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PokerNews Book Review: Alligator Blood by James Leighton

James Leighton, author of Alligator Blood

Positively Fifth Street, Big Deal, and One of a Kind. What do these works have in common? They’re among the best poker narratives ever written. After reading James Leighton’s new book, Alligator Blood, I can confidently tell you to add it to the list of all-time greatest poker books.

The book, which was released in the U.K. last month by Simon & Schuster Ltd., focuses on the story of Daniel Tzvetkoff, the man who rose to the top of the payment processing world and subsequently fell from his multi-million dollar lifestyle. The Australian is also one of the most hated people in the realm of online poker. That’s because he is branded as the man who made Black Friday possible by turning state’s witness.

The specifics surrounding payment processing and how it ultimately led to the collapse of online poker is exceedingly convoluted, but Leighton, the author of Duncan Edwards—The Greatest and Life is a Game of Inches, does an absolutely amazing job of making sense of it all while explaining it to the reader in a simple and entertaining manner.

To put it in perspective, I’m a poker journalist and feel I have a much better understanding of the whole debacle thanks to this book. Interestingly, those who have focused their hatred on Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson and Ray Bitar might want to give this book a read to learn about some of the other men responsible for unintentionally bringing down online poker—I guarantee you’ll read about some characters you’re not familiar with.

Alligator Blood accomplished the rare of feat of both educating and entertaining. Tzvetkoff’s story is compellingly addictive, especially when Leighton spices it up with some of poker’s juiciest stories such as the UB/AP cheating scandal, Chris Moneymaker igniting the poker boom, and the rise of online legend Viktor “Isildur1” Blom. It seems like it’d be a disconnected and jumbled mess, but somehow it all comes together to create a narrative worth savouring.

I won’t delve anymore into the book because I actually had the chance to speak with Leighton and ask a few questions about Alligator Blood. I believe his answers help shed some light on some of the book’s more fascinating aspects.

Holloway: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. What inspired you to write this book?

Leighton: The inspiration actually came out of the blue. I had just wrapped up my biography on Manchester United legend, Duncan Edwards, and was looking for a new project to sink my teeth into. As I had previously focused on soccer books I was again looking into that genre, but when I read the newspaper I caught sight of a scarcely believable story regarding Daniel Tzvetkoff and his epic rise and fall. It sounded like something straight out of a movie. I couldn’t believe it. What made it even more alluring was that I was a big poker fan so the chance to write a story, which revolved around poker, Vegas and the FBI, was too good to walk away from. Thankfully, after I pitched the idea to my publishers, they were as excited about it as I was.

Where did the name Alligator Blood come from?

When I was at university I was obsessed with the movie Rounders and would watch it religiously. That was where I first picked up the phrase Alligator Blood, which according to the Poker Encyclopedia describes ‘a player whose play is bold and aggressive.’ When I was wracking my brain for a title I thought that not only did that phrase sound pretty cool but that it was an apt way to describe Daniel Tzvetkoff and the online poker industry.

What sort of research did you do for the book? Can you describe the timeline a bit?

PokerNews Book Review: Alligator Blood by James Leighton 101

Initially I needed to build up a solid foundation so I scoured the Internet for everything that had been written about Daniel Tzvetkoff and the collapse of online poker. I also reached out to as many people as possible on poker forums, Twitter, Facebook etc. to get their opinions on what had occurred. After I had a rudimentary grasp of Daniel’s life, and the online poker world, I then started trying to line up as many interviews as possible from people who actually witnessed the events that had occurred or were affected by them.

Thankfully I received a good response. As such I met with various individuals in Europe, Australia and the USA so they could give me the low down. Not only were they extremely generous with their time but they also gave me unprecedented access to court documents, affidavits, emails, contracts, photographs, accounts and anything else that may have been of interest. This was the key. While I was happy to speak to people who were directly involved this mountain of evidence really allowed me to determine what had actually occurred, and at times it was far from the picture that had previously been portrayed.

Were you able to meet/interview any of the other prominent characters written about in the book?

I had varying degrees of contact with everyone mentioned in the book. Some were far more forthcoming than others and helped me in any way that they could, while others were more guarded or tried to frustrate the process at every turn. It was an incredible challenge trying to get to the bottom of the story as not only was there thousands of documents to sort through but it was also clear that some individuals were hell bent on attempting to block the story or to confuse certain events. As such I had to spend a tremendous amount of time going over everything with a fine-tooth comb, ensuring that everything was backed up by more than one source in order to feel completely confident in what I was writing. In the end I think I have written a balanced account of what occurred, as well as offering various parties differing opinions, which should allow the reader to ultimately make their own minds up.

The book is full of drama and suspense, which is a little surprising given the topic. How did you go about making it that way? I assume much of the dialogue was created for dramatic purposes?

While the payment processing world is a fascinating one I didn’t think that readers wanted to know everything about it in excruciating detail. I therefore took the decision to give readers the most vital bits of information, which would allow them to understand the story, and then to spend as much time as possible focusing on the characters. Indeed, I was lucky that the characters were so interesting and had all led lives full of drama. It was almost like a perfect storm. If just one of these characters hadn’t been around then perhaps things wouldn’t have turned out the way it did. Together they were an extremely volatile mix, which thankfully made for a great story.

As much as possible I tried to base the dialogue on what had actually been said. This is obviously difficult after so much time has passed but thankfully I had some great sources to help me. I was not only able to speak to sources who were actually directly involved in certain situations but court affidavits/transcripts and emails also revealed some conversations in detail. However, in some cases it was necessary to base dialogue on what the characters intentions were at that time, which was tellingly revealed in emails or FBI affidavits.

While the main narrative centers around Tzvetkoff, you inject some of your own personal experience/interviews in helping flesh out the story. What led to that stylistic decision?

When I first started researching the book my intention was to focus just on Tzvetkoff’s story, as to me that seemed to be the main thread regarding the rise and fall of online poker. However, as I delved deeper into some of the major events in online poker history I couldn’t believe it. Some stories, such as Moneymaker’s WSOP win, and the Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker cheating scandals, were worthy of a book or movie in themselves. I realized that not only would these stories be fascinating to those who knew nothing about online poker but that they could also help complement the main narrative. As such, by the end of the book, I hope that by focusing on Tzvetkoff’s story, as well as on the major moments in online poker history, it will allow all readers to understand how and why online poker exploded and imploded.

There are some pictures included in the book. Where did those come from?

Daniel Tzvetkoff posing with his partner, Sam Sciacca.
Daniel Tzvetkoff posing with his partner, Sam Sciacca.

I was really keen to get some pictures in the book as without photographic evidence some readers might find some events difficult to believe. I therefore reached out to as many sources as possible to see if they could help me. Thankfully they had some fantastic pictures which I think really helps add to the story and also allows readers to actually visualize some of the characters.

What was your favorite part about writing the book and why?

Without a doubt my favorite part was being at the Main Event of the World Series in 2012. I had been to Vegas many times before but had never actually attended the WSOP and I found it absolutely incredible. The buzz around the place blew me away, as did the array of colorful characters, professional and amateur, who were all bidding to become the world champion. I really think it is a unique sporting event that is unmatched. I am just sorry that I didn’t have time to play but I am desperate to enter the event itself at some point as while it was amazing just to watch from the rails it must be another matter altogether to actually be taking part. That’s the incredible thing about the WSOP that those outside the game don’t understand, absolutely anyone can enter. It’s like giving a football fan a chance at taking the field in the Super Bowl!

Do you have plans for any other poker-related books in the near future?

I think the poker world has so many amazing stories, and outlandish characters, that it is certainly something I would consider. Plus poker related books always tend to involve ‘research’ trips to Vegas, which is always most welcome. However, for my next book I am currently moving away from poker to focus on another juicy story that has blown me away.

There is a new film, Runner Runner starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, coming out in October that centers on online poker, payment processing, riches and corruption. Are you aware of this film? Is there any overlap between the book and film?

I actually can’t wait to see this film as it has been written by the brilliant Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who of course wrote Rounders. I was actually lucky enough to read the script recently as well and it’s as good as I had hoped. However, there is no real overlap with Alligator Blood. It instead seems to have more in common with the Absolute Poker cheating scandal. In any event, it’s great that so many online poker related projects are now entering the mainstream as it gives the industry some much needed attention and keeps the legalization debate alive.

Any chance we see Alligator Blood made into a movie?

There has actually been quite a lot of interest in the movie rights already, even though the book has not yet been released. Hopefully I will have more news on that shortly but it’s obviously tremendously exciting to have people in Hollywood being so enthusiastic.

Where can people get their copy of Alligator Blood?

My publishers are just finalizing international release details so I should have an announcement on that very shortly. If people want more information they can find me on twitter at @jamesL1927 where I will be releasing all of the release news as soon as I have it.

For more on Alligator Blood, and to order your copy, visit PokerNews' Book Section.

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