What's at Stake
at washingtonpost.com and plays a lot of poker.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
HATS & EYEGLASSES
A Family Love Affair With Gambling
By Martha Frankel
Tarcher/Penguin. 226 pp. $23.95
WINNER TAKES ALL
Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas
By Christina Binkley
Hyperion. 304 pp. $25.95
Two classes of people generally are forgotten amid the plethora of televised poker shows and their ubiquitous professionals: the anonymous millions who almost always lose, and the handful of casino owners who never do, making fortunes separating the masses from their money. When the border between recreation and addiction is porous, there are men waiting to exploit it.
Martha Frankel may not be a prototypical member of the faceless players who flood casinos, card rooms and online gambling sites, but her memoir, "Hats & Eyeglasses," is at once funny, disturbing and likely familiar to many who have lived in the grip of obsession. Growing up in a Jewish family in the Bronx and Queens, Frankel was first drawn to the mystery and masculinity of poker as she watched her father's weekly low-stakes game with an ensemble of neighborhood characters. (Her mother would wipe the floor with all of them on the rare occasions she chose to play.)
Though poker was part of the familial landscape, Frankel's urge to play hit later in life, after she was married and establishing her career interviewing celebrities for magazines. She browbeat a friend to join his weekly, all-guy game, where she began to master the finer points of strategy and to deploy her powers of observation, gift for banter and feminine wiles to serious advantage. With a twinkle-in-her-eye, devil-in-your-ear personality, she possessed poker's rarest advantage: No one minded losing to her very much.
Soon she was spending whole days on her couch dealing out practice hands to learn every possible situation. She turned down work assignments worth thousands of dollars, if they meant missing the weekly game, where she might have made $85 on a good night. "There's something about winning against those guys that makes me feel really accomplished," she writes, and in this nearly throwaway line Frankel isolates poker's special narcotic: Because the game involves far more skill and guile than chance, the intellectual conquest is more intoxicating than the money.
Frankel soon expanded her game to out-of-the-way card rooms, casinos and eventually the seductive convenience of online play, which nearly destroyed her. Her natural talents -- being able to read other players and to fool them with her charm -- are meaningless on a computer. The resulting downward spiral -- financial loss, emotional withdrawal and lying to friends and family -- will ring true for anyone dealing with addiction, though her eventual recovery seems a bit easy in the telling.
Still, to read "Hats & Eyeglasses" is to want to get to know Frankel, to hear her tell even more rollicking tales than the book reveals, and especially to play poker with her. For low stakes, of course.
When the masses gamble, someone else hits it big. But unlike the gangsters who defined the first modern era of Las Vegas in the 1950s and '60s, the moguls behind today's mecca of excess operate in relative obscurity. In "Winner Takes All," veteran Wall Street Journal reporter Christina Binkley chronicles how Steve Wynn and Kirk Kerkorian led the charge to blow up Vegas (literally) to save it. Aging hotels were replaced by outlandish towers of alternate reality, evoking Egypt, Paris, New York and Venice. Cirque du Soleil became a fixture, top chefs and high-end retailers were brought in, and Vegas boomed once again. "By 1991, every Las Vegas casino needed to be slathered with a theme -- heavy on the schmaltz, hold the irony," Binkley writes.
But it is Gary Loveman, the least known and latest on the scene, who is the real revolutionary in Binkley's important and detailed account. For all of Kerkorian's financial derring-do and Wynn's mad design visions (even as he is slowly going blind), they compete for a similar group of high-roller customers seeking ever-escalating luxury. An economist by training, Loveman found gold in the rest of us and transformed the industry.
Loveman, who ultimately took over the Harrah's chain, shunned Vegas at first, concentrating instead on the boom in riverboat casinos around the country. These were his laboratories for pioneering sophisticated research and marketing techniques to separate more gamblers from more of their money. For instance, Harrah's gamblers must now register before they can play. They then receive "loyalty" cards that are required to buy chips or slot-machine tokens, helping the casino track their every move. Not doing well at the slots? The casino knows, and soon sends someone to make you feel better with a voucher for a free meal or another perk. Now you'll stay longer, and probably lose more.
Once you're home, lots of mail will arrive enticing you back, with free hotel rooms or whatever Harrah's experts have determined you'll want. Binkley vividly conveys the repulsiveness of the scene, but as with train wrecks, you just can't stop looking. Or reading.