BIG DEAL

A Year as a Professional Poker Player

By Anthony Holden

Viking. 306 pp. $19.95

In the summer of 1988 Anthony Holden, a British journalist best known for popular biographies of Prince Charles and Sir Laurence Olivier, sat down with the woman in his life and took a clinical look at the household exchequer. "For two years I had managed to pay my share of the rent out of poker winnings," Holden writes, but their hopes of purchasing a house were being frustrated at every turn. They needed more money, and it wasn't coming in. Why not, Holden wondered, try to earn it in a different way: Why not "set out on the road, for an experimental year, as a professional poker player"?

That is just what he did, and "Big Deal" is the result. More likely it is a principal cause as well, since Holden by his own account is a skillful player of the publishing game and no doubt set off on his year of risk not merely with the $20,000 cushion he describes but with a publisher's advance as extra padding. But that is neither here nor there, since the heart of the story -- literary British fellow jumps feet first into the rough world of Las Vegas poker -- is what really matters.

It is an entertaining tale, made all the more so by Holden's smooth prose and gift for self-deprecation, and a cautionary one as well. Holden did what many of us yearn to do but most of us simply cannot: He cast himself out of the drudgery to which fate had consigned him and pursued his "impossible dream," culminating in an appearance at the World Series of Poker, played at Binion's Horseshoe Casino on Vegas's Glitter Gulch, "where the real gamblers go."

From amateur poker player to professional is as great a leap as that from journalist to card shark. For amateurs the game is fun, for professionals it is business:

"Though their inhabitants have much in common, the modern game of poker thus encompasses two very different worlds, with sharply different attitudes toward the game, and wholly different styles of play. It can be either a relaxed social activity, an escape from the mundane routines of the workaday world, or a way of making a living. The jump from one to the other -- the leap of faith I was about to make -- looked wider and more frightening than anything ever attempted by Evel Knievel. One week, poker is an escape from work; the next, it is work."

Until he made this leap, Holden had done most of his playing in the company of the Tuesday Night Game's habitues, these being "media folk like myself, gathered together by an unlikely pair of media critics"; the level of poker played was reasonably high but distinctly amateur and purely for fun, while what Holden was now about to get into was poker of a wholly different order -- the same game, but played in another universe. "I was an amateur masquerading as a pro," Holden writes, "and {my} inexperience would show sooner or later."

This is as it should be. The notion of Tony Holden riding in from across the Atlantic and wresting the world title away from Johnny Chan is hugely appealing, but the stuff of fiction rather than fact; if "Big Deal" is to be read as a cautionary tale, perhaps its main moral is that impossible dreams are just that. Yet even though Holden's successes were decidedly limited -- he won no titles and "my precise net profit as a professional poker player came to $12,399" -- he did manage to end in the black and he walked away with the material for an agreeable, informative book.

Some of the information he imparts will be of interest to few save other poker players, but then it's worth noting that the game is played by far more millions than those who read any of the books on the bestseller lists; the various mathematical calculations Holden indulges in surely will fascinate these readers, just as they befuddle those of us on the outside. But his depictions of the world of big-time poker are of as much general interest as any inside view of an exotic world normally unknown beyond its boundaries; like other writers who have ventured into the unfamiliar, Holden has returned with a map of the place.

Its capital clearly is Las Vegas, which Holden describes with brio and affection, but it also includes such lesser spots as Morocco and Louisiana and California, not to mention the gambling clubs of Mayfair, in London. It includes a grand cast of memorable characters, most notable among them Amarillo Slim and Johnny Moss, "the Grand Old Man of poker himself." They are engaging people, and "Big Deal" is the next best thing to being next to them at the poker table; it's also a lot easier on the wallet.