With ‘Swimming with the Devilfish’, veteran author Des Wilson burst onto the poker literary scene quicker than a jet propelled whippet and could often be heard mumbled in the same sentences as Al Alvarez and Anthony Holden as one of the industry’s most intrepid observers.
Just one year on, and Des is back guns a blazing with his latest offering, ‘Ghosts at the Table’. Successfully melding together a historic and investigative approach, Des’ endless mission to unearth some of the game’s most intriguing secrets sees him travel to an array of legendary poker sites such as Deadwood, Tombstone and Mississippi before moving on to more modern locations like California, Texas and the home of poker, Las Vegas.
Commencing his journey in the gun-slinging town of Deadwood, Des wastes no time in searching for answers, his first foray into the mystical seas of poker ignorance seeing him pose questions such as who was Bill Hickok, what actually was the Dead Man’s hand, and did it even happen? It is this line of probing questioning that provides the spine for the entire book, Des not just trying to learn about the ‘Ghosts at the Table’, but also attempting to have a quick peak at the cards they held so close to their chest.
From here on in, Des has set the framework for his tale and travels to various locations across the United States armed with a dogged determination to explore every nook and cranny and challenge any supposed truths. Quickly luring you into the enviable romanticism of his adventure, you can’t help but share his enthusiastic gung ho attitude as he continues to question the very existence of some of these poker ‘facts’.
Although not the book’s largest chapter, the real meat of ‘Ghosts at the Table’ lies in the investigation of the Texas road gamblers, as it is here where Des’ true talent bobs to the surface, his ability to examine and evaluate the game’s characters being one of the alluring aspects that made ‘Swimming with the Devilfish’ such a hit. Still keeping one eye firmly fixed upon the historical progress of the game, what Des seems to revel in is breaking the surface of their legendary status and throwing yet more questions into the melting pot: What sort of man is Amarillo Slim, did Doyle Brunson cheat at poker, and why the heck does TJ Cloutier still play craps?
As Des effortlessly leads us from the rise of the Poker’s Godfathers, Benny Binion and Doyle Brunson, into the evolutionary surroundings of the World Series of Poker, the focus on characters and burrowing into their worlds still exists, Des utilising every text, contact and source at his disposal to learn more about some of poker’s greats. But still he maintains that relenting drive to re-evaluate the history books and blow dust off the pages that have yet to be examined thoroughly, his desire to learn more about what happened on certain occasions triggering a wealth of fascinating anecdotes, from the fixed main event in 1972, to Stu Ungar’s remarkable victory in 1997, right up to the triumph of Moneymaker in 2003 and the impending explosion of poker.
However, amid all these enlightening anecdotal jewels is a true gem, a chapter intent on finding a real WSOP mind-boggler in little known Hal Fowler. Momentarily spotlighted for winning the 1979 World Series Main Event in an epic heads up battle against Bobby Hoff, Hal seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth and was never seen again in the world of poker. Along with his knowledge of Hal as a drugged up amateur who didn’t seem to have a clue what he was doing, Des once again dons his long coat and trilby hat to hunt down the aforementioned enigma, this time even employing the help of a private detective!
After assessing some of poker’s biggest games (predominantly centred around the infamous Andy Beal), Des briefly covers the poker boom, thankfully keeping the section short so as not bore the reader with what they already know. However, this is all a prelude to the real treat that climaxes the book, Des providing his readers with a surprise delight and taking us through his own WSOP experience. Retelling his journey through the 2007 main event with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas Day, Des describes his hands, emotions and progress through the World’s biggest poker tournament and ends the book in fitting mood: one that perfectly expresses both the growth and popularity of the game.
With such a broad canvas creating so many potential pitfalls, repeating the success of ‘Swimming with the Devilfish’ was always going to be a tough task, but it’s clear that Des’ extensive experience in the journalistic field has served him well as ‘Ghosts at the Table’ is an undoubted delight and will surely be read for years to come.
On many occasions I have heard Des himself describe ‘Ghosts at the Table’ as a “history of poker”, but to simplify it in such terms just doesn’t do the book justice. As well as the endless Poirot-esque investigations, there is a certain charm that arises from the book, not simply from his fluid, passionate, easy-to-relate-to writing style, but from the many entertaining anecdotes that are prised from the various character assessments.
I often feel like I know a lot about poker, but when I hear of how Amarillo hid his money in a bowel of soup, Puggy Pearson was physically attacked by a dealer and her stiletto and after being told a game was crooked, Canada Bill replied, “I know, but it’s the only game in town”, you realise that there is a lot more to poker than just a timeline. The game is about people, the players, the characters who make poker the fun recreational activity that it is, was, and always will be. It is this segment of the game that Des so successfully brings to the table.
‘Ghosts at the Table’ both educates and entertains and is a must have for any self-claiming poker fan.
At the risk of being slated by the naysayers, I give it 10 blonde stars out of 10.