Round about the time America's love affair with Texas Hold 'Em took hold, writer Martha Frankel had already dived in, head-first, hit bottom and lived to tell the tale in Hats & Eyeglasses: A Family Love Affair With Gambling (Penguin, 240 pages, $23.95).
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By RYAN NAKASHIMA
The title of this harrowing book refers to what happens when you gamble so much and are so far under water that all that is left are hats and eyeglasses on the surface.
Frankel is a freelance writer for Details and other publications who grew up around gambling and joined a Wednesday night poker game as research for a screenplay. She delved so deep into the topic that soon her assignments seemed secondary, especially when she was playing and winning.
‘‘Does it strike me as odd that I’m turning down four-and-five-thousand-dollar assignments so I can possibly win eighty-five bucks on Wednesday?’’ she writes. ‘‘No, it doesn’t strike me as odd at all. In fact, it seems perfect. Absolutely perfect.’’
Frankel’s descent into the hell of online poker starts with a series of fantastic gambling wins. As a child in the Bronx, she helps her father pick a 65-1 underdog at the racetrack, then shows enough numerical smarts to be accepted into the Bronx High School of Science and her father tells her she could become an astronaut.
As an adult, she starts winning at the quarter-minimum-bet Wednesday night poker game, despite cheating by a man named Lefty. She walks off a gambling cruise up a thousand dollars even after leaving ‘‘enormous tips for all the waiters and chambermaids.’’
The reader can imagine how the love affair ends.
I haven’t seen Frankel on television’s World Series of Poker or World Poker Tour. She didn’t end up like James McManus, the last well-known journalist to make it big in the poker world, with his fifth place finish at the 2000 World Series of Poker main event.
Frankel gets hooked, right around that time, and describes how. She stays up overnight in card rooms rather than sleep in hotels. She teaches her ailing mother how to play Texas Hold ’em, prying her away from slot machines in Atlantic City.
‘‘I explain that, in a way, it’s like crack cocaine — very fast, very mindless, and impossible to stop,’’ she writes.
Her glib assessment is foreboding.
Frankel discovers Paradise Poker, before online gambling became really big. It is 1999, and a dial-up Internet connection means the pace is staggeringly slow. At one point she plays only six or seven hands per hour, compared to 30-40 in a casino. She still manages to lose hundreds of dollars a day.
‘‘I get a check from ’Cosmopolitan,’ and pay the rent, phone, and electric bills for my office,’’ she writes. ‘‘I write a check to one credit card company for twelve hundred dollars; write a check to another for nine hundred. Just one week of Paradise, I think, sick to my stomach.’’
She stops taking phone calls from relatives and friends, while losing hundreds more each day. By the time she makes it to a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting and deletes Paradise Poker from her computer, almost all that’s left of her are the hat and eyeglasses on her head.
But the kernel of this book survived, and Frankel’s sparse and honest writing make it a quick, easy and frightening read. And it couldn’t come at a better time, with the debate still raging in the United States over whether to rewrite a law that made most online gambling businesses illegal last year.
Her crystal-clear account shows how a virtual game can cause intense real-life pain and should be read by anyone who wants to keep others from going down the same path.