Book Review: “Cards,” by Jonathan Maxwell

by Lou on November 21, 2005

Last week I bought about seven new books from the Gambler’s Book Store, and a few more arrived unsolicited in my post office box courtesy of various publishers and publicists. I’ve been reading them as I find time, and will review some of them here during the next few weeks.

Cards, by Jonathan Maxwell, a novel that arrived from the publisher, Silent Lyrics Productions, is a disturbing book on a number of levels. There are some things I liked about it and others I did not.

Cards is a compelling read from the perspective of getting the color and flavor of low limit poker absolutely correct. Paradise Haven, the thinly disguised casino that serves as a stand in for Hollywood Park is accurately depicted too. But a lot of the book is problematical. Aside from its one-note, tone-poem depiction of poker as Charles Bukowski might have written about it if he was into poker instead of horseracing, there are problems throughout the book.

There isn’t much in the way of plot, resolution, character development, or story continuity and the book’s 280-plus pages could have been tightened up significantly if many of the unnecessary hand descriptions were omitted. Like too many other poker novels, it’s longer on color than character development and plot.

Mike Jameson, the main character, is nearly broke, borrowing from friends to keep himself in the game when he gets a bit ahead and visits an old friend in who’s living in France. In Paris, he builds up his bankroll even more. Then he splits for Vegas, increases his bankroll to $30,000 and harbors dreams about winning the World Series of Poker. But he blows his money to a bunch of fish who really can’t play big-bet poker worth a damn and don’t realize how lucky they were when their long shot draws bust our hero.

A letter from the publisher that accompanied the book said, “…we would like to inform you that there exist about 30 grammatical typos in the 284 pages. These will be corrected in the next printing.” This kind of admission might not bother some readers but when one is an unrepentant language junky, it’s upsetting when the writer and editors apparently don’t know the difference between a playing “stake” and a playing “steak.” Errors like that are more than “grammatical typos;” they are issues of basic literacy.

There was precious little fact-checking too, as many names are misspelled. I’d like to think that anyone writing a novel would have a better job with grammar, syntax, fact-checking, and editing.

The physical production is equally lacking. Not enough white space exists at the book’s margins, giving it a dense, difficult-to-read feeling. The book’s protagonist is not really likable, and tough to empathize with. He personifies himself as a professional poker player, yet persists in raising blindly, playing hunches, and because he gets so emotionally upset it’s no surprise at all that he blows back a $30,000 win very rapidly and winds up right back where he started —albeit a bit more self-aware — walking through the side entrance of Paradise Haven Casino to scrounge up $600 to play $6-$12 Texas hold’em. Now his dreams are not about winning the WSOP, but of building his bankroll up to $6,000 — which in his view is sufficient to sit in the pot-limit games that give him the maximum edge.

Despite all the book’s negative aspects, it was a quick read and I enjoyed it. Although someone with the Jameson’s attitude and habits will never survive as a professional poker player, despite his belief that he can and will, the color and flavor of the poker alone — together with the fact that there just aren’t enough novels about poker (King of a Small World, Rounders, and Shut Up and Deal quickly come to mind, but that’s a very short list) make this a worthwhile read.

If the author, editors, and publisher are willing to rework this book, they may yet have a winner on their hand. But at this point, it’s simply a long-shot flush draw that has yet to pan out.

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