Thursday, February 22, 2007

Death Is In The Cards

Texas Hold’Em style poker took the world by storm a few years ago, and the attraction the viewing public has for the sport isn’t showing any signs of waning. Poker even featured prominently in the remake of the James Bond film, Casino Royale. Vince Van Patten, the charismatic host of World Poker Tour, the heavily syndicated weekly television show, raises the table stakes by writing a new book with professional author Robert J. Randisi.

Billed as the first Texas Hold’Em mystery, The Picasso Flop unveils an interesting cast of characters amid luxurious Las Vegas. The book focuses on Jimmy Spain, a poker player who had his streak toward greatness cut when he got sent to jail for murder. Fifteen years in prison has blunted his game, but a vicious turn of events puts Jimmy back on the firing line with the table stakes higher than he’s ever faced before.

Spain is a likeable character, with enough presence and history to hold his own in the world of high-stakes poker. I enjoyed his easy-going approach to poker as well as the investigations he makes into the murders. Despite the poker and prison backgrounds, Jimmy is the kind of guy you really get to know and root for as a reader. He feels solid and real, and he’s easily understood because he’s vulnerable and maybe a little scared of losing it all again. That’s the kind of hero I go for time after time in these kinds of books.

Fresh out of prison, Jimmy tries to get back in the poker game. Unfortunately he doesn’t quite have the bankroll to manage a buy-in. And, truth to tell, he’s not sure if he’s got his old game back. The skills have gotten rusty and the nerve is a little more frayed than it was. Not only that, but the face of poker has changed now that the game attracts millions of viewers to the green felt tables.

While he’s practicing his game at a few low-end places, Jimmy gets a phone call from an old prison cell mate. Landrigan is a powerful criminal with money to burn even while in prison. Landrigan tells Jimmy that he wants him to look out for his estranged daughter, Kat. Kat Landrigan is totally into poker and wants to be the next female superstar. She turns out to be a 22-year-old hardcase with moxie, attitude, and a vocabulary she culled from the poker tables. I found her character really offensive and obnoxious, but she grew on me.

At first Jimmy doesn’t want any part of the deal. Even after Landrigan offers to pay Jimmy’s buy-in at the next world poker tournament in Las Vegas, he’s pretty certain he’s going to turn the man down. Then Jimmy meets Kat and he sees that she is sharp as a poker player. He gets to know her and plays against her, and decides that she has promise.

More than that, though, Jimmy wants to be back on the Vegas tables playing for the kind of stakes he’s used to. When the authors write about this, even though they play it low-key, you can feel it. It’s kind of like a Rocky movie, only at a poker table instead inside a boxing ring. The challenge won me over in a heartbeat.

Reluctantly, Jimmy agrees to the assignment. In Vegas, though, the heat turns up quickly. Jimmy’s fight to stay alive at the tables is complicated by trying to keep Kat under control and alive in the game. Although the book starts off a little slow, the pace quickly increases as Jimmy has to put out fires all around him. I got wound up in just watching Jimmy try to sort out and get a handle on his life while he tried to take care of the various responsibilities he’d set up for himself.

Then the first murder occurs.

One of the high-rolling poker players ends up murdered in his hotel room. Not only that, but the killer obviously left calling cards: a jack, a queen, and a king. All three of them are face-cards (bearing pictures of individuals instead of numbers) and are known collectively in Texas Hold’Em as a Picasso Flop, a group of three portrait cards.

It doesn’t take long before the Las Vegas police find out about Jimmy’s past as a convict. As soon as they do, they immediately focus on him. To make matters worse, Kat and another female poker player both claim they spent the night in question with Jimmy, using him as their alibi. Jimmy wasn’t with either of them, and he doesn’t know why they would lie. Wanting to protect Kat, Jimmy lies for her, but he can’t help wondering where she was that she had to lie about it. Or what he’s getting himself into.

Before he can figure that out, the second body falls. Literally. Into the hotel swimming pool. When the body is fished out, another Picasso Flop is found. Someone is definitely sending a message, but no one knows what it is.

The Picasso Flop is a great read. The prose sails along so smoothly you forget you’re reading and start seeing the “movie” in your head. Randisi never intrudes as a writer, and strives to simply spin the tale he and Vince Van Patten have concocted.

For the WPT aficionados, there’s a ton of name-dropping. Mike Sexton and actor James Woods both put in signature appearances. The backdrop of Vegas comes across well. And during the poker play, you can almost hear the cards hitting the felt in the final hands.

I hope that The Picasso Flop just marks the start of a series. Jimmy Spain is a great character to kick back and watch.

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