Book review: The Hand I Played

I originally reviewed this for the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly. Written three years before Positively Fifth Street, this book pioneered the literary take on the World Series of Poker genre.

David Spanier. The Hand I Played: A Poker Memoir. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2001. 240 pages, with appendix.

There is no shortage of books about playing poker. There are biographies of famous players, how-to books designed to improve a player’s skill ( about 400 in UNLV’s library holdings, and probably just as many extant and uncollected), and even poker dictionaries (no less than three in the UNLV Gaming Studies Collection). So on one level, it’s easy to say that the last thing the world needs is another poker book. But Spanier’s book both transcends genre, making poker stories interesting for those who don’t play, and redefines what’s already been written about poker by helping the reader see the mountains of poker books in a new light. As such, it is a book that everyone who studies gambling-or who wants to understand why people gamble-should read.

The book’s subtitle is particularly apt, as the reader is treated to an autobiographical account of Spanier’s lifelong passion for gambling, beginning with betting on horses in his early school years and, later, Cambridge, where he first discovered poker. His description of the London poker scene of the 1960s is particularly vivid, as are his tales of the games at Washington’s National Press Club, and his ten-year participation in a London “Tuesday Night Game.” And his account of a Caribbean poker cruise, on which he was a poker instructor, is a gem of a snapshot of the rituals and mores of the poker subculture.

Spanier’s career as a journalist brought him around the world, and he recounts many of his experiences, both as a correspondent and as a player. This along makes The Hand I Played an interesting book. But Spanier is also able to make the mind of the gambler intelligible to the non-gambler. For example, when talking about the meaning of “action” on page 51, Spanier notes that it means, “playing with chance, taking a challenge, the excitement of living in top gear. In gambling, this is the pay-off. In our routine urban lives, most of us are cogs in the wheel…. Gambling offers a fast way out…the player can give self-indulgence a whirl, briefly cast responsibility aside, and fantasize about a brighter, richer, easier life.” Of course, Spanier knows that these fantasies are usually illusory, but they still give gamblers, ” a little spoonful of hope, which, like honey, is pleasing while it lasts.” This general sentiment has been voiced countless times, but rarely this articulately-or with such self-knowledge.

The chapter on “Net Poker” is also valuable, not because it teaches the reader how to win at online poker or because it offers strong arguments for or against online gambling, but because it provides an account of the online poker industry in its earliest years from someone who knows poker intimately. Online gambling may be a short-lived phenomenon or it may mature into a lasting industry, but future social scientists will be grateful for Spanier’s thoughtful survey of the virtual poker world of the late 1990s.

Spanier also runs a quick historiographical romp through books on Las Vegas and gambling, giving his opinions on several books in the canon. Spanier’s refined literary sensibilities temper his enthusiasm for gambling, so he is able to recognize that “it is easy to write about Las Vegas, as an abundance of bad journalism proves,” (p. 209) but knows that it is difficult to catch the lightning of gambling excitement in a bottle. That Spanier is an arbiter of good and bad writings about Las Vegas may touch a nerve with some Southern Nevadans who resent literary “carpetbaggers” who, after a weekend in town, claim to interpret Las Vegas to the rest of the world. This is not a point without merit; many of the misleading books about Las Vegas have been by “outsiders.” But Spanier is no outsider to gambling; he enjoyed a lifelong passion for it that qualifies him as an expert on the subject. But should his writings about Las Vegas be discounted because he is a “carpetbagger?” Absolutely not. While his views may not be the same as longtime residents, they are those of an intelligent, articulate observer who can place the city in the context of a larger global gambling scene.

The climax of the book is Spanier’s own participation in the 1997 poker World Championship, held at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas. For poker aficionados, this is the obvious equivalent of playing in any world championship. Though Spanier knew going in that he had about as much chance of winning as beating Tiger Woods in golf, the honey spoonful of hope still held out that tiniest chance, which was no doubt intoxicating. There are several accounts of the World Championship, but few from this close-up.

In sum, The Hand I Played reads like an extended conversation one might have on a long car or plane ride with an intelligent, insightful, gambler. A great deal of Spanier’s personality shines through the narrative, so we get not only a look at how poker is played, but a look, sometimes unconsciously, into the mind of a player. This is all the more poignant because the book was published posthumously. But it is a testament to both Spanier and his editors that The Hand I Played is such a riveting work for both players and interested laypeople. A hint to the uninitiated-first read the appendix, which explains the basics of Texas Hold ’em, before the book itself. It will add a great deal of depth to Spanier’s accounts of games and hands, which otherwise may be impenetrable to non-players. Whether a veteran of marathon poker sessions or someone who simply doesn’t understand the appeal of the game, The Hand I Played will undoubtedly change the way the reader thinks about gambling, chance, and poker.

Originally reviewed February 2002