Actor, author and magician Ricky Jay can do more with a pack of cards than nearly anyone alive, as anyone familiar with his one-man show Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants can attest, and it should surprise no one that the man has long been fascinated with the legend and lore of America's most popular card game, poker. Jay celebrates the game on Ricky Jay Plays Poker, which features 20 tunes from different performers about cardsharps, gambling and the lucky (or unlucky) turn of a card, selected by Jay from his vast collection of songs on the subject. Going as far back as 1914 with vaudeville legend Bert Williams' original recording of "Darktown Poker Club" and moving into the present day with Saint Etienne's "Etienne's Gonna Die" (which includes dialogue samples from David Mamet's film House of Games, starring one Ricky Jay), most of the songs on Ricky Jay Plays Poker fall into one of two categories -- ballads which tell the tale of some epic card game (such as "Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie" by Bob Dylan and "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold" by Townes Van Zandt) or tunes which use poker as a metaphor for life and love (such as "Ace in the Hole" by Dave Van Ronk and "Little Queen of Spades" by Robert Johnson). Thankfully, Jay knows a good tune as well as a good card game, and while the disc is musically eclectic, it offers fine listening from beginning to end. Jay's own talent and personality come to the forefront in the accompanying 66-page booklet, which boasts a fascinating essay on the history of poker and its place in music, literature and culture, as well as notes on every song. This set is great listening (and viewing) for fans of both music and poker, and makes a fine gift for the aspiring gambler in your life.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming