Poker Nation by Andy Bellin


Title: Poker Nation: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure into the Heart of a Gambling Country

Author: Andy Bellin

Published: 2002 by Harper Collins

Length: 258 pages

Among the array of tip books and guides to making money at poker, there are very few pieces of writing that attempt to put their finger on the cultural elements of the poker world. Andy Bellin's Poker Nation is one of those few books that touches on not just the technical aspects of the strategy, but the attitude, atmosphere and lifestyle that go hand in hand with the chips and cards.

Above all else Poker Nation is a well-written, funny and generally entertaining read. The author employs simple, well-crafted prose that reads the way someone would actually talk while retaining a thoughtfulness and wittiness sometimes lacking in that style. The sentences have a natural rhythm.

Bellin clearly functions within the frame of mind that a writer's number one goal is to entertain, and in my experience this always bodes well for the reader. There isn't much in the way of coarse technical material here by a long shot.

I would classify Poker Nation as "new journalism", which essentially means that the writer is telling a story in the news sense (in this case the story of poker), but rather than attempting to be objective about the material, he throws all journalistic rules out the window and puts himself, his opinions and his experiences in the middle of the story. This writing method is a bit of a calculated risk as, while it can make any piece of writing far more intimate, if it fails to make that personal connection with the reader, it is sure to fall flat. In Bellin's case the risk paid off.

In fact, the book reminds me a lot of Hell's Angels by Hunter Thompson (a master of new journalism) in that it analyzes the history, people and psychology of a subculture and then ponders what all of it really means. Just like Thompson was a bit conflicted about the Hell's Angels, befriending many of them while remaining horrified by them, Bellin shows glimpses of being ambivalent about the poker world. Clearly he could be considered passionate about poker, having dedicated much of his life and time, and now the effort of writing a book, to the game. He still takes time to make fun of the slobs in sweat pants that run rampant in the poker community and seems genuinely disturbed, as well as morbidly fascinated, by the addiction, drugs, and fading connection to the outside world that seem to accompany playing poker professionally.

Also like Hell's Angels, as the book goes on the author becomes the straight man commentating as the gritty, unbelieveable stories told by the men themselves (in this case from interviews) take center stage in portraying this sleezy underground world. There are numerous drug stories, murder stories, failed marriages, cheating at the casino stories and one story of a guy discreetly jerking off at the poker table because he was so bored playing 12 hours a day as a pro low limit player. The poker world begins to seem further and further from our own as these stories unfold; some place much darker and more dramatic.

My only real complaint about Poker Nation would be that the chapters read more like magazine articles written independently of each other than parts of one cohesive piece of writing. The book does work as a whole, it just seems a bit disjointed when moving from one chapter to another. I felt like, in retrospect, all the pieces were there for this book to build to an awesome peak, but it kind of just seemed edited together as though it were much more light-hearted material. Along with that, I'd say that the way the beginning and end tie together struck me as somewhat lame, although I felt like it ultimately set up a decent ending.

I can't heap enough praise on this one in terms of the scope and aim of the author, though. Poker Nation tries to understand the poker world in a bigger way than just cards. It's almost a philosophical way, but not quite. It doesn't try to boil this culture down to an easily digestible sentence or paragraph, but presents all the pieces to us and asks us what they mean.

4 out of 4 aces

(Reviewed by T.)

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