Weak Hand

Poker has arrived, again, after a long period of dormancy, and it’s not just for riverboat gamblers anymore. Indeed, players from all fields are finding success on the felt–teenagers, movie stars, recent immigrants. But arguably the most successful newcomers are the alumni of an obscure strategy card game called Magic: The Gathering. Magic alumni claimed two of the 10 spots at the final table of the 2004 World Series of Poker, culled from an original field of 2,576. One of these players, 23-year-old David Williams, took second place and a prize of $3.5 million. For two former players of an obscure fantasy card game to command one-fifth of the final table at the world’s premiere poker tournament is an astounding feat, and one that cannot be attributed solely to luck. If you’re prone to flights of rhetoric, you might call it a phenomenon. If you’re rhetoric-prone and an opportunistic writer, you might even write a book about it.

And so we have David Kushner’s newest book, Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids, which tells the story of these scruffy wunderkinds and the game that spawned them. The eminently readable book mainly concerns the computational adventures of young savant Jon Finkel, aka Stinkel, aka Finkeltron, aka Jonny Magic, whose odyssey from nerdy outcast to smooth, successful card pro can be read as a metaphor for the rise of the entire gaming craze. Kushner, a contributing editor at Spin, is an experienced explicator of subcultures, and Jonny Magic is useful in helping one understand exactly why poker has gotten as big as it has, although perhaps not in the way that Kushner intended.

Finkel, an exhibitionist nose picker from New Jersey, grew up the type of self-consciously weird kid whom other kids hated–even the other nerds. Prone to classroom outbursts and not bathing, both slow and fat, Finkel seemed destined for a life in the sub-basement of the social high-rise. Yet he was extremely intelligent, and, eventually, he found release and fulfillment in Magic. This intricate card game, combining elements of chess, poker, and Tolkien, was invented in the early 1990s for the Dungeons-and-Dragons crowd by a grad student in mathematics named Richard Garfield. Players, assuming the roles of various wizards and mages, attempt to defeat their opponents through hand-to-hand cardboard combat, casting playing-card spells that reduce the enemy’s strength. When your opponent’s point level reaches zero, you win.

Although low-tech and cheaply rendered, Magic was an express-train success, soon claiming players and fan boys across the globe. Three hundred million Magic cards were sold during their first year of production. There was no common deck of cards; each player compiled his own separate hand from cards that he had bought or traded over the years. This kept players coming back to stores for more cards and kept the company’s profits high. “The retail world had a term for such a self-sustaining business model: repeat purchase,” writes Kushner. “Gamers called it Magic crack.”

For Finkel, an intensely competitive boy despite a disinterest in school and an ineptness at sports, Magic was a revelation. Magic allowed him to channel his heretofore unbridled aggression. The game provided competitive release for the spindly, the asthmatic, the hobbledehoy. “I think [games] exercise your brain,” said the inventor Richard Garfield. “I would love to see games raised to the stature of intellectual sports.” To further this aim, Garfield brainstormed the idea of a Magic: The Gathering professional tour. The company would sponsor events in various locations around the country, open to the world’s top Magic players and talented amateurs. Cash prizes would be doled out to the winners. Sponsorships would be sought. Low-level cable networks would even be invited. Kushner ably and humorously describes the difficulties inherent in trying to transform an outsider pastime like Magic into a cable TV-ready semi-sport. “It seemed just like a real sport,” writes Kushner of the first Magic tournament, “except for the guy dressed up like a giant minotaur in a furry brown suit with two big black horns coming out of his head, who wandered through the crowd.”

But the minotaur was soon dispatched back to the Renaissance Faire (or wherever), and Magic tournaments grew in popularity and respectability. Not yet 21, Jon Finkel soon became the best Magic player in the world; traveling from tournament to tournament, racking up prize money (over $85,000 in under two years), and basking in the adulation of countless young outcasts and Orson Scott Card fans. As he got older, though, Finkel started looking for bigger action. He wasn’t alone. Dozens of former Magic pros were quietly accumulating experience in poker and blackjack–games they considered a step down from Magic. There were infinite permutations in Magic, infinite possibilities a player had to take into account before playing a hand, whereas poker and blackjack were games limited by the number of cards in the common deck. Thus players like Finkel quickly mastered the mathematics of poker–and they began to win big.

At this point, Jonny Magic becomes a standard-issue gambler’s-success story; which is to say, it becomes boring and trite. The Magic stuff is interesting, but Kushner–perhaps astutely realizing that the market for Magic books is small and the market for poker books is big–seems eager to hurry through it in order to get to the gambling part. Kushner portrays the Magic contingent’s gambling success as a revenge-of-the-nerds-type triumph (the book’s subtitle is How a Gang of Geeks Beat The Odds and Stormed Las Vegas), and valiantly tries to invest this success with more importance than I think it actually deserves. He quotes Magic pro Mike Long as saying “[Dave Williams’s 2004 WSOP] win is metaphor that you can take the skills you learn in Magic and do whatever you want in life.” Yeah, if what you want to do is win at card games. The metaphor doesn’t carry. Sure, Finkel finds himself. He loses weight, styles his hair, even kisses a girl. Finkel’s maturation from a fat, nerdy, obnoxious teenager to an ice-cool professional gambler is interesting to watch, but forgive me if I don’t necessarily see this as a classical redemption story.

Nowadays, he spends his time gambling on pro sports, an algorithm removed from the checked-shirt losers who waste their days at the OTB. It’s not like Magic inspired him to do anything socially redeeming. It just inspired him to play more games. While Kushner occasionally references what seems to be Finkel’s latent discontent with his easy-breezy lifestyle (“We could be finding the cure for cancer, but instead we’re playing cards,’ Finkel says. ‘Why is that?”), he more often lionizes the life as an end in itself. Kushner’s last volume, Masters of Doom, about the rise of id Software, makers of games like Doom and Castle Wolfenstein, was a better book because it had a better subject. Video games have arguably changed the world, and id Software was the cutting edge gaming studio for years. Jonny Magic is much narrower in scope, focusing on a single member of a specific subculture, and I’m not sure it succeeds. It’s similar in tone and outlook to Ben Mezrich’s recent Bringing Down The House, about a team of blackjack sharpies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mezrich’s book was obnoxious and fatuous; while Kushner’s book is better because he is a better writer, it still suffers from many of the same flaws.

Writers love stories about gambling and gamblers because there are always a lot of colorful characters involved. We get sucked into the scene, seduced by outsized nicknames and glitter-gold, and usually end up writing glossy photographs, two-dimensional image portraits that offer little in terms of depth. These portraits inevitably fail to discuss their subjects in context, fail to examine the sheer pathology of their characters, and in the resultant glibness they end up supporting the dominant culture’s tacit assertion that fast cash, no matter how dismally gained, is the American dream towards which all lives should be directed. This does thoughtfulness a disservice; journalism should not be given over to the unqualified glorification of game shows. In fact, the only really good poker book in recent memory was written by James McManus, the Times‘ new poker columnist. McManus’s Positively Fifth Street divided its attentions between coverage of the 2002 World Series of Poker and coverage of the lurid murder trial of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish, who were accused of killing casino magnate Ted Binion. Drawing out the seediness underlying the glitz, McManus’s book did something that the others have failed to–subtly observed that the single-minded pursuit of money often exacts a heavy price. Jonny Magic doesn’t get that far, and its rah-rah tunnel-vision is what ultimately makes it a straight draw, instead of the royal flush it could have been.

Justin Peters

Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.