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  • Ghosts at the Table

    By Anthony Holden

    ‘My chips have made it to the final table!’ cries Des Wilson at the end of his new book Ghosts at the Table – a history of poker boldly sub-titled ‘the world’s most popular game’. The only trouble is… they’ve made it there without him. Des’s chips are in someone else’s stack.

    It’s typical of Wilson’s trademark enthusiasm that, after losing his pile to the Vietnamese-Canadian Tuan Lam early on the second day of this year’s World Series ‘main event’, he should keep a beady eye on it all the way to the final table – and Lam’s second-place finish to 2007 world champ Jerry Yang.

    To judge from Des’s excitement – and I can vouch for it, having been there at his side – you’d think those chips really were still his.

    This may be the nearest Des will ever get to winning the world title – the things we writers will do to persuade ourselves we played well, even by proxy – but the passion he brings to everything he takes on is evident from the opening pages of this book, when he visits Deadwood, Dakota, in search of the truth about Wild Bill Hickok and that famous ‘dead man’s hand’. Were they really aces and eights? How do we know? What was the fifth card? Des, as you might expect, finds all the answers.

    Casting himself as the Sherlock Holmes of poker, he proceeds to Tombstone, Arizona, to investigate the role of poker in the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Only Des Wilson, in the process, could find himself caught up in a re-enactment, braving mean streets ‘full of Wyatt Earps and Doc Hollidays’.

    Our hero survives, to proceed via the Mississippi riverboats from his ‘first age of poker’, that of the Old West, to his second, that of the Texan Road gamblers – appropriately sub-titled ‘How to get out of town with the money’. Preferably, you might add, alive.

    Only Des Wilson, you might also suspect, could wangle himself an invitation to to the Texas ranch of Amarillo ‘Slim’ Preston, or bother to visit the now defunct Redmen Club in Dallas. With the help of Slim, Doyle Brunson, Crandell Addington, T.J. Cloutier and other revered old-timers, Wilson tells hair-raising stories of life on the road in the Fifties and Sixties, re-evaluating the reputation of Johnny Moss – was he really ‘The Man’? – and especially Benny Binion, whose early crimes Wilson finds hard to forgive, however important Benny’s role in putting poker on the map by launching its annual World Series.

    Or did he? During his third age of poker, charting the rise of Las Vegas, Wilson tells ‘the truth’ (or his version of it, still the matter of some dispute) about the origins of the World Series – and the year the winner was fixed. He also casts doubt on the legendary game between Moss and Nick ‘The Greek’ Dandalos, curiously undocumented in the obvious places to go looking (as, to be fair, he quotes me pointing out in Bigger Deal).

    He chums up with the genial Bobby Hoff, who still hasn’t recovered from his heads-up defeat in 1979 at the hands of the first amateur to fluke his way to the world title, Hal Fowler – since listed as missing believed dead. This was only my second summer in Vegas, covering the World Series for the Sunday Times, so I have always wondered what happened to that weirdo Fowler. It should by now come as no surprise to learn that Des leaves no stone (literally) unturned in finding out.

    From there it’s but a short hop to the rise of internet poker and Wilson’s take on the ‘boom’ without which websites such as this (which he inexplicably fails to mention) would not exist. ‘The 21st Century phenomenon’, as he calls his fourth (and final) age of poker, brings him via cyberspace to the 2007 World Series, where he makes the second day before handing those last few chips over to Lam.

    As with his previous poker book, last year’s Swimming with the Devilfish, Des Wilson’s breathless prose carries you along on the wings of his own excitement. He is a tireless investigator, and his first-person style has a way of keeping the reader at his shoulder as his adventures unfold. This new book has already earned praise from such poker titans as Cloutier, Tom McEvoy and Mike Sexton – ‘The new poker classic… a must-read’ – and I have no hesitation in recommending it to all those as interested in poker folklore as they are in playing the game.

    There are times Wilson gets carried away by his own momentum, as when he protests over-pickily about certain members of poker’s Hall of Fame – whose collective disappearance from its sacred wall at Binion’s, to some heedless Harrah’s store-cupboard, he rightly deplores. But Wilson has performed the game a signal service by delving where no man has delved before, and coming up with some fascinating answers, while evidently having a lot of fun in the process.

    Besides, these poker ‘narratives’, as they are now called to distinguish them from the countless manuals, are so much more readable than all those how-to books. But I guess I would join Des Wilson (and Al Alvarez, Peter Alson, Jim McManus, Michael Craig, Jesse May and others) in saying that, wouldn’t I?

    Which brings me to Wilson’s forthcoming ‘fifth age of poker’, when he and I are the first poker writers to wind up head-to-head for the world title – in the ‘main event’ of the 20?? World Series. Only I know how that story ends – for I’ve already had a sneak preview. In my dreams.

    Ghosts at the Table is published by Mainstream, 336 pp, £17.99

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    Comment from des wilson
    Time: November 6, 2007, 3:08 am

    while i appreciate the appreciation, it is a bit discouraging when a review of the book is better written than the book itself ! i thank you, Tony – will do my best to match it when “the biggest deal yet” is published – no doubt to mark your second place in the World Series next year. DW

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