“Zen and the Art of Poker” Review

[LL] “The next book was the oddest of the lot. I suppose you could blame Robert Pirsig for starting the ‘Zen and…’ craze with his 1974 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, but at least Zen applies a thousand times more to poker than it does to motorcycles. For a certain subset of poker players, Zen and the Art of Poker: Timeless Secrets to Transform Your Game could provide very useful instruction. For a lot less than a single session with a poker mind coach, players can learn how to coexist peacefully with the game of poker.”

[RR] “You mean like the love-hate relationship I have with it?” Roderick the Rock asked.

[LL] “Not exactly. But for those who struggle with tilt, tend toward impatience, or suffer from negativity when things go wrong, the sutras of Zen can help. Larry Phillips somehow takes a few simple Zen ideas and creatively expands them into a hundred poker rules and 170 pages of advice. For example, his first poker rule is about playing tightly: ‘Learn to use inaction as a weapon.’ So is his second (‘Don’t get irritated or angered by long sessions of folding’). And his third, fourth, fifth, …, and nine pages later, his fifteenth (‘Begin by playing tight, but don’t forget to stay tight’). If you learn best by repetition, Phillips is your kind of author. If you don’t like to be told what to do over and over again, you can just read the first page of each of the 27 chapters and not miss much.

Phillips’s advice is at least mostly harmless, but he does stray occasionally, like Poker Rule #32: ‘Learn how to avoid a losing streak.’ Had this meant avoiding tilt, finding a softer game, or something like that, it would have been fine. But that’s not what he means; he goes on to say, ‘watch for any clues that you might be getting cold’. Apparently he read Super System and only remembered the worst parts of it because 31 pages later, he also claims, ‘Longtime, experienced card players believe in the bunching of luck. They have seen it. They have felt it.’1

More than halfway through the book, he realizes that he’s taught you how to blind away your stack, so he throws in a chapter on aggression. Unfortunately, this chapter includes not a single Zen quote. Sun Tzu’s Art of War gets the call instead.2 I’m pretty sure that would have made a better basis for a poker book.”

[SS] “It was”, Stan the Stat confirmed. “David Apostolico wrote Tournament Poker and the Art of War in 2005.”

[LL] “One of the later chapters is about why you shouldn’t whine about your bad luck. That’s Zen at least. Then he closes with a completely unrelated appendix on using computer software to improve your poker. He must have had a page count target to reach.

To be fair, I’ve omitted some good Zen quotes3 and useful poker advice from the book, albeit not much, but I really wanted to make sure you don’t repeat my mistake and actually read this book, whose best use, since it’s too light to be a doorstop, would be in a white elephant gift exchange among poker players.”

Title Zen and the Art of Poker: Timeless Secrets to Transform Your Game
Author Larry W. Phillips
Year 1999
Skill Level Any
Pros Provides some good advice for any player prone to tilting, impatience, or whining. Applicable to any type of poker.
Cons High level advice from a non-pro.4 Much longer than it needs to be because of significant repetition.
Rating 1.5

Footnotes:

  1. This faulty idea returns in the 25th chapter, “Bad Luck and Losing”, as his 100th and final Poker Rule: “Make sure you know when you’re on a cold streak.” Of course hot and cold streaks exist, but you never know when they’re going to end, so there’s nothing to adjust for except possibly your opponents attitudes toward your current streak.
  2. Chuck Norris’s book, The Secret Power Within: Zen Solutions to Real Problems, is also referenced in this chapter.
  3. If you’ve managed to make it this far through the review, enjoy some of the best quotes in the book:
    • “Wait for a good pitch to hit.” — Ted Williams. [After four bad pitches in baseball, you’re awarded first base. There’s no direct reward in poker, although hand selection is an important part of almost every poker variant.]
    • “Pride means the end of wisdom.” — Japanese proverb. [Even the best poker players need to keep improving.]
    • “Everything that happens, and above all what happens to me, should be observed impartially, as though on the deepest level it did not concern me.” — Eugen Herrigel, The Method of Zen, 1974. [Excellent anti-tilt advice.]
    • “You are called samurai. Should you not be ready to die?” — Zen master Hakuin. [If losing your stack, especially in a tournament, equals death, then this is very apt. You can’t play poker well if you’re afraid all the time.]
  4. Phillips’s major poker credential is his minor and unsubstantiatable claim to have “placed second in the 1997 Wisconsin State Poker Tournament”. Every Google hit on the event, even without specifying a year, points to his book.
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“Big Deal” Review

[LL] “Very few poker books have a protagonist, a plot, and an unpredictable conclusion”, Leroy the Lion claimed. “Big Deal by journalist, author,1 and budding poker player Anthony Holden, provides all of that.”

[SS] “Who’s the villain?” Stan the Stat wondered.

[LL] “In poker, all of your opponents are villains.”

[RR] “And you’re always the hero, whether you’re making hero calls or not”, Roderick the Rock added.

[LL] “Introduced to the Tuesday Night Game by writer Al Alvarez, Holden became a regular in the weekly poker event way back in 1978. That same year, he was sent to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker as a reporter and returned almost every year as an observer except for playing in the WSOP Media Tournament. But at the 1988 WSOP, Holden used his recent blackjack and poker winnings to take a flyer on a $1,000 Main Event satellite, and he managed to win the seat, becoming the only Brit in a field of 167 players competing for a $700,000 first prize and 35 other pieces of a $1,670,000 prize pool.

Encouraged by his result, his wife, affectionately referred to as the Moll, gives him the idea of playing poker for a ‘year’, so he doesn’t even need to ask for permission. Although the subtitle of the book promises ‘A Year as a Professional Poker Player’, very little poker happens during the half year between the 1988 World Series of Poker Main Event and November 1988. Fortunately, Holden has more than enough material from his six actual months of poker playing.

Along the way, he regales you with playing card and poker history and stories about the Nick Dandolos-Johnny Moss marathon2, Titanic Thompson’s prop bets, and several of Amarillo Slim’s adventures, including his Super Bowl of Poker. But Holden’s own personal poker stories don’t pale by comparison. He travels around the world, faces many top players such as Johnny Moss and Bobby Baldwin. The aspiring player even flies all the way to New Orleans to play in a illegal poker festival and never gets to play a hand. The story concludes with the 1989 WSOP Main Event, where his starting table includes Stu Ungar and Telly Savalas. I won’t spoil the ending, but you know he didn’t win that one either…”

Title Big Deal
Author Anthony Holden
Year 1990
Skill Level Any
Pros Entertaining stories from a year of poker.
Cons Very little educational value. Anticlimactic ending.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. His thirty-plus non poker books include biographies of Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Mozart, Shakespeare, and Tchaikovsky. He would go on to write two other two poker books: the sequel Bigger Deal: A Year Inside the Poker Boom and the poetically named Holden on Hold’Em: How to Play and Win at the Biggest Deal in Town.
  2. Holden gives the year as 1949, but 1951, when Benny Binion opened Binion’s Horseshoe, makes more sense. He also spells The Greek’s name “Dandalos”, a fairly common misspelling.
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“Poker Wisdom of a Champion” Review

[LL] “Having written more about poker strategy than anyone ever had in Super System, Doyle Brunson’s next effort was a book of poker stories, Poker Wisdom of a Champion, originally published in 1984 as According to Doyle. Despite its subtitle that promises ‘powerful winning advice’, this book is best read only for its ‘fascinating anecdotes’ as most of the advice is very high-level (and mostly boils down to one word, ‘aggression’).

The 26-page section on home games rules is solid, as many home games don’t have any official rules. But Brunson’s still worried about games getting hijacked, so he prefers that you play on credit. Unless your stakes are so high that robbery is still a real concern, I’d recommend the opposite, that nobody gets any chips they haven’t paid for. If another player wants to lend them money, that’s their private business.”1

I don’t really have anything more to say about this book. Read it for the stories and enjoy.”

Title Poker Wisdom of a Champion
Author Doyle Brunson
Year 1984 (republished in 2003 with new introductory and closing remarks from Brunson)
Skill Level Any
Pros Entertaining stories from poker’s Road Gamblers era.
Cons Very little educational value.
Rating 2.5

Footnotes:

  1. Brunson also discusses sandbagging (check-raising), which simply isn’t an issue anymore as it’s a standard, completely accepted part of the game even if you’re playing for pennies against your grandma.
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“Bobby Baldwin’s Winning Poker Secrets” Review

[LL] “Bobby Baldwin was at the height of his fame, having recently won the 1978 World Series of Poker Main Event,” Leroy the Lion began, “when Mike Caro interviewed him for a combination biography and strategy book called Bobby Baldwin’s Winning Poker Secrets. Like most of the great poker players of his era, Baldwin’s life story would make a great movie. As hazardous as poker could be to your bankroll, it’s much more dangerous to your physical well-being. Baldwin went to jail at least twice, once for playing pool before he turned 16 and once for dealing an illegal poker game. But those incidents paled in comparison to the time two criminals intent on kidnapping him for ransom instead robbed everyone in the casino, fatally shooting one customer who had perhaps not-so-cleverly given them a fake wallet with only five dollars in it.”

[RR] “How did he know they were after him?” Roderick the Rock wondered.

[LL] “One of the crooks yelled that Bobby had gotten away, which he had, running out the back door. Also, Baldwin had already left town knowing they were after him. They’d tracked him down, but he was foolish enough to return to his home casino.”

[RR] “Yet another poker pro who was brilliant at the poker table and not so smart away from it.”

[LL] “Exactly. He knew the occupational hazards of his job, but he made the big mistake of letting his first huge win in Las Vegas become well known. It was even reported in newspapers!”

[FF] “Like a ‘Kick Me’ sign on his back”, Figaro the Fish suggested.

[LL] “It’s true that the mob controlled Las Vegas before Del Webb began transforming it into a ‘Wall Street town’ by buying the Sahara Hotel in 1961,1 but he was always been less likely to get robbed in a casino than in a home game, which is where Baldwin had played most of his poker. He knew he could be ‘hijacked’ by criminals who broke into the house, cheated by the people running the game, or stiffed by the losing players. But being a kidnapping target just wasn’t something he expected.

The good news is that the police shot both of the crooks when then tried to get away. The bad news is that Baldwin quickly lost all the money he’d won anyway.”

[RR] “Yet another poker player who didn’t understand the concept of bankroll management, I suppose?”

[LL] “Yep. And still the book has a chapter called ‘Your Bankroll’. You can safely skip it. Baldwin ‘got broke’ several times, at one point being $70,000 in the red on sports bets. The chapter doesn’t bother to warn you against sports wagers, where the vig will get you, or table games like craps, where you can’t overcome the house’s edge in the long run. In fact, the rest of the book holds more lessons in what not to do than this chapter does on what to do.

The stories, which are by far the best part of the book, also cover his low-key courtship of his second wife, Shirley. That thread is probably more educational than the bankroll chapter.”

[RR] “What happened to his first wife?”

[LL] “Oh, that’s another what-not-to-do section. A poker player shouldn’t marry a person who doesn’t like gambling. She wanted him to take a steady job, and he chose poker over her.

Intermingled with the story chapters are strategy chapters, each covering the basics of a poker variant he’s playing. He concisely lists the four to twelve most ‘Common Mistakes’ players make and follows with a somewhat overlapping ‘Final Formula’ for playing the game well. These chapters are exactly what you’d want to read if you had only five minutes to learn a game you were about to play for the first time, as they’re each only a few pages long. The games begin with Five-Card Stud, which was the first poker variation Baldwin played, losing his entire fortune of $6.35 at a friend’s house, and go on to Ace-to-Five Lowball, Seven-Stud, Seven-Stud Lowball, Five-Card Draw, Hold ‘Em, Deuce-to-Seven Draw, and High-Low Split.

Some of his best advice actually appears at the very end of the book in a chapter called ‘Unsorted Secrets’. For example, ‘You should try to specialize in one or two kinds of poker. But it pays — it pays heavily — to be an all-round card master.’2 He also talks about mixing up your style with quick shifts, handling unknown players, dealing with very loose players, and various times when it’s good or bad to bluff.

Overall, this was a quick and easy read that has aged well. The romantic era where poker was a very dangerous occupation will never be repeated, so all we can do is sit back and enjoy the show. As for the strategy parts of the book, I suspect Caro and Baldwin went out of their way not to step on Doyle Brunson’s toes, since they had both just contributed to his Super System.”

Title Bobby Baldwin’s Winning Poker Secrets
Author Mike Caro
Year 1979 (republished in 2004)
Skill Level Any (stories)/Beginner (poker)
Pros Very entertaining stories alternating with very concise advice on how to play several poker variants.
Cons Advice is a good starting point for beginners only.
Rating 3.5 (stories)/2.0 (poker)

Footnotes:

  1. From Amarillo Slim Preston’s book, Amarillo Slim in a World of Fat People, page 203.
  2. Page 187.
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“Doyle Brunson’s Super System” Review

[LL] “I guess it’s my turn to review some books”, Leroy the Lion suggested. “I just inherited a huge box of them from an uncle.”

[FF] “Sorry to hear. How did he die?” Figaro the Fish inquired.

[LL] “Oh, he didn’t die. But he was about to. His wife said she’d kill him if he didn’t stop squandering their retirement savings playing poker.”

[RR] “I guess the books you got didn’t help him much”, Roderick the Rock ventured.

[LL] “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can give a person a book to read, but you can’t make him think.”

[SS] “So, you like the books?” Stan the Stat asked.

[LL] “They’re a mixed bag, but in general I thought they were pretty good if a bit dated. I think you’d particularly like the history books though, Stan. Those are timeless.”

[SS] “Oh, absolutely. I’d love to borrow any of the ones you won’t be reading soon.”

[LL] “I’ll bring some to the next tournament.

Most of the books are from 1999 to 2009. But a few are older, starting with a classic, Doyle Brunson’s Super System, from 1979. Since I’m reading them in chronological order, that’s where I’ll start.”

[SS] “If I remember, Brunson originally self-published the material as How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker and sold it for $100 a pop in 1978.”

[LL] “That sounds about right. But that’s a fairly rare, valuable book. If my uncle had that he could have sold it and kept playing a little longer.”

[LL] “Anyway, Super System covers a lot of ground. Brunson got expert help for most of the poker variations:

  • Draw Poker: Mike Caro1 not only covers draw poker extensively but discusses tells long before his own book on the subject came out. He also contributed fifty pages worth of computer-calculated probability tables for the appendixes.
  • Seven-Card Stud: Chip Reese had just won the 1978 WSOP $1,000 Seven-Card Stud Split and went on to win the 1982 WSOP $5,000 Seven-Card Stud.
  • Lowball: Joey Hawthorne, a poker theorist, and Doyle Brunson cover Ace-to-Five, Deuce-to-Seven (which Brunson won the 1976 $5,000 event in), and Razz (which Brunson won the 1998 $1,500 event in).
  • Seven-Card Stud High-Low Split: David Sklansky would go on to write over a dozen of his own books on poker and gambling.
  • Limit Texas Hold ‘Em: Bobby Baldwin captured all four of his WSOP bracelets between 1977 and 1979, including the 1978 Main Event just after this book was published.
  • No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em: Doyle Brunson won four of his ten WSOP bracelets in No Limit Hold ‘Em, which has been his favorite since well before it even arrived in Las Vegas.

[LL] “There’s no arguing with Brunson’s credentials or how groundbreaking Super System was, but he did take a few missteps. He believes in poker ESP (‘I believe some good Poker players actually employ a degree of extrasensory perception’), rushes (‘After I’ve won a pot in No-Limit… I’m in the next pot — regardless of what two cards I pick up‘), and the weakness of female players (‘Nor do I like to see women at a Poker table’).2

Overall, though, this book is still an excellent primer for all the different poker variations it covers. I certainly learned a lot about Draw Poker and all the Stud variants that I wish I knew when I played them as a kid. We’ve started to play them more in the side games here, too.”

Title Doyle Brunson’s Super System
Author Doyle Brunson
Year 1979
Skill Level Intermediate
Pros Covers several types of poker over a comprehensive 605 pages. Teaches what used to be an aggressive style of play.
Cons What used to be aggressive is just normal now and won’t work like it used to. Although much of his advice is still valid, Brunson published Super System 2 in 2005.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. The Draw Poker chapter is the only one Brunson didn’t write any of.
  2. The three quotes are from page 23, 450, and 24, respectively. To his credit, Brunson later retracted what he said about women, acknowledging that they could play just as aggressively as men in Poker Wisdom of a Champion.

    On the same page, Brunson also said, “I doubt that any of my children will decide to play professionally. It can be a very good life, and it has been for me, but my children haven’t come from the background that produced good Poker players.” Thirty-seven years later, his son Todd joined him in the Poker Hall of Fame.

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