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"My brother's a poker player, but he isn't a gambler, not really. That's no thanks to Grandpa Sam. When we were little, Sam gave us a comprehensive education in blackjack, which he called pontoon. Here was the lesson: he was always the dealer and we always lost". From such beginnings, Victoria Coren has ended up doing rather well out of cards. She has learnt to play well enough to join a professional poker team and collect career winnings of $1.5 million, and has become the first female European champion at the game; this book is the story of those wins and how she got there from being a shy, awkward and unhappy schoolgirl losing to her grandfather at blackjack. (Incidentally, my granddad also taught me to play pontoon when I was little, but lacking a slightly disreputable older sibling to later teach me the rules of poker, I have not become a millionaire player. Or a millionaire anything for that matter. Indeed, the only card game I play these days is the odd game of freecell or solitaire on my laptop when I am supposed to be doing other things. Like writing book reviews.)
While Coren is also a writer and broadcaster in a range of other areas apart from poker, prior to reading this book I'll confess that I had only heard of her previously from watching the rather pleasantly genteel show "Balderdash & Piffle" about the history of words and their incorporation into the Oxford English Dictionary, which she presented for two series a few years ago. She came across as being a bit posh and awfully nice; having bumped into her once at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, this impression was reinforced (I don't normally name drop in reviews you understand, but she started it; still, I guess "met author randomly once at book festival" is a good deal less impressive than "played poker with Martin Amis", but there you go). It therefore came as quite a surprise to learn that when she wasn't presenting educational TV shows that she was a serious poker player, a game that still has an air of danger and disrepute about it for all the current, almost mainstream, popularity of the game. I was intrigued, and the chance to read about this unexpected other side to my favourite presenter of etymological TV shows proved irresistible.
For Richer, For Poorer is Coren's memoir about her twenty year obsession with playing poker, from first discovering cards as a means to avoid the dullness of school homework, through joining in her older brother's (The Times' Giles Coren) poker games, to her tentative first steps playing in a casino for money and culminating in her biggest victory to date, winning the 2006 European Poker Tour tournament in London for a cool £500,000 (and a trophy nearly as big as her). Incidentally, none of this is spoiler; as the reader, you know from the outset that this is the trajectory the book is going to follow. The interesting thing is how she gets from uncool schoolgirl to wealthy poker star in 330 pages. We are treated to stories of fake ID, sneaking out to casinos to play in card rooms when they were still smoky, backroom places, and making friends with the slightly dodgy players who haunted such venues. We are taken to London, Monte Carlo, Las Vegas and Luton as we meet a fascinating range of colourful characters and places as she gradually gets better and more successful at the game she has come to love.
For Richer, For Poorer is organised into thematic chapters, and at the end of each is a short section focussing on her winning plays from poker tour final that gave her the European title. Let me make this quite clear: I know nothing about poker. I have never played poker. I am not even interested in playing poker. So surely this book would hold no interest for me? Not so. Poker players would doubtless enjoy reading every aspect (I'm sure the hand details and strategy used are exciting if you have the technical knowledge to appreciate them), but non-poker players like me can easily brush over these technical sections and simply enjoy the rest of the book as a fascinating journey through a world that most of us never even knew existed. The language used is witty and amusing, and breathtaking honest in places; it shows us the downs, the losses, the debt and despair as much as it shows the best of the game. This is written by someone who cheerfully admits to being a gambler, and anybody who has ever known a gambler will recognise the hallmarks in the passages when she returns sobbing and broke to her flat: "Why did I do that? I won't do it again. Never, ever. Oh, OK, just this once more . . ." But for all the darkness in the book, it succeeds because it is well written enough to make someone with no knowledge or interest in her passion enjoy her experiences with it. That you haven't got the first clue about the particular activity is irrelevant, as a good writer can make you appreciate the story it tells nonetheless. And Coren is certainly a good writer.
Above all, it shows the great deal of personal satisfaction that can be gained from doing something really well - and having others appreciate that skill. Some people can get that from cooking, or being an expert gardener, or playing a musical instrument well or from sporting achievement. The only difference here is that it involves gambling. And it made the author exceedingly rich in the process. It makes me wonder what my awkward schoolgirl self would have done if she had have discovered poker instead of academia. Ah, let's face it, I would still have ended up getting myself pointlessly overeducated...or I would have got myself pointlessly overeducated and lost a lot of money playing poker. I wasn't made to be a poker player - but it was awfully good fun reading about someone who was.
=== Book Details ===
For Richer, For Poorer: Confessions of a Player by Victoria Coren
Canongate, ppk 2011, 345pp
=== With thanks to Canongate Publishing for providing me with a review copy of For Richer, For Poorer ===
=== Originally posted on curiousbookfans.co.uk ===
When Victoria Coren became the first women to win an EPT event back in 2008 her life changed forever. For Richer, For Poorer is an insight and a journey into what got Coren there in the first place.
Split fairly evenly between poker tales and intense personal memories provides a balance for people wanting to read an autobiography and those interested in Vicky's poker history. Vivid descriptions of the 'Vic' Casino, the start of her poker career and the failed relationships and gambles make this compulsive reading.
She is brutally honest at times, and that combined with a silky narrative takes the reader from the humble beginnings of feeling like a spare part in her brother's home poker game, to winning the EPT event with little effort. Some of the tales are a little grim, but Coren's comic timing and realisation of how she fits into her own world is refreshing and a pleasure to read.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, even if you only have a little interest in poker, and by little, that you've ever seen a playing card.