I never intended to write a poker book. I was much too busy playing poker. Whenever anyone asked me if I thought about writing a poker book, I’d always tell them poker books are written by people who can’t make money playing poker; if they could win money at the tables, they would be playing instead of writing books. However, in 2004 Doyle Brunson decided to put out a second version of Super System, his famous treatise on poker that first came out in the mid-1970s. At the time, I had probably been doing better than anyone else in the high-stakes cash games so he approached me about contributing a chapter to the book. Doyle is the godfather of poker and it’s difficult to turn him down (although I tried a couple of times).
Doyle told me to pick any form of poker to write about, but I told him that to me, it’s all the same regardless of what specific variant is being played. It’s good to know how to play all the games, but in my mind, that is just a small part of the equation of how you make money at poker. Doyle asked me what he thought I could write about that I didn’t think other people knew about the game. I told him, “I think I know how you go about making money at poker probably better than anyone else. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.” Doyle replied, “Well, OK. Write about that.”
I started taking notes in handwritten scrawl and a few times a week I’d type them up on my computer. The document kept growing in size and after a couple weeks I asked Doyle how long he wanted the chapter to be. Doyle told me ten pages, but I already had at least twenty and wasn’t even close to finishing. He asked me to cut it down, but I didn’t see a way to condense what I had written. I wanted to leave it as it was, but a lot of different people were contributing chapters to Super System 2 and at the rate I was going, there wasn’t going to be nearly enough space for it all. But every night when I’d come home from playing poker, I’d have a new thought and would write it down. I was supposed to be making cuts, but instead this document was only getting bigger and bigger.
I didn’t know what to do. I told Doyle I could give him what I had and he could have his editor or publisher cut it down to size, even though that wasn’t what I wanted. After Doyle read the whole document, he admitted, “Well, it’s pretty good, but basically what you’ve done is written a book!” It looked like that to me as well.
Even though the whole thing was his idea, Doyle graciously told me that if I wanted to keep the material for myself and turn it into a book, it would probably be a good one. I had already put in a lot of time and effort into the project, and after some careful consideration I decided to turn this document into my own book.
When you write a book, you never really finish. At some point, you just decide to stop. Every time I read the manuscript I’d change a bit of wording or come up with some new thoughts I wanted to add. It came to the point where it was a couple hundred pages long and I decided it was time to look for a way to publish it. It was the middle of the poker boom and poker books were starting to be popular with publishing companies that put out gaming titles. I contacted several different publishers and a few of them wanted to gave it a read. I always had the idea that this book would be really classy. I wanted it to be really high-quality and include some color pictures. So, when I started getting offers from some of these publishers, I asked them to show me their other poker books so I could see what I was in for. However, I was really disappointed in what I saw. I didn’t like the presentation, the editing was poor, and I didn’t find any that were well-written from a literary point of view. I had a meeting with one publisher who was making a big pitch to put out the book, but when I asked about including high-quality color photos, I was told it would be very expensive. Every time I brought it up, they told me, “We’ll have to have a meeting about it” or “There will be a discussion.”
I didn’t want to have more meetings. I didn’t want another discussion. I wanted to publish a book I was proud of and if I couldn’t find a publisher that shared my vision, I could afford to go it alone. I went on the internet and looked up different ways to put out a book. During my research, I somehow got in contact with a guy named Charles who had a small publishing outfit. I asked him a lot of questions and I liked the way he answered them. Charles had great ideas about how to reorganize some of the material and we made an agreement that he would publish the book.
Charles had a colleague, Greg, who was a sculptor by trade, but also a photographer and an expert with Adobe publishing software. I spoke with Greg about what I wanted to do as far as getting high-quality images and he liked my ideas. I also think he and Charles were both excited to be paid a pretty decent chunk of money to take off from their day jobs and follow me around casinos taking photos. I booked them a flight to Las Vegas so we could spend some time together and I could show them my world.
When we were shooting photos in places like the Bellagio and the World Series of Poker, I told Greg to shoot whatever he thought was interesting, and if there were specific people I wanted to include in the book, I’d point them out. He went around on his own, snapping photos from an artist’s point of view. Some of the photos went along with ideas in the chapters and we tried to match the pictures to the text whenever we could. We even took a few field trips to the east coast to get shots at the casinos in Atlantic City and Connecticut.
Now, here’s something you probably don’t know about the photos in Ace on the River. In many of the shots, I’m actually hiding somewhere in the background—playing at a poker table, whispering in someone’s ear, or even riding a double-decker bus through New York City’s Times Square. It’s like “Where’s Waldo?” except this time, it’s “Where’s Barry?”
That’s how my book came to be, but it’s not the end of the story.