Reading is Fundamental.

I recently received my copy of a new, highly acclaimed instructional poker book. It’s called Professional No-Limit Hold ‘Em, and you should believe the hype. The authors, Matt Flynn, Sunny Mehta and Ed Miller have done something that is not easy: created a book on no-limit hold ’em that breaks new ground. Not only that, but this book succeeds in presenting some well-known concepts that have previously defied description in a neat, concise way. I’m only about halfway through the book but am already pretty sure that it’s the best book on no limit hold ’em cash play since Super System. You should read it.

Reading my first poker book in quite awhile has a nostalgic feel. This is because I read literally every poker book on the market from the years 2001 through 2005. It was only when that market got completely glutted that I stopped purchasing (and devouring) poker books as fast as the publishing companies could release them. I’m a tad more selective now. As I’ve mentioned before, the years 2001 through 2005 in my life were a continuous course in poker. I’m self-schooled, I was my own professor. And it wasn’t an easy course. I studied my poker textbooks a lot harder than any of the other textbooks I’ve ever come across, and there had been a lot of nasty ones.

As a result, my apartment is overflowing with books about poker. If a stranger took a look at the crammed bookcases in here without inspecting the titles, he’d think that I was a literary sort. And that’s amusing, because nothing could be farther from the truth. I don’t read fiction at all, and I have little apprecation for most widely-acclaimed books. What I am is just a guy that really likes to read about poker.

So without further ado, here’s a very short review of each book in my apartment, presented in whatever order they’re pulled off the shelf.

Poker for Dummies, Richard D. Harroch and Lou Kreiger (2000). The very first instructional poker book that I purchased. I only remember one thing about this book: It was the book that introduced me to Stu Ungar, a person I have been fascinated by ever since.

The Poker Tournament Formula, Arnold Syder (2006). This book is such garbage. The only section that isn’t total dogshit is the part about profiling opponents. The fact that this book was published is a testament to how profitable anything related to poker has become. The fact that I own it probably says something sad about me.

Super System 2, Doyle Bruson and others (2005). The long-awaited sequel to the grandaddy of them all, Super System, the most influencial poker book ever written. Part 2 has several stellar sections on the various forms of poker (and the no limit hold ’em section from the original is left mostly unmolested), but the most fascinating section for those who are already familiar with the original is Crandall Addington’s description of how no limit hold ’em infiltrated the Vegas cardrooms in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Your Worst Poker Enemy, Alan N. Schoonmaker (2007). A surprisingly helpful book, and by far the best one on the topic of poker psychology. Reading the enlightening chapter on the struggle between the ego and the id at the poker table inspired me to buy a book about Sigmund Freud.

Ace on the River, Barry Greenstein (2005). Meh. Greenstien gives us a 300-page paternal lecture about how a professional poker player ought to conduct himself and his business. A lot of people love this book, but much of what it contains is just common sense. It should be required reading for college-age poker geniuses who are playing over their bankroll, but no one else. The pictures are excellent, though.

Winner’s Guide to Omaha, Ken Warren (2003). Very basic how-to. Don’t play bad starting hands in Omaha, everyone.

Championship No-Limit & Pot-Limit Hold ‘Em, T.J. Cloutier and Tom McEvoy (1997). I HATE this book. Because it was the only tournament poker book available when I began playing serious poker, it became my bible by default. I therefore read it cover-to-cover at least five times. My copy of it is weather-beaten, numerous passages have been underlined, and its margins are filled with my notes. All of this is incredibly tragic, because the book teaches you to play tournament poker like a pussy. I’m not sure if T.J. actually believes what he “wrote” (the material was actually culled from a couple of interviews) or if he was playing a cruel trick on his future adversaries. Either way, this book is toilet paper and has no use in modern poker.

Hold ’em Poker for Advanced Players, David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth (1988). If you exclude my childhood favorite Harold and the Purple Crayon, this is the single work of literature I have spent the most time clutching in my short life. And it’s easy to tell: my copy of this book is in woeful shape. The binding no longer works, so the entire thing is tattered and falling apart, with various pages loose and out of order. This is an absolutely amazing book, and it is where many concepts that are now completely taken for granted–such as expected value, semibluffing and free cards–were first thoroughly discussed. Mostly because of this book, David Sklansky is to limit hold ’em what Hugh Hefner is to pornography. I read (and read, and read, and read….) this book until all of its precepts were embedded permanently in my brain. The moment I accomplished this was the moment I began to destroy bad poker players.

The Book of Bluffs, Matt Lessinger (2005). In light of the goofy name, this book is surprisingly solid. Maniacs would be good poker players if they understood what conditions were not right for running a bluff. This book does a good job of explaining when and why it’s right to bluff, and when and why it isn’t.

Tournament Poker for Advanced Players, David Sklansky (2002). This book couldn’t come along soon enough for me. Not because it’s such a great book, but because it saved me from Cloutier. This book was the first to explain why a tournament is different from a cash game, and it introduces the all-important concept of fold equity, thereby setting the foundation for good tight-aggressive tournament play. I really owe David Sklansky.

Professional Poker–The Essential Guide to Playing for a Living, Mark Blade (2005). This book can be summed up pretty neatly in one sentence: playing poker for a living is not as easy as it looks. Blade tells us all about paying taxes, staking arrangements and handling downswings. Exciting stuff.

The Making of a Poker Player, Matt Matros (2005). One of poker’s leading “math guys” does a good job of telling the story of how he went from a run of the mill nerd to the final table of a WPT event. It’s a pretty decent book considering that it’s not terribly different from this blog.

How To Win at Omaha High-Low Poker, Mike Cappelletti (2003). A short, basic how-to. Hey everyone: you should only play very strong starting hands and concentrate on scooping pots in Omaha Eight or Better.

Poker Nation, Andy Bellin (2003). Coming along right on the cusp of the poker explosion, this book is an entertaining memoir about life in New York’s underground poker clubs and borderline degeneracy. I strongly identified with the author, who is clearly capable of doing very well in the straight world, but prefers a life without alarm clocks. I read this one twice.

Big Deal, Anthony Holden (1990). This book had an immense influence on me, and I discovered it under strange circumstances. Big Deal was recommended to me by a high ranking partner at my first law firm. I was not being assigned any work at all, so I asked the partner who was in charge of assigning matters to associates to have lunch with me. He agreed, and at an outwardly convival lunch, I shared with him my growing fascination with poker. He said that if I like poker, I must read Big Deal. I went out and bought it later that day. Less than two weeks later I was fired, most likely at the behest of the very person who recommended this book to me. The book is a funny, endearing firsthand account of the author’s attempt at playing professional poker for one calendar year. It holds a special place in my heart and served as a beacon in an extended dark period of my life. Holden’s book double dog dared me to dream about playing poker for a living, and I guess I’m the kind of guy who takes dares seriously. Looking back, I would like to sincerely thank Bob Fischler for both pointing me in the direction of Big Deal and for possibly firing me.

Bigger Deal, Anthony Holden (2007). I’m sure you can imagine how excited I was when I heard a sequel to Big Deal was coming out. Alas, it’s not much of a book. It certainly has its moments, and Holden is as wry as ever, but it still falls a little short of the mark. Oh well.

No Limit Hold ‘Em Theory and Practice, David Sklansky and Ed Miller (2006). This is a serious advanced how-to that will improve any intermediate-level player’s game. No limit is a game that resides in a murky place somewhere between the structured mathematics of probability and the magic netherworld called “feel.” This book does a good job of bridging that gap by providing mathematical proofs of several plays previously ascribed to “feel.”

Six to Five Against, A Gambler’s Odyssey, Burt Dragin (2005). This book rules. I have never seen or heard it discussed anywhere, and it obviously was never highly acclaimed, but I’m glad I whimsically purchased it one day last year. It’s only peripherally about poker. But if you have ever wondered why you get a charge out of watching big inbred animals running in circles, or wondered why standing there watching dice bouncing around a table for hours on end is fun, you should read this book. Partly autobiographical and partly scientific, this book shares the story of an addicted gambler, and then embarks on an in-depth attempt to answer a question pychologists have grappled with for years: “why do people gamble?” Dragin accomplishes this in a remarkably sympathetic way, without ever losing his sense of humor. This book is one of my all time favorites.

Winner’s Guide to Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, Ken Warren (1996). The fact that I own this book is a good evidence that instructional poker books were a lot more scarce at the turn of the century. I don’t recall much of what is in this book, but i’m pretty sure that it will help you beat the 4-8 limit game at the Trop.

The Theory of Poker, David Sklansky (1987). This book is the poker equivalent of the first page of the Old Testament. God may have created light, but Sklansky created EV, and he saw that it was good. Despite incessant archaic references to forms of poker that no longer exist, this book remains worth reading.

The Gambler’s Guide to Taxes, Walter L. Lewis, CPA. Self explanatory.

How to Turn Your Poker Playing Into a Business Ann-Margaret Johnston, CPA. Also self explanatory. When I first went pro, I thought these skinny little manuals (practically pamphlets) might give me some special insight into taxpaying, but the right advice boils down to “keep good records and find a good accountant.”

Pot-Limit & No-Limit Poker, Stewart Reuben & Bob Ciaffone (1997). This book was ahead of its time. Only about 20 of the 200 pages have anything worth reading on them, but those 20 pages are excellent. This book does a great job explaining the value of position and implied odds in no limit games, and it was published long before those concepts had been fully fleshed out in the rest of the poker literature.

Online Ace, Scott Fischman (2006). There was a good deal of hype before this book hit the scene, all for naught. The book is forgettable other than a few profiles of successful online players.

The Psychology of Poker, Alan N. Schoonmaker, Ph.D. (2000). It might have been the first book to really explore the emotional side of poker, but it’s still not worth reading. It gives a few common sense pieces of advice. Schoonmaker did a lot better with his second book on this topic.

Making the Final Table, Erick Lindgren (2005). This book is seldom mentioned by anyone as having any special influence in the poker world, but it engineered a huge phase in my development as a player. Before I picked up this book, I could not get the idea that I needed to loosen up, gamble and accumluate chips through my thick skull. This book is written in a matter-of-fact, conversational way, and it was preciesely what I needed at precisely the right time. It was as if Lindgren was personally telling me to quit being such a tightass and go on the attack. My tournament results improved immediately thereafter. Thanks, E-Dawg!

Play Poker Like the Pros, Phil Hellmuth (2004). Obviously put together by a group of people looking to capitalize on the name Phil Hellmuth at the outset of the poker boom, this is among the worst books I’ve ever read. The supposed aim of this book is to teach beginners how to play poker, but it gives faulty advice at every turn. The most interesting thing about this book is that the author writes in a modest, friendly tone, so we are left to wonder who the ghost writer is.

The Biggest Game in Town, A. Alvarez (1983). The greatest book about poker ever written. Short but powerful and moving. I’ve read it probably five times. Reading this book gets me so charged up. Charged up in the same way that hearing the old-school Monday Night Football theme music gets me charged up. If you have any appreciation whatsoever for the game of poker, you are doing yourself a grave disservice by not reading this book.

Poker: Bets, Bluffs and Bad Beats, A. Alvarez (2001). A coffee table book with a bunch of insightful snippets about poker, and very impressive photographs. You won’t learn anything from this thing.

Positively Fifth Street, James McManus (2003). This book came along at just the right time for me. Just as poker was being romanticized in my mind, McManus’ very romantic retelling of his miracle trip to the Main Event final table hit bookstores. Oh, and it’s also about the murder of Benny Binion’s son. The parts of the book that discuss big tournament poker and the game’s history are illuminating. The murder stuff is a bore.

Read ‘Em and Weep, John Stravinsky, ed. (2004). A collection of short stories and magazine pieces about poker. A fine job of editing was done here, as the pieces run the gamut from an attempted interview with Johnny Chan to a frank disourse on running scams on Mississipi Riverboats in the mid 19th Century. The most hilarious is James Thurber’s contribution, called “Everything is Wild.” I have always wanted to tell everyone in my old home game to read that short story. Read it, guys!

Scarne’s Guide to Modern Poker, John Scarne (1980). What an ironic title. This book is outdated garbage. I have no idea why I own it.

The Championship Table, Dana Smith, Tom McEvoy and Ralph Wheeler (2003). An attempt to recount every Main Event final table in World Series of Poker history. This is a daunting task, and for the most part, this book fails. My ownership of this book illustrates just how desperate for poker knowledge a person can be.

Improve Your Poker, Bob Ciaffone (1997). A book with a lame title like this is destined to suck, but this book does not. It’s a hodgepodge of slapped together advice in no discernible order, and most of it is good.

Super System, Doyle Bruson and others (1978). Here it is. The book that changed the game. Many of you are familiar with the story of how this book was published, so I won’t bore you with that now. The book itself is startlingly large (604 pages crammed with info) and startlingly poorly written from a technical standpoint. Annoying people who are anal about the proper use of the english language will tear their hair out after eight pages of Super System. But if you can get your dim little brain past that issue, this book is a straight-up miracle. Brunson and company revealed, in 1978, things about poker that no one else–literally no one in the world–understood. The legendary section on no-limit hold ’em, which at that point in time was a game played only in the deep South and Las Vegas, and only played for mega-high stakes, changed the game forever. It’s the functional equivalent of Adam Smith on economics or Charles Darwin on evolution. The concepts presented by Texas Dolly, despite being previously unreported, are now part of common poker knowledge. Specifically, Brunson explains, in a printed form of Texal drawl that you can practically hear through the page, that aggression wins in no limit hold ’em. He thoroughly explains how to beat the piss out of weak-tight opponents by pounding away on them. Any studious player who started to play poker seriously before the year 2004 will cite this book as a major influence. Part of what makes the movie “Rounders” so authentic is that Super System makes an appearance in one of the opening scenes.

Winning 7-Card Stud, Ashley Adams (2003). Some years ago, the guys on rec.gambling.poker convinced me that I needed this book, so I bought it. I still don’t play much stud and still don’t know what’s in it. Maybe one day.

One of a Kind, Nolan Dalla (2006). The definitive biography of Stu Ungar. It’s hard to take the most compelling figure in modern poker and turn out a boring book about him, but Dalla managed to accomplish this. The sections about Stuey’s rise, dominance and inner demons failed to move me. The section about his pathetic demise is the best part of the book.

Harrington on Hold ‘Em, Vols. 1, 2 and 3, Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie (2004, 2005, 2006). Even though I’ve mentioned many influencial books in this blog entry, the first two Harrington books likely have had the strongest impact on how I play poker. When the first book was released, I had a semblance of a tournament game with numerous leaks (or, in today’s popular lingo, I was “spewy”). By the time I finished reading and applying the second volume, I was a near-expert tight-aggressive strategist. No poker books published before these taught poker as effectively. This is probably mostly due to the textbook-like format: chapters followed by multiple choice exercises. The first Harringtons are brilliant, and are capable of transforming any marginally intelligent, dedicated person into a formidable tournament player. The third book, which is in workbook format, is only okay.

That’s it for now. I’m sure there are a few books laying around here that I forgot, but you get the picture.

10 thoughts on “Reading is Fundamental.

  1. Wow, this is impressive. Thanks for doing this — I now know where to turn if I decide I ever want to elevate my game by actually, say, learning how to play.

    I can’t imagine how long this took you! I just finished my movie review on teamschmoop.com (shameless plug), and that took me a while, and you cover a lot more books on here. Plus you had to actually READ those books, while I just had to watch the movies. Very impressive to put this together.

    If you were going to suggest a book to be the first one to read for a donkey like me, which one would it be? And which book covers poker lingo, so I know if I am using the correct term when I call myself a donkey (maybe I’m a fish?)?

  2. Once, a few years back, we had a coupon for three free video rentals from Hollywood or Blockbuster. I don’t remember which. We couldn’t find a third movie that we hadn’t seen that was worth watching, so as a goof we grabbed the video version of ‘Play Poker Like the Pros’ and headed home to give it the ol’ Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. We were not disappointed.

    The video was an hour of Phil Hellmuth Jr. at an empty poker table in front of a curtain, looking into the camera and babbling. His special effects consisted of a deck of cards that he used to show us what a pair of aces, kings, queens, etc… looked like. What finally made us ROTFLOAO was when he came to the part about the different types of poker players and he said, “I’ve invented some animals.” Wow. Thanks, Phil. Nice work. Biggest…Douchebag…Ever. For some reason, we imagined Phil Ivey and Phil Gordon behind the camera telling Hellmuth how great the video was going to be, but that probably didn’t happen.

  3. Sam: nice one, I forgot about that book (it was alone on the shelf above my computer). I’ll add my snarky little review of it tomorrow.

    O: I’d read Harrington’s books. I don’t know that proper way to distinguish between fish and donkeys, but someone says fish, I usually think of a guy that limps into too many pots, then folds repeatedly, slowly bleeding chips away. And when someone says donkey I think of a guy who loses all his chips when he flops top pair with K-10.

    Ult: Hellmuth is a douchemallet supreme. It’s not an act.

    Jon: AshA rulz!

  4. I’m sure Fischler would be honored by the shout out!

    FYI, I’m not sure that he left W&S under the most auspicious of circumstances himself… 😛

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