Friday, 4 September 2009
- of the new book -
by Charlie Campbell in the Literary Review.
“First porn and now poker. In Once More, With Feeling, Victoria Coren described her attempts to make an erotic film. Now, in this memoir, she writes about her love of poker. She’s unusual, not only for being a woman in what is still largely a male-dominated game, but also because she is an excellent player and writer. Many poker journalists are on the outside, peering in at a game they haven’t fully mastered, and their books are often slightly disappointing - they’re fine if you haven’t read the others, but they all rake over the same old ground, digging up the same old mouldy corpses. You can only read about the glory days so many times.
“For Richer, For Poorer, however, is fresh, funny and moving. Coren writes insightfully about love, obsession, depression and illness - and poker, obviously, and how it helped her cope with life. She grew up watching her brother play with his friends and longed to join in this game, with its rituals and secret language - nuts, trips, bullets, etc. And she did play, in whatever games she could find, learning and losing, and gradually getting better. During this time, poker changed, from a game played by a few in smoky backrooms to one played by millions, with great glitzy corporate tournaments. Then in 2006 the author’s own life changed: she won the European Poker Tour championship, netting $1m and creating a history of her own. And so she concentrates on that, with little need to borrow the stories of others, replaying the action of the final table at the EPT in short alternate chapters. Rarely has poker been written about so well, with drama and wit, and none of the usual tired virility.
“Best of all, Coren engages with the question of what makes the game so enthralling and addictive to her and so many others. It isn’t just the mental challenge, nor is it simply a gambling lust. Rather, it’s the sense of belonging to a community of natural nonconformists who have at last found rules they are happy to live by. She feels more at home here than anywhere else - family, friends, all belong to another world. But the bond is purely one of poker. Talk about outside life to a stranger at the table and you’re committing an unpardonable sin, reminding them of what drove them there in the first place. As Coren puts it, ‘Poker wasn’t about fame, it was about hiding.’ It is also about loneliness. She writes, ‘I love the underworld. I love the screwed-up people, I finally fit in and I am happy.’ And they’re certainly screwed-up. Some of them have obvious appeal, some of them don’t. Coren compares it all to the world of Damon Runyan. But that, like P.G. Wodehouse’s Mayfair or Blandings, didn’t exist. Both writers gave charm and glamour to those who never had it.
“I haven’t met nearly as many poker greats as Coren, but the ones that I have come across have tended to be disappointingly ordinary - even dull. Sitting and staring at small bits of plastic and paper for hour after hour, day after day, year after year, does little for the personality. And the discipline of the successful card player rarely extends to the rest of their life. But she knows this and forgives all, writing:
‘With few exceptions, I love anyone who plays poker, who spends their life in the card room, who is hiding from something and chasing something, who knows there may be a better life elsewhere but is a little too frightened to look for it, who lets the invisible clock tick down as they play hand after hand after hand.’
“I’ll leave it to other critics to brandish their poker clichés now. But this is a wonderful book, worthy of comparison with the best - Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game In Town. Read them both.”