King of a Small World presents a smart, gritty, coming-of-age story that centers on a wiser-than-his-years young gun named Joey Moore, a successful player in his mid-twenties. Joey mostly sticks to the underground games and (so-called) “charity” casinos in his native Maryland -- where he does, at times, perhaps reign as a kind of “king” -- although additionally will take his game to Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and elsewhere in search of further challenges.
The game of poker fuels both the plot of the book and contributes heavily to its various themes, with Bennet drawing various connections between poker and Joey’s complicated life full of conflicts and relationships. We quickly discover how poker has put him in touch with a wide assortment of friends, foes, and few who could go either way. And we also eventually learn how poker and gambling have aggressively shaped the value systems of both Joey and others, as demonstrated in their interactions -- sometimes cautious, other times dangerously reckless.
Early on Joey is offered a chance to be the poker boss at a newly-opening charity casino being run by some of his African-American poker buddies. (“Need your white ass,” he’s told, to “help balance our appeal.”) Joey hesitates at first. After all, as someone making his living playing cards, he’s already “free and happy” operating outside the mostly grim, work-a-day world populated by “normal people.” “What a bunch of losers people are,” he says at one point. “Working like dogs so they can have things.”
But finally “the prospect of a great-paying, easy-as-can-be, two-day-a-week job” becomes a kind of “freeroll” in his mind, and he takes the job. Bennet does well filling out details of the technically-legal-but-highly-sketchy world of the charity casino, where the rapid influx of money soon engenders a number of conflicts among those running the show.
Additional complications in Joey’s world include the pregnancy of an ex-girlfriend, Laura, plus relationships with a couple of other women, including one with the daughter of a poker-playing acquaintance (who, in fact, also had a brief relationship with Laura and could also possibly be the father of Laura’s child).
The plot is a more than a little twisty, also involving a missing father who abandoned Joey as a child, an ex-con living with his mother, various (and possibly nefarious) connections involving the casino owners, and more than a dozen characters with names like Mikey the Cop, K.C., Essay, Nug, Larry Red, Freddy, Boulder, and Kenny constantly coming and going. Bennet does a good job having his narrator Joey guide us through the story, however, keeping everything straight for us while also maintaining some suspense along the way.
As mentioned there are a number of instances in which Joey draws comparisons between poker and the many other games people play away from the tables, most of which strike me as quite appropriate and well applied. That is to say, I think Bennet does manage (for the most part) to avoid the many obvious and/or clichéd observations that tend to make these “poker is like life” moments seem at best not-so-special, at worst banal. (For more on that complaint, see here.)
As it happens, some of my favorite passages in the book involve Joey offering such poker-themed commentaries about human behavior, the always-shifting meaning of our existence, and the like. Indeed, many strike me as quite original, too, a praise I can’t really make about a lot of the poker fiction I’ve read.
I’ll share but one such passage to give you an idea, coming from later in the story when Joey makes a trip to Vegas (at WSOP time) and shares his impression of the urgent and unceasing human drama he sees being played out around him in the casinos.
“This is how gambling works -- it fills the senses,” Joey explains. “Close your eyes and listen. In a casino, you’ll hear the sounds of jingling, clinking, clanging, clicking. Open your eyes and you’ll see the myriad colors of lighting and carpeting and walls and uniforms, shining and bright. Taste? Free drinks and meals to any decent-sized bettor. Free drinks and cheap meals to everyone. Touch, too, is thought of. Plush carpeting, brass rails, leather chairs, polished wood. And maybe in the air, with the smoke, is sweat.”
Fine description, although if the commentary had ended there I wouldn’t necessarily say it contains anything especially unique. There’s more, though.
“But it is the sixth sense that casinos most seek to arouse,” Joey continues. “The sense of life itself. Of drama. Of story. Of passion. Of love and fear. Of power and sex. Of a moment frozen, of existence beyond the mundane, of escape from all other problems because right now your attention is focused on the money you have on the line. If time is money and life is time, then money is life. And you’re gambling for it.”
If all this sounds a bit heavy, don’t worry. The book does a good job balancing the deeper digressions with lighter fare, offering a pleasing mix of dialogue and description throughout. There’s also an impressive array of character types here, with believable men and women of various races, both old and young, filling out the cast. And the plot -- which I’ve purposely avoided summarizing in too much detail so as to preserve its surprises -- definitely keeps you turning the pages.
Like I say, I certainly recommend King of a Small World, especially for those with an interest in poker and/or gambling. Although the book appears to be out of print currently, copies are easy enough to come by via Amazon and elsewhere.