Big Deal: A Year As a Professional Poker Playerby Anthony Holden
In 1988, best-selling biographer Anthony Holden spent one year living the life of a professional poker player. His mesmerizing account of that year went on to become a classic of the genre, an inspiration to innumerable poker players and poker memoirists who followed. Big Deal is his story of days and nights in Las Vegas, Malta, and Morocco, mingling with the greats, sharpening his game, perfecting his repartee, and learning a great deal about himself in the process. Poker, Holden would insist, is a paradigm of life at its most intense, a gladiatorial contest that brings out the best as well as the worst in people. The heroes and eccentrics of the poker world stalk the pages of this remarkable book, along with all the hairraising, nail-biting excitement of the game itself.
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Big DealA Year as a Professional Poker Player
By Anthony Holden
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2007 Anthony Holden
All right reserved.
One Saturday evening in the mid-1990s, a few years after this book was first published, a genial young American approached me in the bar of London's Victoria Casino, introduced himself, and asked if I was the guy who had written Big Deal. Indeed I was, I replied with a modest smile, and looked over to my wife (the sometime "Moll" of the ensuing pages) for the gently mocking smile that usually greets these occasional little boosts to my ego.
"That was a wonderful book," continued the American. "It altered my life." As compliments go it was not entirely without precedent, especially in a casino about to start a poker tournament, but none the less welcome for that. Inviting our new friend to sit down and join us for a drink, I asked him what he did. "I work for IBM in Mississippi," came the reply. "At least I did until I read your book. Then I quit my job and became a professional poker player. Just like you."
Not seeming to notice that he had struck me dumb, he continued: "And you see my friend over there, the guy at the craps table -- he's a lawyer. Works in the office of the governor of Mississippi. Or he did until I lent him your book. Then he decided to quit his job, too, and now we travel the world together as pokerpartners.
"The point is, we're off to Austria on Monday. I was just wondering if you had any tips about the Hold 'em scene in Vienna . . . ?"
I was still a sentence or two behind him. It was not just that I knew nothing at all about the poker scene in Vienna. Never before, despite the friendly remarks about their work to which writers become relatively accustomed, had I met someone who had actually given up his job -- and a pretty damn good job, too -- because of me.
Over the few years since Big Deal was first published, I had grown uneasily aware that I had inadvertently altered a few lives. There were several regulars here at the "Vic," and indeed elsewhere, who had told me they'd taken up poker because of the book. But they hadn't, so far as I knew, given up their jobs, or left their wives and children, or wound up in jail. Or worse.
"My God," I finally managed to gasp. "And how are you doing?"
"Well, Mr. Holden . . ." -- "Call me Tony, please . . ." -- "Well, Tony, I don't want to be rude . . . That was, as I said, one wonderful book. Beautifully written, very funny, really captured life out there on the circuit . . ." Anxious purrs. "But the truth is: we're doing rather better than you did. We're in our second year as pros now, and we're making a lot more money than we ever did back in Mississippi."
Both Americans proceeded, as that Saturday evening wore on, to reach the final table of the tournament, and then to get in the money. The following day they duly flew off to Vienna. Six months later, at the World Series of Poker in Binion's Horseshoe Casino, Las Vegas, I met them again. Both were leading contenders for that year's world title.
I have since become less fazed by such encounters. On my frequent forays to Las Vegas, even more than in Britain, people come up to me all the time and tell me that they're there because of me. They read the book and they took up poker. They took up poker and they started to win. They won so much that now, look, here they are in Vegas. If they'd known I was going to be here, they'd have brought their copies along for me to sign. Maybe I'd like to sit down and play with them awhile? It would really be an honor . . .
There are limits even to my vanity. I'm well aware that the poker played in these pages is far from world standard. Whether or not these guys have even opened the book -- if they haven't, it's a stylish scam -- I know they're better players than me.
But, the hell, who cares? Big Deal is my own favorite among the twenty-plus books I've published -- the only one, for sure, that was as much fun to write as to research -- and who am I to mind being taken for a ride by people who have actually enjoyed it? Within the wildly fluctuating parameters of my passing bankroll, I've won and lost money with the best of them, and had a great time in the process.
Over the dozen years since Big Deal first appeared, the most unlikely people have approached me in bars or restaurants, on trains and planes, or merely on the street, and told me Yes, this was what they had always wanted to do: to give up their jobs and turn poker pro. A few were celebrities; most were not. I could drop famous names from both sides of the Atlantic who quoted my own words back to me without knowing who I was. But the true satisfaction comes from meeting people who've actually gone out there and achieved what I attempted so ineffectively -- and chronicled, if truth be told, to cover my losses. The book's readers are my real gain.
On countless occasions, I'll have been playing at a particular table a few hours, among total strangers, whether in London or Vegas, when something quirky happens and Stetson Hat in Seat Four will drawl: "Put that in your next book." Usually, of course, Stetson will be the victim of a bad beat, perhaps inflicted by me. What I love is the way he's sat there all that time, knowing who I was but saying nothing, while I've been relishing my assumed anonymity. Playing his advantage, then blowing it to psyche me in a moment of stress. Very pokeresque.
Among the many letters I have received from readers -- outnumbering even the complaints I receive these days from British royalists -- was one from Cellblock C of an American state penitentiary. "Joe Ingargiola" (a.k.a. Joe Thomas) had found a copy of Big Deal on the shelves of the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey. Seeing me as an egghead-turned-gambler, Joe declared himself a kindred spirit: "As one who has also made the transmogrification from academia to Glitter Gulch, I can attest that you have captured the essence and the spirit of the journey with impeccable accuracy and panache . . . The Oxford-bred literacy adds some legitimacy to a profession often thought of as dubious." There were more compliments in this vein, and many great poker stories, even details about his doctoral thesis on Kierkegaard, before Joe got around to the point. He was doing eighteen months for his role in bilking Donald Trump out of £250,000 in an Atlantic City casino scam. By the time his letter reached me, however, he would have paid his debt to society and returned to Vegas, where he hoped to meet me across a seven-card-stud table.
The following May, during the 1994 World Series, I did indeed meet the newly liberated Joe, who was all ready to shuffle up and deal. It was an emotional moment for both of us, not least because stud is more his game than mine. At the time, however, I had the misfortune to be "stuck" (see Glossary) in a dangerous pot-limit Hold 'em game, in which I would lose my seat if I stayed away much longer. Gentleman Joe quite understood. When a man's stuck, his priority has gotta be getting himself unstuck. By the time I had managed this unexpected feat, alas, Joe had vanished into the infinite Vegas night. Ah well, maybe next year.
The same wishful thinking still applies to the world title. Readers returning to the book will not be surprised to know that, for all my annual efforts at Binion's, I have still not managed to win the coveted bracelet -- if I had, you'd sure have heard about it -- or indeed to be recognized for my services to sport by Her Majesty's fount of honors. Back in London, however, I have managed to score some successes in the regular tournaments at the "Vic" and other London clubs whose names (and indeed cardrooms) keep changing. More radical change is due soon with the long overdue reform of the gambling legislation I bemoan on pages 92-93.
Which brings me to the only section of the book I now regret. Very little has been said publicly -- even about my calling their patrons "anal-retentive vultures" -- but British casino staff have good reason to feel aggrieved by my brutal dismissal of the London club scene in these pages. So I am glad of this chance to report that it has since improved immeasurably -- not least because of the introduction of lively tournaments that generate usually decent, occasionally excellent side action. I myself have become a much more regular club player -- primarily, however, as relaxation from the rigors of the Tuesday Night Game, which still proceeds as compulsively and dangerously as ever.
A few unfortunates have fallen by the wayside; a few new faces have come and gone; some, including David Spanier, have alas died; but the hard core of us who have been playing together for quarter of a century look like carrying on as long again, should we be spared -- all the way into the Twilight Home for Broken-Down Cardsharps, where the furious arguments over who is £1 light (the dealer, always) will still be drowning out the more gentlemanly disagreements over much larger sums. The separate bank account these days has to cope with a new and worrying enthusiasm for sports spread betting, an overdue innovation in the UK; but it is, at the time of writing, in pretty healthy shape.
People tell me Big Deal has made poker almost respectable in Britain, where the game had hitherto been regarded almost exclusively as a seedy offshoot of East End gangsterdom. The book earned me the world's first regular poker column in a mainstream publication, Esquire, and the first-ever poker documentary on, of all places, BBC Television. It has even been hawked around Hollywood (as yet, alas, to no avail) as a potential vehicle for some of the more rugged stars. In 2000 I was even lucky enough to win £7,000 on TV in a "celebrity" version of Channel 4's cult series Late Night Poker, eliminating such hardened opposition as Martin Amis, Stephen Fry, and Patrick Marber, before a tense head-to-head with this book's dedicatee.
But nothing has given me as much satisfaction -- or worry -- as the response it has wrung from my sons. It's the only book of mine they've all read, certainly the only one they're prepared to show off to their friends. All three have turned their apprenticeships in club tournaments into (generally) winning ways in their own private games -- also frequented by the offspring of other Tuesday Night regulars, so that game seems likely to continue long after its founders are meeting at the great green baize beyond the clouds. In family games, one of them always seems to fill his flush or full house when I finally manage to hit a straight. May the poker gods be with them -- and all of you.
See you at the final table.
-- Anthony Holden
Copyright © 1990 by Anthony Holden Limited
Excerpted from Big Deal by Anthony Holden Copyright © 2007 by Anthony Holden. Excerpted by permission.
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