ANTHONY HOLDEN raises the specter of obsession exactly once in his new book, Bigger Deal

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ANTHONY HOLDEN raises the specter of obsession exactly once in his new book, "Bigger Deal," and then only obliquely. The date is August 2000, and his biography of William Shakespeare has just been savaged by the New York Times. His American wife wants a divorce; the transplanted Londoner is stranded in Manhattan. One evening, he decides he has a "straightforward choice between poker and suicide." He chooses poker.

"Such placebos, of course, generally don't work in radical crises," Holden admits, "but this one, miraculously, did -- at least for that wretched evening. It's something to do with the degree of tunnel vision required in a game where the stakes are high enough and the dangers attendant upon letting your mind wander even for a moment."

It's not addiction, although it comes close. This "therapeutic" and sentimental force that renders most of his world a baize is love, actually.

It began in 1988. Holden, a career journalist and the author of biographies of Tchaikovsky and Sir Laurence Olivier, chronicled a year in the life of a professional poker player. The resulting 1990 book, "Big Deal: A Year as a Professional Poker Player," won him a regular column for Esquire magazine, a BBC documentary and a good deal of fame.

But as Holden writes in his arresting sequel, "Bigger Deal," a card shark can hardly be content to rest on his laurels. By 2005, he is getting restless; the wife is gone, the alimony is paid, and he's moved back to London to write about classical music. He competes in a few small tournaments but can't shake the feeling that "with guile, perception, courage and grit -- between them, a definition of what the top players call 'heart' -- anyone can bend the odds in their favour and learn to beat the game."

It's time, in other words, to hit the road. So on July 7, 2005, Holden arrives at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, intent on breaking into the winner's circle. "Big Deal" had chronicled a game rooted in manners, morals and artistry. Nearly 20 years later, American tournaments, Holden quickly discovers, have become noisy and chaotic affairs, played by thousands of Web-weaned twentysomethings huddled under bright lights in sprawling conference halls. These players are impulsive, brash and fast, and in large numbers, brash and fast can -- depending on the draw -- run roughshod over experience and craft.


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