Look, kids! Another poker magazine! Our long national nightmare is over! Free at last! Free at last!

OK, that's probably not a fair way to kick off our discussion about Bluff. After all, just because a particular magazine genre has been flogged within an inch of its life doesn't mean that every title within it should be placed on the gurney. At the same time, the December issue of Bluff doesn't exactly portend a new era in sublime journalism for the poker set.

Unlike most other gambling/gaming titles, Bluff gets the content mix right. Rather than concerning itself with lifestyle tripe--if ESPN's broadcasts of the World Series of Poker have taught us anything, it's that poker stars favor clumsy Oakley shades over Nicole Miller ties and David Yurman baubles, and will drink whatever swill the cocktail princess has at the ready--the mag offers very little that isn't directly poker-related. Expert advice and war stories would seem to be what this audience wants, and Bluff delivers them in spades.

The December issue also mixes things up a bit, adding a trivia quiz, a frisky review of a Paris poker room and a primer on chip tricks for individuals more coordinated than I am. Ambitiously, Bluff even tries its hand at fiction ("The Nuts," which aspires to a noirish feel) and, in the editor's note, poetry (couplets include "I read my opponents; I read them all quick/I knew two had kings and I knew they would stick"). Watch out, Maya Angelou--there's a new pentameter sheriff in town, and he's itchin' to lay down the rhyme.

But while Bluff may have solved the gambling-mag content riddle, there's still this teensy eensy matter of finding passably competent journalists to write and edit it. While I admit to being a member of the grammar gestapo, the December issue is so flush with mistakes as to make one wonder if the copy staff stayed at the tables a bit late on publication eve. The mag discusses how one player's social skills have "rubbed of" on another, lists "this years events" and brags of its "exclusive and unabridged extract" (excerpt?) from a poker legend's upcoming book. When Bluff plugs the charitable work of cover boy Jeff Gordon, it even manages to sneak a typo into his foundation's URL.

The writing is similarly clunky, replete with roundabout gems like, "This is definitely a book about Annie, Veteran players should look elsewhere if they're looking for advice on how to play" (from a review of a recent book by poker star and Bluff columnist Annie Duke). I have no idea whether poker-mag fans will notice any of this--or, if they do, whether they'll pelt Bluff's offices with chintzy souvenir dice in protest--but it comes across as more than a bit minor-league, not unlike the publication's boast of a 250,000 circulation on its cover.

On the design front, Bluff hardly stretches the boundaries of creativity, relying mostly on shots of players deep in mid-hand meditation. The editorial looks like the ads looks like the editorial looks like the ads, especially the spread capturing for posterity the final table at a recent tournament. I also wonder what motivated a few of the choices, specifically the blocks of empty space and inconsistent line-to-line spacing within the features on players' holiday wishes, and the two random tourist shots of Barcelona slapped aimlessly at the end of a column about European poker.

Here's what I propose: all gaming and "gambling lifestyle" magazines should unite and pool their resources. That way, instead of having one semi-half-decent title (Bluff) and 156 execrable ones (Avery Cardoza's Player jumps to mind), we'd have a single wholly intelligible one--in theory, anyway. Unless you're a card-carrying citizen of Planet Poker, don't call this Bluff (oh dear--I won't soon forgive myself for that one).

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