Saturday, February 16, 2008

Book Review: "Ace on the River"

A confession of sorts, to preface this review: I have eight or ten poker books sitting here unread at the present time, awaiting nothing more than the time for me to examine them. Perhaps that's why the first of a series of reviews to appear here is that of an admittedly oft-reviewed book, Barry Greenstein's Ace on the River. It fit my requirements, you see, being of large type, lots of photos, and not too many pages. In other words, an easy read.

Ace on the River is split into several sections. Part I is "The Poker World," which is followed by "Philosophy" (Part II), "Advanced Play" (Part III), and a short Part IV, "Addenda"... which is sort of redundant, come to think of it. The meat, though, comes early in the book, in the parts on the poker world and philosophy. The whole book is philosophy, in one form or another, and that's what sets it apart from everything else on the bookstore shelf.

Greenstein did a good job in Ace on the River in shattering one personal mythos while helping to build another. His philosophy section often delves into a sharing of personal history -- he was far less rich in early years as a poker player than many other players assumed -- to an acknowledgment and tacit welcoming of the "Robin Hood of Poker" tag that he gained from donating a couple million in tournament winnings to charity in recent years past. Greenstein admits that he wasn't overlooking the tax benefits, of course, but defines it more in terms of being a good citizen and a productive component of society.

Greenstein stays short of being pious and preachy, nor does he name names in the cautionary tales sprinkled liberally throughout Ace, but there's an overriding sense in the book of karma, even if the word itself is seldom used. "Treat the world right," he seems to be saying, "and it'll treat you right in return." Of course, as is the nature of all such efforts, the people most in need of the lessons being shared are the ones least likely to get the bigger message.

A well-told passage from the "Philosophy" section is Chapter 18, "Gambling and Productive Society". Greenstein casts a jaded, hypocritical eye to many widely held "mainstream" beliefs and practices, and wraps up his not favorable take on much of modern society with a telling line: "I have felt a need to justify my role in society."

Another section that resonated with this reader is Chapter 14, "Integrity". If anything, it's a too-brief dismissal of the worst parts of poker society, the angle shooters and erstwhile thieves who prey on the game with no care other than the money. Greenstein wears the white hat here, saying, "I follow a stricter set of guidelines than most of my opponents, even if it costs me money in the short run. It has given me inner peace, and in the long run I have actually profited from it."

Given that so many recent sordid cheating tales regarding poker have erupted in recent months, it's a timely, if eventually empty comment; perhaps that's why the chapter is unduly brief. The poker world needs more honest players and less dishonest ones, but it also needs the honest ones to be more strident in their protestations. While a book such as Ace is no place for naming names, doing good deeds by cleaning up the game is worthwhile, too.

Roughly the second half of the book is made up of live-play examples and relatively simple statistics, and a lot of people will dismiss that section of the book out of hand, given the proliferation of strategy books on the market. That's well and fine; there's no hand nor situation in Ace that you won't also find covered elsewhere. However, the focus here is more on concept than the nuts-'n'-bolts of the strategy itself, and it's told in a way that might make sense for certain readers when other teachings won't. One grows as a player by discovering new ways to think about a situation, and I've picked up a couple of insights from the book. (Won't share. Sorry.)

Maybe I was the last one to buy and read Ace on the River; maybe not. It's still a welcome diversion from most poker-book fare. It's one of those books that's as valuable as you want it to be... no more, no less.

Ace on the River
by Barry Greenstein
Last Knight Publishing Company
Fort Collins, CO

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