Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Poker Book Review: Fast Company by Jon Bradshaw

'Fast Company' by Jon BradshawFast Company: How Six Master Gamblers Defy the Odds -- and Always Win by Jon Bradshaw is one of those titles some readers of poker books might recognize. I say that because it does get referred to now and then in other poker-related texts. But I’m guessing not too many have had the chance to pick it up and see what it’s all about.

Which is too bad, because as poker and/or gambling books go, I’d rate it as one of the best there is. In fact, I’d say even those who aren’t necessarily interested in gambling or gamblers are likely to enjoy this series of brilliant character sketches, each punctuated by suspenseful accounts of various competitions in which the subjects are involved.

The book was first published in 1975. It never did sell very well, apparently. In fact, I believe it even languished out of print for a time before the London-based High Stakes Publishing put out a new edition in 2003. In his preface to that 2003 edition, Nik Cohn reports that when the book first appeared it was “to modest sales and rave reviews.”

Cohn’s preface does a good job introducing the colorful Bradshaw (who died in 1986 at the age of 48), an American magazine and newspaper writer who might be considered as part of that “New Journalism” group that included folks like Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and others.

Cohn is quick to distinguish Bradshaw from “the so-called gonzo writers,” however, who generally would “turn every story into a stage to strut on.” The distinction Cohn makes has to do with Bradshaw’s approach, which was more concerned with “observation and memory, clean style, [and] an unfailing eye for the telling detail” than promoting oneself as a larger-than-life reporter-character (like Thompson does, especially). In other words, as one soon discovers in Fast Company, his focus was always more directly trained on his subjects than himself.

That said, Bradshaw is, one might say, “part of the story” throughout. The book consists of six chapters, ranging from 20-50 pages, each of which focuses on a single “master gambler” personally interviewed by Bradshaw sometime during the early 1970s. Thus each portrait also involves a relation of the encounter between writer and subject, though that context is consistently set to the side in order to spotlight the interviewee more directly.

Bradshaw presents us three poker players (Puggy Pearson, Johnny Moss, and Titanic Thompson), a tennis pro (Bobby Riggs), a backgammon player (Tim Holland), and a pool player (Minnesota Fats). Of course, while the games may be different, all are first and foremost gamblers. And all six of them, in Bradshaw’s view, are to be recognized as examples of consistent winners, though each in his own way.

As Bradshaw explains in his introduction, he had started out thinking he’d be writing “an account of winners and losers,” and had thus traveled to Las Vegas in search of examples of both. “But it soon became clear,” he explains, “that while losers flourished everywhere, winners were a rare and reticent breed with preferences for camouflage and anonymity.” The winners were much more interesting -- and mysterious -- it turned out, thereby proving more curious as subjects for the investigative reporter to pursue.

The book begins with Pearson, and he provides several observations that sound themes that will subsequently run throughout Fast Company.

Pearson frequently refers to the desire to compete, and “the satisfaction of performing well” as a reward exceeding any money won. He also speaks of how he thinks of himself as a winner, and how doing so is, in his view, an essential component to being a successful gambler.

Additionally, Pearson more than once recognizes how money can affect one’s competitors, and how easily thinking about money can throw people off their games. Indeed, a gambler’s “ability to think clearly under stress” is perhaps the most important trait, according to Pearson.

The next chapter presents Bobby Riggs, the tennis pro whom some of us recall as having played Billie Jean King in that “battle of the sexes” tennis match back in the ’70s. Bradshaw’s interview with Riggs takes place before and after his earlier, less remembered match versus Margaret Court (in May 1972). Like Pearson, Riggs loves the many, complicated mind games associated with competition and gambling. The chapter also includes a lot of interesting observations about men and women and how they might well think differently in such contexts.

'Fast Company' by Jon BradshawBesides being a great reporter -- the blow-by-blow account of the Riggs-Court match is masterfully handled here -- Bradshaw has a wonderful knack for description, especially of the gamblers he’s presenting. For example, Riggs the huckster is said to have “the face of a man who sold encyclopedias from door to door; one was suspicious, but never offended.” Bradshaw goes on to mention how Riggs refers to himself in the third person, “as if he were talking of his fondest invention.”

Riggs is also said to possess that curious (or dubious) understanding of “honesty” common to most successful gamblers who seem to endorse the view that the truth “was for dupes and dummies.” “The truth was an admission of defeat,” writes Bradshaw, attempting to portray Riggs’ mindset. “Something you said in the dark or when you were caught with your hand in the till.” Nearly every page of Fast Company includes examples of such crafty prose.

Subsequent chapters on Minnesota Fats, Tim Holland, and Johnny Moss present each as complicated figures, all acutely aware of the difference between their “real” selves and how they are perceived by others. The same goes for Titanic Thompson, whose story is mostly told via the many myth-like gambling tales with which he’s associated.

Like Pearson, though, all have that necessary self-confidence. “To be a winner,” Thompson tells Bradshaw, “a man has to feel good about himself and know he has some kind of advantage going in. Smart is better than lucky.”

Thompson’s point hints at yet another common thread one finds tying together all of these winning gamblers -- the sense they all share that they aren’t really “gambling” or at least taking unwarranted risks, but participating in contests in which they know they have an edge.

After a lengthy explanation of how he played poker -- constantly studying his opponents’ every move (“I not only played my own hand, I played everybody else’s”), Thompson explains how his approach necessarily gave him an edge, making the game less of a gamble for him than it was for others.

“I treat everything like playing roulette,” he says. “And the only way to win at roulette is to own the wheel. I tell you, gambling is hard work.”

As one might expect, the chapters on Pearson, Moss, and Thompson are where you’ll find most of the poker talk (including a lengthy report of the 1973 WSOP Main Event final table in which Pearson defeated Moss). But they, too, play and bet on other games -- golf, in particular -- and thus the overall focus of the book is really not poker-centric but more about trying to get at a comprehensive and coherent definition of the winning gambler.

Like I say, I recommend Fast Company without reservation to poker fans as well as to fans of good writing, generally speaking. It’s the sort of book that will certainly entertain and edify most readers, and perhaps even inspire most writers. It’s available on Amazon and elsewhere, where one can pick up a used copy for pocket change.

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Blogger A Year of Books said...

Thanks for bringing this up; I just ordered it on Paperback Swap.

In kind of a different vein, you might also be interested in John Gregory Dunne's "Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season" -- excellent writing, set in Las Vegas in the mid-70s.

11/02/2010 3:30 PM  

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