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Worlds of online poker and publishing collide

"Pocket Kings" is the kind of reading fun that offers nutritional value and not just empty calories. Ted Heller's third novel is a satirical, charming literary ride about literary rides and the sausage-making machinery that results in best-sellerdom and movie deals. It's also about poker, social media, addiction and hope.

Poker drives this story, but not the face-to-face variety that's so last century. It's online poker that's the mise-en-scene here, a world sharing characteristics with other Internet-based social tools -- fertile gold-rush territory for both those hungering for connection and those trolling for victims. Both of those profiles are present -- sometimes in the same person -- in this engaging, down-to-earth, at least slightly autobiographical novel.

Heller, son of Joseph Heller, is disarmingly frank about this book's roots in his own life. Its protagonist is a novelist who's published two books and thought he was on the rocket to stardom, but no one wants his third book; and any possibility of "success" is disappearing as fast as his previous novels from Amazon's sales rankings. His profile mirrors reality for most literary writers today, even well-published ones: They still need a day job.

Heller says, " 'Pocket Kings' is my third published novel but must be something like the 13th or 14th book that I have written. I lost count a while ago and think that if I knew the exact number of books I wrote that have never gotten published, my heart would break."

Heller, like his protagonist, developed his online poker interest thanks to kismet: in his case, reading the James McManus book "Positively Fifth Street" and being intrigued by its online poker references. He had little experience of the game itself, but he found himself drawn into the online world and became a regular, interacting with the same people online every day and developing relations with them.

In the case of that protagonist, Frank W. Dixon (just like the "author" of "The Hardy Boys" mysteries, written pseudonymously by a stable of writers), his online poker jones results from a chance encounter between him and his wife and two strangers as they all sit at a Las Vegas craps table. One of the strangers says, "Hey, you know who you look a lot like?" to the wife. "The Dragon Lady on the Poker Galaxy site."

Curious, Frank checks out the site, at first just watching and getting mesmerized by the graphics and sound, but also noticing the money rapidly changing hands and thinking "hmmm." He dips a toe in the water, playing for fake money, and is good at it. He wades in farther, where real money is at stake. And, he wins. As it turns out, this guy who increasingly feels he's a failure at everything finds a thing he's really, really good at.

Paralleling his deepening immersion in the 2 4/7 world of online gambling is Frank's attempt to get his third novel published. Frustrations on one side are ameliorated by rewards on the other: Frank wins more and more, real money, at the same time that he strikes out, over and over, in a cascading scale of humiliation related to his new manuscript and to his previous books' increasing slide toward oblivion.

Frank has a job, but reduces his hours to half time, to allow more poker time, and eventually quits. However, he doesn't tell his wife at either transition point. He becomes addicted to the game and also to the people with whom he regularly plays and kibitzes -- Wolverine Mommy and Toll House Cookie, Second Gunman and History Babe, Ante Maim, Bjorn 2 Win and Artsy Painter Gal and other noms de game (his is Chip Zero) adopted by players.

He pretends to go to work every day but instead returns to sit in his apartment's dark living room at his laptop, on "the Galaxy." Second Gunman and he strike up a simpatico relation, and he also bonds flirtatiously with Artsy Painter Gal. He feeds on the attention and connection and the winning, as his "stack" -- the symbolic online icon representing his actual winnings -- climbs steadily upward: eventually reaching almost $500,000 in less than a year (the basic length of the story).

Frank evolves into a large (he describes himself as "James Gandolfini in the first year of 'The Sopranos' but with more hair") ball of obsession and impulsiveness, exacerbated by alcohol, resulting in increasingly bad, but funny, decisions in the real world, with similarly unfortunate-but-entertaining consequences. Although the online poker world is a nest of illusions, the money is a stunning fact. At the same time, his reality of being a novelist becomes increasingly ephemeral and unreal to him and to others.

Things get weird. Worlds collide, like matter and antimatter coming together in a series of increasingly big bangs. Online aliases become real people: Second Gunman comes to visit, Artsy Painter Gal and Frank develop a thing he thinks can't be contained on screens and keyboards.

Then, fueled by alcohol and pills and delusions and ego, he crashes hard, when the online poker world and the literary world both explode in his face, and he's screwed and forced to start over everywhere, from marriage to bank account to the blank page. But start over he does, clean and in control, and, in the book's final words, "a winner again."

Frank's take on mainstream publishing and Hollywood is funny, if still picking off low-hanging fruit: for example, a screenplay that's sold for $1 million is " 'Metropolis' meets 'Wedding Crashers' meets the lighter, funnier parts of 'Shoah.' " The real funny part is that Frank has the chance to co-write that screenplay and doesn't, and it's his comic mistakes and his eventual hard-won, wry wisdom about himself that save him as a person and as a character.

He's a funny guy and entertaining company for 315 pages.

Ed Taylor is a Buffalo poet and freelance writer and critic.

***

Pocket Kings
By Ted Heller
Algonquin
315 pages, $13.95 paper