Shut Up and Deal by Jesse May
Reviewed by Jason Kirk  

There aren't a lot of narratives about poker floating around in the literary world. That's actually something of a surprise; the world of poker is filled with so many interesting characters and so much conflict that it's really ripe for the right author to come around and pick it clean. Perhaps that's the key here - a good poker novel requires the right author. Anyone who wants to read a novel about poker is most likely a player himself, and if a book purporting to "tell it like it is" gets something wrong, any real player will toss it aside in the blink of an eye. A realistic poker narrative requires an author who's been there.

Enter Jesse May, American poker player and writer, whose novel Shut Up and Deal tells it like it is - and then some. It's completely obvious from the outset that May is the real deal. From the moment his narrator Mickey Dane started talking I slipped away from the world around me, suddenly transported to the Taj Mahal poker room. If May were unconvincing - if I believed for one second he hadn't been in the middle of the beginning of the early 1990s poker boom - I would have merely been reading words on a page. Possibly they might be entertaining words, a nice diversion in the middle of the day, but they wouldn't be real. That's not a concern with Shut Up and Deal. The scent of high-stakes poker coats May's words, sticking to them the way cigarette smoke stuck to your clothes in the days before so many poker rooms banned smoking.

In some ways Mickey Dane, the narrator, might resemble other people you've met through poker. He's been gambling since long before he was legal but came to the conclusion that poker was the only way to come out ahead in the long run. He puts on an act to convince the other players that he's a "live one," the one mark in the game that keeps the game going. And like a lot of players, he started off with a bankroll much too small for the game he was playing but went on a rush and has never looked back.

In other ways, though, Mickey isn't like the players you've met. He's traveled all over the world playing the game since he went pro, playing in Vienna and Amsterdam, Vegas and Atlantic City, Indian casinos and government casinos; anywhere there's a game, he's been ready to play. He's carried upwards of $30,000 on him walking into the Taj Mahal, in stacks bound by rubber bands, stashed in his pockets and his shoes and wherever else he can find a spot. Most of all, he's different because he's played 150-300 mixed games with the world's best and held his own, all while decked out in the most garish outfits the Blackhorse Pike Salvation Army can provide.

The life Mickey lives isn't like yours, either. The poker room is a world apart, a climate-controlled virtual reality with no time, no real money, and no real friendship. Everyone is friendly enough on the surface but they're all out to get each other. There's Bart Stone, a top-limit player with a death-rattle rasp of a voice who is as cutthroat an angle-shooter as you'll find, a man Mickey labels "evil incarnate." Then there's John Smiley, a completely innocent looking man from Ohio who's one of the most skilled players Mickey has ever seen, a man who runs well in games despite the fact that he's almost always twisted on cocaine or pot. Or consider "Uptown" Raoul Abdul, always decked out in a Taj Mahal tracksuit, borrowing money from anyone he can find to feed his gambling jones and stiffing his backers if he thinks he can get away with it. Mickey weaves his way between these characters, crossing paths and becoming intertwined and unraveling himself again, with a breezy attitude that's admirable at the best of times and crazy at the worst.

When it comes down to it, the reason Mickey survives is his attitude. "The trick to poker is mastering the luck," he says. "That's philosophy. Understanding luck is philosophy, and there are some people who aren't ever going to fade it. That's what sets poker apart." He understands the luck, the swings in the game, the way that poker works - and any reader who's paying close enough attention will learn these lessons himself. The front cover of Shut Up and Deal proclaims it to be a novel, but in reality it's a collection of poker wisdom brought to life in breathtaking detail. Anyone who plays the game with regularity - and wants to continue doing so - owes it to himself to read this book.

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