Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player
by Anthony Holden
Rating – 6.5/10
Summary – Mired in a mid-life crisis, Holden convinces his wife to let him spend a year traveling and playing poker against the world’s best players. Big Deal, his account of that experience, is an enjoyable look at a fascinating subculture. But if you’re not a serious card player, some of the finer details of poker strategy may be lost on you.
Review – The best thing about Anthony Holden’s Big Deal is the chance to travel in the strange, exotic world of high-stakes poker. Upon landing in Las Vegas, Holden realizes that he is…
…entering a world like no other on earth, where all normal values swiftly evaporate, all lifelong interests and enthusiasms erode, and all curiosity about the outside world is abandoned. … There is the prospect, if you really go under, of never having to leave, never having to face the grim realities of life again (p. 21).
Holden’s “comped” room in Vegas reveals the upside-down values of the gambler’s world. He notes that the room is big, new, and clean, but largely empty – because the casinos don’t want high rollers to spend time in their rooms, away from gambling.
The casinos needn’t worry about the pros not gambling. Holden recounts a Caribbean “poker cruise” in which local laws forced players to stop gambling when the ship docked. Bored by the lack of gambling at one port, two pros chartered a plane to fly them over Venezuela’s Angel Falls; during the flight, the pros started playing backgammon and became so engrossed in their game that they never looked at the falls.
Some of the best sections in Big Deal address the motivations and mindsets of professional gamblers. The pros Holden encounters are talented people, who go to great lengths to avoid “9-to-5” jobs. Similarly, the players’ attitudes toward money are unique, with many of them displaying “a serene indifference to the worldly attributes of money” (p. 356). More bluntly, Holden says that – to a pro – money is just “ammunition.”
For Holden, the competition in poker games is key to the game’s appeal:
The best news, however, is that you don’t have to hold the best hand to win. The one dimension unique to poker, which sets it above and apart from any other game ever invented, is the element of bluff. By betting as if you are holding the best hand, by ‘representing’ strength, you can frighten every other player out of the pot and take their money without even having to show your cards. This is true of no other game except life, with which poker has a great deal in common (p. 90).
Similarly, part of poker’s appeal is that it offers a way for the (overwhelmingly-male) players to make up for their failings in the “real world.” Holden notes “…as a reason for substandard performance in the chain gangs of real life, poker has a high masculine approval rate” (p. 76).
Holden’s material on the gambler’s psyche – and his own time in therapy trying to understand his need to gamble – is terrific. I wish he’d included more material on these topics.
Cast of Characters
The gambling world is home to many “outsized” characters. They are a curious mixture of brains (big-time poker is not for dummies) and ignorance (because gambling consumes them).
Anyone can enjoy the amazing cast of characters Holden meets in the poker world. Among others are –
– “Amarillo Slim” Preston – a folksy, elderly Texan who distracts his opponents by constantly talking to them while play. While playing in a tournament in Morocco, Preston bets the other players that he can find a way to ride a camel into the casino.
– The Binions – own the Horseshoe, the casino hosting the World Series of Poker. Back in the 1940s, the Binions left Texas in a hurry, beset by legal problems involving “illegal weapons, bootlegging, and [of course] gambling” (p. 39). As Vegas royalty, the Binions are affluent, well respected, and colorful.
– Eric Drache – one of the few “well-rounded” pros. Raised in New Jersey, he spent six months in jail for running an illegal poker game. Then he moved to Vegas. In addition to poker, he loves fine food, wine, and first-class travel. His wife, Jane, is an AIDS researcher with degrees from UC-Berkeley and Columbia.
The book moves fairly well, though it loses momentum on occasion. For instance, Holden tours a playing card factory and recounts the history of poker in two marginal sections.
Admittedly, I’m not the usual audience for Big Deal. Gamblers fascinate me, but I don’t play cards. As a result, while reading Big Deal I enjoyed traveling in the strange world of high-stakes gambling, but I didn’t follow Holden’s discussions of his poker hands. Poker players may enjoy this aspect of the book. For me, Big Deal was an interesting read, but not one of my favorite books.