HAVE YOU ever deliberately lost at poker? Why on earth? One answer might be: to keep the game going. If a big loser gets up, the game may break. So it pays, in theory, to keep the man in the game by letting him win a pot or two.

Chip Reese, regarded for years as just about the best all-round player in Las Vegas, offers a more surprising variant of this idea - risking a big loss on virtually the first hand of the night, to ensure the game develops as he wants. As he figures it, the longer the game goes on, the more mistakes his opponents are liable to make.

"I know who the guys are that are gonna win quickly and run away from the game. Who the guys are that are gonna be staying and playing... I know what people I'd rather see get ahead, and what people I'd rather see get behind.

"So what I try to do, I've even done it intentionally, like if I'm in a hand in a game early in a game, and say I've got the second-best hand in a game. And somebody's betting with the best hand, and somebody's in there with the worst hand, and I think I really shouldn't raise the pot. But my chances of winning are much better than the guy I want to see get stuck. If I have to catch a card, I'm gonna win a big pot. I'm liable to put extra money early in a game, knowing it's mathematically the incorrect thing to do, just to punish this guy, to help him get stuck, 'cause it's gonna make a better game in the long run."

Interesting concept! I found all this in a new book out in the US, Bad Bet by Timothy L O'Brien, a New York Times reporter. The book is a lively rerun of the gamut of commercial gambling in America - Las Vegas, Atlantic City, New Orleans, Connecticut... It covers casinos and their operators, sports betting, the Internet, economics and compulsive gambling, plus a bit on the side about poker. The long interview with Chip Reese is absorbing reading. If Reese has a problem (it seems to me, watching him at the table), it is compulsive eating. He has blown up like a blond balloon. This omission in the author's reportage is curious. And overall, he doesn't seem quite sure whether gambling is a good or a bad thing.

`Bad Bet', by Timothy L O'Brien (Times Business, $25)