Big Slick by Eric Luper
Andrew turns a gift for numbers and $500 he stole from his family’s dry-cleaning business into a seat at an illegal, high-stakes poker tournament. He’s in a good position with an ace and a king in the hole, a big slick, and he’s confident the pot will be his. He thinks if he plays smart he’ll have a future as a professional gambler. Even if from where he’s sitting, that future looks a lot like turning into a fat, middle-aged man.
Obviously being set up to learn some big lessons, Andrew goes about it the hard way. Starting with trying to hustle drug dealers, and then by trying to steal $350 from his best friend’s Dad without telling his best friend. Luckily, the path to enlightenment doesn’t toss him around too carelessly, and in the end, the solution to most of his problems is still an illegal one (though now with pretty low stakes.)
Luper has a talent for describing poker and making it interesting even to someone who knows and cares nothing about the game. I actually found myself disappointed that he didn’t give a play by play of more games, because he does such a good job with the climactic ones. And I probably learned as much about the dry cleaning business as I did about poker.
There were a few points where I thought I might put down the book because I really don’t have the stomach for stories where stupid characters make bad decisions and then get threatened and beat up. But Andrew has enough sense to get himself out of sketchy situations before it comes to that. There’s a mildly graphic sex scene towards the end of the book that may not make this an easy fit for all younger teens, but nothing too objectionable.
edited to add: The cover art is clearly horrible, maybe it will eventually come out in a better designed paperback. But don’t I see? There’s his goth-girl crush? And he’s playing poker, get it? It’s telling me what’s going to happen!