Fading Hearts on the River: A Life in High Stakes Poker
(Counterpoint Press, 2014)
In the fall of 2007 I entered Syracuse University’s M.F.A. in Poetry program, up in Syracuse, New York. My first workshop leader was Brooks Haxton. The six of us that year had been admitted into the program, ostensibly, because we showed some talent. Brooks’s role was to disabuse us all of the notion that talent is any kind of replacement for effort when wresting images into the kind of muscular language that makes poetry. It wasn’t an easy class to take, and it must not have been easy to teach, not the least because poetry also is (or can be) about risk, and most of us felt we had a great deal at stake in the poems we brought in.
Brooks, a tall man with a mild Southern accent, was well suited for these lessons in effort and risk. He brought a frightening intellect and a resolve toward the highest levels of precision. In one poem, for instance, which described opening a kitchen drawer and finding a host of dead bees, he averred that bees don’t tend to cluster in such a way, and perhaps the poet was actually referring to a type of bee-like fly, probably from the genus Dasylechia (memory fails me on the exact genus he mentioned; I looked this up). It was clear that Brooks took our work very seriously, and understood that the stakes were high.
Occasionally, Brooks would host games of poker, which he took seriously as well, if the stakes weren’t nearly as high. I felt successful if I didn’t lose everything by the end of the night. At one of these games he mentioned that his son, Isaac, had left Brown to play professionally. Really? Professional poker? How was he doing? “Oh, not bad,” Brooks replied, offhandedly. “He won over $800,000 last year.”
It was with that number in my head and a certain built-in curiosity that I grabbed a copy of Brooks’s first prose book, Fading Hearts on the River, a memoir about Isaac and poker. The book begins with a game at the Atlantis Casino, in the Bahamas, after Isaac has made it to the final round. First place prize is over $1.5 million. Second place is $800,000. As Brooks puts it: “The sum they would be divvying up in the next few hands was not quite $2.4 million. But it was slightly more than $2.397 million, $44 more. In my home game no one has ever won as much as $44.”
Brooks takes the reader through that final game, detailing some astounding twists of both fate and skill. Poker is a game of bluffs and gamesmanship, but players have to be able to instantly make complex calculations about probability and the risks they are taking, and Brooks moves lucidly through the numbers to highlight the tensions that make high-level poker exciting. After several close calls, Isaac loses the round and comes in second, winning the aforementioned eight hundred grand.
At this point, Fading Hearts expands the scope of its focus. Brooks writes about Isaac as a young child, first a toddler, and then a little boy with a frightening intellect of his own. On car rides, a young Isaac would pester his father for math problems to solve. Once, in an effort to stump him, Brooks offers the basic “trains leave two stations a thousand miles apart” time / distance / speed problem. After a long silence, Isaac finally says he can’t figure out the answer. As Brooks writes:
I felt guilty, of course, for dampening his enthusiasm. It was OK. It was a tough problem. It was something he’d learn about in junior high school.
He said, All right. But he knew, at five o’clock, the fast train had gone six hundred miles and the regular train had gone three hundred miles. That was nine hundred miles. So it had to be after five, but it was before six. At six they had gone too far. He said that was as close as he could get. He was four. He had done this in his head, using the only tool he had for the job, addition. I talked him through the rest.
The passages about Isaac’s talents are very interesting, but Brooks writes most movingly about his son’s appetite for risk and his choice to spend what can only be called obsessive amounts of time playing something that is ultimately, of course, just a game. Brooks compares it with his own long-odds decision to become a professional poet. The comparison, in Brooks’s book, is favorable, but it’s not simple: what does it mean to choose a profession in which the chances of losing are so great? What does it mean to choose a career in which all your hours of work go more or less unnoticed, and which, win or lose, you’re guaranteed to be, as Yeats puts it, “thought an idler by the noisy set / of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen?”
Though Isaac travels around the world staying in nice hotels and eating amazing meals, Fading Hearts doesn’t make the life of a professional poker player out to be glamorous. Like any other job, there are parts that are a real grind. But Isaac also risks quite a lot of money—both on and off the table, and Brooks tries to understand what it means to watch more money than he has ever made from all his years of teaching and writing pass through his son’s hands. The $800,000 that Isaac wins at the beginning ends up being seized by the federal government as part of an investigation, in part because the legality of online poker playing is in question. No one disputes that he won the money legally, but when his funds are seized, it’s unclear if he’ll get his winnings back. Yet Isaac is still required to pay taxes on it. And that’s not the only money he loses, of course. At one point Isaac has the dubious title of having lost more money in a single sitting online than anyone else in the world. It can take him months to win back sums that he has lost in hours.
Brooks writes that he doesn’t have the stomach for the kinds of risk that Isaac regularly takes. This may be true, in a certain sense. Isaac has won and lost more money than Brooks has ever earned several times over. But with Fading Hearts Brooks has wagered something much more personal: that he can take the details of his and his family’s life and turn them not just into a readable narrative, but an illuminating meditation on talent, luck, fatherhood, and the pleasures of the game. It’s a big bet, but he’s built a strong hand.
CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a freelance writer, poet, runner, father, and Brooklyn transplant currently living in the small-town wilds of Eastern Pennsylvania.