Sunday, September 09, 2007

Anthony Holden's Bigger Deal

Anthony Holden's 'Bigger Deal' (2007)Finished Anthony Holden’s Bigger Deal yesterday. Not sure which subtitle Holden preferred for the book -- A Year Inside the Poker Boom (on the cover) or A Year on the New Poker Circuit (on the title page). Both apply, I suppose. In any event, the main title clearly signals Holden’s intention for us to regard the book as a sequel to his earlier well-regarded poker memoir, Big Deal: A Year as a Professional Poker Player (1990).

I’m a big fan of Big Deal, a book I pick up again and again (and routinely allude to here on the blog). Big Deal told the story of Holden’s year-long trial to see if he might, perhaps, be able to escape the so-called “straight” life -- which for him meant a successful career as a journalist and biographer -- and become a full-time player. It’s a smart, well-crafted narrative, with tons of insight into the professional poker scene (circa late 1980s), poker history, and the psychology of poker. A page-turner, as well, as Holden does a nice job building suspense regarding that ultimate decision whether or not to turn pro for real.

In his new book, Holden adopts the same organizational principle he used for Big Deal, which began with his playing one WSOP Main Event and ended with his return to try again a year later. This time he begins in with the 2005 WSOP and Joe Hachem’s triumph and concludes with Jamie Gold’s victory in 2006. As he comes to realize toward the end of the book, Holden picked a hell of a year to return to poker -- one that likely will come to stand as a peak of sorts for the so-called “poker boom” that began in 2002-03 with the WPT and Moneymaker. The UIGEA’s passage in the fall of ’06 -- to which Holden refers in the final pages -- appears to have curbed poker’s upward rise enough to ensure that Holden’s second tour probably did coincide with a unique time in the game’s growth and history.

One significant difference here from the earlier book is that Bigger Deal is much less about Holden specifically (it seems to me), and much more about the scene itself. That is to say, while Holden does spend plenty of time narrating his own ups and downs playing in the WSOP and in other cash games and tourneys around the globe, the focus of his attention seems directed more outward than inward.

That may be in part because so damn much is happening in the poker during 2005-06, thus making it hard not to devote space simply to chronicling it all as it goes by. Besides reports from the two WSOPs, we get discussions of online poker’s rise into prominence, the WPT and other televised poker, the EPT, poker camps (including a visit to one), the World Cup of Poker, as well as interviews and/or profiles of several poker luminaries. Holden talks to (and about) lots of players -- and “players” (as in guys like Steve Lipscomb, Henry Orenstein, Lee Jones, Jeffrey Pollack, et al.). A lot of this reporting from the tour was about topics already familiar to me, but perhaps isn’t to every poker player and/or enthusiast. Always nice to keep records, as they say.

There are a few astute reflections along the way -- not as many as in Big Deal, but still many more than you’ll find in your average poker narrative. I particularly enjoyed Holden’s attempts to compare writing and poker -- to discover what he calls “the supposedly umbilical link betweeen writers and poker.” He identifies a few connections, such as ego, competition, and the “financial fragility” of both occupations. He also suggests that “writing is such a tricky, solitary business that writers play poker to avoid writing.” (And vice-versa, the poker blogger quickly adds.) Holden moves on before drawing any profound conclusions on the subject. Some good food for thought, though.

Holden also offers intelligent commentary on what poker has evolved into by these first few years of the 21st century -- the “new poker,” as Holden (sometimes derisively) refers to it. The “romance of the road” seems missing for Holden this time around. Some of it has to do with Holden himself -- “Yes,” he admits, “these days I’m somewhat older and maybe a tad wiser than I was the first time around.” But the fact that everybody (seemingly) is playing poker now has had its effect, too. Thus does Holden often come off as less enamored with “a game that the poker boom has somehow robbed of its mystique, its derring-do.”

Holden himself would probably admit his sequel lacks the existential urgency of Big Deal. To paraphrase the subject of other works by Holden: to be a pro or not to be a pro is decidedly not the question here. Holden does muse about his regular occupation as the chief classical music critic for the Observer, personified at times as “the Job.” But the Job is never really a villain -- we know he’s never going to leave it -- and so a lot of Holden’s bouncing around from Vegas to a cruise liner to various destinations in Europe and back to Vegas again seems, more than anything, like a good bit of harmless fun. And a lot of it is on other folks’ dimes, as Holden describes himself parlaying his Big Deal fame into several lucrative freerolls along the way. So not only are we not wondering very much about any big life changes for our hero, but we don’t give much thought to the status of his bankroll, either.

In some ways, Holden’s experience illustrates one effect of the “poker boom” that he sometimes appears to lament. All of the freebies and other opportunities afforded to him significantly lower the stakes for him, thus making the difference between being an amateur punter and a “serious” pro player less meaningful, ultimately. Such is the “new poker,” where one really can play all the time -- or at least a lot of the time -- without ever having to commit oneself to the game the way one might have had to twenty years ago.

Bigger Deal is ultimately a commendable entry into the poker memoir category, in my view. (Not quite a BFD, mind you -- sorry, couldn’t resist -- but worth checking out.) But do read Big Deal first if you haven’t already. Meanwhile, Holden (and others) continue to tell the story over on the Bigger Deal blog, also worth a look for those interested in good poker writing.

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