PokerNews Book Review: Fading Hearts on the River by Brooks Haxton
Isaac Haxton is one of the most popular poker players in the world. He’s amassed more than $9.3 million in live tournament earnings — including a runner-up finish to Phil Ivey in the 2014 Aussie Millions AU$250,000 Challenge for $2,525,841 — and millions more playing online. He’s a member of Team PokerStars Pro Online, a former chess prodigy, and a husband and a son.
Earlier this year, his father, Brooks Haxton, a noted poet and teacher from Syracuse, New York, released a family memoir titled Fading Hearts on the River: My Son’s Life in Poker. The book isn’t so much a biography of Isaac, though his childhood and rise in poker are well documented, but more a narrative on love, luck, and parenthood. Toss in philosophy, game theory, and poetry, and you have a tale of a father’s love woven from many different fabrics.
On its face, Fading Hearts on the River is a poker book, but it’s of a higher-brow variety. By that I mean it’s not your typical poker book; instead, it’s a memoir that is both challenging and thought-provoking. I can’t recall a poker book that matches the lyrical prose used in Fading Hearts on the River, and that’s because Brooks Haxton isn’t your typical poker author.
He’s published a dozen books, including poems and nonfiction, and has his work featured in such prestigious outlets as Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. In the literary world, Brooks Haxton is a force to be reckoned with, and poker is lucky to have him on their side.
Not only does Haxton lay bare the intimate details surrounding his family, he highlights the virtues of our game and the absurdity of those who would try to stop it. He takes aim at those who fail to see poker as anything less than financial strategy akin to investments and insurance, and is also highly critical of the events of Black Friday, which tore his family asunder as his son was forced to relocate halfway around the world to continue playing online poker.
Not only does Haxton tackle these issues, he does so in an educated and thorough manner. It’s difficult for non-poker players to capture the essence of the game, but Brooks Haxton has done as good a job as anyone I’ve ever seen.
I recently had the chance to speak with Haxton to talk about Fading Hearts on the River.
PokerNews: What inspired you to write Fading Hearts on the River?
Brooks Haxton: My son, Isaac. He surprised me. I was expecting, with a brain like his, maybe he would teach or do research. I’d been thinking this way for years. Then, suddenly, he was winning large sums of money in competition with the best poker players in the world. It was mind-boggling. Anything mind-boggling is always good to write about.
What was the initial reaction of Isaac, and the rest of your family for that matter, when you presented them with the idea?
A career in poker is a terrible idea for most people. But Isaac thought that playing poker full time would make sense for him, and his mother and I trusted his judgement. It was clear from the beginning that the book would celebrate his skill, and everybody in the family, including Isaac, thought that would be good.
Did you always intend on it being a memoir focusing on your family or did you flirt with other formats?
I’m always writing, and I’m always sniffing the air for subjects. The first few times I talked to Isaac about a poker book, I was thinking that the two of us might collaborate on a book about strategy. It dawned on me after a few years that the best book I could write would be a father’s account of how a gifted child becomes a world-ranking player. I asked Isaac if he would mind my writing a book like that, and he gave me the green light.
How did you set about writing this book? One would guess you spent considerable time interviewing both your son and daughter-in-law? How long did it all take?
I worked on it for three years. I interviewed Isaac and his wife Zoe both for hours at a time many times. They were terrific. They’re both good talkers and they both wanted to help me make the book as good as it could be. Their generosity made the whole process much more gratifying.
I’m especially grateful to Zoe for the way she trusted me. We talked for hours on end about her life with Isaac, and about her growing up. She and Isaac are great with each other, and she helped me understand things about the way they live that I couldn’t have seen without her. She’s insightful and articulate. She could be a first-rate writer herself. I feel lucky I got to know her in a way that wouldn't have been possible without the book as an excuse.
Isaac continues his ascent in the poker world. Why did you decide to release the book now? Did you ever consider holding off to see where his poker career goes next?
This has been Isaac's most successful year so far. He’s won $3.6 million in tournaments, and he's doing well online. Who knows? Next year could be bigger, or things could go south. Sound thinking in poker takes the long view. The timing of the book didn't seem crucial. I kept writing until I had a well-formed story, and I came to a stopping place.
I did suggest to Isaac, as a matter of timing, that he win the WSOP Main Event this year, just when the book was coming out, and he agreed that it would be a good idea, but then he didn’t execute. I can’t complain. He and Zoe helped big time with the last chapter when they decided to get married in a drive-thru chapel in Las Vegas. That was good timing.
How close are you and Isaac nowadays? Obviously he is on the poker circuit quite a bit
When he was little, I spent most of the day with him almost every day, and I loved it. I tried to talk him out of growing up, and it almost worked: he stills plays games all the time. Mostly, these days, we’re thousands of miles apart. Isaac’s main livelihood is playing poker online. For this he has had to live abroad since Black Friday. I hope the law changes and we can get together more often. It’s a ridiculous law. My main pleasure in writing this book, under the circumstances, was to spend more time with him in memory and imagination.
Along those same lines, the poker world knows the wear and tear traveling the poker circuit can have on a player, but can you give us a perspective from the other side? For instance, what sort of impact has had on your family? Do you still sweat his play from afar?
My wife and I follow Isaac’s tournament play online. If there’s a live stream, we watch when we can, and we follow the blogs. It’s fun when he’s on TV. We keep up with interviews. Isaac’s also been doing commentary for the past few years, and we like to listen to that. He’s good at describing what happens in world-class games, so the listener can follow without having to be an expert.
As for the emotional impact of his career on our family, mainly, it’s been a pleasure. Almost every year has been a success. The most difficult part is getting used to the way luck works. It’s hard to watch a competition where the skill of somebody you care about gets beaten by dumb luck so much of the time. In the long run, of course, skill is a big advantage, but some of the short-term results can take it out of you.
Did you present the idea for this book to the publisher before writing? If so, what was their response? If not, how hard or easy was it to sell them on the idea after it was written?
My agent, Matt MacGowan, had faith in what I wrote from the beginning. He was great. And my editor at Counterpoint, Rolph Blythe, connected right away. His help was brilliant.
First, though, I wrote the whole book on my own time, and showed it to no one except friends and family. After working for a few years as a writer on television and movie projects, collaborating with the producers and the director, I saw that I would do better without pressure from anyone who was looking for a different kind of thing. The best book I could write involved my vantage as a father close to his gifted son. The idea was to look at the poker world and at the game as way of life for someone I love.
You certainly do a good job presenting the poker world accurately, and I think the poker community appreciates that especially when the work is being circulated in mainstream literary circles. Was it important to you to project poker accurately?
Thank you. I’m happy when I hear that what I wrote makes sense to poker players. It’s amazing how much nonsense there is floating around out there. Perfectly intelligent people tell me that poker is ethically wrong. Meanwhile, these same people play money games of their own, with banking and insurance, investment brokers and so on, and they seem to think the way they like to play the odds is righteous. It’s absurd. “Everybody needs money,” as the guy says in the David Mamet script. “That’s why they call it money.”
Insurance makes good sense, of course, and so does poker. I see what Isaac likes about it. It’s a better fit for him than the insurance business, and it fascinates me. As a writer I describe what I find interesting.
Can we expect any other poker-related works from you in the future? If not, anything else coming down the pipeline?
I’m not writing about poker these days, but Isaac’s identical twin sisters are about to graduate from college. They have sharp mathematical minds, and Isaac says he could have them winning in competitive play with a little tutoring. That would be a good story. Don’t tell anybody I mentioned it.
For more from Brooks Haxton, check out this early video he shot of his son Isaac:
*Photos courtesy of brookshaxtonpoet.com.