Flushed with success

<strong>Holden on Hold'Em

</strong>Anthony Holden

<em>Little, Brown, 306pp, £12.99</em>

The modern era of poker can be precisely dated as starting in May 2003, when the delightfully named Chris Moneymaker won the "Main Event" in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas. It costs $10,000 to enter the Main Event, but Moneymaker, a Tennessee accountant on his uppers, gained his ticket by winning a $40 tournament on the online site PokerStars. Reliable broadband technology already allowed the game to be played on anyone's cheap laptop almost anywhere in the world. Television had discovered the use of the "hole cam", which meant that viewers could see the players' cards, so the game became an ideal, cheap-to-make spectacle: for there is nothing quite so compelling as watching people making decisions under pressure. At that point, with the Moneymaker story giving a shape to every player's aspiration, the game exploded. Moneymaker beat 838 other players to a first prize of $2.5m; three years later, the Main Event had a field of 8,773.

The British journalist and biographer Anthony Holden has been a shrewd player and observer of poker for a long time, reaching back to its premodern past. Although he is not quite of a vintage to have taken part in roadhouse games with Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson and Johnny Moss and Clyde "Puggy" Pearson, where the players would probably be carrying revolvers to the table, his earlier Big Deal, published in the Nineties, was one of the inspirations to later generations of poker players.

A Holden poker book will always be a companionable journey. He has an eye and an ear for the patter and nerve at the poker table, and generally writes elegant and insightful prose, as when he notes of Roland de Wolfe at a 2007 tournament in Dublin: "His bets had gradually escalated, in a smooth and rather swaggering manner, through out the course of the hand." Beginners at poker will find much of value and much entertainment in this book.

Holden on Hold'Em is a poker primer, a guide to playing and, more importantly, winning, both online and in live play. Its opening chapters explain the rules of poker's most popular variant, Texas Hold'Em, and give a clear and mostly thorough course through a very manageable basic strategy, not neglecting the maths and probabilities. Following on, Holden includes his diaries of a season on the European Poker Tour and an account of the 2007 Main Event as a kind of applied, anecdotal version of the theory.

I must confess to being partial to this book. This is the first time I have been called upon to review a work in which I appear, as a "novelist-cum-card-sharp", one of the ghosts of the 2007 WSOP Main Event, in which I went fairly deep. That was the highlight of my amateurish poker career. However, in retrospect, it was clear the poker boom was already over. A few months after the again fittingly named Jamie Gold took the $12m first prize in the 2006 Main Event, the US government, in one of its periodic twitches of puritanism (and reflex economic protectionism), passed an act to prevent its citizens depositing money to any gambling website owned overseas. Poker is a pyramid, with the few big winners at the top, the many losers at the bottom, and the rest of us squabbling for spoils somewhere in the middle. This piece of US legislation shrank the pyramid; but still around 90 million people play the game worldwide.

Despite what the legislators say, poker is a game of skill. Any fool can get lucky, but the skilled poker player will always turn a profit over time. And to get started in the game, to be anything other than "dead money" at the foot of the pyramid - to be, in poker parlance, a "shark" rather than a "fish" - you have to put in the work, as all the winning players have done. The younger players, the American college students, the teenage Scandinavian millionaires, will know the odds in any situation instantly. Like slacker calculating machines, they can tell you (but, more likely, they'll keep it to themselves) that the chances of flopping a set with a pocket pair is 8½-1 or a pair of queens will beat ace-king 56.4 per cent of the time.

There are other books that also give tables of odds, a glossary and a bibliography and set up the aspirant with a solid ABC strategy, but none of them comes with a graceful account of the action as it is played out in major tournaments.

David Flusfeder's latest novel is "The Pagan House" (HarperPerennial, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...