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Posted: Friday June 24, 2005 9:42AM; Updated: Wednesday June 29, 2005 5:09PM
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June 2005
Cover Courtesy: Warner Books

Inside The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King
The 10 Spot's review | Read an excerpt | Buy it
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Welcome to the SI.com Book Club. Each month we'll review a sports book and offer an excerpt. June's selection: The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King.

These days, it seems poker is everywhere. It's easier to find poker on TV -- whether among top pros or C-list celebrities -- than a rerun of Saved By The Bell. Have you ever wondered how aggressively Kathy Griffin would bet with hole cards of nine-five (a "Dolly Parton" in poker parlance)? Your wait is over.

So many people are playing poker (especially no-limit Texas Hold 'Em) -- online, in tournaments or in increasingly numerous and expensive neighborhood or dorm games --  that seemingly everyone has a story about a great victory or "bad beat." The downside to poker's omnipresence, though, is that sometimes it's hard to remember what all the fuss was about in the first place.

That's where Michael Craig's new book, The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time comes in. Craig describes a series of Texas Hold 'Em games from 2001-2004 between a billionaire banker and amateur poker player from Dallas named Andy Beal and a consortium of top poker pros in which as much as $20 million was on the line during a single session. The book effectively captures the inherent drama of risking so much money on the turn of a card.

More important, though, Craig takes the time to delve into the personalities behind the stoic poker faces. What emerges from this quick, entertaining read is a vivid picture of top poker players, seasoned pros who try to manage risk to make a living while simultaneously chasing the adrenaline rush that attracted them to poker.

"The best poker players walk a tightrope between their business sense and their passion," writes Craig. "As professionals, they seek out the most profitable opportunities and control as many factors as possible to create a positive result. As gamblers, however, they want the risk and excitement of having something important on the line with the outcome in the balance." It's this yin-yang of cool, detached analysis and a sometimes foolhardy gambling jones that explains poker's popularity explosion as well as anything.

Beal is an interesting foil for the poker pros. A wealthy, self-made financier who made his money by purchasing undervalued assets that others were willing or even eager to discard, he also possesses a remarkable intellect. Though he has no formal training, he has forged impressive achievements in disciplines as far afield as mathematics and aeronautics.

He started playing poker at the Bellagio almost as a lark in 2001, but quickly dedicated himself to the game as another way to test his brainpower and self-discipline. He rigged his company's computers to play out millions of virtual hands so he could learn learn the game's mathematical underpinnings, and invented curious gadgets to make himself harder to read. Beal even built a tiny battery-operated motor that would vibrate every eight seconds. He placed the motor inside his sock, and it prompted him to make decisions on whether to raise or fold at seemingly random intervals whether his cards were good, bad or somewhere in between.

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The real stars of this book, however, are the poker pros. Craig, a player himself, clearly likes and admires them. Still, he explains how tenuous the lives of even the best players can be. "Every great poker player has run through their playing payroll, most of them many times," Craig writes. "Going broke is both a rite of passage and a badge of honor, a reminder that they live life on the edge."

At heart, these men (and one woman, Jennifer Harman) are gamblers. That's why they're willing to bet thousands on their weight, on playing ping-pong using a cell phone as a paddle, or on running a marathon in the midday Vegas heat without any training. Craig recounts one legendary 100-hour one-on-one poker showdown that only ended because one player left in an ambulance, due in part to the estimated 50 packs of cigarettes he had smoked during the game.

Beal ultimately came out the loser of these games, though the total amount is in dispute and no box score can resolve the differences. Even so, his ability to compete against a tag-team of the game's best players while winning as much as $11 million in a day makes this much more than the story of a rich sucker getting fleeced by cagey gamblers.

Craig has the good fortune that his story unfolds against the backdrop of poker's emergence as a national phenomenon, which has made some of these same pros semi-celebrities for their winning and wise-cracking at televised tournaments.

This book, though, primarily captures the allure of the old poker world, when pros risked their bankroll in smoke-filled private games far from the glare of TV lights and hole-card cameras. That's a story worth telling, and Craig plays his winning hand with aplomb.