Shut Up and Deal is a novel that explores the world of the compulsive, yet professional, high limit poker player. This fictional account chronicles a piece of the life of a young poker pro named Mickey as he struggles to keep himself in the black, but more importantly in action, over the course of several months.
Shut Up and Deal has engendered a great deal of controversy in knowledgeable poker circles. Folks seem to love or hate the book, but few are indifferent to it. It’s not a book on how to play poker, nor is it long in conventional literary stylings. For example, the book is almost completely devoid of theme and is very light on plot. Only one character is developed. It’s a narrative, and one that doesn’t go anywhere, although that’s partly the point. The protagonist spends most of the book spinning his wheels, but in his mind, that’s a victory, because his ambition seems to be just to stay in the game.
The book is written in a “conversational” style, although the voice of the conversation, Mickey talking to the audience, draws out sentences and rambles almost aimlessly. Unpleasant is far too strong a word for my impression of the prose, but I have to admit that I never did get into its rhythm. This is despite my being a fan of the great stream-of-consciousness writers, like Hunter Thompson and William Burroughs, that May seems to borrow from. It may very well be my failing for not getting the flow right in my own mind, as writer (and poker player) Tony Holden indicates that he thinks May is skilled in this regard.
The poker, however, is accurate. At least as much as we get to see of it, which isn’t in much detail. May has convinced me that he has spent time around these games, at the very least. If anyone wants to get inside the head of a high stakes compulsive gambler, they’ll find an avenue here. Why do folks do it? What drives a person to play big at almost any cost? What’s the need that gets filled? Those who haven’t experienced it will probably never know for certain, but this is as close as most are likely to get, at least without a five figure bankroll.
Overall, though, my reaction to Shut Up and Deal is best summed up as tepid. I didn’t despise the book, nor did I consider it a waste of time, but it didn’t excite me either. I certainly can’t recommend it as highly as Holden’s first rate Big Deal, which I think is much more compelling, irrespective of the fact that it’s also a true story. Maybe it’s just the lack of conventional plot, or the lack of any strong themes or lessons to be learned, or maybe even its that the psychology is described, but the poker action never is that gets to me, I don’t know.
In any event, anyone who enjoys reading about the world of ป๊อกเด้ง ไฮโล gambling and the attitudes that surround it will probably get into this book, at least enough to make it worth reading. For those who want either more substantive literature or compelling poker, read Big Deal first, then trek down to the local card room and check out the action for oneself.
I seem to be one of the few who had a lukewarm reaction to Shut Up and Deal. On the one hand, it is a compelling psychological look into the life of a high stakes poker player whose life revolves around being in action. On the other hand, for me the book held almost nothing else of interest, including no interesting writing and almost no plot whatsoever. Either way, I don’t feel the book is a waste of time, but I believe there is a lot of writing on the topic of much higher quality. As a case study, it’s my opinion that this book is ultimately more of a study on addiction than poker.