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Book Review: It's My Deal

2 May 2002

On any given Friday night, hundreds of thousands of Americans--men and women alike -- pile into kitchens, garages, and backrooms to play their weekly poker game. From basement games in the suburbs to illegal gambling clubs in New York City to the high-stakes World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Andy Bellin has anted up with some of the world's greatest players. In Poker Nation, he takes us on a raucous journey into the shut-up-and-deal world of professional poker.

Even if you don't know the difference between a flop and a river card -- or you do know exactly what it means to have "the nuts" -- Bellin is your ace in the hole as you navigate this uniquely American terrain. Look over his shoulder as he learns to count cards, read a legendary player's body language, hang in there when the chips are down, and, yes, take his beatings like a man. Watch what goes on behind the scenes in illegal poker clubs found in every major city in the country. Meet the colorful personalities and skewed psyches of the players, the dreamers, hustlers, eccentrics, and hucksters who are all part of this strange subculture.

Part memoir, part exposé, part how-to (or how-not-to), Poker Nation takes a frank and funny look at one of America's enduring obsessions. It's a sure bet.

Chapter One

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've got 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...

The foregoing is excerpted from Poker Nation by Andy Bellin. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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