“Ghosts at the Table” Review

[LL] “As you know, poker has a long history of colorful stories and tall tales that have grown taller with each retelling. In Ghosts at the Table: Riverboat Gamblers, Texas Rounders, Roadside Hucksters, and the Living Legends Who Made Poker What It Is Today, Des Wilson debunks some myths about Wild Bill Hickok’s ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ and the multimillion-dollar Nick Dandolos-Johnny Moss match.”

[RR] “Neither happened?” Roderick the Rock asked.

[LL] “No, they both happened, but Dead Man’s Hand may have been made up later, while Dandolos and Moss probably played a much smaller game than folklore has it.

On the other hand, Wilson passes on as truth many other poker stories of the Old West (including the Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone), riverboat gamblers, mid-20th century road gamblers, Benny Binion, and Doyle Brunson. He even does some serious detective legwork to figure out what happened to Hal Fowler, who basically disappeared from the poker world after winning the 1979 World Series of Poker.”

[RR] “So, Fowler was the anti-Amarillo Slim and didn’t help popularize the game at all?”

[LL] “It’s a shame, too, since his amateur status should have been a bigger boon to the popularity of the World Series of Poker.”1

[RR] “Well, Moneymaker could only happen once, and online poker was a long way off in 1979.”

[LL] “Wilson gets to online poker later as well as high stakes poker and…”

[RR] “What about high stakes online poker?”

[LL] “That didn’t really exist yet.

… and includes a relatively short section on women in poker, mostly discussing their history at the World Series of Poker. The WSOP gets its own long chapter with stories about his eight favorite Main Event final tables. The final chapter of the book returns to the WSOP but unfortunately ends as the 2007 Main Event final table is set.”

[RR] “Not exactly the best place to end the book!”

[LL] “Yeah, I don’t agree with that decision either, but due to the timing of publication the final table is relegated to an addendum with nothing more than a list of the results.

On the whole, it’s a small flaw in a great book. Because Wilson traveled all over the U.S. to interview people, he has some unique insights, especially regarding Fowler. Although not quite as comprehensive2 as James McManus’s Cowboys Full – The Story of Poker, which was published the following year, Ghosts at the Table is equally worthy of your time.”

Title Ghosts at the Table: Riverboat Gamblers, Texas Rounders, Roadside Hucksters, and the Living Legends Who Made Poker What It Is Today
Author Des Wilson
Year 2008
Skill Level any
Pros Great storytelling and myth-busting from poker’s past up to 2007.
Cons Chapters cover a random assortment of topics of varying importance. Publication should have been delayed a few weeks to finish the story of the 2007 WSOP Main Event.
Rating 4.0

Footnotes:

  1. The number of players in the Main Event did double over the next four years, but by comparison, after Chris Moneymaker won in 2003, the field tripled the next year.
  2. At first glance, Cowboys Full appears to be about 50% bigger, weighing in at a hefty 516 pages to Ghosts at the Table’s 368, but McManus dedicates a significant 88 pages to its footnotes, bibliography, glossary, and index, whereas Wilson uses but 15.
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