At a bookstore in Las Vegas this summer, customers kept calling to find out what day, even what hour, a forthcoming book would be available. No, they weren't asking about the latest Harry Potter.
They were eager to buy the new volume on tournament poker by Dan Harrington, the 1995 winner of the $10,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold 'em Championship at the World Series of Poker (WSOP). Harrington on Hold 'em: Expert Strategy for No-Limit Tournaments: Volume 2: The Endgame(Two Plus Two, June) "is the hottest book we sell at the moment," says Howard Schwartz, the owner of the Gamblers Book Shop. He adds, "But anything on tournaments is hot right now."
Poker is as sizzling as a Las Vegas summer. It's drawing in high rollers—last month Australian Joseph Hachem took home a $7.5-million prize by winning the main event of the World Series of Poker, a tournament that attracted 5,619 people willing to pony up $10,000 to play No-Limit Texas Hold 'em. And not-so-high rollers—an estimated 60 million to 80 million Americans play poker, in home games, online or in card rooms around the country.
That's a market simply too big to ignore, and the presses are working overtime as mainstream publishers and specialty houses try to get in on the action of what appears to be the fastest-growing game in the country (and maybe, the world: Internet poker has spawned players all over the globe).
Annie Duke is one of the colorful
cardsharps who have made poker
into a television drama
and a book publishing trend.
A search on Amazon.com reveals that at least 61 titles related to the game have been or are being published in 2005, up from 46 in 2004, 37 in 2003 and 16 in 2002. Readers can choose from how-to guides like Harrington's or narrative nonfiction by writers like James McManus, poker columnist for the New York Times.
What's behind the boom? And more important, how long can it last? Publishers credit television coverage and the Internet for stoking the game's popularity. At the same time, offshore Web sites are enabling people to play poker over the Internet, so even those not within proximity of Las Vegas, Atlantic City or a card room can get in on the game.
Even with poker's newfound exposure, the surge in interest caught Two Plus Two's publisher, Mason Malmuth, by surprise. "Sales exploded in 2003 a couple of months after the World Poker Tour began to appear on the Travel Channel," says Malmuth. "We thought it was a fluke, but the sales kept on climbing. And now you have hundreds of thousands of people playing."
Another powerful force fueling the explosion in interest: greed. After all, the game is played for money, and as the stakes of this year's WSOP suggest, the money is getting bigger all the time. Colin Fox, an editor at Warner Books, which published The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time by Michael Craig in June, attributes poker's booming popularity to the story of Chris Moneymaker, who won a $10,000 seat at the 2003 WSOP main event through an online tournament with an entry fee of $39. Moneymaker ended up winning $2.5 million. "Here was this likable good ol' boy amateur, straight from some soul-killing accountant's job in Tennessee, who parlayed less than $50 into one of the biggest competitive paydays ever," Craig says. "It made not only poker, but high-dollar poker, seem within reach to an incredible number of people." With the help of co-writer Daniel Paisner, Moneymaker tells his story in Moneymaker: How an Amateur Poker Player Turned $40 into $2.5 Million at the World Series of Poker (HarperEntertainment, Feb. 2005).
Avery Cardoza, editor and publisher at the house that bears his name, says Moneymaker's story resonated with the country: "His victory says that anyone can be a champion," he says during an interview shortly before the 2005 WSOP main event gets under way; Cardoza was in Las Vegas to play in the event. "But the appeal of the game is even larger. Poker is simple to play but complex to learn. I can't think of another game that combines skill, luck and psychology in such a compelling way."
That complexity is good for the how-to book market. Cardoza, whose company has published about 50 books on poker, estimates that two volumes by Doyle Brunson have easily sold more than 250,000 copies combined. Cardoza's biggest competitor, Two Plus Two, has sold more than a million copies of its books, and now has 30 titles in print. "We think we'll sell between 400,000 and 500,000 copies this year," says Malmuth (an author in his own right; he's written or co-written 13 books on poker and gambling). Among the company's top sellers is Hold 'em Poker for Advanced Players,which Malmuth co-authored with David Sklansky (who is well-known to poker players and becoming so to the general public, thanks to his appearances in TV tournaments). "That book really changed the way people play," says Malmuth. "We sell books for people who are serious about poker." Serious, indeed; readers should be prepared for a crash course in probability and game theory when they pick up a title like Sklansky's The Theory of Poker, now in its fourth edition.
Dan Harrington takes an equally thoughtful approach to the game. He decided to write his book on tournament poker at the suggestion of one of his oldest friends, Bill Robertie, the author of several books on backgammon, who became his co-writer on the poker books. "He proposed the idea, and I knew immediately how to structure the book," says Harrington in an interview just before he leaves his home in Southern California to play in the main event at the WSOP. "I thought most poker writers had it wrong, and the chess authors had it right: do problems and then provide analysis."
Two Plus Two continues to bring out new instructional books, with titles on its fall list by David Sklansky and Ed Miller and a book planned next year by the 2004 WSOP main event champion, Greg Raymer, who says the publisher helped make him a success at the gaming table. "I can say with full confidence that if it were not for Two Plus Two Publishing and their Web site, I would not have the 2004 World Championship bracelet on my wrist."
Other specialty houses are getting into the game, including Sports Publishing. Its first poker title, Tales from the Tiltboys—"true tales of gambling, friendship and Wednesday night poker," according to the publisher—was published in July. Edited by Kim Scheinberg, the book includes a foreword by one of the "Tiltboys" (and the host of Celebrity Poker Showdown), Phil Gordon.
Larger publishers are also dealing themselves in. This fall, Warner Books is coming out with The Book of Bluffsby Matt Lessinger, while Simon & Schuster will publish Phil Gordon'sLittle Green Book: Lessons and Teachings in No Limit Texas Hold 'emand a 2006 calendar featuring Gordon's wisdom.
More Than a Game
Poker—with its inherent drama, outsize personalities and whiff of immorality and the low life—transcends the how-to genre. Among the best narrative nonfiction books written about the game is the 1983 title by English poet A. Alvarez, The Biggest Game in Town, about the 1981 World Series of Poker (originally published by Houghton Mifflin; reissued in 2002 by Chronicle Books); Biggest Game remains a classic. A more expansive look at the WSOP grew out of a Harper's magazine assignment by James McManus, which turned into Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).
Alvarez brought literary
cache to a card game.
The book was acquired and written before the meteoric rise in the game's popularity, so it found its way into print because of McManus's proposal. "I met Jim McManus through a mutual friend and admired his writing," says FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi. "I am not a poker player myself; I only gamble on writers. [His] proposal was very winning—both entertaining and instructive." Galassi adds that McManus is to write a history of the game for FSG.
Other journalistic or memoir accounts of games include One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, the World's Greatest Poker Player by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson (Simon & Schuster/Atria, June), while in September, Penguin's Hudson Street Press is releasing a memoir/strategy guide by the world's most recognized woman poker player, Annie Duke: How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker. In October, St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books is publishing All In: The (Almost) Entirely True Story of the World Series of Poker by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback, as well as a tongue-in-cheek look at the underside of poker with magician Penn Jillette's How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard. Even Cardoza Publishing, which is primarily focused on instructional books, plans to publish Doyle Brunson's autobiography this fall.
"This market will always bear solid instructional books," says Warner Books' Fox. "But narratives such as The Professor...or Positively Fifth Streetcan only spring from remarkable stories that are covered by quality writers. As any editor knows, that's a very tall order, whatever the topic."
The market for poker books is getting crowded. But the poker wave will continue to attract players and authors, and that should continue to drive publishers and booksellers to embrace this genre. In other words, don't bet against poker yet—especially when ESPN begins to broadcast the World Series of Poker (the main event will be on TV beginning October 11). New players will join the fray. Bad players will want to learn more. Good players will want to hone their skills and read about their pastime. And even nonplayers may look to books for a vicarious high-stakes thrill.
Peters is a writer in Berkeley, Calif.—and when he's not writing, he's usually playing Hold 'em at the nearby San Pablo Casino.