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By Howard Schwartz

Depending on the source of your information, about 60 million Americans play poker—some very badly, most recreationally, many with some hope they'll get lucky on a particular night. And out there somewhere are those uncommon humans who are "professionals" and who win more than half the time and earn a living from the game. New York author Andy Bellin estimates that 135 million people on earth play the game. Either number is impressive.

Gambling is fortunate to have a writer like Bellin. He know the game and can write about it intelligently, with an awareness of the flavor, the language and the characters, as well as the reason many play several nights a week and come back for more—win or lose. Perhaps it's the phrase "hope springs eternal" that fits perfectly here because that's a big part of the underlying feeling of Bellin's new book, POKER NATION.

Bellin has created a beauty of a work devoted to the game. This is not a "how-to" book as much as a "why" and "how" people love the game. The 258-page hardbound ($23.95) covers much territory, including an explanation of the basics plus some advanced concepts on the most popular form of poker—hold'em-- illustrating examples of why it has gained such interest in the past decade or so. Bellin says it's become such an addictive game for some it could be labeled "seven-card crack" because hands come "rapid-fire" and it takes just a few minutes to play a game.

A decade or more ago, five-card stud and seven-card stud reigned as the most popular games along with draw and lowball. But now the world has a new generation seeking faster action, higher stakes and pots exceeding $100,000--especially in tournament situations where one card can be worth more than a million.

Bellin write as if he's actively in a game during the process and as a result you can experience the "rush" of a hot hand or a bad beat in this work. Each word tells you he's met the people as he captures the "flutter" (of excitement) we all get when a winning hand seems imminent.

If you ever believed that poker was similar to war or being successful in business, because of moves like bluffing, feints, false advertising, being deceptive to throw your opposition off, you'll understand those concepts even better after reading Poker Nation.

Bellin describes playing in "underground" poker rooms and on the Internet. He moves quickly to an even more addictive form of poker—Omaha, and what you're supposed to do to adjust in this game to make a profit. (Ah, the importance of position and acting first or last—what standards must we maintain to survive? If you've never understood the concepts of "slow-playing" or check-raise, it might now become a bit clearer. )

There's just enough information on odds and probability to satisfy the beginner to advanced player and it's mixed in nicely, like a well-balanced salad of information, numbers and conclusions.

The book includes an importance and fascinating chapter on Benny Binion, his life and philosophy about gambling and how he helped stimulate world class table action with his famous World Series of Poker where the buy-in is $10,000, the format is freeze-out where you do not leave the table unless you lose every chip or gain everyone else's chips to be declared winner.

As for "tells" (the ability to read seemingly invisible, but subconscious moves by opponents who "tell" you if they've improved on a hand or are bluffing)? Bellin explains their importance to those who learn how to profit by these subtle but identifiable twitches, voice changes and head tilts. How people cheat at poker is discussed in one chapter, with examples of how it's done and how to avoid being victimized if you remain alert to the moves.

The book contains an interesting but vital section on the role that memory in being a successful player—how mnemonic strategies can give any player an edge; what the process of coding is; and whether having a "photographic mind" is fact or fallacy.

The novices reading Poker Nation will probably have a greater appreciation for the history, traditions, artistry, strategies and the fact that most all good players must "pay their dues" (make mistakes and learn from them) before they reach a point of competency, and why it takes time, dedication and much self-analysis before anything positive happens. There are threats everywhere—external and internal pressures (much of which we create on our own).

Those who survive this test of fire, who walk through the burning coals to play against and on a better, high level, achieve success by learning from their mistakes. Bellin captures the process, the "rituals" most players must undergo—and he does it with wit, personal examples and advice. If you love poker, you'll enjoy this work.

(The books mentioned here are available from Gambler's Book Shop, 630 South 11th Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101. Call l-800-522-1777 from 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday Pacific time to order, using only MasterCard, VISA or Discover card (no Amex accepted). You may order through the store web site at and view the store's 1,000 books, videos and computer software. You may also call or write and ask for the free 80-page catalog to be sent to you. The store, founded in 1964, is located about two miles from Downtown Las Vegas, and the same distance from where the Strip begins, a block west of Maryland Parkway, just off Charleston Boulevard.)