The Literature of Poker

Anyone with an email account or a television is aware that the popularity of the game of poker is at an all-time high. It seems like every day a new poker TV show, book, magazine or video game is born. New cardrooms are popping up all over the place. It’s a great time for poker, and a great time for poker literature. Being that Identity Theory is a literary website, sort of, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to give you the low-down on the best of the poker books available.

What follows is a set of brief reviews on poker books worth reading. Some of the titles covered are instructional, like Lee Jones’ Winning Low-Limit Hold’em. Others are literary, like Katy Lederer’s Poker Face. Some will be more theoretical in nature, like David Sklansky’s Theory of Poker. All of them offer great insights into the game of poker and/or the game of life.

Check back frequently for more reviews, and good luck at the tables…

Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold’em – T.J. Cloutier and Tom McEvoy
World Series of Poker champion and former Canadian Football League tight end T.J. Cloutier’s writings on poker strategy are highly accessible and easy to understand—and also a little bit folksy. This book is considered one of the top manuals on No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold’em—probably the most difficult forms of poker to study. Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold’em includes advice on both tournaments and cash games, and in addition to the poker wisdom, you’ll find at the end an interview with Cloutier as well as some brief stories like "A Very Unlucky Day in Odessa" and "The Worst Decision in the History of Poker." Well worth the price of admission.

Poker Wisdom of a Champion – Doyle Brunson
Like a true Southerner, Doyle Brunson knows how to tell a good story. Originally published in 1984, Brunson’s Poker Wisdom of a Champion—formerly known as According to Doyle—is a collection of two-or-three-page tales from this legend of poker’s days as a Texas road gambler. Poker Wisdom of a Champion isn’t necessarily a how-to-play-poker book that will help you break into the Big Game, but it will give you some insight into the stranger aspects of human nature that emerge at the poker table—as well as some helpful cardplaying advice.

Winning Low Limit Hold’em – Lee Jones
It would be tough to find a poker book as effectively constructed as Winning Low Limit Hold’em. The chapters are brief but thorough and include quizzes to make sure you’re really thinking about the concepts. Lee Jones covers dozens of topics ranging from how to play flush draws to how to manage your bankroll. The book is tailored towards hold’em games ranging from $2-4 to $5-10 limit, but some of the advice holds true for other limits as well. Mr. Jones also does a great job as the cardroom manager for PokerStars, and as such, the recently released third edition of WLLHE contains advice on internet poker. This is one of three books (along with Cloutier’s Championship Omaha and Sklansky’s Theory of Poker) that I can conclusively say has made me a handsome wad of cash, and I would recommend it to anyone trying to master the game of hold’em.

Ace on the River – Barry Greenstein
Barry Greenstein isn’t as flashy or easily recognized as a lot of other players (can you imagine a Barry Greenstein video game?) but to me, he’s one of the more intriguing high-stakes gamblers—and he probably has a much higher level of success than some of his more self-promotional counterparts. It’s fitting, then, that Barry’s contribution to poker literature is intended for advanced players and doesn’t offer much pop-culture appeal. Ace on the River is more of a lifestyle guide for the professional player than an instructional tool for the tables. As such, the most common criticism of this book is that it’s pretty shallow in the strategy department, compared to, say, Harrington on Hold’em. However, the No-Limit Hold’em hand analyses at the end of the book definitely make Ace on the River worth reading. (It also has lots of colorful, glossy photographs, so it functions as a nice coffee-table book.)

Play Poker Like The Pros – Phil Hellmuth, Jr.
Phil Hellmuth’s stab at writing a poker manual is actually pretty decent in the sense that it covers quite a few different games—like Stud Hi/Lo and Pot-Limit Omaha—and is a bit more toned down than Phil’s infamously grating persona. This seems like a good book for introducing a novice player to the various forms and concepts of poker, but it’s not a text that’s going to significantly improve the game of an already solid player. (Nonetheless, you gotta love Phil’s line from a recent ESPN World Series Main Event broadcast: "I was supposed to go broke on that hand, but they forgot one thing: I can dodge bullets, baby!")

Zen and the Art of Poker – Larry W. Phillips
One of the key components of playing successful poker is the ability to manage your emotions and prevent tilting. Zen and the Art of Poker focuses on this aspect, effectively applying the sage words of Zen masters like Dogen and Suzuki to a game played by Devilfish, Jesus, and Fossilman. Both Zen and poker require a heightened level of attention and detachment, so it’s no wonder players like Howard Lederer and Phil Hellmuth claim to have used Zen to improve their play. (Lederer was inspired by Zen and the Art of Archery.) One flaw with Phillips’ book, though, is that it starts to get repetitive—there’s really only so much you can say about Zen, being that it’s more of a direct practice than a set of ideas. However, you can definitely squeeze enough out of this book to earn a return on your $12.95 investment. And, hey, it might make you a better person.

Poker Nation – Andy Bellin
Andy Bellin is a Paris Review staffer and poker aficionado whose articles for Esquire led to the publication of Poker Nation: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure into the Heart of a Gambling Country. This book takes a wide-ranging, journalistic view of the poker world circa 2001 (before the era of Chris Moneymaker, Party Poker, and lipstick cameras). In addition to explaining poker rules, history, and strategy, Bellin crafts first-person accounts of his experiences at underground poker clubs in NYC as well as at the World Series of Poker. He also weaves in interviews with professional grinders on topics like drug abuse and gender differences in poker. Poker Nation is an entertaining, informative, and insightful look at the card-playing subculture. Personally, I’m hoping for a sequel.

Poker Face – Katy Lederer
Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers is a concise, beautifully written memoir by poet Katy Lederer (Winter Sex) about growing up in an eccentric game-playing family with her siblings, world-class poker players Howard Lederer and Annie Duke. For more on Poker Face, click over to my interview with Katy for Identity Theory.

The Championship Table at the World Series of Poker – Dana Smith, Tom McEvoy, Ralph Wheeler
The Championship Table is an essential book for poker historians. It covers the Main Event of the World Series of Poker from 1970-2003, detailing the key hands, strategies, quotes from participants, payouts, and more. The main attraction of the book for me was the interviews with road gamblers and other poker greats like Doyle Brunson, Bobby Hoff, T.J. Cloutier, Barbara Enright, and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, among others. Erik Seidel talks about his discomfort playing Johnny Chan in the final-table matchup shown in Rounders; the always colorful Amarillo Slim chats about Benny Binion and the old days of the World Series. The Championship Table is an excellent volume for players interested in the history of the game and in the World Series itself.

Other books that will soon be reviewed on this page include:

The Theory of Poker – David Sklansky

The Book of Bluffs – Matt Lessinger

Dealer’s Choice – Various

Super System – Doyle Brunson and more

Super System 2 – Doyle Brunson and more

The Biggest Game in Town – A. Alvarez

Caro’s Book of Poker Tells – Mike Caro

Fundamental Secrets of Winning Poker – Mike Caro

Positively Fifth Street – James McManus

Championship Omaha – T.J. Cloutier

Championship Stud – Dr. Max Stern, Linda Johnson, and Tom McEvoy

Tournament Poker – Tom McEvoy

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