I am not a big card player, but it's hard even for me to ignore the explosion of poker on television and the internets these days. From the World Series of Poker to Celebrity Poker Showdown to Wil Wheaton (Et tu Wesley?), America has embraced competitive poker as high stakes entertainment. Congress may also be ready to shut down the online version of it in America, but regardless of the well-laid plans of politicians I think it'll be impossible to stop the current fascination with the game.
And now there's not one, but two webcomics tackling poker as a primary subject. I might even say webcomics had doubled-down if I was liable to drop a few puns in my reviews.
+EV by Bobby Crosby and Tiger Claw
+EV is written by Bobby Crosby. Yes, the Bobby Crosby who is the younger brother of Chris Crosby, who owned a small percentage of webcomics publisher Keenspot for a brief period of time, and who created the webcomic Pupkin. Pupkin which featured the adventures of a half-dog, half pumpkin creature, proved once again that there's an audience for almost anything on the internets.
I didn't think Pupkin was a very good webcomic, so I had very low expectations for +EV going in.
But +EV is pretty good. Bringing in Tiger Claw to handle the art is a tremendous improvement over Bobby's previous work on Pupkin, and for whatever reason, Bobby's writing is considerably tighter and funnier on this strip.
You can tell from the very first strip that Bobby has worked out his characters (gambling, slightly self-centered Dad, put-upon Wife and obnoxiously cute kid) and has a good sense of the tone he's going to take here (somewhat sitcom-ish but consistently sitcom-ish). And hey, the very first strip is funny (and Bobby managed to re-use it later in a very funny way) which is always a good way to start a comedic webcomic.
The set-up is smart as Crosby surrounds the poker-playing central characters with mostly non-poker enthusiasts which allows some of the strip to be about others' reaction to his playing poker as to being solely about poker. (LaB, by contrast, seems to be much more locked into just poker.) Even though the main character has tremendous self-confidence, Crosby makes him a bit of a loser and most storylines reinforce that. But at the same time by surrounding him with a loving family he makes him a bit sympathetic.
I just can't say enough about the art. It's clean, slightly manga-influenced and really a good fit for the tone of the strip. One could imagine this strip with sloppier art, but in the hands of Tiger Claw much of the writing is enhanced through fairly skillful presentation of most facial expressions, poses and background, all with a cartoonish enough feel such that +EV never asks you to take it seriously.
Life's A Bluff by Frank Frisina and Brandon J Carr
Life's A Bluff is written by Frisina who obviously knows his way around the table. Originally the art chores were handled by D.J. Coffman but Coffman has since handed off to Carr. (Coffman told us that he offered the art on the comic to Carr after winning the Comic Book Challenge this past summer at Comicon.) I don't like Carr's take on the characters as much as Coffman's, but Carr is a good artist and with enough time he will surely find a way to make them his own.
Like +EV, Life's A Bluff also features a central character who is just about addicted to playing poker and doesn't have much patience for anything else around him. In this case though he plays off a roommate character who doesn't know much about poker and by definition is more responsible. Yet neither character is fleshed out very well so far. In part that's because the main character dominates most of the storylines and while we know he loves poker more than anything that's about as far as it goes.
Moreover, LaB seems to be the more "inside poker" of the two as it uses more jargon, drops more references to actual players and events. Its jokes just seem more focused on the details of poker. This may have kept me (and other non-aficionados) from really getting some of the strips. It's not an absolute difference as LaB does jokes that don't rely on deep poker knowledge and +EV does sometimes delve into the rules of poker. Still if I had to guess, I'd predict LaB appeals more to the hard-core poker player than +EV.
Both strips made reference to the recent laws making it practically illegal to play online poker in the United States. It'll be interesting to see how both strips address that. So far +EV seems to be working it into its storyline whereas LaB seems to be stepping outside its storyline to make a statement. There's plenty of material there to take on as experts speculate on the growth of a black market or ponder the impact on MMORPGs.
I enjoyed both strips. If you're a poker player you should check both out, I expect you'll enjoy at least one of them if not both. If you could care less about poker there's no guarantee you'll like either of them, but I'd say +EV has better odds of winning you over.