Poker becomes the key to understanding life and history—though not to winning money—in this meditative gambling memoir.
Literary agent and novelist Goodhart (Cards, Kafka and Prague, 2016, etc.) entered Texas Hold ’em tournaments in Prague; Nottingham, England; and the French seaside resort of Deauville, pitting his eternal hopes against repeated, inexorable experiences of failure. Feeling overmatched by the obsessive young men in dark glasses and hoodies who dominate poker tournaments, he fortified himself with magical thinking—he found himself bargaining for divine assistance by offering a percentage of the prize money to charity if he triumphed—and conflicting advice from poker manuals, which had him lurching from his instinctive “tight weak” style of “doing nothing” whenever possible to ill-judged “loose aggressive” betting that occasionally won big pots but inevitably ended with him going bust. The author regales readers with engrossing poker play-by-play rendered in clipped but colorful jargon—“I’m up against Ace, Queen and 7s, way behind, at least until the flop when 10, Jack, 10 gives me a huge lead”—as he tries to figure the odds, suss out opponents’ thinking, and tame his own psychology as he veers between timidity and recklessness. (A glossary and appendix on the rules of Texas Hold ’em should help newbies decipher the goings-on.) He fills in the downtime between hands with beguiling travelogues, snatches of history—he interprets the tragic miscalculations leading to the outbreak of World War I as a kind of botched poker game—and wide-ranging intellectual ruminations. (He imagines a lunchtime meeting between Einstein and Kafka that might bring out their clashing perspectives on the universe as a coherent expression of scientific laws or a tissue of happenstance and enigma.) Goodhart infuses the mechanics of poker hustling with philosophical and literary resonances—“Hansen counsels using my chips, making some moves, stealing a few pots, going for it; Rilke suggests patience and discipline. Never listen to a poet”—in a piquant counterpoint that’s both insightful and entertaining.
An engaging picaresque that explores the role of chance and fate inside the casino and out.