Author Katy Lederer is the much younger sister of world-class poker players Howard Lederer and Annie Duke. Her most recent book, Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers, is a memoir about growing up in a family of game-playing East Coast intellectuals who found their salvation in gambling. In addition to recounting Katy’s younger years at the boarding school where her father taught English, the book describes her brother’s trouble-filled ascent from a two-bit losing gambler to a world-class poker player, her actress mother’s work in Howard’s sports bookkeeping operation, and her sister’s rapid rise from Columbia student to poker champion. It also talks about Katy’s struggle to support her writing career by earning a living at poker and the repeated attempts by experienced players to discourage that career path. (Erik Seidel tells her, “You can make something better than this. Money’s not that important.”)
Katy Lederer is a graduate of Berkeley as well as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. In addition to Poker Face, she has written a book of poetry entitled Winter Sex. She lives in New York City and is at work on another poetry collection.
Matt Borondy: At one point, your book talks about learning poker from Howard and Annie and trying to support your writing by playing the $3-6 tables at the Mirage. Eventually you gave that experiment up and focused your attention on your writing career. Do you still find the time to play poker?
Katy Lederer: I do, I do find time to play poker. It’s funny actually, because, in a way, I can’t seem get away from the game. When I went to Iowa, a few of the teachers there had a poker game, and I was somehow always known as "that girl who put her siblings through college playing poker." This was a hilarious reputation to have since, as you know, both of my siblings are quite a bit older than I and much much better poker players. When I moved to New York, the reputation just followed me, and I am regularly invited to play in home games, by writers in particular, though finance folk also invite me on occasion. Though I do not have the time (nor the inclination) to play in all of the games I’m invited to, I play pretty regularly in two games—one structured limit hold ‘em game composed of literary writers, and a small no-limit tournament game composed of some really fun comedy and advertising writers. Every couple of months, I find time to make it over to a no-limit tournament at one of the poker clubs here in New York.
MB: I’ve noticed your book is placed next to titles like Super/System and Caro’s Book of Tells at bookstores, which, along with your last name, probably contributes to your being mistaken as a world poker champ. Do you think it’s wrong that Poker Face is often shelved with Brunson, Sklansky, and the like? What does Poker Face have to offer the thousands of people who have become obsessed with poker by watching Howard and Annie on ESPN?
KL: Hmmm. Well the best answer to your question might be somewhat roundabout: when I started writing Poker Face in 2000, poker hadn’t yet made its mainstream debut on TV with such shows as the World Poker Tour and Celebrity Poker Showdown. Annie and Howard were pretty far from famous, unless you’re counting appearances in Card Player Magazine, and I was—believe it or not—worried that the book’s focus on poker would significantly limit its audience. This was a concern the book’s publisher had as well, and though we all agreed poker was cool, we by no means believed a literary memoir by a woman about her poker-playing family would sell. The timing of the whole poker explosion, therefore, couldn’t have been better.
In regard to your specific question about how the book is shelved, I am ambivalent about the fact it is often displayed next to classic how-to poker books. On the one hand, it’s always a good thing to be shelved anywhere in a bookstore, and sometimes booksellers will include the book in both the gambling and memoir sections, which is a positive for me. On the other hand, I by no means want poker fans looking for tips about the game to mistakenly pick up my book.
That said, I feel the book is pretty clearly what it is—a literary memoir by a poet who happens to be related to high-stakes gamblers (I don’t want to leave my mother out of this, by the way—if you recall from the book, she worked for my brother and Steve Z. for many years when they were regularly wagering millions of dollars on sports; she is very cool). As far as what the book might offer those obsessed with poker: it is an entertaining, often bittersweet narrative about a family that was fundamentally and dramatically transformed by the game. Indeed, I often describe the book as the story of how poker saved my family, and I think it is extremely interesting to think that, in some cases, vice might be, finally, more redemptive than virtue.
MB: Last night I watched a poker tourney on Fox that Howard was announcing, and right afterwards on ESPN I watched the rerun of the World Series of Poker Main Event episode that showed Howard and Annie getting knocked out. It seems like a member of your family is constantly on television these days either playing or talking about poker. Yet, as you mentioned, poker wasn’t a big deal a few years ago. Why do you think it has suddenly become so popular? Is it a simple matter of increased accessibility (the rise of internet poker, televised poker with hole-card cams, etc.), or is there something deeper going on that might relate to some of the issues in your book (vice as redemption, etc.)?
KL: In answer to your question, I would (as I always do when I’m asked this question) point to the following three things: (1) poker is a fantastic game; (2) in the past several years, reality television has become extremely popular. People love watching other people behave unusually in order to win a million dollars, and poker, at least as it’s presented currently, fits right into that; and (3) the lipstick cameras took the game to its logical next level. The old expression is that watching people play poker is like watching grass grow; this is no longer the case.
As far as vice and virtue, and other themes in my book, I think poker is a brilliantly dramatic game. It is also a game that engages both the head and heart. I do not think most people find virtue in vice, however. In fact, this particular dynamic is exactly what I feel is most unique about my family, its ability to turn the practice of vice into virtue (and vice versa, for that matter).
MB: The Chicago Tribune mentioned your book in a recent article about the Hollywoodization of poker. The story talked about how the big-name players, including Annie and Howard, are getting cosmetic surgery and refining their images for the cameras, and it mentioned how Annie has a talent agent, is on the cover of a video game, and is planning a book, a sitcom, and a movie based on her life. She says in the article that she’s "the right story at the right time" and is capitalizing on it while she can. What are your thoughts about the emergence of this poker star system? How has it affected your family?
KL: Hmm. This is a tough question, and a rich one. It seems to me it’s really three questions in one (what do I think about the "Hollywoodization of Poker," what do I think about my sister’s particular success, and how has all the hype affected members of my family).
Regarding the first, I must admit I have been underwhelmed by the effect that the television coverage has had on the players I have known through the years. People like Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Dan Harrington, and Steve Zolotow were making millions of dollars before the TV made poker so popular, and they’re making millions of dollars now; the glitz and the hype haven’t altered their images or lifestyles that much. Similarly with younger players like my brother, Phil Ivey, Erik Seidel, and John Hennigan—these guys are serious competitors, and I don’t think they’re inclined to curry favor with the press.
What the article you cite is really talking about, in my opinion, is the influx of trend-following neophytes who have come to the game through the television coverage itself. These are the people who have been affected most, not the serious players, who have always been grinding and grinding away—in ratty T-shirts or in fancy pants, what have you. As my sister points out in the article, among the serious players, makeovers, workout regimens, and/or plastic surgery would probably have happened regardless of the presence of the cameras. My sister would have worked to get her figure back after the kids, the several players who have undergone gastrointestinal bypass surgery, and the female players who have or will have boob jobs would have done so whether poker had hit the big time or not. Everyone in Vegas goes in for this kind of thing. I remember back when I lived in that city—back in 1995-96 and then again in 2001-02—thinking I must be the only woman in a twenty mile radius in possession of her natural breasts!
In regard to my sister in particular, I have not been pleased with
how she’s been presented in the press. The press in this country
is—sometimes subtly, sometimes rather blatantly—sexist.
When poker first became popular, she was the housewife with four
kids ("Mom Shuffles Kids and Cards," was one memorable
headline). Now that she’s lost the baby weight and gotten a divorce,
her image is changing, and in a way I find suspicious. My sister
is beautiful, brilliant, and compellingly complex. She is a powerful
role model for both women and men and I feel strongly that the press
is, whether consciously or not, subverting that power. (Though the
article above praises her "saltiness," for example, the
overall impression the reader gleans is that Annie is cynically
opportunistic; would a man be lauded in such an ambivalent fashion
for his forthright
I mean, the fact that there is this kind of pseudo-debate over who the "best female poker player in the world" is (Annie is often pitted against Jennifer Harman) is so grossly antifeminist. Have you ever heard anyone seriously ask who "the best male poker player" in the world would be? Poker is essentially an art form, and as with other art forms, it is crass to try to parse its practitioners out according to their gender (or their race or their sexual orientation, for that matter). I mean, here we have this wonderful game that is race- and gender-neutral—that draws no social or biological lines—and people can’t get over the fact that some of its top practitioners are women!
The third question you raise, as to how poker’s popularity has affected my family . . . Well, it may sound strange, but it hasn’t affected my family that much. I still have to work, and though I may get invited to more home games that I used to, my life after the book is the same. Annie and Howard are both getting lots of attention from the press, and their incomes have gone up (though not hugely significantly; it is important to remember that players pay their own entry fees for all of these tournaments you see on TV, not the networks). They are invited to bigger-stakes home games than they were in the past (stakes have gone up generally with the increase in players), and they get to fraternize with people like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Otherwise, the differences are small. They both have their families. They both have their friends and their habits and tastes. Not much has changed. I remember when I was writing my memoir and I was worried about what other people would think when they read it, and my mother, who can be this incredibly wise person, said that it really didn’t matter because strangers who read it would never meet me anyway, and people I knew were aware of my secrets. Nothing would be all that different, she said. And you know what? This has been exactly the case, not just for me, but for my siblings as well.
MB: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the similarities between writing and poker. Both require great technical proficiency, creativity, and empathy. And it’s really hard to earn a living at both. Since you’ve played a lot of poker and written a couple of books, I wanted to ask you: do you think it’s tougher, in general, for a poker player to earn a living by playing poker or for a writer to earn a living by writing?
KL: Gosh, this is a hard question. I think both professions are incredibly tough. I mean, I’d say there are only about, oh, a handful of literary writers out there who can make a really good living with their writing. Almost all of the "successful" writers I know actually make their livings by teaching and/or drawing on trust funds. In this, writing is a lot like poker. Only about thirty poker players I can think of make serious money year in and year out playing poker. The rest make a killing one year, lose the next, or lose all the time and lie about it. In both writing and poker, people either consciously or unconsciously exaggerate their financial successes and downplay their failures. Both writing and poker function as economies of status and prestige, and both require a survivalist’s iron will. That said, they both are such elegant and beautiful art forms. Both appear on the surface quite simple, and it is only after some time spent practicing them that it comes clear how incredibly complex they can be. The sign of both an expert writer and an expert poker player is that they make their respective endeavors look easy.
The thing is, neither pursuit is easy. It took my brother two years to make any money at all playing poker. It took me ten to become proficient enough at writing that I could pull off a full-length prose narrative. In both art forms, it is possible to make money in dribs and drabs—to do well intermittently. What separates the professionally successful in these fields from all the rest is their ability to stay steady, to have stamina. It is one thing to write a good sentence, another to write a good book. Similarly, it is one thing to play a single, phenomenal hand when the deck’s on your side, another to patiently wait when the deck has run cold. The person who can pull off the latter is the one who is eventually paid off.
MB: This interview is the first in a series about poker books on Identity Theory. What are some of the poker books you enjoy the most, and why?
KL: Well, I love Jim McManus’s book Positively Fifth Street, not only because it’s a terrific read, but also because I am quite moved by Jim as a person. I remember very vividly reading his book in Las Vegas. I had been stranded there for nearly a year after 9/11, and he was in town—for the launch of the World Poker Tour, actually. I was desperate for literary conversation and I kind of ambushed him and made him talk books with me over drinks, first at the Bellagio and later at the Paris. He was staying at the Paris, and he offered to show me his manuscript, which was nearly done. I spent the next day reading the entire thing through, and by the very end, I felt so incredibly moved. It was—and is—in my view, a story about mortality. The "Jim" of the book is so terrified of death, so terrified of meaninglessness. I find the ways in which the character seeks out meaning—through the excitement of strip clubs and gambling, through all of that Las Vegas sleaze—fascinating.
I also adore—how could anyone not—A. Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town. His style is so elegant, so economical and grand at once. And he really captures a world that I got a small taste of—the tail end, of course—when my brother first started playing poker twenty years ago. It is a genius book, Alvarez’s book. So clean and pure and true. It has the breathtaking accuracy of a poetic masterpiece combined with the nerve of an article done on the fly.
I do like many other poker books as well: how-to’s like the Sklansky Books, Caro’s Book of Poker Tells, Doyle’s book; I also like the work of Jesse May, Andy Bellin, and Michael Konik. In the end, though, I’m more interested in the writing than in the content per se (good writing can be about wallpaper and I’ll devour it). In this regard, I also recommend The Music of Chance, by Paul Auster, and Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, of course.
MB: You’ve written two completely different books: an erotic poetry collection (Winter Sex) and a family memoir (Poker Face). What can we expect from you next? A cookbook?
KL: I’m currently working on another poetry book, tentatively titled The Heaven-Sent Leaf. It’s all about money—pastorals of money—and working in New York. Urban pastorals, really, in the lineage of Whitman and Oppen and Schuyler. The work clearly comes out of my work on the memoir, the themes I was thinking about while writing that: the erotics of money and life in the city, the aesthetics of ambivalence and worry. I am also currently interested in cognitive therapy (both its practice and its underlying ethos)—writing some narrative nonfiction about that world—as well as in the hospital system in New York, how it works and doesn’t work. Been reading Janet Malcolm’s books on psychoanalysis—brilliant!—and some poetry books: Turneresque, by Elizabeth Willis, Miss America and Macular Hole, by Cathy Wagner; re-reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.