Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Poker Book Review: Victoria Coren’s For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair With Poker

'For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair With Poker' by Victoria Coren (2009)I have written about Victoria Coren here before on a couple of occasions, having heard her on podcasts, occasionally read her poker-related columns in The Guardian, and covered her in a few tournaments, both live and online. In one post, “Victoria’s Secrets,” I wrote about her very interesting interview with Gary Wise in which she offered some insights about the whole men-vs.-women-in-poker thing, as well as discussed writing and poker and the great poker narratives such as The Biggest Game in Town (1983) by Al Alvarez and Anthony Holden’s Big Deal (1990).

In that interview with Wise (from January 2009), Coren mentioned that she was at work on her own poker narrative. The book, titled For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker, arrived this fall. I recently had the chance to read and review it, and wanted to share a few comments here about the book as well. The book primarily functions as a “poker memoir” chronicling Coren’s poker career -- from her first learning the game as a teenager from her older brother in the late 1980s to her becoming a European Poker Tour champ and a PokerStars team pro. The book is much more than that, though. Let me explain.

The category of “poker books,” despite being a teeny, tiny niche (really), includes a wide variety of styles and subjects. Go to Borders or Barnes and Noble and on the “poker” shelves you’ll find jammed together strategy texts (covering a wide variety of games, both cash and tourney), simple “how-to” primers, rulebooks, biographies, autobiographies, histories, and more. People visit these shelves for a number of different reasons, and in a lot of instances, books are prejudged by the (potential) reader’s idea or opinion of the poker-playing ability of the author. Such preconceptions have relevance, certainly, when considering a strategy text, though aren’t necessarily as valuable when considering other, non-strategy works.

As a poker player, Coren has had some success, highlighted most prominently by her victory at the EPT London Main Event in 2006 (a sweet £500,000 score). Some -- especially poker players who tend to adhere to the “time equals money” formula -- will not be persuaded by her other, less obviously remarkable results to consider her memoir worthy of their “investment” (in time or in cabbage). Such folks will be missing out on a well-crafted, perceptive, and witty example of storytelling which I would think should appeal to all poker players. Probably would interest some non-poker players, too, I’d imagine.

Coren does tell the tale of her 2006 EPT success, cleverly winding her narrative of the most significant hands from that final table with the primary autobiographical thread. Each chapter is punctuated with a hand, and it is in those interludes one encounters the bulk of the “strategy” talk in the book. But even there the emphasis isn’t so much on strategy as on relating Coren’s ups and downs as that dramatic final table plays out.

Meanwhile, as mentioned, the autobiography begins with Coren first learning the game as a teen, then going to college after which she takes a turn as a standup comedian. Eventually Coren finds herself repeatedly returning to the Victoria Casino in London (the “Vic”), enamored with other gambling games (especially roulette) but eyeing the poker tables as well. Then comes an opportunity to go to Las Vegas to interview Huck Seed for a newspaper. Seed had just won the 1996 World Series of Poker Main Event, and for Coren the opportunity provides a kind of “seed” -- my groan-worthy pun, not Coren’s -- for a career in journalism as well as for her continued pursuit of poker.

The rest of the book carries her story forward to 2006 where the twin narratives finally join together -- in surprisingly dramatic, even moving fashion -- near the book’s conclusion. Along the way, we read about Coren’s becoming involved with “Late Night Poker,” the ground-breaking poker TV show that debuted in 1999 and on which she eventually appeared both as a player and a commentator; her early experiences at the Vic and in Vegas, including her first participation in events at the WSOP; her developing many friendships with poker players, with nifty character sketches of figures like Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott, Neil Channing, John Duthie, Hamish Shah, Roland de Wolfe, and the Hendon Mob guys; her other, more significant relationships with men (all discreetly handled); and the illness and death of her father, the satirist Alan Coren.

Victoria CorenA few themes emerge over the course of the book, besides the ongoing “education of a poker player” that is happening throughout. As one might expect, there is the whole “woman in a man’s world” motif, symbolically introduced in the book’s opening line: “My brother’s game is on the other side of that wall.”

As in that interview with Wise, Coren makes some keen points here when discussing the subject of women in poker. “Men and women are not sufficiently different, psychologically, for either gender to be ‘naturally’ better at poker than the other,” she maintains, though quickly adds that she is “not saying that gender differences don’t exist.” She goes on to speculate that “If the differences between men and women are relevant to the game at all, it should be true that women’s traditional qualities of craftiness, patience and guile should balance out the male instincts of aggression, bluff and bluster.”

When playing at the Ladies Event at the 2001 WSOP, Coren notes the strangeness of the scene -- that is, a poker room filled with hundreds of women at the tables and no men -- humorously describing it as “like science fiction.” “It’s a vision of how the world could have been,” she writes, “if somebody stepped on a butterfly and it all turned out different.” While not everyone is going to agree with her conclusions on this subject, I think her book does provide a valuable contribution to the ongoing conversation about women in poker.

Another, somewhat related theme that emerges in the book is suggested by the title, taken from traditional wedding vows. Coren frequently notes how her path in life has not included marriage or children (yet), and indeed poker -- with whom she’s had a lifelong “romance” -- kind of takes the place of that traditional sort of relationship. (As she notes in the preface, “poker is the most companionable thing I do.”) There is also a lot in there about the “the romance of poker” and its various thrills, all of which she relates accurately and effectively.

Those of you who have read Coren’s columns know she is both witty and “literary” in her writing -- that is to say, she definitely can make you laugh, but she can also deftly employ various poetic devices (symbol, metaphor, allusion) to help her communicate her intended meaning. I could make this post even longer by citing the many examples of both her wit and literary sensibility, but I’ll confine myself to sharing just one of each.

Among the book’s many laugh-out-loud moments is Coren’s account of her meeting Phil Hellmuth in 2001. He’d come over for a series of “Late Night Poker” in which Coren was also participating, and a group goes out for dinner. Ever the entrepreneur, Hellmuth begins describing his idea for an album -- The Phil Hellmuth Poker Album -- for which he’ll compile songs from other bands’ outtakes. Coren questions him about the project, not understanding what exactly makes it a “Phil Hellmuth” album or a “poker” album. “‘I will have collected the songs,’” he explains, excitedly (and enigmatically). “‘And I’m a poker player.’”

Coren’s response is to cite the lack of relevance. “‘You might as well gather up a bunch of animals,’’” she says, “‘put them in a field and call it The Phil Hellmuth Poker Farm.’”

As far as “literary” moments go, I especially like one Proustian passage in which she shares a flashback to a trip to a flea market as a 12-year-old with her father, a memory which is in fact inspired by her account of a Vegas trip and a particularly successful run at the craps tables with a group of friends. It is “one of those moments you dream about in gambling,” she explains, where the group keeps winning and winning. Her description of the run dissolves into a giddy, lyrical expression of that hard-to-define pleasure that comes from winning (and, not incidentally, from experiencing meaningful companionship, too): “We cannot lose. We will never lose again. We will never be lonely, we will never get ill and we will never die. Our chip towers are rising and rising and rising and rising. Dice are beautiful. Everything is beautiful. Everybody’s beautiful.”

Like I say, there’s more here. But I think you get the idea. There’s some strategy talk, but that’s not why you pick this book up. Rather, For Richer, For Poorer is for those who love literature, who love to laugh, and who love poker.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the heads up on "Cowboys Full." I am reading it right now and loving it. I love McManus anyway so it was a no-brainer, but I am especially liking this one, almost as much as Positively Fifth Street.

12/01/2009 2:56 PM  
Blogger Littleacornman said...

Good timing as I've just started the Vicky Coren book.It's living up to your review so far!

12/03/2009 11:55 AM  
Anonymous Shane said...

Suffice to say - she is one of the better looking poker players.

12/04/2009 2:55 AM  

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