Stacking the Deck

Reviewed by Blake Eskin
Sunday, October 30, 2005

Since Edmond Hoyle published A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist in 1742, most books about card games have explained either how to play (these are known as Hoyles) or how to improve your chances of winning. Some focus on the strategy of one game, like Omar Sharif on bridge. Others teach suspect techniques that can be applied to many games -- like dealing off the bottom of the deck. The following four books give advice on or narrative examples of how some players get the upper hand, but none of them plays it strictly according to Hoyle.

All's Fair

Penn Jillette and Mickey D. Lynn's How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard (St. Martin's, $19.95) may not be of much practical use. It is not a textbook of sleight-of-hand; for that, the authors recommend S.W. Erdnase's The Expert at the Card Table . And while How to Cheat offers 10 ways "to make your home poker game cheat proof," it devotes more space to explaining how these safeguards can be circumvented.

Mostly, it's an extended monologue by a man with amazing social dexterity. Dickie Richard (we're told it's an alias, but with Jillette being an illusionist -- of Penn & Teller fame -- you never know) has spent 30 years seeking out strangers at country clubs, talking his way into their finished basements and relieving them of their money. He's arrogant, foul-mouthed and very good company. "Good people don't play poker," Dickie says. "The object of poker is to win, and lying and gaining unfair advantage is part of the game." Poker players notice other people's "tells," catch a glimpse of their cards, "forget" to ante up. From there, isn't it a short step to marking cards, stacking decks, palming chips -- or, if all else fails, taking off with the cashbox?

"In poker," Dickie says, "anything you can get away with is fair." Even Dickie can't get away with cheating the same friends forever, but, as he points out, it's a big country. His boastful anecdotes build to one whopper about a high-stakes game hosted by a New Hampshire judge, a blown $25-million payday, a prostitute who gives Dickie a discount and a venereal disease passed along in revenge. This yarn is the gambling version of the one about the big fish that got away -- and it's so over the top that you stop and wonder whether the authors have been bluffing all along.

The Man Who Would Be King

It's natural to have qualms about cheating your friends, but nobody feels pity for a casino. With Busting Vega$: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought the Casinos to Their Knees (Morrow, $24.95), Ben Mezrich tries to hit the jackpot again after writing Burning Down the House , his 2002 bestseller about a successful syndicate of collegiate card-counters. The whiz kid in Busting Vega$ is Semyon Dukach, who left Moscow with his family when he was 9, got beat up a lot in American schools and grew up with fewer privileges than most of his classmates. Beyond card-counting, he has gained further advantage by peeking at the bottom of the deck when the dealer shuffles and, depending on the card, either trying to draw it or to force it on the dealer. Dukach, Mezrich writes, didn't consider this cheating: "He was simply using the information in front of him to beat the game."

Dukach posed as a Russian arms dealer, a European pop star and a Midwestern dentist, dodging casino blacklists on his way to becoming "the most notorious high roller in Sin City, perhaps even the world." The superlatives grow exhausting, though, and despite the sensational title, no casino came close to shutting down after one of Dukach's winning streaks. Before telling real-life gambling stories, Mezrich wrote thrillers, and Busting Vega$ has the feel of genre fiction: breathless narration, italicized sentence fragments, cliffhanger chapter endings. Dialogue that Mezrich could not have witnessed is improbably snappy, and the story has the almost-too-perfect contours of a screenplay. Most frustrating, Mezrich warns readers that he's disguised some identities but doesn't say which. The only main character to show up in a Google search is Dukach, whose latest gamble is a speed-dating business.

Do You Believe in Magic?

As its subtitle suggests, David Kushner's Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids: How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas (Random House, $24.95) follows the Mezrich blueprint. In this more appealing and solidly reported variation, our hero's path to money, power, freedom and sex passes not through MIT's Infinite Corridor but through fantasy-gaming shops such as Neutral Ground and the Outer Realms, where unkempt teens play "Magic: The Gathering." Created by mathematician Richard Garfield, "Magic" is a two-handed contest in which players do battle using decks they assemble from an ever-expanding pool of special cards. Between its strategic complexity and players' insatiable appetite for cards, which are sold in small sealed packages like baseball cards, "Magic" became known among fans as "cardboard crack."

Jon Finkel, a precocious, obese misfit from New Jersey, discovered "Magic" shortly after its debut in 1993. At his first big-money tournament, Finkel threw a tantrum after being disqualified on a technicality, but over the next two years he earned $85,000 and the admiration of everyone from jocks to geeks to "Magic" parents, who "viewed him as the ultimate nice guy." Finkel's success at "Magic" -- the confidence but also the money -- enabled him to undergo a complete makeover; he started dressing better, losing weight, driving a nicer car.

The complexity of "Magic" poses a challenge for Kushner. The rules of the game remain fuzzy to the uninitiated (though to be fair, the official rulebook is even more opaque), and the gaming scenes -- full of sentences like, "With his life score near zero from Budde's Nantuko Husk, Finkel untapped his Slipstream Eel" -- don't convey much drama. For Finkel, however, the complexity of "Magic" -- which required him to cultivate a quick mind, a healthy ego and an even temper -- was great training for simpler and more lucrative games. As he was winning national and international "Magic" titles, he immersed himself in Texas Hold 'Em and joined a blackjack card-counting syndicate. Today, he is a professional sports gambler, and the "World Series of Poker" has become "something like a class reunion for the Magic kids -- dozens of whom were now making a living playing poker."

Talking Across the Table

Poker's hold on the national imagination faces no immediate threat from bid whist, a trick-taking partnership game akin to bridge. But this descendant of Hoyle's whist, which developed around the time of the Civil War and was spread by Pullman porters, remains a popular pastime among black college students and professionals -- "as effective for networking and deal making as golf," Greg Morrison and Yanick Rice Lamb write in Rise and Fly: Tall Tales and Mostly True Rules of Bid Whist (Three Rivers; paperback, $12). Bid whist crops up at the annual conference of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson played with Time magazine columnist Jack White in Damascus in 1983 while negotiating for the release of Navy pilot Robert Goodman.

In some families, the authors write, one's first hand of bid whist with the grownups is "one of those key rites of passage, akin to graduating from the children's table at Thanksgiving or getting keys to the family car." These readers won't learn much from Rise and Fly . For everyone else, this slight yet heavily padded volume will serve as a surrogate aunt or uncle, presenting the rules of play, from how to bid (a hand can either be played "uptown," where the aces and face cards are most powerful, or "downtown," where twos and threes are high cards) to how to behave at the table: "Bid whist is a friendly game but not a polite one. You're supposed to talk trash, sell wolf tickets, play the dozens, blaze 'em, kill 'em, diss 'em." But please don't cheat your friends.

Blake Eskin is the author of "A Life in Pieces" and the editor of

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