<B>Lederer's winning hand</B> With a poetic eye and precise, sardonic wit, Katy Lederer has shuffled through her biographical deck to produce an intriguing new memoir, <B>Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers</B>. Dealing out the details of a sheltered childhood, Lederer begins her book with a tempestuous account of family life on a New England boarding school campus, and of a young adulthood spent bouncing between two career choices: professional poker player and writer.

Lederer grew up on the fringes of a disordered family, the youngest of three siblings, children of a prep school English professor and a brilliant, puzzle-mad, alcoholic mother. Nights were often dominated by her parents' feverish fights over money, days by her mother's restless, alcohol-fueled despair. And always, there were card games. "If money was what kept us at a distance from one another, then playing games was what brought us together," Lederer writes. "I'd gotten it into my head that the playing of games was the same thing as civility and that friendly competition was the closest thing to love we'd ever know." This tenuous togetherness evaporates as Lederer's siblings and mother abandon the family circle for the promise of excitement and wealth in New York. When brother Howard descends into the seedy world of underground gambling, he leads the trio and eventually the author into the Janus-like world of professional poker. Poker Face is a paradoxical saga, sad and funny, its contrary nature clearly reflecting the author's struggle to find a solid place within comfortable terrain, far from her disenfranchised, emotionally chaotic childhood. A strange tension builds as Lederer flirts alternately with the Machiavellian life of a high-stakes gambler and the more soulful existence of a poet. For a time, the appeal of gambling's unvarying, clear-cut agenda to win at all costs seduces her: "It wasn't that I believed in the security of money . . . Rather, I liked the very orderliness of greed. It was clear. There was nothing confusing about it." For an intriguing fly-on-the-wall peek into the grimy, glitzy world of high-stakes professional gambling, with its colorful characters, lingo and razor-edged lifestyle, Poker Face can't be beat. And neither can its author, it seems, who has discovered that a truly winning hand is the one that wields the pen. <I>Alison Hood writes from San Rafael, California.</I>

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