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Poker News | Poker Book Review

A Review of Ghosts at the Table

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The history of poker is filled with legendary stories and characters that have lent the game its unique flavor. Names such as Wild Bill Hickock, Puggy Pearson, and Stuey Ungar immediately evoke images of the game’s past, and allow us to see how the current crop of players stack up against those who have come before, both in terms of style and substance. In Ghosts at the Table, Des Wilson has attempted a comprehensive look at what he terms the four “ages” of poker, which he defines as 1) poker in the Old West, 2) the days of the Texan Road Gamblers, 3) the Las Vegas era, and 4) the rise of the Internet and the Moneymaker boom. In large part, his efforts have succeeded in providing the reader with an extremely entertaining read.

Wilson traveled far and wide in his efforts to dig up the truth about many of the best- known poker legends. We first see him in Deadwood, examining perhaps the most famous hand in history, Wild Bill Hickock’s “dead man’s hand” of aces and eights. We quickly learn that Wilson is not going to be content with simply repeating the stories that every poker player has heard, but rather he is going to go as far as possible in trying to uncover the “true” story.

Unfortunately, where history is concerned, the truth proves somewhat elusive. Why, exactly, was Hickock killed? What was the fifth card in the hand? And which aces and eights were they? Wilson goes as far as possible trying to answer all of these questions, and others, conclusively, but despite his best efforts, he is often left wishing that the truth were easier to nail down. No matter, since the attempts make for a truly enjoyable story in their own right.

After Deadwood, Wilson takes us to other parts of the Old West, the days of Wyatt Earp, and the tales of the poker playing lawmen. Next, he travels the length and breadth of Texas, speaking to as many of the legendary Texan Road Gamblers as he can find. TJ Cloutier, Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, Crandell Addington and Carl McKelvey are just some of the legendary players who describe the game in that era, which is not really that far removed from the game in the Old West, only with bigger weapons and cars instead of horses.

Wilson then transitions into the Las Vegas era with chapters about the two men he calls “The Godfather- Part I” and “The Godfather- Part II”, Benny Binion and Doyle Brunson. While much of the history of these two legendary figures is not new, Wilson brings some fresh perspective, both his own and that of others, to flesh out the facts about these giants of the game that have been repeated in numerous other books and articles.

In writing about poker in Las Vegas, Wilson focuses much of his attention on the World Series of Poker. After an enlightening discussion of the origins of the Series, which will surprise those who have always assumed it came about as a direct result of the famous Johnny Moss - Nick the Greek heads-up match (which may or may not have taken place, by the way), Wilson writes about a select number of the best and/or most influential Main Events in World Series history. The book hits its peak in the author’s chapter on the Hal Fowler-Bobby Hoff match in 1979, and the subsequent complete disappearance of Fowler, the previously unknown winner. Wilson’s legwork in writing the book is best on display here, as between his extremely forthright interview with Bobby Hoff and his tireless attempts to learn what happened to Hal Fowler, we are able to see everything right and wrong about the game in a microcosm. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

If there is a weakness in the book, other than the occasional technical mistake (e.g. Wichita is not the capital of Kansas and Mr. Kotter’s name is spelled Kaplan, not Kaplin) it is in its final stages, as Wilson attempts to examine the Internet and post-Moneymaker era. This is really through no particular fault of the author, but rather due to the difficulty of trying to put a new phenomenon in its proper place in the context of history. For example, he is forced to make choices about who to include in his discussion of women in poker without the luxury of looking back on fifty years of influential players. So, while Jennifer Harman, whose exploits in the “big game”, the Andy Beal match, and as a co-author of Super System II, will almost surely stand the test of time as a great and influential figure in the game, it is not as clear that Isabelle Mercier’s inclusion, just to choose one of the players at random, will prove to be as good a choice. Also, there is very little written about poker on the Internet, beyond the briefest of looks at how fast players are able to develop and some discussion of the UIGEA.

Wilson tries to bring the whole book into perspective by “playing” with all the ghosts he has conjured up in its pages, and sitting down as a participant in the 2007 World Series Main Event. Unfortunately, here he is treading onto legendary poker writing ground, imitating the premise of James McManus’ Positively Fifth Street. Although Wilson attempts to wrap up many of the book’s themes in this final chapter, and does have some interesting interactions with the eventual runner-up in the event, Tuan Lam, the interjection of the author’s own playing experience into what is a history of the subject is an unnecessary departure from the main thread of the book.

For those who are looking for an entertaining, fast-paced overview of poker, Ghosts at the Table will not disappoint. You will learn new things about people with whom you are familiar, and you will read about historical pieces of the game that you probably didn’t even know existed. It is a perfect summer book for any veteran or aspiring poker player, and I highly recommend it.

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