Neal Gersony’s Poker Slam is a novel about an aspiring professional poker player trying to track down his legendary uncle, who won millions in the world’s biggest tournaments and then disappeared. Great fiction it isn’t, but once the book gathers steam, it’s a fast-paced and engaging mystery flavored by the game of poker.
Gersony tracks back and forth between young Uriah “Utah” McCormick’s initiation into the world of poker and subsequent search for his uncle and an older Utah’s battle to win a major poker tournament.
It takes the author a while to engage his readers. This isn’t to say the book starts slow. In fact, the exposition often feels clunky and rushed. But it takes a while for the central conflict and mystery to reveal themselves, and Gersony’s characters are too flat to carry the weight of the novel alone.
Utah’s introduction to the poker scene is one of the highlights of the book. In backrooms of bars and in Las Vegas casinos, he meets a variety of very believable poker archetypes: the motorcycle-riding hothead, the grizzled Stud veteran, and the drugged out young star.
It is only in these all-too-brief scenes that the poker content feels germane to the rest of the novel. For the most part, the story would work just as well whether the main characters were poker players or interior designers. Poker is mostly just a veneer beneath which the plot unfolds. Only at the very end does the author draw some thematic connection between poker and the events of the story.
This may be for the best, though, because Gersony’s writing far outshines his knowledge of poker. At times he has a keen eye for the people who populate the game, but his attempts to portray the thinking of world-class players are laughably bad. In the interstitial scenes recounting their epic head up battle, two of the supposedly best players in the world display complete ignorance of basic concepts like pot odds. These scenes contribute virtually nothing to the plot or character development and are generally jarring and distracting given their infidelity to actual poker strategy.
Poker Slam is an entertaining adventure despite, not because of, its connection to poker. If you want a quick diversion, it’s an amusing read. But don’t pick it up looking for a poker novel, because for the most part it isn’t, and when it is, you’ll wish it wasn’t.