Ghosts at the Table
Des Wilson
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Buy *Ghosts at the Table: Riverboat Gamblers, Texas Rounders, Roadside Hucksters, and the Living Legends Who Made Poker What It Is Today* by Des Wilson online

Ghosts at the Table: Riverboat Gamblers, Texas Rounders, Roadside Hucksters, and the Living Legends Who Made Poker What It Is Today
Des Wilson
Da Capo Press
368 pages
April 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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According to Wikipedia, "Des Wilson is a New Zealand-born British campaigner, political activist, businessman, sports administrator, author and Poker player." He must have had fun putting together this anecdotal history of the game he loves. After all, he got to visit such disparate dots on the Poker map as Deadwood, Tombstone, Natchez, and most of Texas, chasing Poker ghosts and some live wires.

Subtitled (big breath) "Riverboat Gamblers, Texas Rounders, Roadside Hucksters, and the Living Legends who Made Poker What It Is Today," Wilson's view is colored by his own colorful personal credentials. Not only did he write Swimming with the Devilfish (Under the Surface of Professional Poker), he also dabbled in left-wing British politics and was one-time director of public affairs for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In this unconventional survey, he tries (one suspects with tongue firmly ensconced in cheek) to reconstruct some famous moments in Poker, such as the murder of Wild Bill Hickock, undoubtedly the most infamous incident in the annals of the game. If Wild Bill, Wilson asks, was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights, what was the fifth card in the "dead man's hand"? For answers he travels to Deadwood, South Dakota, where the notorious card shark and deck-shaver met his fatal doom. One part of the legend is probably factual: Wild Bill was not able to take his usual chair at the game on August 2, 1876, in Saloon No. 10 on Main Street. He customarily perched with his back to the wall so as to view all comings and goings. But on that occasion he entered into a friendly game, taking the only vacant chair, with his back to the door. Thus his assailant, a loser who went by at least one alias, was able to put a bullet through the back of his head. Needless to say, though there are many theories about the dead man's hand, the salient feature of Wild Bill's demise is that his memory has kept Deadwood alive as a tourist town where his murder is recreated daily for eager onlookers.

Wilson does not concern himself solely with the departed greats of the game, however. He made a pilgrimage to Poker icon Amarillo Slim, a long drink of water with many a tale to tell - about being nearly drowned by the mob in his hotel room in Atlanta, about an argument with the IRS about a box full of hundred dollar bills an argument Slim won. Slim was always a master of the one-liner. In his seventies, he began mainly dealing in cows, not cards, and warned, "Don't ever have a hobby that eats."

The book hits hard with Wilson's description of "The Godfather" Benny Binion, who was, depending on who's talking, an "honest game boss" or a "barbaric outlaw" who killed anyone who got on his nerves. Benny ran the Horseshoe Casino by his rules and lived past his own mythology to become the founder of the World Series of Poker. Another candidate for Godfather of the Poker scene is Doyle Brunson, a kid who went from sports acclaim in high school to multiple winner of the World Series of Poker. But Brunson, unlike Binion, played the game for the pure love of it and didn't let pursuit of money become the root of many greater evils.

The names Wilson deals out range from hardcore rounders like doomed, addicted Sailor Roberts to smart, brilliant youngsters like Annette Obrestad of Norway, who plays online and has racked up 6-figure winnings, still not old enough to sit down at a casino table. Wilson travels in time from the days of riverboat gambling to the age of cyber Poker and all stops in between. He looks at the gaming scene with a combination of wisdom and wit that few others can lay claim to. No moral lectures are offered. A well-crafted romp.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2008

buy *Ghosts at the Table: Riverboat Gamblers, Texas Rounders, Roadside Hucksters, and the Living Legends Who Made Poker What It Is Today* online
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