Thursday, September 04, 2008

John Vorhaus’ Under the Gun

'Under the Gun' by John VorhausJohn Vorhaus is best known to poker players as the author of several strategy guides, including several titles in the popular Killer Poker series. He’s also involved in the entertainment industry, having written screenplays for various shows (including Married… with Children), and has additionally written a couple of instructional books about creative writing. With such a background, it isn’t surprising to find Vorhaus coming out with his first novel -- a poker-themed thriller with the nifty, hard-boiled, doubly significant title Under the Gun.

The book just came out a couple of days ago. I’d heard about it listening to Vorhaus be interviewed over on Lou Krieger’s Keep Flopping Aces (the 7/24/08 episode). I had the opportunity to read the book this week and enjoyed it. I can definitely recommend it as an entertaining page-turner, especially so for poker players.

The story concerns a mild-mannered accountant named Hal Harris whose brother Guy is a small-time poker player in Vegas hoping to hit it big. Guy manages to win a satellite into a huge $100,000-entry poker tourney called the Poker Apocalypse, and invites Hal out to celebrate. After a bit of prodding, Hal makes the trip, but shortly after his arrival Guy gets killed, leaving Hal the coveted entry chip -- which now not only represents Hal’s potential entry into the Apocalypse, but also an initial clue toward solving the crime.

It is a clever premise, and Vorhaus follows it up with other plot twists and characters that likewise demonstrate a certain ingenuity. The Poker Apocalypse, or, as Guy describes it, “the biggest poker tournament in the history of ever,” is itself a neat device around which to built a murder mystery. Cooked up by Kai Cortland, a high-rolling casino developer, the tourney is kind of a not-so-distantly-futuristic version of the World Series of Poker, complete with the requisite ostentation and media coverage.

Some of the characters Vorhaus invents seem drawn after certain types we see in the poker world today, though embellished to fit the slightly-exaggerated version of that world he presents in the novel. There’s the villainous Marko Dragic (“Dark Mark”), a poker player with a criminal past whom Hal will need to confront eventually in his dual quest to win the Apocalypse and to discover what happened to Guy. Slaughter Johnson is an old-timer who emerges to mentor Hal. Slaughter’s gritty daughter, Vinny, a dealer, is along to help Hal as well. And there’s Minty McGinty, the one-hundred pound dog Hal also inherits from his brother.

Vorhaus does well to create a plot that keeps the reader’s interest, and there are a number of small touches that add to the overall pleasure of the read. There are a few Raymond Chandleresque analogies here and there (e.g., “The Elvis of his common sense, as it were, had left the building of his brain”) which are certainly fun. And even relatively minor characters, such as a bathroom attendant who briefly figures into the goings-on, are presented with engaging backstories that keep us absorbed.

Of course, it should be said that by trying to construct a poker-themed fiction, Vorhaus follows a long, long line of others (fiction writers, film makers) who have struggled to do so successfully. Indeed, poker players -- especially serious ones -- who read Under the Gun are likely going to want to argue over the plausibility of certain aspects of Vorhaus’ story.

Additionally, non-poker players might object to the sometimes lengthy explanations of poker strategy and accounts of hands. Since Hal is not a poker player when the story begins, he has to learn everything, and so occasionally one encounters a stretch of instruction and/or hand analysis that I personally find highly readable but could imagine being less enthralling to some. (In fact, I don’t think it is that big of a stretch to say that some, attentive non-poker playing readers may actually pick up a number of useful tips about tournament poker from Under the Gun.)

I like the way Vorhaus presents the poker, though. It is nice (for a change) to read someone describing hands and the machinations of a tournament while secure in the knowledge that the author knows of what he speaks. (I noticed no “howlers” such as one regularly runs into in poker-themed films and stories.) And he does interweave the story of the tournament in with the sleuthing to find Guy’s killer fairly well, too. As I say, it is a page-turner, culminating with a suitably frenzied finale.

All in all a good time, and like I say should be especially fun for the poker player who likes a good thriller filled with comic touches. You can get the book via Amazon. You can also order it through Vorhaus’ website, Vorza’s Brain (where you can read the first chapter, too).

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Blogger Waldo's Wild Kingdom said...

Vorhause the iction author any better than Vorhause the poker writer? Otherwise, great insite.

9/05/2008 5:08 PM  

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