Review: 'Poker Nation' wins
Special to CNN
(CNN) -- Reading "Poker Nation" is the next best thing to actually playing. Writer and poker player Andy Bellin has dealt readers a winning hand, offering strategy and an insider's view of professional players.
But the book is also a cautionary tale that reveals that often, the more serious the game, the less fun it becomes.
Bellin is an engaging guide with a deep knowledge of poker. On his way to a graduate degree in astrophysics, he fell in love with poker and tried to make a living at it. "Poker Nation" is his story, as well as the story of the rise in popularity of semi-professional poker clubs and Las Vegas' World Series Of Poker.
Focusing mainly on the game Texas Hold'em -- a seven-card game in which each player is dealt two cards, the table holds five "community" cards, and players try to make the best five-card hand out of the bunch -- the book uses true-life poker hands to illustrate strategies for winning.
Bellin, like other professional poker players, plays to win money. He's a "rock" ( a player who takes few chances) and does not diverge from his rules, designed to "minimize losses and maximize profits." Beyond those rules, Bellin preaches that winning poker is achieved by "out-thinking and out-strategizing" the other players.
The pals around the table game
But for most poker players in friendly games across the United States, winning is only part of the reason to gather. The game is an excuse to give friends a hard time; the banter is as important as the bet.
The social poker player wants to pull off the big bluff or call a buddy who is trying to bluff. Those players get together at the poker table to drink beer and argue about what to have on the pizza.
For the social player, the game is still fascinating; it rewards and punishes in unpredictable and delightful ways. It's still the game that Bellin and other professionals love.
So. although "Poker Nation" is full of practical advice for winning, social players can ignore Bellin's rules of strict play in favor of having fun. And they may learn something they need -- if not strategy, then lingo.
Bellin has spiced his guide with a poker lexicon. Taking a "bad beat on the river card" is losing to an opponent who drew an unlikely last card to steal the hand. Often following a "bad beat," a player will "tilt"; that is to be angry and play badly. The highest possible hand on a given deal would be to have "the nuts."
To be good, forget money's value
The people who populate the book are interesting as well. Small-time professional Dicky Horvath's explanation of his playing sounds like a person with a monotonous job. "My gig is to be like a drone. Some mindless ant worker. I have to play mechanically, not seductively." He explains that he's not there for one game; he is playing in a yearlong poker game. He can "never get emotional."
It is Horvath who explains that the social player's fascination with poker is not shared by the professional player. "The monotony is what kills you. Poker is a finite game. There are only so many variations." The hands that he has seen over and over would be the stuff of legend for the social player.
But, like anyone toiling in the minor leagues, Horvath's view of the major leaguers -- the World Series of Poker top players -- is reverential. His describes watching them play on tape: " You'll see ... Doyle reading Johnny Chan's body language and folding a huge hand. Or Johnny suckering Erik Seidel ... into calling."
But Bellin has seen it all also. He explains that those players, for all their ability, "to be effective ... need to be able to disregard the monetary value of money ." Not only that -- since they are constantly risking their own money, Bellin reports that "even the best of them make mistakes or get unlucky and go broke."
Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is the one in which Bellin reveals many common "tells" -- "the subconscious twitch or unnatural move that gives away what cards [a player] is holding." According to Bellin, there are a million tells, and the ability to read them is a key to winning.
And so is reading "Poker Nation."
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