Thursday, June 21, 2007

David Spanier's Total Poker

David Spanier, 'Total Poker' (1977)Thought I’d continue with the “reading recommendations” theme of the last post and offer a review here of my latest poker read, David Spanier’s Total Poker.

Total Poker was one of the books I picked up when I visited the Gambler’s Bookshop in Vegas back in April. First published in 1977, Total Poker certainly deserves a place on the short list of “essential” reads when it comes to poker journalism-slash-literature, alongside Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town (1983), Anthony Holden’s Big Deal (1990), and Jim McManus’s Positively Fifth Street (2003). If you are reading this blog, you are undoubtedly a poker player -- and probably also someone who likes to read and/or write about poker. As such, you really should try to find yourself a copy of Total Poker at some point, as I do think you’d enjoy it and get a lot from it. Let me give you an idea what you’ll find in Spanier’s book.

Unlike the trio of books mentioned above, Spanier’s collection of essays does not focus specifically on the World Series of Poker. Aside from one chapter devoted to Puggy Pearson that talks a bit about Pearson’s 1973 WSOP Main Event victory, the rest of the book approaches the subject of poker from a variety of perspectives, thereby demonstrating the richness of the game and its seemingly endless capacity to produce stories, emotions, ideas . . . even life lessons. The best way to characterize the book is call it an “anatomy” of poker -- a close, minute examination of the subject from multiple angles.

The first of the book’s eleven chapters -- simply titled “Bluff” -- itself shows Spanier taking various approaches to his chosen topic. He discusses the “classical approach” using examples from Yardley’s The Education of a Poker Player, the James Jones novel From Here to Eternity, and The Cincinnati Kid (both the novel and the film). He then focuses on Muhammad Ali’s use of bluffing in his famous “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight title bout versus George Foreman in Zaire. (By the way, if you’ve never seen When We Were Kings -- a documentary of the 1974 bout -- let me recommend that to you as well.) He then shares others’ efforts to explain bluffing from psychological and even physiological points of view. He then concludes with a brief discussion of stud hi-lo, arguing how, in his opinion, split games are where bluffing “achieves its fullest complexity.”

David Spanier (1932-2000)The next three chapters are more historical, focusing on the origins of poker, the legacy of U.S. presidents’ frequent association with the game, and that aforementioned character sketch of Puggy Pearson. There follows an homage to America’s gambling capital, titled “Breakfast in Vegas,” that opens with the following tone-setter: “On a sunny day, with nothing particular to do, an indulgent thought sometimes crosses my mind: On the whole I’d rather be in Las Vegas. Vulgar, eye-catching, money-grabbing Vegas, the place whose relentless tastelessness gives you shudders. I love it.” A terrific study of the seedy allure of Sin City, circa seventies, a place Spanier says is “run like a huge turbine, day and night, and you can sense its tightly coiled power wherever you go.”

The next chapter, “Loving and Losing,” has a couple of purposes. One is to explore the theory “that gambling has an intimate connection with sexual drives,” producing a lot of similar desires and pleasures (normal and neurotic). The other is to consider the place and influence of women when it comes to poker. Again, we’re talking 1970s here, so it shouldn’t surprise us to see Spanier operate within the context of a taken-for-granted prejudice against women poker players. (Noting the lack of good women players, Spanier wonders “Is poker the last remaining men’s game?”) To his credit, however, Spanier doesn’t just accept what he sees, but tries to understand and explain it -- to explore the idea that, for instance, an apparently higher degree of competitiveness in men perhaps makes them better suited for a game like poker. You might not agree with his conclusion (or his tendency to refer to women as “girls”), but you will find him a thoughtful commentator on the issue, nonetheless.

Next comes a chapter on poker in the movies, which contains one of the better discussions of The Cincinnati Kid I have come across. I actually agree with a lot of what Spanier has to say here about the film, e.g., we both have a greater appreciation for the climactic hand than do some other commentators. (If you’re curious, I wrote a series of posts back in January that talked about the novel, the film, the DVD commentary, and that last hand.)

Spanier moves on from there to discuss A Big Hand for the Little Lady and The Sting, and singles out California Split (which I reviewed here) as having “the stamp of authenticity” when it comes to depicting the gambler’s life. He then oddly spends most of the rest of the chapter trying to argue that The Hustler, despite being about pool and not poker, is to him the best example of a film teaching lessons about poker. It’s a smart analysis of the Newman-Gleason classic, but it seems kind of a stretch in this context.

The next three chapters address various psychological and moral issues associated with poker. “The Old, Old Story” humorously dramatizes poker’s ability to make us lie to ourselves. “Funny Game” explores an example of cheating in poker. And “Morals” considers that strange formula (with which we are all at least somewhat familiar) that suggests becoming a winning player requires one to care less about the welfare of others. The chapter begins provocatively: “A fine line is drawn between the status of amateur and professional at poker. Really it’s a moral line. How far do you go, how much do you play, how much do you want to win?” Good stuff. The book then concludes with a chapter called “Ends and Odds” which is peppered with probability tables and observations about particular games.

I hope my overview encourages a few people to seek out Total Poker. I don’t see it mentioned quite as often as the “canonical” poker books referred to above, but I think it is safe to say Spanier signficantly influenced all of those writers. A longtime correspondent for The Times, in 1997 Spanier would become the first ever to write a poker column for a national newspaper (The Independent). Some of those columns were collected in The Little Book of Poker (1998). Also worth checking out is another collection of his poker essays, called The Hand I Played (2001), published shortly after the author’s death. (I talked briefly about that collection in an earlier post.)

Spanier says in the Preface to Total Poker that “one of the things [he] discovered in writing this book is how deep a subject poker is: one can’t really ever get to the boundaries of it; like exploring space, there’s always farther to go.” Such is a lesson his reader discovers as well.



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