The Poker Bookie: Natalie Galustian
London Rare Book Dealer Helps to Preserve Poker’s Rich History
(Second in a Two-Part Series)
When it comes to determining a the value of a rare book, just like beauty -- it’s all in the eye of the beholder. What might appear to be rubbish to an untrained eye might actually be worth thousands of dollars to a collector. Some books even have intangible qualities about them which can transform merely an expensive rarity into a priceless keepsake.
Consider the literary masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925). Galustian refers to the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic as “the Holy Grail” of modern books. One reason the book is so special is its unusual dust jacket, which she described as one of the most beautiful designs ever created in the modern era. The dust jacket refers to the piece of paper wrapped around most books published since the start of the 20th Century. To illustrate the price disparity over something which seems trivial, The Great Gatsby in first edition without the original dust jacket is valued at about 5,000 pounds, or approximately $8,000. But an original edition of the book with the dust jacket is worth considerably more -- about 200,000 pounds ($320,000).
Galustian is passionate when it comes to discussing her vocation as a rare book dealer. She is equally as persuasive when placing the monetary value attached to the most prized treasures of her trade into context. “Nobody gasps when a Picasso (painting) sells for seven million pounds,” she explained. “But for the same price of one Picasso, you could put together an incredible collection on books from the dawn of the 1600s until now in first edition of every author and every subject that has ever been loved. Someone could build a one-of-a-kind world-class library for the cost of one painting.”
It’s generally agreed that the modern era for poker books began with Herbert O. Yardley’s The Education of a Poker Player, released in 1957. It became a national bestseller (in the U.S.) and was the first real mainstream book about poker strategy. “Yardley’s book was the first real robust memoir,” Galustian said. “It was the first important exclusive memoir on poker. It also led to additional examination, which came later. Yardley was the driving force in making (British authors) Al Alvarez and Tony Holden want to learn and play poker. They later went on to write books themselves that did a similar thing, which ignited another generation’s interest in poker.”
Although poker is properly recognized as an American game, it has strong literary roots in England. Galustian noted that Alvarez and Holden’s were inspired by previous volumes of work. When they penned their own classics -- Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town (1981) and Holden’s Big Deal (1991) – the books became landmark door openers to the world of poker for thousands of readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Their contributions fueled greater interest in poker in the same manner television coverage sparked poker’s boom, which came years later.
While Alvarez and Holden’s books are not related, they can almost be classified as a two-part chronicle on the world of high-stakes poker as it was played during the 1970s and 1980s. To this day, they stand as arguably “the best poker narratives ever written,” according to Galustian. “Thankfully, Alvarez and Holden had a fascination for the game others did not see at the time. And now, the game is better of for it because they recorded an era which is now long gone. But it continues to live in the wonderful narratives they created.”
So which poker books written today could become collectable in the future? Galustian has high hopes for Jim McManus’ in-depth historical masterpiece, Cowboys Full, which was released last year. “That is probably the best overall portrait of the game I’ve seen written,” Galustian said. “Cowboys Full really is a memorable achievement and will be referenced for years to come.”
There’s little doubt the works of contemporary authors, including Alvarez, Holden and McManus will become necessities in any serious poker book collection assembled in the years to come.
At present, Galustian’s prized collection includes 250 gambling books and artifacts, mostly about poker. It’s estimated to be worth about $200,000. Galustian hopes to sell the collection in its entirety. She holds high hopes for the compilation, aside from its guarantee to turn a profit -- not only for herself but for the person who buys it. Galustian, illustrating that great literature is indeed her first love, hopes a future buyer will become the caretaker of what is indisputably the world’s greatest poker library. She hopes the buyer will not only keep the collection as a whole, but will strive to build upon it.
A few high-profile customers have already expressed interest in the poker book collection.
“One morning I was sitting here blurry-eyed and I looked up and saw someone staring in my front window,” Galustian said. “It was Phil Ivey! Of course, I recognized him immediately. He entered the store and began to look around at the books. It was pretty incredible to have the poker player who everyone thinks is the best on the world browsing around my shop. I think he appreciated the collection.”
Another visitor to her store was Andy Bloch, who like Ivey stopped by while WSOP Europe was being held nearby, last September. Other famous names too, stopped by, although Galustian in reluctant to reveal the names of everyone who stops in, particularly those who are potentially willing to invest six figures.
Galustian summed up why she believes her collection of poker books matters and why it is so valuable: “If I was a professional poker player, I would like to have something that represents a history of what I do for a living,” she said. “It endorses what I have devoted my life to. That's what these books represent.”
A BONUS STORY: NATALIE’S $850,000 BID AT AUCTION
In July 2008, at Christies Auction House in South Kensington, there was a sale of classic rock n’ roll memorabilia. The auction included many items from The Beatles – original song lyrics, posters, autographs, and so forth. But the star item in the auction by a mile was the original art work for the drum featured on the cover of the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band album.
As luck would have it, a very big client of mine who wishes to remain anonymous wanted to bid on the drum. He asked me to represent him at the auction. Of course, I jumped at the chance to bid. As artworks go, there are few that could contend for its status as the emblem of an era, The Beatles, and the 1960s. I think it’s one of those images that has passed into our DNA – a bit like the Mona Lisa. You are just born knowing what it is. It’s a genuine cultural icon.
The early estimate for the piece was between 80,000 and 120,000 pounds. My client and I figured the drum might actually go for anything between 250,000 and 5,000,000 pounds. We just couldn’t predict what would happen in the auction room. It only takes two people to want one thing badly enough for bidding to get completely out of control. We agreed that he should stay on the phone with me throughout the bidding. We’d see how it evolved and decide at the moment when, or if, to stop bidding.
The auction got under way. The drum came up and bidding started at 100,000 pounds. We waited. There were several bidders. The price increased up to 140,000, then 160,000, then 180,000, then 200,000, then 220,000. When bidding reached 250,000, I put my hand up in the air. We realized we were heads up against another bidder, which I believe was from the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Bidding raced past the 400,000 mark. My client gave me the go ahead and I put my hand in the air again at 450,000. There was a long pause before the other bidder responded. The whole room drew a breath to see if they would push it just one bid higher. Finally, they backed down. So in the space of just a few minutes, we’d spent 450,000 pounds – which was about $850,000 at the time -- and we’d acquired the most extraordinary work of art in pop history.
The entire room burst out in applause. I somewhat lost my cool at this point as my knees shook a lot. The last thing I remember is my client – who is by nature and reputation one of the coolest and shrewdest cats to walk among us – said to me before he hung up the phone, ‘I think I’m going to be sick.’ It was such a thrilling experience.
Turns out though, he had no reason to be even remotely nervous about spending nearly half-a-million pounds on the Sgt. Pepper drum, as it will never be that cheap again. Two years after the auction, it was revalued at $5 million. Not a bad three minutes of work, after all.
POSTSCRIPT: Shortly after this feature article was written, Natalie Galustian accepted a cash offer for her entire 250-volume collection of poker books are rare artifacts. The name of the buyer was not disclosed but the price did fetch north of $200,000. Galustian now begins assembly of another collection of rare poker and gambling books.