Book Review: The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King by Michael Craig

Michael Craig’s The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King takes readers on a behind-the-scenes tour of (at the time) the highest stakes poker game ever played. In search of a new challenge, banking prodigy Andy Beal challenges the best poker players in the world to play for stakes so high that millions of dollars change hands in a session and even these seasoned veterans can barely handle the swings.

As a poker player, I found PBSK fascinating for a number of reasons. For one thing, there were a lot of little details about Bobby’s Room (the high-stakes section of the Bellagio poker room, named for Bobby Baldwin) and the people who play there that I didn’t know. Craig writes for a broad audience, but even as someone who is relatively in-the-know about the poker world, I came away with a much better sense of the culture and traditions of that game. There were even a few regulars I hadn’t heard of, which I suppose is in itself a statement about the nature of the game.

Title notwithstanding, the book’s truly central characters are Beal and Doyle Brunson, not Beal and Howard Lederer. Craig chronicles the two men’s parallel struggles, Brunson’s to herd a team of notoriously stubborn and independent poker players into a functioning team with a 10-figure bankroll, and Beal’s to find an edge against the game’s greatest.

For Brunson, there are logistical difficulties and personality conflicts. Few players could afford to take on Beal on their own, and in any event the banker insisted on playing heads up. Nevada gaming law requires any game to be open to any player, meaning that the only way to ensure one-on-one action was to give everyone who could remotely consider playing the option to buy a piece of “The Corporation”. This, in turn, meant getting everyone to put up hundreds of thousands of dollars and agree on who would play Beal when. No one was too keen on either losing his friend’s money or seeing his own money lost, plus Beal insisted on playing at inconvenient times such as during the World Series of Poker or at 8 AM.

This was no accident. Beal quickly realized that his only chance would be to push the pros out of their comfort zone by insisting on astronomical stakes, arriving in Las Vegas with little notice, and otherwise making things as inconvenient as possible for The Corporation. Over time, he also came to take elaborate measures to neutralize their potential advantages over him: sunglasses, headphones (to discourage conversation), a random number generator, a homemade abacus (sorry, you’ll have to read the book to make sense of that one), etc.

I found the insights into both the financial relationships that undergird the poker economy and the psychology of an amateur who would attempt to take on the best of the best to be quite interesting. PBSK isn’t just for poker junkies, though. In fact, the central conflict of amateur vs. professional makes it equally appealing to a casual reader with little or not knowledge of poker. The book is remarkably light on actual hands played or anything else that would require more than a passing familiarity with the game, and Craig does a good job of explaining what little the reader does need to know without ever boring his “insider” audience.

All in all, Michael Craig’s The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King is an interesting and fast-paced introduction to the high-stakes poker world built around an inherently intriguing story. Any poker player would enjoy it, and it would also make a great gift for anyone you’d like to educate about the vagaries of professional poker.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King by Michael Craig

  1. By Daniel Craig? Bond, James Bond?
    So that’s what billionaires do in their spare time…make homemade abacuses..

  2. This is one of the books that I make it a point, as a dedicated amateur, to read and re-read a few times a year. To remind me the dedication it takes to make a serious run at this game.

    The interaction of the “pros” with a man trying to knock them off Mt. Olympus was a fascinating insight into the mindset of a true gambler. In my opinion the lengths that BOTH parties go to trying to gain that elusive “edge” was worth the read for any poker player, full time or part time, professional or lackadaisical.

    • My thoughts exactly, well said. Actually, I’m not sure I’d agree that Beal is a “true gambler.” I’m currently reading Amarillo Slim in a World of Fat People, and let me tell you, that man was a gambler.

      • The way that I see Beal, as portrayed in the book, is someone looking to push himself and those around him to the highest point of their skills.

        And personally, anyone that takes on some of the best players in the world in their home turf (for the most part) whilst claiming to be able to beat them is a gambler. 🙂

        • I think you’re right on the first point, but that’s why I don’t consider him a “gambler” per se. I feel like it didn’t matter to him that they were playing for money. Even when he argued over the stakes, it seemed like it was just a tool he was using to push the pros out of their comfort zone. I think of a gambler as someone who gets a rush from winning and losing money and who wants to bet on everything.

          • Good point, the action seems to be more of a factor then “edge” to what and who we percieve as a gambler. That being said the obvious attraction to the action given by the Corporation appears to be almost an addiction, as portrayed in the book, to Beal. After more than one attempt, note unsucessful attempt, he keeps returning to the action. The edge he may have thought he had was proven to be worthless, and yet again and again he returns to his “needle” of high stakes games. Given his history of taking on a challenge and becoming the best at something it can be likened to seeing that mountain and trying to climb it no matter the odds.

            • Interesting points. The distinction between “action” and “edge” is a good one. Although I play poker for a living, I don’t consider myself a gambler. I never touch table games, I don’t bet sports or horses, and neither winning nor losing is particularly exciting to me. Obviously I like winning, but not in a thrilling, roller-coaster sort of way that I understand to be the experience of the gambler. Most importantly, I don’t find losing to be exciting. I’m generally far more likely to get despondent and quit than to be driven by losses to keep playing to get even, move up in stakes, etc. I think you’re mountain-climbing analogy is a good one. If anything, Beal was addicted the challenge, and the money was just a tool he was using to overcome it.

              Actually, it’s interesting that you chose mountain climbing. The little bit that I’ve read about it (primarily Krakauer’s Into Thin Air) makes it sound very much like an addiction/compulsion that avid climbers can barely control. It seems that at some point, virtually everyone who attempts a dangerous climb such as Everest looks back on it with regret, whether he was successful or not. They feel foolish to have taken such a crazy risk, yet they felt at the time they had no choice and would have been driven crazy if they hadn’t attempted it.

  3. Interesting metaphysical question: If you insist on an edge as opposed to just a fair bet, are you really a “gambler”? Not really, I would say. Or at least not as much of a gambler as someone who is happy just to get a fair bet.

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