Review / Books: The Other American Game By Christopher F. Chabris
8 July 2005
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2005, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
POKER MAY BE the new national pastime -- more popular than baseball or even Nascar. There will be more than 100 hours of poker programming on TV in the next seven days. Party Gaming, the company that runs the PartyPoker online poker site, was just valued at $8.5 billion in its initial public offering, and WPT Enterprises, which owns the World Poker Tour, has seen its stock price double since its own IPO in August. Celebrities rush to get in on the action: The actress Jennifer Tilly may become known less for her role in "Bride of Chucky" than for her victory over 600 opponents at a women-only poker tournament last month. As for the World Series of Poker, it offers more thrills than that other World Series we hear so much about (the one in October). The main event of this year's series started yesterday in Las Vegas. More than 6,000 players are expected to compete for a record prize fund of $60 million.
How did all this happen? Just two years ago the field for the World Series of Poker was a mere 839. But one of them was Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee who looked like a truck driver and bet his way to victory (and earned an aptronym). It was a cinderella story: Mr. Moneymaker had a seat only because he had won an online poker tournament (entry fee: $40) that paid the World Series' buy-in ($10,000) as its first prize. ESPN covered Mr. Moneymaker's improbable win with seven episodes that aired over and over, sparking a poker boom.
Despite the saturation coverage, Mr. Moneymaker's folksy account of his story -- in "Moneymaker" (HarperCollins, 240 pages, $23.95), written with Daniel Paisner -- is surprisingly fresh. The broadcasts didn't reveal that before his big win Mr. Moneymaker was nearly addicted to (illegal) sports gambling or that he would have preferred to take the series' buy-in fee in cash so that he could skip the tournament and pay his debts. An epilogue describes how victory changed his life. He separated from his wife and daughter and began to travel the poker circuit. He took second in a major tournament, but at the 2004 series, with a $5 million prize at stake, he partied too hard and exited just hours into the first day. He has yet to recover his winning form.
Mr. Moneymaker's travails are nothing compared with those of Stu Ungar. He is the subject of "One of a Kind" (Atria, 316 pages, $25), a book that was intended to be Mr. Ungar's as-told-to autobiography when it was conceived in the year before his death in 1998. Writers Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson have sprinkled gambling tales told in Mr. Ungar's own words into a largely nonjudgmental recounting of the many highs and lows of his life.
In many ways Mr. Ungar was to poker what Bobby Fischer was to chess: a prodigy who became arguably the greatest player ever -- not just of poker, in Mr. Ungar's case, but of all kinds of card games -- yet who was also deeply troubled. Like Mr. Fischer, Mr. Ungar grew up without a stable family, learned his game-playing skills in the 1950s and 1960s and dropped out of New York's public schools. He was recognized as a genius at gin rummy, which used to be played for high stakes in private matches and public tournaments. He was so good, and like Mr. Fischer so dedicated to crushing the opposition, that he humiliated other players, beating them so rapidly that they refused to play him more than once.
Mr. Ungar's second-best game was no-limit Texas hold 'em poker. That is the game featured in the main event of the World Series of Poker, which Mr. Ungar won a record three times. At his final victory, in 1997, he wore a pair of John Lennon-style sunglasses to shield part of his cocaine-damaged nose from public view. Even though he won nearly $30 million in his career, he managed to lose it all by the end. While Mr. Fischer's genius at chess was overwhelmed by anti-Semitic paranoia, Mr. Ungar's card skill was undermined by his addictions to drugs, women and gambling on sports and horse racing. He was found dead in a seedy Las Vegas hotel room, the victim of slow-motion suicide.
Nobody commits suicide in "The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King" by Michael Craig (Warner, 282 pages, $24.95). The regal title phrase refers not to a player but to the king of hearts, who appears to be plunging a sword into his own head. The "professor" is not an academician, either; he is Howard Lederer, a player known for his cool-headed, analytical approach to the game. The "banker," however, is real -- the main character in this brisk story of the highest-stakes poker game played to date.
Andy Beal owns a bank in Texas, apparently a profitable one. Over several years he challenged top pros to play heads-up (one-on-one) hold 'em poker -- in a series of matches in Las Vegas -- at betting limits that reached $200,000 a card. A consortium of high-stakes players pooled their money against him to mitigate their individual risk.
How did Mr. Beal perform? Better than one might have expected. An amateur number theorist, he spent hundreds of hours learning hold 'em in preparation for his matches. True, he lost money on several of his trips to Las Vegas, including $9.3 million in one session against Mr. Lederer. But his game was formidable enough to win many sessions too and to leave the pros in doubt about whether they should continue the contest. (A final winner-take-all match for $80 million is being negotiated.) One moral of the story: Dedicated, intelligent amateurs can go much farther in poker than they can in most sports.
Matt Matros is a pro, but he wasn't always. His engaging "The Making of a Poker Player" (Lyle Stuart, 286 pages, $14.95) describes his entire career, from his first kitchen-table games to his $700,000 third-place finish at the 2004 World Poker Tour championship. But his book is more than a memoir. Mr. Matros wants to help his readers become better players.
He takes a mathematical approach to the game, showing how to figure the odds of drawing certain cards or winning with certain hands. He also dips into game theory and other advanced topics. But math will take you only so far. In chess, the only way to lose is to make mistakes. In poker, one can play perfectly and still lose or play horribly and still win. Luck -- the true wild card -- plays a huge role.
Imagine that you hold a pair of aces. With one card still to be dealt, you induce your opponent to bet all his money on a pair of sixes. Good move -- you are a more than 95% favorite to win. But of course you will lose if the last card is a six, giving him three of a kind. It takes little courage to gamble with such a huge edge, since the occasional loss can easily be blamed on bad luck. The winning player, though, must be willing to gamble on hands where his advantage is only 10%, 5% or even lower. In the long run, by definition, the wins will outnumber the losses. Making the right decision -- betting, raising or calling when the odds are right, checking or folding when they are not, and occasionally bluffing when your opponent is weak -- is about the best that you can do.
Managing your emotions helps too. The human brain -- the typical one, not the pathological gambling brain of a Stu Ungar -- is biased against taking risks, suffering even temporary losses and taking the long view. Thus it's not surprising that some of the top poker players, including Mr. Lederer, Mr. Matros and Dan Harrington, a former World Series of Poker champion, began their competitive careers in chess and backgammon, which inculcate mental discipline and objective calculation.
Poker has achieved a level of popularity as a "mind sport" that chess has failed to reach. Ironically, it has managed this feat by adopting a chess-like tournament structure, with an upfront financial commitment that minimizes the gambling aspect and maximizes the returns on strategic and tactical skill. And why not? Mr. Moneymaker's courage, Mr. Ungar's willingness to trust his instincts and take big risks, Mr. Beal's preparation and persistence, and Mr. Matros's mathematical analysis -- the best players use a combination of all these qualities to win. Luck does the rest.
Mr. Chabris, a lecturer in Harvard's department of psychology, holds the National Master title in chess.