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 135 million people across the planet who play the game, a little eighth-grade math will tell you that there are about 135,000 people shuffling cards at this very moment who are better than me.
A bigger problem is that three or four of those individuals are usually seated at my card table on any given night. My home club, the Winchester'where I have spent around three thousand hours playing over the past three years'is in the heart of New York City, where poker is technically illegal. That's kind of a sexy fact if you are one of those people who likes life a little dirty (which I do), but it also means that every individual in my club is the genuine article. There is no tourist/insurance salesman who just got lucky at the craps table wandering into my game like in Vegas or Atlantic City. We've got no sheep who bet into your flush with a straight thinking their hand is the winner.
At those casino tables, I'm a huge favorite to win. Almost any semiconscious human being is. An average casino game of Texas Hold'em poker is played with nine or ten people. If you're in a $500 buy-in game, and you'vegot two sheep at the table, that's $1,000 for the other six or seven of us to chop up. I just made 22 percent on my money, and I haven't even started to play. God bless America. But that's why my home club is so tough'no sheep.
So why play there? There was a big-time Wild West gambler named “Canada Bill” Jones. Asked once why he voluntarily played in a small-town game he knew to be crooked, Bill replied, “Because it's the only game in town.” There's your answer.
The club is basically a low-rent glorified basement. On any given night you can find a hundred strippers, chiropractors, tax attorneys, and cabdrivers huddled around fifteen tables, stacking chips, shuffling cards, and watching sports. Some people even find time to eat their dinner there. That's the worst part'grown men shoveling forkfuls of food into their mouths at a panicked pace, trying not to miss a hand. Three burritos in four minutes can't be good for the digestion.
A typical night at my club is unlike a typical night anywhere else. These people are true originals. As the old adage goes: The only thing stranger than a poker player is the person sitting next to him.
“Jesus Christ, Morty! Deal the cards.” Amy has no patience at a poker table. She is a beautiful, petite Filipino woman in her early forties who has a metabolism that could power the Vegas strip for two weeks straight. She's always moving, always doing something, talking, smoking, shuffling, and when she does sit still, she has a look in her eyes like she's going to combust at any moment. “Deal, or I'll cut your balls off!” Like I said, she's got no patience.
Morty, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. Slow by nature, he goes through moments of total disorientation and detachment, as if the minute dust particle floating by his face has taken complete control of his consciousness. These episodes could last forever if it were not for the caring attention his fellow cardplayers give to him. From under the table comes a noise that sounds suspiciously like a switchblade knife opening. Amy leans toward Morty, her hands out of sight, and says very slowly and deliberately into his ear, “Get the cards in the air, old man.” Morty's back from the ethereal plane now. He deals.
Everybody thinks Morty'a garmento from Manhattan's Lower East Side in his late fifties'is losing his mind. In poker, when you “put” somebody on a hand, that means you're making an assumption about what they are holding. “I put that guy on two pair” means that's what you think he's got. Most people at the club put Morty on the early stages of Alzheimer's.
But I know what's really going on with him. Covered head to toe in silver American Indian jewelry, always well tanned from a week in Jamaica, Morty should be bronzed in the Natural History Museum as the last living semi-functional hippie. My read . . . I put him on burnout. When that tiny dust particle carries him off into his private little world, he's not trying to remember his girlfriend's name, or where he was born; he's back at Woodstock contemplating whether one or two hits of LSD is necessary to get him off just right for the upcoming Santana set. And remember this: Morty is a good cardplayer. He wouldn't be at the club if he wasn't. So most of the time, when he's daydreaming, he's doing it to piss everybody else off. Poker players play much worse when they're pissed. It's called being “on tilt.” And Morty can tilt anybody. That's his gift.
He finally gets the cards in the air. We're playing no-limit Texas Hold'em. It's the perfect gambling game. Each player (there can be up to ten at a time) is dealt two cards down, called pocket cards... Poker Nation. Copyright © by Andy Bellin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.