Book Review: The Poker World According to Cinch

Imagine that you are riding on the subway when a disheveled man wearing dirty clothes and a long, unkempt beard boards your car and begins to rant about how aliens got him and are coming for you too. He is crazy, you think to yourself, and probably you avoid eye contact, turn up the volume on your Ipod, or even more to another car. But he is also intriguing and occasionally funny, if more than a little strange. He’s not like me, you try to tell yourself. But he’s got two eyes, two feet, and a brain made from the same stuff as yours.

For a professional poker player, reading Dave Cinch is more than a little reminiscent of such an experience. His new book, The Poker World According to Cinch, is self-consciously paranoid and egomaniacal, a larger-than-life portrait of his experiences in and around the game of poker and of the worse-than-average luck he’s supposedly experienced. It is occasionally humorous and insightful, though never as often as the author intends. In the end, you’d like to say that your approach to the game has nothing to do with that of this inveterate gambler, but you can’t be so sure.

The Poker World According to Cinch is equal parts memoir, character sketch, and what might generously be called philosophical treatise. Cinch has spent twenty years playing, dealing, and hosting private poker games in Kentucky and at casinos around the country. At times, his tales resemble nothing so much as extended bad beat stories. To his credit, though, he always focuses more on the psychology and the experience of running bad than on the can-you-believe-it aspect (which isn’t to say such self-pity is entirely lacking).

His best tales aren’t even poker stories. Instead, they are about subjects as diverse as kidney stones and shark attacks. There is, however, always a poker analogy or metaphor at the heart of them.

In all cases, Cinch spins his yarns “gambler style”, with a healthy dose of colloquial spelling and grammar meant to evoke the sights and sounds of the gambling hall: “Frosty the Pool Shark got busted by Dusty Roads the horseman, with Dusty singing Christmas carols (“Frosty the Pool Shark”) and happily drawing to a deuce off-suit gutshot! There were seven witnesses to it in the game besides me, plus the dealer- and a flock of railbirds to boot. And I know you’re not gonna say the railbirds would lie. This is the straight scoop, man.” On the whole, this is an effective strategy for transporting the reader into that world, though at times it feels more than a bit forced.

The biggest distraction, however, is the author’s penchant for hyperbole. Everything is the shrewdest hustle, the worst beat, the wildest game ever. If the Guinness Book of World Records gave an award for most references to the Guinness Book of World Records, this one would be a cinch to win it.

Cinch’s sketches of the other characters who populate his world are the highlight of the book. As he explains it, “Poker is more about people than about cards. The people that gravitate towards the gaming sub-culture are the interesting thing, not the odds or the hands.” At his best, Cinch provides an insider’s perspective on this fascinating world, populated by such colorful characters as Cat Doctor, Marijuana Slim, Vic Mobster-elli (aka Baby Blue Eyes), and Fraulein Omaha.

Among them are thieves, hustlers, cheats, and above all degenerates, the kind who take their families’ gift money to the casino on Christmas Eve. Cinch’s portraits are whimsical and voyeuristic, but never judgmental. In fact, he has a special place in his heart for such devoted gamblers, believing that “That kind of gambling deserves it’s own wall in the Hall of Fame. I’m talking about the guys who will get up in there with the worst of it and don’t care.”

You see, Cinch is himself a gambler who just happens to play poker. Nowhere is this more clear than in his treatise on “Special Probability.” This is the bit where, despite the protestations to the contrary and the distinct lack of humor, you really hope he is joking. And the more he insists that he isn’t joking, the more you want to turn up your Ipod and move to a different car.

According to the Cinch Theory of Special Probability, “gambling isn’t science or math—it’s art. To be honest, I experience gambling not as a series of rational decisions, but more as a metaphysical drama—a kind of handicapping of the unfolding of a creative universe. I try to intuit about the nature of the game and the universe itself.” In other words, he believes that certain games, certain dealers, and even certain hands are out to get him. Supposedly he formulated the theory after a streak of losing 100,000 straight hands of Texas Hold ‘Em over a 10 year period.

This isn’t some off-the-cuff musing. Cinch devotes nearly 25% of the book to explaining, justifying, and promoting this theory. I’m not going to try to summarize it here—you’d have to hear it in the author’s own words. Not that I’m recommending that.

Cinch is a good story-teller, but he’s not much of a moralist, metaphysicist, or philosopher. His vignettes are entertaining enough, but they would be better if he would focus on the story rather than trying to extract morals and truisms about gambling. Still, it makes me shudder to think just how close those of us who spend our time refining mathematically-grounded strategies are to abandoning that project, donning a jester hat, and creating a crackpot theory of the universe in our own images. Cinch seems to understand this dark side of poker all too well.

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