been enjoying Des Wilson's new book Ghosts at the Table: The Amazing Story of
Poker, published last week. This remarkable fellow has had a life of amazing
achievement: he launched the charity Shelter, ran Friends of the Earth and
wrote a column for the Observer, before working for the England and Wales
Cricket Board and becoming president of the Liberal party. This is a man with
an ambitious, eclectic and brilliant mind. So it is a sign of poker's uniquely
mesmeric power that, since discovering the game a few years ago, Des has been
interested in almost nothing else. Welcome to the Hotel California, Mr Wilson!
Ghosts is Wilson's second work on poker,
and deals with the romantic history of the game: the Wild West, the riverboat
gamblers, the gun-filled saloons. When I started playing in 1990, these ghosts
still hovered close to the table. They were a thing of the past, sure, but we
were certainly buying into that old romance. Modern poker is so dominated by
the internet, television and the Scandinavian army, it feels like a completely
parallel game; I wonder if the 18-year-old "professional players" of today have
ever even heard those ancient legends. Or are they just thinking about maths
Certainly, the time is ripe for a nostalgic history. Only
one chapter in, I am delighted to find myself in the snowy streets of Deadwood,
South Dakota, where Wild Bill Hickok died. Wilson is seeking to discover the
kicker in the notorious "dead man's hand" of aces and eights with a wonderful
obsessiveness, given its irrelevance. It reminds me of last year's tabloid
story about the footballer who lost £100,000 on a single poker hand.
While the nation was asking, "Who was the footballer?", poker players asked
only, "What was the hand?"