Do you know what the ‘argine’ is? How to play Heinz, Anaconda and Mexican Flip? What degree Isabelle Mercier has? No? Well, what kind of rounded, experienced, card enthusiast doesn’t at least harbour a curiosity as to the minutiae of table talk and the history of the game which has developed beyond all recognition in the last ten years. The Poker Encyclopedia, published by Portico, compiled by Elkan Allen and Hannah Mackay, does the job better than any other publication I have seen so far. There also lurks a preface by Anthony Holden within the perfectly marvellous green baize cover.
Elkan Allan, who died in 2006, was a well-known and universally respected broadcasting and journalism innovator, whose enthusiasm for television, print media and the game of poker were infectious. From writing for ‘Batman’ to creating Ready, Steady, Go!, he had a varied and vigorously-pursued range of interests, and this project was just the latest in a long string of ideas he’d brought to fruition. He continued to play live while writing about the game, venturing to the Gutshot in London (where co-editor Hannah Mackay used to deal to him, as did I) and even attending my Wednesday home game - and he invariably turned up with cake and a relaxed attitude to winning or losing. His stamina at 80 years of age put most of us to shame and it was a pleasure to play with him.
I heard about the concept of the Encyclopedia long before the finished book arrived by mail, and thought that this was a big undertaking, but one that would eventually appeal to both regular players and those just interested in the game from a spectator’s standpoint. It truly was an ‘unorthodox collaboration,’ seeing as the responsibility for finishing it fell to Hannah after Elkan’s death. Its layout is alphabetical, its content pretty wide-ranging – I challenge anyone to read the whole thing and say that they knew every definition, every slang term (many of which seem to be American) and every named player. Of course here is where the editors’ judgement had to come into play – the game has been changing so fast and the people at the forefront of it have become so numerous that some had to be left out. It would be a continuous task to update the game’s top players, many of whom are now known only on the internet. So there’s no Julian Thew, Annette_15 or Roland de Wolfe, but the greats of the game going back to its origins get concise and interesting biographies.
The writing style itself is worth mentioning – both writers know their way around the English language and the Encyclopedia doesn’t suffer from unclear or verbose descriptions of rules or theories of poker. It has a mostly neutral tone when discussing (in brief) how the game should be played style-wise, past the bare bones – even though Hannah Mackay says that the book “is not intended simply to settle arguments, but to provoke them.” She says in her introduction, “Much poker theory is speculative – the sum of one player’s experience against another’s. For this reason, [the Encyclopedia] will attempt to air both sides of the argument and allow the reader to decide, rather than advocating specific styles of play.” The book does not attempt to squeeze other writers’ full theories in with the definitions and biographies – it’s not meant to replace your copy of Sklansky or Harrington. If anything, it’s more of a gateway to further reading, should anything in it catch your attention.
Scattered through the listings are apposite quotes from famous players. “Gambling, the sure way of getting nothing for something,” is one of my favourites, whereas for the price of a rebuy in a tournament, you get a book which is informative and concisely written, a good Christmas present for anyone interested in the game of poker.