The Professor, The Banker, and the Suicide King
Reviewed by Jason Kirk  

The biggest game ever. That's a phrase sure to catch anyone's attention, one with a real ring to it. It's also the subject of Michael Craig's outstanding book, The Professor, The Banker, and The Suicide King. This quick-reading piece of nonfiction is a full-bodied account of a series of high-stakes poker games played out between 2001 and 2004, when a billionaire Texas banker took on more than a dozen of the world's best professional players and shook up the best by playing them at the highest stakes the world has ever seen. It's an engrossing read from start to finish, filled with plenty of rich characters, mental warfare, and the drama of high-stakes poker.

The central character in the story is the banker of the book's title, Andy Beal. Several decades ago Beal had been a successful card counter - and therefore banned by most of the Las Vegas casinos. It wasn't until later in life that he began playing poker recreationally while visiting Las Vegas. He began playing at modest stakes but quickly grew bored - not at all difficult to understand for a man whose company regularly pulled down tens of millions of dollars in profit every year. Beal moved up to $400-800 games, then to $1,000-2,000, and then to what would become the biggest stakes in the world. It wasn't long before he was matching wits with some of the biggest names in poker.

Chief among those names was Doyle Brunson, who became the de facto leader of a group of regulars at the Bellagio's biggest game that took Beal on. Beal originally sat at that game but discovered a dislike for the full ring game and wanted to play heads-up limit hold'em. Brunson, the living legend, came up with the perfect solution: the game's regulars would pool their resources and take the billionaire on one at a time. Brunson did the negotiating for the original group of players, including Chip Reese, Ted Forrest, Jennifer Harman, Chau Giang, John Hennigan, Howard Lederer, and Todd Brunson. As the group grew on subsequent visits to Las Vegas by Beal, taking on other players such as Barry Greenstein and Johnny Chan, Brunson continued to be the unofficial leader. The negotiating dance between Beal and Brunson illustrates perfectly the balance between giving and getting action described by Texas Dolly in the original Super System.

The Professor, The Banker and the Suicide King is a fascinating read thanks in large part to its rich characterization of the world's top professional poker players. Craig's access to the major players in the big game while writing has allowed him to go a long way toward crafting complete images of players such as Jennifer Harman, Ted Forrest, Doyle Brunson, Todd Brunson, Barry Greenstein, and Howard Lederer. It's also allowed him to paint a compelling picture of the way in which the group dynamic affected the world's best of a profession known for attracting rebellious individualists. Knowing that Jennifer Harman and Todd Brunson were uncomfortable losing other people's money, or that Barry Greenstein thought it fair to give the billionaire almost any concession he wanted in order to keep the game going, rounds them out and makes them real people rather than poker celebrities. It's hard not to come away from the book feeling like you know these people personally.

The most fascinating part of the book is the dogged determination in devising ways to beat the world's best shown by an enthusiastic amateur poker player . While he was negotiating with a living legend and taking him on at the poker table, Andy Beal continued to work on ways of eliminating the edge the professionals had on him. He practiced constantly with a bank employee to gain experience playing heads-up limit hold'em. He randomized raise-or-fold decisions using a stopwatch. He even built a device designed to make him hard to read by helping him take exactly the same amount of time to act on every decision. Whatever his mind could come up with to help even the playing field, Beal employed it in his quest to win at the largest stakes in the world.

Without a doubt, the story of Andy Beal and the biggest stakes the world has ever seen ranks as one of the most compelling in the history of poker, keeping company with the legendary match between Nick "The Greek" Dandalos and Johnny Moss. It reads quickly without sacrificing necessary details, and will entertain even readers who don't know a lot about the game of poker. For anyone interested in the history of poker, it is an absolute must-read.

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