“Fading Hearts on the River: A Life in High-Stakes Poker” Review

[LL] “Almost every parent brags about their children,” Leroy the Lion noted, “but Brooks Haxton deserves the ‘2014 Parental Brag of the Year’ award for writing Fading Hearts on the River: A Life in High-Stakes Poker, a 288-page homage to his son, Isaac Haxton.”

[RR] “Very few of us will be remembered for our accomplishments after we’re dead, but out children give us a sort of immortality”, Roderick the Rock contended.

[LL] “The elder Haxton covers everything from his son’s precocious infancy — 2-year-old Isaac once explained, ‘That was gas, muffled by my diaper’1 — to his college days at Brown University to his meteoric rise as a poker player, with the largest part of the book devoted to his deep run in the 2007 PCA Paradise Island $8,000 buyin Championship Event.”

[RR] “When was this book written?”

[LL] “2014. Although Brooks could have written most of it in 2007 or 2008, he was belatedly inspired by his soon-to-be empty nest status.

A writer by trade, he is technically proficient at his craft but is not an entertaining storyteller,2 preferring to impress with his erudite knowledge. On the plus side, he understands how to play poker very well and provides detailed explanations of tournament hands and thorough descriptions of hand ranges and game theory as it applies to poker.

Isaac’s family isn’t dysfunctional like so many other poker players’ seem to be (e.g., Annie Duke’s and Howard Lederer’s), and while all the major poker opponents are unrelated males, the other main characters in Fading Hearts are all family and female: Isaac’s mom Francie, his twin 13-year-old sisters Miriam and Lillie, and his significant other, Zoe Weingart3

While his main opponent, Ryan Daut has faded into obscurity (adding just 20% to his lifetime tournament earnings since this, his first documented cash), Isaac Haxton has sustained his high-level success, recently winning the Aria $300,000 Super High Roller Bowl on December 19, 2018 for a career-best $3,672,000, which pushed him over $23 million in career tournament winnings.4 His career has survived the test of time better than this biography has.”

Title Fading Hearts on the River: A Life in High-Stakes Poker
Author Brooks Haxton (father of Isaac Haxton)
Year 2014
Skill Level any
Pros Chronicles the rise of a young poker star, mixing his life story with details of his breakout tournament.
Cons An unusual biography written by the player’s father and not the player himself. Significant amounts of non-poker content.
Rating 2.5

Footnotes:

  1. Page 53. He was able to solve 24-like math puzzles at age 4 and play chess games in his head at age 5.
  2. Brooks Haxton’s writing style contrasts markedly from Colson Whitehead’s. Like Whitehead, the younger Haxton never got his driver’s license either.
  3. The book’s subtitle is a major spoiler: “How my Son Cheats Death, Wins Millions, & Marries His College Sweetheart”.
  4. As of this writing (February 2019), Isaac Haxton ranks #13 all-time in tournament winnings.
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“The Noble Hustle” Review

Colson Whitehead is one of a number of authors who have been fortunate enough to have his publisher pay him1 to write about playing in the World Series of Main Event. But he’s the only Pulitzer Prize winner2 in the group, making The Noble Hustle3 a delightful read. Unfortunately, he isn’t a very good poker player, regularly joining other writers only in very low-stakes dealer’s choice home games and completely lacking in tournament experience.

More than a decade into the poker boom and a month after Black Friday has effectively killed internet poker in the U.S., Whitehead still lays out the basics of Texas Hold ‘Em and explains how tournaments work, but at least he does so more entertainingly than anyone else has. A driver’s license-less native of the Big Apple, he takes the bus to Atlantic City, accepts his complimentary chips and tangles with denizens of the $1/$2 Hold ‘Em tables. This is a step up from his usual game but still far from where he’s going.

Despite hiring a poker coach,4 he isn’t able to learn fast enough to impress anyone with his skills or results. Fortunately, he is honest with us about this, deprecatingly describing his style as “Tight Incompetent”.5 His two strongest features are his poker face, which he wears as a self-declared member of the Republic of Anhedonia,6, and his patience. These help him book a nice win at the $1/$2 Limit Hold ‘Em table at the Tropicana and a decent cash in a $50 buyin tournament there.

But just six weeks later he’s made the massive jumps to Las Vegas, the No-Limit Main Event, and a $10,000 buyin. Despite additional advice from Matt Matros, a writer-turned-successful-poker-player, Whitehead is far from ready. His Main Event story unfolds over the last fifty pages of the book. His demise is fully expected yet still disappointing to him, the now defunct Grantland, and the reader, who is left wishing there was more for him to tell.

Title The Noble Hustle
Author Colson Whitehead
Year 2014
Skill Level any
Pros Quick, enjoyable, easy read from a great writer.
Cons Maybe too quick, despite the content being padded unchronologically by events a year after the main narrative.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. And yes, they’ve all been men so far (see the “Journals by writers” section of Books About the WSOP Main Event). That is definitely a glaring hole in the literature. Maria Konnikova certainly could have already done it had she not gotten sidetracked by learning to play poker too well (but it’s still not too late).
  2. The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer in 2017 a year after winning the National Book Award.
  3. The subtitle of the book is “Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death”. “Death refers to busting out of a poker tournament, while beef jerky is one of the preferred snacks of poker players who may not be able to get away from the table long enough for a proper meal.
  4. Helen Ellis is also a writer by trade, but she has over $100,000 in live poker tournament cashes.
  5. On page 183, Whitehead admits to folding out of turn and unintentionally putting in an insufficient raise because he confused the chips.
  6. “Anhedonia”, meaning “the inability to feel pleasure” is a real word but a fictitious location.
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“Final Table: A Winning Poker Approach from a WSOP Champion” Review

[LL] “Originally published in the same year,” Leroy the Lion segued, “Jerry Yang’s All In and Jonathan Duhamel’s Final Table: A Winning Approach From a WSOP Champion come from Main Event winners just three years apart but are extremely different types of books from very different players.

  • Duhamel grew up in a comfortable home in a Canadian suburb.1 Yang grew up dirt poor in rural Laos.
  • Duhamel learned poker as a teenager. Yang wasn’t even allowed to play chess as a kid and didn’t learn poker until he was an adult working as a psychologist.
  • Duhamel turned pro while taking a break from college and had over $100,000 in career cashes before his WSOP victory. Yang arrived at the World Series of Poker as an anonymous amateur who had never even had a five-figure cash.
  • Duhamel writes a little about his life history but primarily aims to teach high-level poker strategy while mentioning an occasional hand from his championship. Yang splits his book between his life’s journey and his poker journey, culminating with a detailed retelling of his final table.”

[RR] “Interesting. Which did you like better?”

[LL] “Apples and oranges. Didn’t learn much about poker from Yang’s book, but it was much more riveting. Didn’t hear as much about Duhamel’s championship as I would have liked, just random bits and pieces, but his book was much more educational.

He mostly teaches what you need to know, both at the table and away from it, to play high level poker. Chapters such as ‘Getting in the Zone’, ‘Discipline’, and ‘Knowing Yourself’ could really apply to any game or sport, while others such as ‘Knowing Your Numbers’, ‘Creativity’, and ‘Taking Risks’ give more specific poker advice. He actually refers to his eighteen chapters as ‘qualities’ that all top poker pros, like Allen Cunningham, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, and Phil Ivey, possess.”

[RR] “And presumably Duhamel himself.”

[LL] “Yes. He does a fairly decent job of not bragging too much, but he does make it clear that he worked hard to improve his skills. He also concedes how lucky he was to win the Main Event.”

[RR] “Not nearly as lucky as Yang, I’m sure.”

[LL] “I guess I could also mention the handful of ‘According to Jonathan’ insets that appear throughout the book with pithy recommendations, but those are underwhelming in length and quantity (just six of them).

The most interesting story in the book is unfortunately relegated to a few paragraphs at the end. An ex-girlfriend set Duhamel up to be violently robbed, including a lot of cash and his priceless championship bracelet, which was later recovered badly damaged.”

Title Final Table: A Winning Poker Approach from a WSOP Champion
Author Jonathan Duhamel
Year 2012 (originally published in French as Cartes sur Table in 2011)
Skill Level any
Pros Well-considered thoughts from a highly skilled poker pro.
Cons Fairly short book with mostly high level advice; plenty of room for a coherent retelling of the 2010 WSOP Main Event.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. Duhamel grew up in Boucherville, a primarily French-speaking Montreal suburb of about 40,000 people.
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“All In: From Refugee Camp to Poker Champ” Review

[LL] “How much do you know about Jerry Yang?” Leroy the Lion inquired.

[RR] “Not much. Chinese guy who became a billionaire during the dot-com era by founding Yahoo”, Roderick the Rock replied.

[LL] “Actually, that Jerry Yang is Taiwanese-American, but I meant the other Jerry Yang, who is about the same age as the entrepreneur.”

[RR] “Oh, you mean the amateur who won the World Series of Poker in 2007. All I know is that he got very lucky and then basically disappeared from the poker world.”

[LL] “Luckier than you think. But he did continue to play; he just hasn’t had any other notable successes unless you count 5th place in the 2010 NBC National Heads-Up Championship for $75,000.”

[RR] “That’s what, like two heads-up wins?”

[LL] “Three. The blinds went up pretty fast though.”

[RR] “Perfect for the luck master.”

[LL] “That’s really the story of his life, which is actually very interesting. In his autobiography, All In: From Refugee Camp to Poker Champ, Yang (or more accurately, his ghostwriter Mark Tabb) deftly jumps back and forth detailing his two treacherous journeys, in poker and in life, where a single misstep could be fatal, one literally and the other figuratively. The book opens with the Californian heads up at the World Series of Poker Main Event but then flashes back to the separate tracks of his childhood in Laos and the start of his poker career.

Although the title cleverly rhymes ‘camp’ with ‘champ’, Yang’s beginnings were so humble that getting to the refugee camp was already a major accomplishment. Before leaving his birth country, he was so poor that he had never worn shoes or underwear and played soccer with pig-bladder balls and marbles with carved rocks. He, his family, and his entire village are in constant danger from North Vietnamese soldiers, crop failures, and Mother Nature, so his father decides to risk everything, as little as that is, to leave the country and hopefully relocate to the United States. Carrying just some food and a few of their meager belongings, they try to use the cover of darkness to reach the Mekong River, which they hope to find a way to cross into Thailand.

Meanwhile, Yang’s poker story begins on his sofa, where he is enchanted by the World Series of Poker Main Event final table playing on ESPN. He quickly realizes that Texas Hold ‘Em is about much more than the cards and is immediately hooked. He starts with a meager $50 bankroll, playing small tournaments in local casinos while dreaming of satelliting into the WSOP Main Event.

Yang needs a lot of luck to survive his two difficult journeys, but he’s an intelligent, quick learner who goes from ESL1 classes to high school valedictorian. He also has the courage and ambition to rise from his impoverished youth to a successful career as a psychologist and family counselor and the World Series of Poker Main Event champion.”

[RR] “Sometimes you need to make your own luck.”

Title All In: From Refugee Camp to Poker Champ
Author Jerry Yang with Mark Tabb
Year 2011
Skill Level any (history) / Beginner (poker strategy)2
Pros Fascinating stories of Yang’s escape from Laos and success at the poker table.
Cons On the poker side of things, Yang’s luck is extraordinary3, leaving his poker journey inspirational but nearly irreproducible.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. English as a Second Language.
  2. Yang details several WSOP Main Event hands throughout the book which contain some poker advice, but he ends the book with an appendix titled “Jerry’s Winning Poker Strategies”, which contain the brief sections on “8 Things Beginning Players Need to Know”, “Top 8 Rookie Mistakes”, “Top 8 Tells”, “Top 8 Hand to Play”, and “Basic Tournament Strategy”.
  3. For example, during his first day of the 2007 WSOP Main Event, Yang was dealt pocket Aces seven times, far above the one or maybe two you would expect.
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