Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2006 | Reviews

Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers by Katy Lederer

By Kathryn Howe

Sweating under the casino lights of Las Vegas, Katy Lederer grips a surely unbeatable full house. She stares at her opponent, a merciless poker player she calls Mealy Joe.

Elderly with pasty, pockmarked skin—hence the name Mealy Joe—this crusty fellow matches Katy's every move until he shocks her with a better hand and giddily takes her money.

It's another demoralizing moment at the low-stakes table. Losing to Mealy Joe is a blow to a young woman floundering in the shadows of her larger-than-life siblings, Howard Lederer and Annie Duke, both world-class poker players. As Katy says of her time in Vegas, "I lived in great fear of becoming an appendage—their little sister who could write but who was not so great at cards."

In the follow-up to her critically acclaimed poetry collection, Winter Sex, Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate Katy Lederer, 98MFA, debuts a striking memoir about her game- and money-obsessed dysfunctional family. A candid and witty chronicle, Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers documents her quest to rediscover the most important people of her youth.  

Anyone who knows anything about poker knows Howard and Annie. Undoubtedly two of the game's most recognizable champions, they've beaten the best of the best and won millions of dollars in the process. Katy first introduces her readers to the place where her siblings' competitive spirit developed—a modest home on the campus of an elite New Hampshire boarding school where their father taught English.

The intensely intellectual Lederers possess more than their fair share of quirks and neuroses. Katy's alcoholic mother passes the days in her nightgown, sipping Scotch, working the New York Times crossword in pen, or playing solitaire. Her father, locked away in his study, obsesses over inventing new puns and deconstructing the English language. Howard polices Mom's liquor cabinet; Annie steals from Mom's pocketbook; Katy feels like an outsider in her own clan. Every chapter reveals an unconventional family with complex problems and misguided values. But the chaos and disconnection melt away when everyone sits down at the kitchen table to play games—the only time the Lederers approach any semblance of togetherness.

Eventually, the family breaks up when Howard leaves New Hampshire for New York to run a sports betting business and to learn poker in seedy clubs. He winds up in Vegas, tailed by Annie who arrives to study the game with her brother. Mom leaves Dad for the desert to mind the books for Howard, and Katy follows with the desire to trade her old, unhappy family for this new one.

But, Katy grows weary of her poker pursuits and of the players who try to convince her that she should use her college degree to pursue a more dignified living. Soon, police shut down her brother's sports betting operations and the wealth her family has accumulated in Vegas begins to disappear. Katy decides to trust her heart and joins the poetry workshop in Iowa.

Poker Face is an easy, enjoyable read. The language pops and Katy recounts her family's experiences in loving detail. In some places, however, the book feels glossed-over, as if it omits big parts of the story. The personalities of these characters loom so large, you can't help but feel there's much more to know.

All in all, Katy gambles on the universal appeal of stories about family dynamics and delivers a worthwhile account of how the people closest to us shape our destinies. You can't choose your relatives—you just have to play the hand you're dealt.