Ghosts at the Table: Riverboat Gamblers, Texas Rounders, Internet Gamers, and the Living Legends Who Made Poker What It Is Today
One of the most fascinating aspects of this decade's poker boom is the way it's provided a new set of archetypes to ponder. Or rather an old one--as Des Wilson makes clear in his new book on the game's legends, past and present: The taciturn loner that we see so many variations on whenever late-night cable-surfing brings us to one of seemingly zillions of poker tournament reruns has a long history.
The further back Wilson goes--he begins in the Old West--the more frequently guns and tragedy are involved. Wilson, a New Zealand writer living in Britain, and a poker player himself, tours the Southwest, Texas, California, and Nevada in his narrative--the book follows his trajectory, but it's not written road-trip style. Wilson keeps the focus on the legends he's chasing down: Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock, and the Texas road gamblers of the mid 20th century.
Wilson is an amiable narrator--sometimes too amiable. The Old West stuff is given a nice counterpoint when the author visits the Southwestern cities where dress-up re-creations of famous shootouts take place. But even when Wilson is cocking an eyebrow at his surroundings, he's still relaxed, and sometimes he falls into boilerplate introductory language seemingly taken from a commercial bumper from ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker. He fares better as he heads into the modern world. We get good thumbnails of Las Vegas legends such as Doyle Brunson and Bobby Hoff, and frank details of the sordidness of the poker life before cable caught on. (Cocaine, not surprisingly, was huge.) Vegas itself triggers a slight switch in Wilson's tone: He's surer-footed, less formal, maybe because he's relying on firsthand interviews instead of plumbing newspaper files.
The book concludes with the author entering the 2007 World Series of Poker, to be kicked out on the second day (of four), and watching in admiration as Tuan Lam finishes second to Jerry Yang. It's fairly gripping, but it's also a little obvious and anti-climactic. It's clearly Wilson's way of getting inside the head of a high-stakes player, to conclude a series of portraits of the type. But it's hard not to finish the book and wonder why it couldn't have gone deeper into that mind-set, earlier and throughout. Maybe as a player himself Wilson is too close to the center of the story, when at this point--after years of TV coverage and the giant upswing of interest in Texas hold-'em that no doubt got this book going--what's more interesting is the periphery, the day-to-day stuff, the backstory.