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Andy Bellin: Poker Nation: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure Into The Heart Of A Gambling Country


Poker Nation: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure Into The Heart Of A Gambling Country

Author: Andy Bellin
Publisher: Harper Collins

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Andy Bellin's Poker Nation isn't exactly reportage, nor is it a memoir, a history, or a how-to book. It's a little of all of those, and not enough of anything in particular. Just when Bellin seems to be settling into a juicy anecdote about a memorable hand he once played, he'll break for a detailed discussion of probability theory, or he'll shift suddenly from dispensing valuable tips on cheating to recounting the life story of a famous gambler. Poker Nation is a loose compendium of all the poker knowledge Bellin accumulated while playing the game semi-professionally (which he did whenever he wasn't studying for his never-completed graduate degree in astrophysics, or haunting the pages of general-interest magazines as a writer and editor). Though his book is a bit of a mess, the subject remains riveting. Bellin's a smart guy, and he applies his mathematical acumen to the permutations and possibilities of Texas Hold 'Em, a purists' variation on poker with a shared set of cards allowing for more profitable guesswork. Still, Bellin confesses that even he "tilts" sometimes after a "bad beat," at which point he makes stupid bets and throws money away. The author's examination of the cracked psychology of hardcore poker players—the way they can know exactly what they should do and still do otherwise—is part of what makes Poker Nation such creepy fun. The rest of the pleasure of the book is the use of terms like "tilt" and "bad beat." Any text with a sentence like "With those cards on the flop and four callers, it's time to abandon the bluff and muck your cards" is a text worth reading. In spite of the promise of the book's subtitle, Bellin doesn't dwell too much on what makes the U.S. "a gambling country"; instead, he sticks with himself and his own circle of friends. Gradually, through chapters on addiction, and on poker players' lack of understanding of the value of money and personal relationships, Bellin shows how the seedy allure of cavorting with criminals in the back rooms of bars and brothels isn't as healthy a form of recreation as he makes it out to be in the opening pages. Poker Nation concludes with the author quickly running through all the stages of his 30-odd years of life that lead him to sweat out a $3,000 pot in an underground New York poker club. At that point, the purpose of his careening info-dumping finally comes into clear focus. For those who can read between the lines, Poker Nation works as a cautionary tale.