In my , I covered two titles that came from the mid-80’s and the early 90’s. Here we leap forward into the ‘oughts. One book that came just before the dawn of the Moneymaker/TV era, and one that describes seeing that dawn and the insane days that followed. And one extra dessert treat just because.
POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET
How can you not love a book whose title is a riff on a Dylan song title? In 2000, Jim McManus set out on an assignment from Harper’s to cover the Las Vegas trial of two people charged with murdering Ted Binion – yes, of the Binion’s Horseshoe family.
It turned out that the trial was going on during the World Series of Poker. And McManus did the most poker-player thing ever – he took his writer’s advance and bought into a satellite to the main event. Won it, and eventually ended up at the final table of the main event. Were it not for some kid named Moneymaker who showed up three years later, McManus’s journeys through the field at Binion’s would certainly go down as the most “You couldn’t script this stuff” story in the history of the WSOP.
Be that as it may, Joe Blow from Chicago will be damned if he’s going to cover the entire event from the sidelines, not when he’s got over $4,000 in his pocket. Hilariously steep odds say I’ll only embarrass myself by paying $1,000 each to enter four winner-take-all satellites (one-table feeder events designed to fiscally democratize the main competition), and that I’ll have no chance at all against the no-limit maestros who dominate the actual tournament. But like most poker players these days, I’d give a digit and maybe a testicle for a chance to sit down in the Big One.
McManus lets us tag along as he lives every poker player’s dream. Presented as surf-and-turf with a lurid murder trial (the details of which are more bizarre and unbelievable than McManus’s run in the WSOP). For a while, this book was literally #2 on the Amazon best-seller list, behind only some story about a kid wizard in England.
FOR RICHER, FOR POORER
Victoria Coren Mitchell is a mainstay of British media, not least for her dozen years (and counting) as host of Only Connect, a TV game show. She hosted a BBC documentary about the life of Mary Poppins author PL Travers, and she writes a weekly article for The Observer. And her pedigree is unquestionable – she’s the daughter of celebrated comedian and writer Alan Coren, and an Oxford graduate. But inside her beats the heart of a true poker player. And she is a beast on the felt. She is the only person (I didn’t say woman – I said person) to have won two European Poker Tour titles, a feat that is unlikely to be matched. Long before she was particularly famous in British media circles or international poker circles, she was a fixture at the Grosvenor Victoria casino in Edgware Road, London (aka “The Vic”) and at various home games around town.
It was from that milieu that she wrote For Richer, For Poorer. It’s poker that we all know and love, writ heroic by a true Writer’s pen:
I am standing in the doorway next to 7-11 in Notting Hill, clutching a bottle of whisky. The door is opened by a delicate, laconic little fellow with an explosion of black hair that makes him look, somehow, as if he is a Victorian street urchin who’s spent the afternoon up a chimney…
The hellos take about eight seconds before I am asked for money, given chips and dealt in. The entire conversation is about poker. There seems to be an intense group fascination for each hand, each deal, each variant, each card. If they’re not talking about the hand in play, they’re talking about a hand that just finished or a hand that was played last week. If it isn’t a hand they played themselves, it’s a hand that somebody played ‘in the Vic’.
The game itself seems easier than the ones I’ve played before… And yet it’s completely engaged and engaging, involving and enthralling. Within an hour I am not just playing poker, I’m debating poker, arguing about poker, laughing about poker, inhaling poker. I even win some money.
Victoria Elizabeth Coren Mitchell is an elite writer, media presenter, and poker player. But she is simultaneously one of us – who plays not because she might win half a million dollars (which she has) but because she is called to the table.
We meet for breakfast in the Horseshoe every day around noon, which The Sweep likes to round off with a bar of weird chocolate from the casino store. Then cards cards cards at Binion’s, the Bellagio, the Mirage, all afternoon and all night. We take breaks to muck around in Fremont Street, go on a fairground ride at the Luxor, eat chicken & tequila pizza at midnight or 9 a.m. or teatime.
This is what poker players do in Las Vegas. Or dream of doing in Las Vegas. She tells the story, interweaved with the ups and downs of her own life, better than any of the rest of us could.
Another personal aside: I have had the honor to hang out with “Vicky” a few times, and even sit at a tournament table with her. She is as gracious, charming, and witty in person as she is on TV and in print. Should Martians ever land on the planet, we could do much worse than have her greet them as a representative of the species.
EXTRA CREDIT: VIG
I hope my friend (and Global Poker exec) David Lyons won’t mind my mentioning his book here. It’s not a poker narrative book (there is one poker scene), but it’s about old Las Vegas. I was fortunate to get to read an early draft, and I knew immediately that he’d told the Truth. To be clear, the book is fiction. But the story rings pure to those who know the milieu, and, like the best narratives, it takes you away from the real world into one that could be, even if it isn’t.
With absolute respect to David, he’s not in the writing league with Alvarez, Holden, McManus, or Coren Mitchell. Few are – as I said in the first article, they were already powerful journalists and narrators who came to poker and found it compelling. But David did two things that enshrined the book in my heart: First, he made the two protagonists believable – I cared about them and worried about them when they got into trouble. Second, his descriptions of Vegas’s seamy underbelly are compelling and credible. I physically winced at some scenes, meaning David got inside my head. Which is exactly where a good writer ends up.
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.