I don’t know if you’re like me, but a good poker book can make a handful of my hours vanish. The best ones, I re-read until I can quote passages from memory.1 I present the first two here, with three and a half more favorites to follow in later pieces. But I promise those later pieces will be out long before you’ve finished these first two books.
Now, I’m not talking about strategy books here. I mean, I’ve certainly pored over my share of poker strategy books. They’ve helped me become the poker player I am; maybe one of these days I’ll survey those. But here I’m talking about the books that have a narrative. The ones that take us to the table and leave “IRL” behind for a while.
Importantly, what these books share is authors who are writers first and poker players second. Many poker writers (myself included) came to writing as a way of expressing what we wanted to say about poker or some other subject. The authors below are what I call “capital-W Writers.” People who studied their craft for decades and then, at some point, got around to writing about poker. It shows. Here we have language that you can chew on, scene-writing that makes you feel the heat on Fremont Street and smell the smoke at Binion’s.
To enjoy these the most, I encourage you to read them in the order I present them here, for chronological continuity.
Biggest Game in Town
Al Alvarez is probably the most famous author in the bunch. In 1981, he visited Las Vegas for the first time, to report on the World Series of Poker. A British poet and Oxford grad, his response to Vegas was visceral and telling. Savor the opening paragraph:
Nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning at the end of April 1981, and according to the giant illuminated figures at the top of the Mint Hotel the temperature was already ninety-two degrees. At the entrance of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino stood the famous horseshoe itself, seven feet high, painted gold, and enclosing within its arch a million dollars in ten-thousand-dollar bills. The hundred bills are neatly ranked and held, for whatever foreseeable eternity, in some kind of super-perspex—bulletproof, fireproof, bombproof—the perennial dream of the Las Vegas punter visible to all, although not quite touchable. If you come too close, one of Binion’s giant security guards, leather straps polished and creaking over his beige uniform, gun in his holster, moves quietly forward.
If you never saw the million dollars on display at Binion’s (I was fortunate that I did) this comes darn close to being there.
Halfway through the first chapter, we are watching Doyle Brunson and his cronies sit down to a massive poker game. And you want to book the next flight to Las Vegas.
Alvarez passed away in September of 2019 at the age of 90. I’m glad he left us this book.
One of Al Alvarez’s good friends in London was Anthony “Tony” Holden, who had written a biography of Prince Charles, a history of the Oscars, and a translation (from the Greek) of Agamemmnon (among a dozen and half titles). But as he’d write in a forward to a later edition of the book, “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...”
Why? Because Tony Holden took a year out of his life and was a professional poker player. Of course, we all know that being a professional poker player requires only to announce that you are one. There’s no certificate required, no state bar to pass. But he took the plunge and took us with him, as he jetted around the world playing poker and hanging out with Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, and the usual suspects of poker in the early ‘90’s.
I’ve probably read this book a couple of dozen times, and it was the motivational engine to my focus on poker and, indeed, poker writing.
Whether he likes it or not, a man’s character is stripped bare at the poker table; if the other players read him better than he does, he has only himself to blame. Unless he is both able and prepared to see himself as others do, flaws and all, he will be a loser in cards as in life.
I have a personal postscript to this...
When I first wrote Winning Low Limit Hold’em, I reached out to Tony on a complete total cold-call. By written letter in the mail, as one did in those days. I said I was a huge fan of Big Deal and that I’d be deeply honored if he’d write a foreword to my new book, draft copy enclosed. I no more expected to hear back from him than I’d have expected to hear back from George Clooney.
So, imagine my surprise and delight when I received a gracious note from him (Holden, not Clooney) apologizing for the delay in replying. He included a couple of eloquent paragraphs which promptly became the foreword for the first edition of my little book. I’ve had few prouder moments in the poker business.
Tony, if you’re reading this – thank you, again. My poker career wouldn’t have been the same without you – indeed, it might never have been at all. I appreciate your guidance, warmth, and friendship all these years. 1 Admit it – there are exchanges in Rounders which you can quote verbatim.
Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.