I did not expect to like this book. The back cover seemed to promise a retelling of Bringing Down the House with some teenage poker players instead of MIT blackjack team members. That is not what happened to the Holla Ballas. Then I saw the authors' note, "some names and details have changed." That might mean minor characters had names and minor details changed to protect their privacy, or it could be an out-and-out fictionalization with composite characters, the story changed to make it more exciting, with some made up stuff as well.
The only reason I opened it at all is the back cover features three of my favorite writers in what might be loosely categorized as this genre, James McManus, Michael Craig and Bruce Porter. While Grotenstein and Reback are not in the class of those three as non-fiction stylists, they got hold of a great story and have told it with honesty and insight. I don't know what they changed, I witnessed a few things in the book and heard about others, all seem to be described with as much accuracy as sincere recollection by the participants can give.
Contrary to the hype, this is not a story of kids "partying like rock stars." They party like middle-American conventioneers in Las Vegas, or like nerdy frat boys who came into a small windfall. They don't even party that much (adjusted for age and profession). Almost all their energy goes into a very demanding activity. They did not "bluff" their way to the top of the game, and they were certainly not the "loudest, craziest, richest" crew in poker. They were louder than most, less crazy than average and pretty darn rich--especially if you add up each player at his peak--for kids under 25 without inherited money or jobs, but there are a lot of far richer people. What distinguished them were quiet activities for which sanity is essential: playing careful, thoughtful, high-frequency poker and building on-line identities that grew into important networks.
Fifteen years ago poker was legal in only a few places in the US, casinos hated the game (someone in the building was losing money, and the casino wasn't getting it), the World Series of Poker was a casino publicity stunt, few people could name a professional poker player, the popular poker books were written by bridge players or mathematicians with little understanding of the game and the only Internet poker was the IRC Usenet group for play money stakes. That was all about to change, with enormous social repercussions.
This book has carved out an important thread of the story of the poker boom, which was in part an Internet and social networking boom. Some rootless kids found they had spectacular skills in the strange new world of on-line poker, skills that had not been obvious in their prior lives. They had to learn to navigate this world and exploit those skills without the ballast of maturity or much in the way of experienced guides. How they did it, where they went right and wrong, and what older parts of the poker world proved relevant makes fascinating reading.
This book has obvious appeal for anyone interested in the development of poker in the 21st century, but I also recommend it for anyone interested in human nature. The pace of social change will only increase and more and more talented people will form their adult identities far from adult supervision. This book might give a little insight into the possible consequences of that. It's a pleasant, easy read, and a much deeper topic than it seems.