Reviews, Apologies and Rants
An uber-post, in the grand Iggy tradition.
One of the things I've noticed in my return to the keyboard (after a three-year absence) is that I'm concentrating again on the the overall quality of writing in the universe. It hasn't improved a whole helluva lot. That's true in blogdom, above all else, and it's one of the reasons why I kept from starting my own blog for quite some time. Blogs are nothing if not the modern epitome of Sturgeon's Law (originally known as Sturgeon's Revelation): "Ninety percent of everything is crud."
It's as true for poker writing as anything else. Most of what's out there is an exercise in vanity--- either derived from other work, a quick grab for cash, or something that just suffers from that writer's bane, the "I"-infection. That last group is easy enough to identify. Just look for work that starts with the word "I" --- with "My" being a symptom of the same affliction --- and you'll usually find the writers who aren't valuing their audience in the way that they should; rather, they write under the misheld belief that their readers' time is theirs by right. Go on over to Blogs On Poker [site now down, see note at bottom], which pulls in blogs that put out an XML feed, and see just how prevalent the "I" disease really is.
How sad. Writers owe their audience, not t'other way around. Note that good writers occassionally start their pieces with possesives, too, but those are usually contrasted with their other work. Bad writers do the I-thing virtually every time.
I'm reminded of this when I think about some of the really good poker writing that's out there. I'm not talking about the strategy books, but rather, the real-life accounts of this or that or some other aspect of the poker world. The poker "story" books. I'll share a story here.
Frequent readers of this blog know that I've become good phone friends with poker author Lou Krieger, and I engaged him on this topic one day not too long ago. Lou opted for Al Alvarez's The Biggest Game in Town, and I mentioned James McManus's Positively Fifth Street. Both are thoroughly gripping reads, and in both, some of the very best writing is on topics connected only peripherally to the core issues of the respective books.
Both are stories about life, and poker just happens to be the mechanism for the telling.
One of the closing passages from Biggest Game serves as its epilogue; it could've been left out of the book in its entirety, yet its inclusion somehow puts the capper on the whole deal. The anecdote is not about the tournament making up the core of the book, but its impact is timeless. At a post-tournament game, a New York journalist asks veteran Jack Straus if he feels sorry for the people he beats....
Straus stretched comfortably. His left eyelid drooped, and he looked at the journalist's face as though along the barrel of a gun. "Funny you should ask that," he said. He put his elbows on the table. His voice was low and imminent. "Just last month, back in El Paso, I played a house painter and beat him out of a whole month's salary --- twelve hundred and forty dollars --- and I took a hundred dollars on tab. When the game was over, he signed his paycheck over to me, and I drove him home to collect the rest. He lived in a lower-middle-class section of town, and when we got to his house his wife was there with their six children. 'Honey,' he said, 'I've got some bad news. I lost the paycheck paying poker.' 'Shush,' she said, and herded the children into the next room. Then she started to cry. 'How are we going to feed the kids next month?' she said. 'Honey,' he said, 'I haven't told you the worst part. I still owe this gentleman a hundred dollars.' Well, while they were talking I was looking around, and I noticed her purse lying open by the telephone. There was a ten-dollar bill in it and a one. So you know what I did?'
As Straus talked, he had gradually leaned forward across the table, until his face was just inches from the journalist's. "No," said the journalist, eyes wide with concern. "What did you do?"
Straus's left eye drooped further; his expression was grave. "I just took the ten-dollar bill," he said, "and let him slide for the rest."
--- Al Alvarez, The Biggest Game in Town
Such wonderful, detailed, insightful writing. There's a reason Biggest Game is considered a seminal work, and passages such as this are it.
Now here is beautiful writing of a very different sort from McManus's New Wave shosetsu. The following passage captures McManus, playing an ever-bigger part of his own story, in the days between his satellite victory and the start of the WSOP Main Event:
T minus sixty-three hours, forty-seven minutes, and counting. The last time Time trudged this recalcitrantly Mary Beth Marino had agreed to let me take her to Topp's Big Boy as soon as I turned sixteen and got my driver's license, companion milestones a good seven months off. The time before that I was in second grade, looking forward with evangelical ardor to my First Holy Communion; having reached the Age of Reason --- six and a half, according to the Roman Catholic Church --- I'd recently made my first confession ("disobeyed my parents four times, told a lie twice...") and was champing at the bit to receive the body and blood of Christ on my tongue, then get showered with presents and cash. The time before that was in utero.
--- James McManus, Positively Fifth Street
In its own way, that's every bit as wondrous as the Alvarez passage. And so enlightening beyond the words themselves, in the tradition of the best story-telling.
Were that the people who serve as poker's day-to-day frontline writers be as gifted. Michael Craig comes to mind. No one else has had the guts to say it, so I will: In The Professor, The Banker, and the Suicide King, Craig took a topic that had the potential to be as gripping as the above two books, and turned it into a pleasant but thoroughly uninspiring read. Craig is at best a competent, hard-working writer, basically what journalists ought to be. But at this point in his career, Craig lacks both the wordsmithing mastery and the authoring acuity --- that special insight --- that can take a story and make it more than the sum of its words.
But there's a larger issue within what I've read from Michael Craig than the actual skill level of the work. Too often we see how Craig hedges his wordplay to ensure his continued access to his subjects. Craig's far from the worst at it, but it's there, nonetheless. Here's a typical example from The Professor,..., taken from an early chapter that describes the initial poker excursion of Andy Beal to Las Vegas:
Amid the fun time, Andy Beal understood the real game being played. At $80-$160, his opponents were all professional poker players who saw him as easy pickings. He was just killing an evening, relaxing. If they could figure out how to get a few thousand of his dollars, good for them. He played aggressively, by instinct, and his wary opponents usually afforded the newcomer a wide berth until they figured out how he played. So he continued to win.
--- Michael Craig, The Professor, The Banker, and the Suicide King
Yep; you read it from Craig first. All you have to do is play aggressive, and the pros at the 80/160 tables will duck you and you're on your way to a profitable session. What crap. There are only two explanations: either Beal's cards ran hot or he already had lots more game than the pros would give him credit for, at least initially. And while subsequent events proved that Beal could play, it still doesn't explain the faulty logic and careful non-fault-assigning wording embued in the above. "Wary" and "respectful"? I'd say "professionally tight" and "caught making some moves" instead. But saying that would reduce the suck-up factor to all involved.
Seriously, Craig's work isn't that bad. What he writes is Laureate material when compared with what we see from some of the player-writers whose work is slapped into print just to pump another big name onto a magazine's cover. (Antonio Esfandiari's dreadful "Poker Like a Rock Star" columns in Bluff come to mind.) Nor is Craig the only writer to fall into the suck-up trap. Here's another example of that, from the otherwise reliable Michael Kaplan. This time we excerpt from the preamble of his interview with Mike Matusow, published in Card Player last September:
[Matusow] didn't win the event (the 2005 WSOP), but he took home a prize of $1 million and busted out with nary a whimper (which is way out of character for The Mouth). That Matusow had recently gotten out of jail, after serving six months for what appears to be a trumped-up charge of drug dealing, makes his Series performance all the more impressive. --- Michael Kaplan, "Mike Matusow --- More Than a Mouthful," Card Player, September 05, 2005.
We have here the classic writer's sin of omission --- in this case, stating that Matusow served six months on a "trumped-up charge...," without offering a single shred of evidence why this is so.
Bleeeah. I'm surprised that the passage got through editorial at Card Player. Needless to say, my trust in that interview went out the window before I even got to the start of the questions and answers.
Which brings me around to me, and why this most introspective and scathing of my posts was written in the first place. I wrote it because I was angry at me.
I took over the writing duties just recently for Kick Ass Poker's "This Week in Poker" blog, a nominally-paying gig. Cool enough. The guys at KAP have given me free reign to come up with entertaining poker content, and I'm trying to hard to oblige. That said, I was put in an unusual situation after only a week on the job.
What happened is that Lou's new book (co-authored by Sheree Bykofsky), Secrets the Pros Won't Tell You About Winning Hold-Em Poker, hit the shelves. A mention of a new book is always newsworthy, particularly one from a veteran, high-quality poker author such as Lou. But in walking the fine line between blurb and plug, I turned my own mini-piece a little bit sideways. It happens. It's not my best work, even if I am still working the rust off my writing chops.
So here's what you need to know. The book is a solid addition to the working library of the intermediate-level poker player. In the KAP piece, I contrasted this to some of Sklansky's books, and I did this to highlight the difference between an instructor and a teacher. Sklansky's an instructor: he shapes his learning packages into a form that fits both the material and Sklansky's own manner of thinking. By contrast, Lou's a teacher: he formats his strategy books into thought patterns that match to what he believes his target audience to be. The difference is vital, and it explains one of the great values of Lou's books (and this work in particular): The difference in the way the message is communicated impacts how well the knowledge is received. Many people do better with Sklansky's books. Others would do better with Lou's.
But I screwed up, and didn't get my own message across very well. Ah, well.
Be forewarned: You may encounter a review or two on major sites with a summary along these lines, and I'll tell you in advance, I may well have written it. It doesn't mean I'm right or wrong, or whether Lou's book is right for your current level of poker knowledge and education. But at least I'll be writing closer to my personal sense of true.
A late update: Some unnamed poker blogger, in his infinite wisdom, has recently complained about the blog-accumulator site mentioned above, with the result that the above site is no longer being available. As Bugs would have said, "What a maroon." My totally insincere thanks goes out to the navel-gazing blogger who's unaware of the distinction between a content thief and a site accumulator, pulling down something marginally valuable in his fervor. A site accumulator, such as the one formerly above or the "blogroll" that can found over at All-In, works much like a real-estate listing service, for much the same reasons. The above site pulled in the first 50 words of so of recently posted blog entries and dutifully offered titles and links to the blogs posting the original work, much the same way a real-estate agency posts or publishes photos of houses. It's a service: that's what services do. I didn't see content theft at the above; I saw an aggregation service, of some value. I'd ask the complaining blogger to remove his head from his nether regions and go query Bill Rini about the difference, because Bill indeed gets it --- he knows more about the tug-of-war between technological capabilities and intellectual rights than virtually any other poker-content writer. But this other blogger... well, that's sort of the point of this post, anyway.