Poker Periodicals: How to Hold 'Em

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Daniel Negreanu won $4 million in poker tournaments in 2004, and Card Player magazine named him Player of the Year. Another poker magazine, All In, said Negreanu "might just be the hottest poker player in the world." Recently, Negreanu consented to share his wisdom in an interview with Bluff, yet another poker mag.

Negreanu, 30, talked about his blog. He touted a line of "poker vitamins." He revealed what he listens to on his iPod during tournaments -- "the sounds of the ocean and birds chirping." And he talked about his newfound devotion to Jesus.

"Has it improved your game?" the interviewer asked.

"100 percent," Negreanu said. "If you look at the timeline of my results, finding my faith and my big wins coincide."

iPod? Blog? Bird calls? Poker vitamins? Jesus?

Gee, high-stakes poker sure has changed since the days when it was played in smoky backrooms by guys called Doc and Slim and Fats -- guys who would no doubt greet chatter about vitamins and Jesus with that ancient poker mantra: Shut up and deal.

These days, poker is big business. In the last decade, the rise of televised poker and online poker has spawned a poker craze. Poker is a spectator sport now, seen on countless TV shows -- "Poker Royale" and "Poker Superstars International" and "Celebrity Poker Showdown" and the "World Poker Tour." If you're a truly hard-core fan, you can buy a handcrafted, custom-made, limited-edition bobblehead doll of your favorite poker champ for $29.99.

And naturally this poker craze has spawned a slew of magazines. In addition to the aforementioned Bluff and All In and Card Player, there's Player, "the gambling lifestyle magazine," and Casino Player, which is probably the only magazine in the world whose masthead lists not only a "Video Poker Editor" but a "Fulfillment Director."

What does the "fulfillment director" of a Vegas-based casino mag do? A perverse mind can conjure up all sorts of wild fantasies. Alas, the truth is more prosaic.

"I fulfill the subscription obligations of the magazine," says Joanne Sommario.

You can learn a lot by reading poker magazines. Reading Casino Player, I learned that a man named Frank Marino has made his living as a Joan Rivers impersonator in Vegas since 1985.

Reading All In, I learned that "living legend" Doyle Brunson is immortalized in the Poker Hall of Fame, the Seniors of Poker Hall of Fame, the Casino Legends Hall of Fame and the Poker Tour Walk of Fame.

Reading Player, I learned that "Tilt," the ESPN gambling drama series, has "the poker world up in arms." Why? "The controversy stems from the show's portrayal of players as cheats, crooks and generally malevolent people," which is, a Player editorial complains, "an image that poker players have fought hard to disprove."

Amazing! Even poker players are worried about their image these days! Is there any profession left in America that still doesn't care about its media image?

Sometimes poker mags are written in a jargon that is almost incomprehensible to outsiders. Card Player recently ran one article of scholarly poker advice titled "Understanding Flop Texture" and another titled "Four Bets Without the Nuts?," which began with this sentence: "You will hardly ever see two players put in four bets each on the river with neither one of them holding the nuts."

I have no idea what that means, which probably explains why I'm such a lousy poker player.

Even in the age of yuppified poker, the players are still the most interesting aspect of the game. The current issue of All In features mini bios of the 64 players in the National Heads-Up Poker Championship, which NBC is broadcasting every weekend this month. These folks are a lot better educated than Doc and Slim and Fats ever were, but some of them are pretty colorful.

Mike Caro, known as the "Mad Genius of Poker," wrote a best-selling book on the body language of poker and founded something called the Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming and Life Strategy.

Chris Ferguson, known as "Jesus" for his long hair and beard, has a PhD in computer science, with a specialty in artificial intelligence, and hopes to become a professor of game theory.

Annie Duke, a graduate of Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, is raising three kids while competing on the poker tournament circuit.

Chau Giang fled Vietnam in a small boat and worked as a cook in Chinese restaurant before winning one of the events in the 2004 World Series of Poker.

And so on. It's an eclectic group that looks like America.

Easily the best piece I read in these mags was Rob Fulop's "The Magician, the Unabomber and the Guy Who Never Wins," published in Bluff. It's a hilarious account of Fulop's trip to Vegas to see his old poker-playing buddies Antonio "The Magician" Esfandiari and Phil "Unabomber" Laak, both of whom have won fame and fortune on the poker tour.

They're ensconced in the Magician's new house, which has wall-to-wall white carpeting and a giant TV screen but not a single picture or plant. There's a pool and a hot tub and plenty of half-filled booze bottles.

"Bellagio chips, ranging from $10 to $1,000, lie scattered over the coffee table, serving as drink coasters," Fulop writes. "A rubber-banded two-inch-thick wad of $100 bills sitting on one of the cushions of the sofa looks as if somebody just tossed it there a few days ago and forgot about it."

Fulop arrives at 1:30 in the afternoon and finds that the Magician has just gotten up and is sitting in his boxer shorts working off his hangover by playing online poker for serious money. Laak wanders into the room in his boxer shorts and stuffs a two-day-old jelly doughnut into his face. He looks at the screen that shows the online game before he starts barking advice to the Magician.

"DUDE!" Laak bellows, "How can you flat CALL? Your draw is too BIG! Put his butt ALL IN and punish him!"

Naturally, the Magician starts yelling insults back at Laak as he taps out his bets on his laptop.

"At this point," Fulop writes, "Phil is wiping grape jelly off his mouth with his hands and smearing them onto his boxers, trying to ignore Antonio's insult to his poker prowess."

And there you have it, folks -- the secret life of poker giants, circa 2005.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company