Behind Poker Face 2

Those of you who were at the World Series of Poker last summer might have seen the booth for Poker Face 2. For those who didn’t, here are some excerpts of story in the Baltic Times explains a bit about the photog and the book:

In November 1983, Ulvis Alberts, a photographer who had snapped some of the iconic images of his time – Christopher Reeve grinning widely from his swimming pool, a young Tom Waits, an elderly Fred and Ginger – arrived in Riga. “It was another world, another satellite – no pun intended,” he says. “Think of it: Hollywood! Photographer! In Riga, Latvia. It doesn’t get any better than that, in terms of getting attention, much of it unwarranted.”

He shuttles between spending a few months at his home outside Seattle and months at one or another apartment in Riga. He loves the “cocktail of Riga” and keeps changes of clothes in various suitcases left at friends’ places throughout the city.
Recently, Alberts had the idea to publish a book at a printing press in Cesis. “Poker Face 2,” the sequel to a book he published 25 years ago, combines images he took of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas in the late ’70s and ’80s, when it was still a fringe event, with images he took at the poker gathering in the last few years, when it started to enjoy a massive televised audience and celebrity guests like Ben Affleck and Jennifer Tilly. The book is selling online for $275.

The negatives were scanned in the United States and sent electronically to Latvia. About 40 people put the book together, he says. They were doing a lot of work for a little bit of money – “That’s the story of Riga” – and there was one issue that he says made the experience “consciously a little uncomfortable.”
“What did some of these guys think was going on here [in these photographs]? Guys with fistfuls of money. What the f— was going on in America?”

Then he turned his eye to the World Series of Poker, which was still a relatively obscure event. Jack Binion ran the tournament at his Horseshoe Casino, and it attracted some modern brilliant outlaws.
There’s Doyle Brunson, a former basketball star in high school, who, after suffering an injury, grew obese and turned his immense energies to becoming the godfather of poker.

Stu Ungar, a prodigy of the game, won the tournament three times. The other characters in the book are generally middle-aged, wearing cowboy hats and boots, but Ungar is a kid in a jumper and a floppy haircut, raking in his chips.
Ungar died young in the late ’90s, after his cocaine habit caught up with him and stopped his heart. And one of the stranger photographs in the collection shows Jack Binion, older, craggier and wiser, embracing the young 20-something, whose eyes are closed.

“It’s the best photograph of Stu I have,” says Alberts. “He looks like a choir boy. He looks like a kid who should be in church. So I used it for that reason. Jack is kinda there hugging Stu. Of course they were close, because Stu brought a lot of publicity to the Horseshoe Casino.” He cropped the picture from a much larger setting and we are left with a melancholic connection between steady, wise old age and brilliant youth doomed to be misspent.

The newer photographs, representative of the multimedia age, have their own poetry too. There’s a series of photographs of Jennifer Tilly being particularly emotive and one of an older Doyle Brunson flashing the wryest of smiles.
Many of the poker players are old and need to move around in electric wheelchairs. Alberts points out a lonely photograph of one empty wheelchair plugged into a wall socket being charged in a hallway at 4 a.m. The chair is a black silhouette against the dim light of late night with some televisions on the side. “It just spoke to me,” Alberts says.
Snapshots of Las Vegas

UNLV Special Collections has a relatively rare copy of the original Poker Face, and I ordered a copy of the new one to round out the collection.

If you’re into poker past and present, Poker Face 2 is a must-have.

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