Pop Poker: Holden says 'Too Few Great Poker Movies'

anthony holden
Anthony Holden is one of the most highly regarded poker writers on the planet.

Fans of great poker writing know Anthony Holden well. Or if they don’t, they should.

Among his biographies of Shakespeare, Tchiakovsky, and members of the Royal family -- as well as numerous other titles on literature, opera, and other subjects -- are some of the most well-regarded examples of poker writing produced.

(1990) describing his year-long odyssey to live the life of a professional poker player is rightly considered a classic belonging among the short list of “must read” poker narratives.

His post-boom follow-up Bigger Deal (2007) and Holden on Hold’em (2008) are also highly recommended, the latter additionally incorporating discussions of strategy amid insightful observations about our favorite card game.

Given Holden’s knowledge of the game and its history, I thought it would be interesting to ask him a few questions about poker’s place in popular culture as well as to get an update on his involvement with the ever-growing International Federation of Poker.

PokerListings: You presently serve as the president of the International Federation of Poker. For those who aren’t familiar, what is the IFP?

Anthony Holden: Since its foundation in April 2009 under the Swiss Civil Code in Lausanne, home of the International Olympic Committee and many international sports federations, the non-profit International Federation of Poker (IFP) has grown in scope and stature towards serving as the global governing body for poker.

Having evolved from its original seven member-nations to almost 50 federations from five different continents, IFP is now the hub for a thriving world poker community.

Beyond its role in organizing major international tournaments, IFP will compile international rankings with separate national classifications and offer players from around the world the chance to compete (for no buy-in) in major regional and global championships.

Marcel Luske
The IFP worked with Marcel Luske to develop their tournament rules.

PL: The IFP does a lot of work to promote poker as a skill game, correct?

AH: That’s right. While the size and scope of IFP keeps expanding, the goal remains the same: to promote poker and its “Match” (or duplicate) team variation as a mind sport, without any discrimination as to race, sex, creed, or disability; and to highlight the element of skill involved in poker, as well as the talent, determination and ingenuity required to succeed.

Earlier this year, as just one example, we formed IFP Books to publish The Rules of Poker, our standardized version of those vexed issues for international use, on which we have worked with the TDA and Marcel Luske’s FIDPA with the aim of securing their endorsement of future editions.

This is just one of the many roles of an international sports federation now being fulfilled by IFP.

PL: I know the IFP frequently employs the term “mind sport” to refer to poker and aligns itself with other organizations representing games like chess, bridge and Go. What is meant by that term “mind sport” and how is poker an example?

AH: Yes, in 2010 IFP became an observer member of the International Mind Sports Association (IMSA), pending membership of SportAccord, the general assembly of international sports federations, with whom we are currently working towards poker’s acceptance as a mind sport.

Basically, this means a definition of poker as a game of strategic skill more than chance, which I am sure most proficient players would agree with.

We are working closely with the Federation leaders of chess, bridge, draughts and Go to forge stronger ties and work together towards common goals.

At Harvard University we have been instrumental in the foundation of a Global Mind Sports Research Network, under the leadership of the senior professor of law at Harvard Law School, Charles Nesson, who was the keynote speaker at our 2011 annual Congress in London’s County Hall.

With the help of MIT’s media lab, we are developing a mind sports “package” for schools and libraries, to help children with numeracy and similar skills from a young age and, at the other end of life to use the proven powers of mind sports to ward off such hazards as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Anthony holden 2
Anthony Holden (Photo courtesy of PokerStars Blog)

PL: That’s terrific. So it sounds like one of the IFP’s goals, then, would be to try to change poker’s place in our culture (in a positive way)?

AH: Yes, of course, that is perhaps our central mission. We all know that poker’s history – from its prominence in old western movies to the fact that it is still played primarily in casinos ­– has given it a somewhat shady reputation, directly associated with gambling.

But by promoting poker purely for the love of the game, and Match Poker as a new variant for national teams, IFP aspires to make poker as respectable as chess and bridge – which themselves were once regarded as gambling games.

There is no reason why poker should not reach the same level of acceptance as a game of mental skill and agility, so that governments around the world can separate it from gaming legislation.

PL: Speaking of the history of poker, all three of your poker books discuss both your own play as well as the history of the game. What are some of your favorite poker books/authors?

AH: Doyle Brunson’s SuperSystem -- then called How I Won A Million Dollars Playing Poker ­-- was my bible in the 1980s, at the time of Big Deal, when there were few other manuals beyond the excellent theoretical works of David Sklansky.

In the last couple of decades, of course, manuals have proliferated out of control.

My personal preference is for “narrative” poker books such as those by James McManus, Michael Craig, Peter Alson and Victoria Coren -- all of them, I’m pleased to say, good friends of mine.

I’m awestruck by the research and narrative style of Craig’s The Professor, The Banker and the Suicide King, and the scholarship behind McManus’ Cowboys Full, a majestic history of poker, written by a true lover of the game (and of course, like Craig, no mean player) with a panoramic historical sweep, showing poker’s relevance to major historical events.

PL: Among the topics discussed in Big Deal is how poker has been depicted in film. What movies stand out for you as particularly effective in the way they use poker?  

cincinnati kid
The Cincinnati Kid stands out as one of the greats.

AH: The Cincinnati Kid is a great movie, the best about the poker life “on the road” in the old days, but it really is ruined by that absurd climactic hand.

Why couldn’t they have had trips beating two pair, or even flush over straight?

I fear that Hollywood screenwriters of all eras, despite in many cases being poker players themselves, live in dread of the movie audience’s ignorance of the ranking of hands.

Even recent films like Lucky You fall into this trap, for all the fun of having real pros playing themselves.

There are all too few great poker movies, I’m sad to say, the best of a mixed bunch in recent years being Rounders, which does manage to capture the crazy roller-coaster ride that is the life of anyone who relies on poker for a living.

I also have a soft spot for Big Hand for a Little Lady, though no table would ever let Joanne Woodward take her hand across the street to the bank for a loan!

PL: What’s next for you and the IFP?  

AH: As we continue to build a global community of poker players, and stage terrestrial tournaments to bring them together, we are also developing an online membership platform which will provide many benefits for members, from educational elements at the “IFP University” to the ability to play “par poker” against robots developed for us by the University of Alberta.

This will also serve as the place to qualify for our annual world championship, The Table, as well as providing rankings, both national and international, and giving players the chance to form their own leagues, large and small.

The IFP membership platform, in short, will be an online poker universe, quite different from the existing online platforms, enabling our global community to come together online in between IFP events.

It will also enable different nations to compare notes regarding legal (and other) problems that currently beset poker, helping IFP achieve its objective of seeing the game recognized as a mind sport of strategic skill, properly regulated in the way any other sport is governed by its own international federation.

Meanwhile, since you ask, I’m slowly writing some memoirs, of which all this will (I hope) be the final chapter.

Much thanks to Anthony Holden for taking the time.

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