Canongate 16.99 (316pp) 15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
For Richer, For Poorer, By Victoria Coren
Friday 30 October 2009
To begin with a government-style health warning: gambling can seriously damage your finances. Don't try it at home, kids. That said, Victoria Coren, the kid who did try it at home, losing her pocket-money to her older brother's mates, is now on a winning streak with this funny and enthralling saga of her career as one of the few female high-flyers in the world of poker. Since her schooldays she has gained two decades and a million pounds. With a day job as a successful journalist, by night she is Poker Woman.
Some men chronicle their lives through memories of watching football or playing Scrabble; For Richer, for Poorer is autobiography via poker. Away from the gaming tables, her love life crumbles and her father becomes seriously ill but as a cards person she graduates from losing cautiously to winning the European Poker Tour.
As his employee, whose articles brought up the rear of the magazine Alan Coren spectacularly fronted, I knew he was unbeatable in those Punch days, banging out a humorous extravaganza every week. Yet his daughter is a different chip off the old block and her more sober style comes up trumps. She holds up to the light the denizens of the dark who earn a living, or more generally lose it, at the tables.
"A shifty game played by shifty characters," she declares. "Poker players deal in cash, and suspicion." Does their opponent have a strong hand or is he bluffing? Or bluffing that he's bluffing? The lingo is wonderfully incomprehensible: "Flat calling on the river", "bad flop", "folding a 67 offshoot".
Her poker playmates have memorable monikers: Riverboat Ray; Treetop Straus; Puggy Pearson; The Whacker; Amarillo Slim. With this Damon Runyonesque cast, her world sounds like a latterday Guys and Dolls, with fewer horses and more cards. Not Broadway but Cricklewood Broadway. She sees herself as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. The assorted cut-throats she meets are not the kind of chaps she wants to take home to Daddy but some become friends who, though trying to rob each other blind during the game, may afterwards share their winnings.
She plays online and on television. Having started in order to make friends and meet boys, she finds that the appeal lies in gaining small sums of money and, after a while, larger sums of money. She is lured on further by "detective work, calculation, psychology".
Another attraction is that a player is not totally under the thumb of Lady Luck as if playing roulette; the cards may be random, but he still can do his best, or worst, with them. He can "dominate the workings of chance itself."
Unlike many of her competitors, she retains her compassion as well as her winnings. Some things are more important to her than the cards, she says. She may, of course, be bluffing.
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