From the glamour and high stakes
of Las Vegas to the seedy subculture of illegal basement clubs in New York City, Poker Nation: A High Stakes, Low-Life
Adventure into the Heart of a Gambling Country takes its readers on a grating journey into the unique landscape
of professional poker. Author Andy Bellin shares his enduring obsession with the game of poker in honest and humorous
anecdotes that expose the “sleazier” side of the game. As a semi-pro player himself who has long had one foot planted in
the “underground” poker world, Bellin is well qualified to provide a peek into these “roads less traveled”.
Poker Nation is not a “how to” book. You will not learn poker strategy. While Bellin does sneak in a lesson about general
poker theory in the beginning, it becomes clear quickly thereafter it is only included in order to give his
non-poker-playing readers a chance to “keep up”. But even those who cannot grasp the difference between a straight and a
flush will be able to follow along easily and get caught up in Andy’s fascination of poker culture, as it is not just
about the cards – but more the characters involved.
Bellin’s writing comes across as very intelligent and yet plainspoken. He has done some excellent research in recounting
some of the most intriguing history and characters of the poker world. The chapter on Benny Binion (the “founding father”
of tournament poker as it is known today) and the World Series of Poker is particularly gripping. Bellin’s admiration for
the legacy that Binion created comes across in detailed accounts of how Benny influenced the progress of poker and
gambling in general. Another character profile that elicits intense interest is that of Stu Unger. Given their past,
these poker icons fit in well with the overall theme of a book that leans heavily toward the “shady” side of the poker
world. Andy successfully bridges their flawed pasts with their achievements in a non-judgmental way that leaves readers
to their own conclusions about morality vs. success in life.
While Bellin dutifully includes mention of many of today’s poker celebrities and champions (such as Doyle Brunson, Huck
Seed, etc.) in a variety of context throughout the book – it is the unknown, real-life characters such as “Korean Rich”,
Sal the Bookie, Dr. Liam, Dicky Horvath and Yana Andropov (among many others) who are the real protagonists of Bellin’s
narratives. These are the “players” (literally and figuratively) on Andy’s “dirty” stage of degenerate gamblers and con
artists whose stories make Poker Nation so appealing and readable.
One of Andy’s subtle accomplishments in this book is his discussion of “Probability, Statistics, and Religion”. Normally
a subject capable of being understood and/or appreciated only by the math geeks of the world, Bellin manages to teach a
great deal about the underlying theories of why casinos will always make money. He actually lures readers into “wanting”
to understand more about “probability” by starting off the discussion with “a bad beat story” that is truly one for the
ages. Because Andy relates the story clearly and with humor and follows it up with simple explanations and tables, the
“anti-academic” reader is unwittingly hooked and will realize soon after that he has learned something basic about
probability and statistics that has practical applications. Bellin had a good head start in understanding many of the
math concepts he applies in poker, as many of his college professors and mentors in this arena were also fellow poker
The focus of Poker Nation is far from understanding any math or poker strategy however. The book covers quite a range of
poker-related subjects – with most having to do with the colorful characters and skewed personalities of the hustlers,
dreamers and eccentrics who are all part of Bellin’s deviant world. It reveals the pitfalls and challenges of living the
life of the “grinder” (or “rounder”) trying to eek out a middle income living by spending countless, mind-numbing hours
seated at tables with less than hygienic hucksters and thieves. Readers are drawn into the smoke-filled backrooms of
illegal poker clubs where ministers, psychiatrists and lawyers compulsively yield to their addiction that is poker.
Also in keeping with the overall dark theme of this book is Bellin’s experience with cheating; as an observer and a
practitioner. Andy shares his knowledge and observations of some of the best-known cardsharps to ever manipulate a deck
of cards. What really impresses in these (and other) discussions is Bellin’s accurate and enlightening historical
research, which makes his stories so entertaining. One great example is the story of Jimmy Altman (a small-time gambler
from Nevada) being the only person to ever get a “dirty deck” (i.e. –of marked cards) into Bugsy Siegal’s famous poker
game at the Flamingo. This “Bellin homework” is rampant throughout Poker Nation, and a major reason the pages keep
turning. He takes readers inside the mechanics of his “team blackjack” scam (that ultimately was a losing venture) and
his guilt-ridden (yet penny-ante stakes) “cheat” of a little old lady in Vegas. Andy succeeds in getting the point across
that there are many unscrupulous practices being employed both inside and outside the safety (and security cameras) of
organized casino gambling.
Bellin’s style of writing is best exemplified in the way he begins the book. The scene is set in “the Winchester” (an
illegal poker club in New York City that is Andy’s home away from home). He introduces a few characters and plays a few
hands. Readers immediately get “a feel” that they are not in Kansas anymore. This is not Bellagio, Foxwoods, or the Taj
Mahal. In comes Joey Millman (a great player), and the set up for a climactic hand of no limit hold’em poker that will
determine the fate of Andy’s entire bankroll begins. At the end of this first chapter, and after delving into the
characters and situation at hand, Millman makes a bet that puts Bellin’s entire stack of chips (over $2,000) at risk.
Andy ends that first chapter with: “I push all my chips into the center of the table. ‘I call’. Joey smiles.” The reader
is left to wonder what that smile means, and reluctantly must continue the book without ever knowing for sure. 225 pages
later, Bellin revisits the scene and reveals the end of the story.
Poker Nation is a very entertaining and real-life account of a lasting preoccupation that not many weekend or online
players will ever encounter in the same way as Andy Bellin. Part memoir and part exposé, it takes a frank and funny look
at the “other side” of poker.
Buy Poker Nation