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One finishes Fast Company (Harper's Magazine Press, $7.95) with the curious feeling of having read of Paleolithic times, not of the recent past and present, as is the case. Jon Bradshaw's very precise and wonderfully engaging account of the lives of six successful gamesmen tells of an era, of people and places, of an environment (the gamblers' favorite word) that seems to have been buried under the lava of Las Vegas casinery and midnight Buddy Hackett (!!!) revues. The book, necessarily, must keep returning to that dreadful desert mausoleum, and by the end we learn that there is no more fast company, that high-roller gambling today runs with the verve and pace of a charter-bus tour. I expect that the World Series of Poker, the creation of some Vegas slot-machine hotel, will soon be awarding expansion franchises and having its league standings published alongside those of the American Basketball Association and World Team Tennis.

So it is really quite incidental that five of the six principals—Pug Pearson, Bobby Riggs, Minnesota Fats, Tim Holland and Johnny Moss—are still alive and kicking in 1975 (Titanic Thompson died last year). It is only their reveries that count. Indeed, when Bradshaw brings them up to date, they become pedestrian sorts, tedious in some cases. The mere fact that so many of these characters are well known tells us what a pretty pass things have come to. Celebrity Hustling on CBS? Minnesota Fats, who comes across as a pitiful blowhard, changed his name from New York Fats to conform with Hollywood's version. The World Series of Poker participants await calls from The Johnny Carson Show. That Bradshaw was able to give us anything but déj√† vu on Bobby Riggs is a substantial feat.

But what tall tales, what high stakes, what dandy times they had playing their games back when they were merely notorious and not celebrities. They did not gamble, you understand; it was the other fellows who gambled. They always played knowing they had the edge in cards, golf, pool, backgammon, bowling, throwing walnuts over five-story buildings, whatever. Bradshaw takes his principals just seriously enough, giving them plenty of room to move around, and enough rope, too. He has handed us a saucy slice of Americana and preserved it for us, which is important, because otherwise people might grow up thinking everybody competed only when there was playoff money and that Jimmy the Greek invented odds.

Finally, mercifully, this is one book not to be judged by its cover. It is a shame that Bradshaw, who writes so well, should have his words wrapped in a jacket that does its dreary, confusing best to suggest that Fast Company is some kind of a how-to manual on gambling. It isn't; it's a what-was, and it's fun to be told one last good time.