“Total Poker” Review

[LL] “I would have expected a book called Total Poker to be longer than 255 pages”, Leroy the Lion complained. “But then in 2016, Card Player published The Total Poker Manual, which was almost exactly the same length, two hundred and fifty-six pages.”

[RR] “Oh, I don’t know”, Roderick the Rock countered. “If you think about it the right way, poker is pretty simple. ‘Play tight. Be aggressive.'”

[LL] “Just like the ‘Total Diet’ book only needs to say, ‘Eat less. Exercise more.'”

[RR] “Totally right. If you expend more calories than you eat, you’ll lose weight.”

[LL] “And yet dieting and poker are both billion-dollar industries with hundreds of books and countless articles published every year. The Total Poker book actually came out in 1977 while The Total Poker Manual was nearly four decades later in 2016. Despite the similar names, they’re very different books. The latter is primarily a pithy strategy guide with some bigger picture advice,1 while the former tries to live up to its name by covering strategy, history, and even pop culture.

In 1973, David Spanier flew from England to Las Vegas to play and report on the World Series of Poker, years before his fellow journalists Al Alvarez and Anthony Holden did the same. Total Poker didn’t come out for four years, however. The preface partly explains the delay when he states, ‘one of the things I discovered in writing a book about poker is how deep a subject poker is: one can’t really ever get to the boundaries of it; like exploring space, there’s always farther to go.’2 The scope of the subject also created a book that bounces around diverse topics with little rhyme or reason: strategy sections abut history chapters abut pop culture musings. This review may also seem disorganized as a result.

The first chapter is on bluffing, because ‘bluff is the essence of poker.’3 ‘It is the game itself.’4 In this chapter and elsewhere, Spanier present examples from his own play, usually in Five-Card Draw, Five-Card Stud, Seven-Card Stud, and related low-only and hi-lo games. His strategy advice is generally sound if not very deep,5 but he tries to shore up the lack of rigor with various tables of odds from the different games.

Some chapters cover different eras in the history of poker, with topics including New Orleans, steamboats, early references in books, Wild Bill Hickok, and Poker Alice, a late 19th century, Wild West poker playing legend. U.S. Presidents who played poker get their own chapter, albeit with a long side track exploring John F. Kennedy’s poker-like dealings with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As Spanier was in Vegas for the 1973 WSOP, the champion Puggy Pearson gets his own chapter, which includes some hand stories from the Main Event. This is the section with the most Texas Hold ‘Em, but a later chapter describes the game: ‘The key to tactics at hold ’em is to treat the first two cards like stud, but the flop like draw; at that stage you have a five-card hand to work with; strategically, play the game as a variation of seven card stud. A somewhat complicated admixture, but that’s the fascination of hold ’em.’6

One chapter discusses the best poker movies of all time, which, like the J.F.K. digression, features a movie with no poker, The Hustler. The actual poker movies he likes are The Cincinnati Kid (1965), A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), The Sting (1973), and California Split (1974).

Overall Total Poker is a rare book from an earlier era that doesn’t live up to its grand title but still provides an interesting portal into a world where poker was very different than it is today.”

[RR] “‘Promises everything. Delivers some.'”

Title Total Poker
Author David Spanier
Year 1977
Skill Level any
Pros Lots of poker stories, including some hands from the 1973 WSOP Main Event. Some strategy and odds tables.
Cons Too much about Draw Poker, Five-Card Stud, and Spanier’s home games.
Rating 2.5

Footnotes:

  1. I may do a full review of The Total Poker Manual in the future, but the micro-review is ‘Decent breadth. No depth.’ It’s a colorful beginner’s guide with 266 very short sections ranging from a quarter of a page to two pages.
  2. Page 9.
  3. Page 13.
  4. Page 18.
  5. Although Spanier appears to be a competent home game player, his various trips to the World Series of Poker do not seem to have included any tournament cashes, and he does not have an entry in the Hendon Mob Database.
  6. Page 231.
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“Championship Table” Review

[LL] “Championship Table is a great companion book to All In“, Leroy the Lion claimed.

[RR] “How so?” Roderick the Rock encouraged.

[LL] “It complements the older book’s biggest weaknesses with excellent organization. Every World Series of Poker Main Event gets its own chapter with the same basic structure. The final players are listed in seat order, usually with their chip stacks at the start of the final table. A separate chart lists the order of finish with prize money. The final hand is described in text with the hole and board cards displayed graphically. Brief highlights of the entire WSOP are usually given.

While Championship Table doesn’t include nearly as many stories as All In, thirteen of its chapters include an interview or a conversation with the winner or the runner-up or, in one case, a Ladies World Champion.

These dialogues with Smith, even though they date from 1996 to 2001, are the best part of the book. The nine interviews are:

  • Thomas ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston: ‘The Old Days at the World Series’
  • Walter Clyde ‘Puggy’ Pearson: ‘On the Road Again’
  • Doyle ‘Texas Dolly’ Brunson: ‘The Warrior Returns to the Arena’
  • Bobby Hoff: ‘A Sunny Day after a Long Night’
  • Byron ‘Cowboy’ Wolford: ‘Rodeoing ‘n Playing Poker’
  • T.J. Cloutier: ‘When T.J. Talks, They All Listen’
  • Russ Hamilton: ‘He’s Worth His Weight in Silver’
  • Barbara Enright:1 ‘The First Lady at the Last Table’
  • Noel Furlong: ‘The Champ Pays Tribute to a Pioneer’
  • Chris Ferguson: ‘A Champ Who Waltzes in Three Worlds’

while the four conversations are with Dewey Tomko, Erik Seidel, Hans ‘Tuna’ Lund, and John Strzemp. Features on two of the first champions to pass away, Johnny Moss and Stu Ungar, also appear.

The book presents numerous photos throughout, with at least one of every champion. Although these pictures are black and white, they include over a dozen excellent group shots dating back to 1974. The ‘Gallery of Champions’ with every Main Event winner in chronological order is the final page of the book, but a better, color version without text adorns the front cover.

Like All In, Championship Table could use a sequel or an update, as it only covers through 2008, but of the two, it’s the book you’ll turn to first if you want to look something up about the first three decades of the WSOP.”

Title Championship Table
Author Dana Smith,2 Tom McEvoy, & Ralph Wheeler
Year 2009
Skill Level any
Pros Organized presentation of the final players with starting chip stacks and results, the final hand, and a summary for every WSOP Main Event from 1970 to 2008. Excellent interviews.
Cons Some years are unnecessarily brief, spanning a mere two pages. Numerous final hand errors.3
Rating 3.5

Footnotes:

  1. Enright won the WSOP Ladies Championship in both 1986 and 1994.
  2. Dana Smith is one of the few female poker authors, but often hides that fact by publishing under the name Shane Smith.
  3. Over half (16 out of 30) of the final hands have at least one incorrect or missing card.
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“All In: The (Almost) Entirely True History of the World Series of Poker” Review

[LL] “Bits and pieces of the history of the World Series of Poker had previously appeared in books, usually one year at a time,1 but All In: The (Almost) Entirely True History of the World Series of Poker was the first comprehensive volume to cover them all”, Leroy the Lion expounded.

[RR] “Up until what year?” Roderick the Rock asked.

[LL] “2004, as the book came out the following year. It would be great if the authors put out an update or a sequel, but for what it covers, it’s great.

After a brief history of how the WSOP came to be, the 35 festivals are chronologically presented in seventeen chapters. For most years, the number of preliminary events and the size of the Main Event field are stated to indicate how the WSOP continued to grow almost non-stop, but the book is more about stories than numbers. Details of some preliminary events are occasionally given, then the Main Event is described, usually including each day of action with more hand recaps and stories starting from the final table.

Almost every player who made a deep run in the Main Event gets some ink; most get a short biography and a general evaluation of their playing style. Many are quoted talking about their play or their opponents.

As a sideline, the history of Binion’s Horseshoe and the Binion family is updated throughout the book, from Benny Binion’s exile from Texas to the family squabbles that ensued after his death.2

Overall, it’s an engrossing and well-written narrative of the first 35 WSOPs that almost feels too short despite running almost 300 pages.”

[RR] “It’s definitely too short. By about 15 years.”

Title All In: The (Almost) Entirely True History of the World Series of Poker
Author Jonathan Grotenstein & Storms Reback
Year 2005
Skill Level any
Pros Detailed runthroughs of every World Series of Poker Main Event, including many hands from the final tables.
Cons Focused on the stories, so it’s hard to jump to a particular year or find out who finished in what place. A few minor errors.3 Only covers up to 2004.
Rating 4.5

Footnotes:

  1. For example, Amarillo Slim in a World of Fat People talks about the 1972 WSOP, Total Poker covers 1973, Bobby Baldwin’s Winning Secrets 1978, The Biggest Game in Town 1981, and Cowboys, Gamblers and Hustlers 1984.
  2. Many of the sections are better covered in other books (e.g., Binion’s family is thoroughly examined in James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street), but All In does a great job of including the essence of the most interesting stories.
  3. Most of the mistakes can be found in almost every similar book of the era: misspellings of Dandalos for Dandolos and Brian for Bryan (Roberts), presenting the Dandolos-Moss match as fact instead of myth, and repeating that Chris Moneymaker started his World Series of Poker run in a $40 satellite (it was actually $86, not $39).

    One odd double-error, however, is the claim that Amarillo Slim Preston inspired Kenny Rogers to write “The Gambler”. Rogers only sang the song; it was written by Don Schlitz. This mistake probably comes from Amarillo Slim in a World of Fat People (page 207), but there are no footnotes to confirm that (this weakness of the book sharply contrasts with James McManus’s well-cited Cowboys Full — The Story of Poker).

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“Johnny Moss: Poker’s Finest Champion of Champions” Review

[LL] “Stuey Ungar’s autobiography ended up as a biography, and so did Johnny Moss’s”, Leroy the Lion mentioned.

[RR] “He died while it was being written, too?” Roderick the Rock wondered.

[LL] “No, I guess they didn’t want to pretend that he wrote it with his second grade education. And this was back in 1981, so maybe ghostwriting wasn’t as popular.”

[RR] “Didn’t Philip Roth write a novel called ‘The Ghost Writer’ around then?”

{… checks Wikipedia …}

“Yes, in 1979.”

[LL] “Well, whatever the case, Don Jenkins gets full credit as the author of Johnny Moss: Poker’s Finest Champion of Champions, while Moss probably supplied most of the material.

Although Moss may have spent a large portion of his life playing poker, he recounts very few hands that don’t involve cheating. A couple of the more interesting hands are from the legendary Johnny Moss-Nick ‘The Greek’ Dandolos marathon, of which Moss’s recollection, then over three decades old, is fairly unreliable. The year is said to be 1949 while the location is the Horseshoe, which didn’t open until 1951, so at least one of those ‘facts’ is wrong. Relative to the casino, ‘Benny set up the game so that it could be easily seen by the tourists.’1 This was later misconstrued by other writers to mean ‘in front of the casino’. ‘He was sure that they would flock to the rail to watch a game where the stakes would be so high that they could see, in any one hand, more money than they would probably see throughout their entire lifetimes.'”1

[RR] “Actually, it would make sense to put them deep inside the casino, so anyone who wanted to watch would have to walk by the slot machines and gaming tables.”

[LL] “One of the hands from the supposed five-month marathon is the famous one where Dandolos sucked out to win a pot of over a half million dollars in Five-Card Stud and the other is a lesser-known one where ‘The Greek’ was even luckier to take a big Lowball pot of over a quarter million dollars on a successful two-card draw.”

[LL] “After opening with that story, the rest of the book progresses chronologically, starting with Moss’s birth in Marshall, Texas on May 14, 1907. His family was so poor, he dropped out of school at age eight to make money reselling newspapers. He later had various non-gambling jobs: truck driver a couple of times, security from striking workers, and two years in the Navy, but mostly, he made his money either by gambling (first dominoes then poker) or helping in or running gambling rooms.

Once he learned how to play all the popular games, he became such a successful gambler that his bankroll once reached $10 million. But like many top poker players, he had tremendous leaks: craps, horses, and sports betting. He couldn’t beat any of those and once even owed over half a million dollars from dice alone. He also gambled a lot on the golf course, where he could shoot in the high 70s, but the book doesn’t indicate how he fared overall.

Overall, this is a great biography of Johnny Moss’s first 73 years, but even though he was a tremendous poker player2 there is very little about him actually playing poker. It’s unfortunate that the pinnacle of his poker career, the World Series of Poker (and the Texas Gambler’s Conventions3 that preceded it), somehow only merited a brief six-page chapter near the end of the book.

The book has a half dozen historic black and white photos of Moss4 sprinkled throughout and ends with a chapter of excellent color photos and very brief biographies of Ungar, Bobby Baldwin, Hal Fowler, Pug Pearson, Chip Reese, Crandell Addington, Sailor Roberts, Amarillo Slim Preston, Doyle Brunson, and an assortment of other poker players of the era.”

Title Johnny Moss: Poker’s Finest Champion of Champions
Author Don Jenkins
Year 1981
Skill Level Any
Pros Great stories about Moss’s life, including road gambling and handling cheating.
Cons Very little actual poker and especially disappointingly little about his three WSOP championships.
Rating 2.5

Footnotes:

  1. Page 5.
  2. The cover of the book calls Moss “the greatest poker player of our time”.
  3. Chapter 24 claims that Moss was voted “King of Cards” for his poker prowess and given a silver cup in both 1968 and 1969, but other sources (e.g., Doyle Brunson’s Super System 2, page 79 say that the first year only offered blackjack, craps, and roulette.
  4. The photos cover a wide age range from Moss as a child to his discharge from the Navy at 38.
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“One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar” Review

[LL] “What’s the best hand in poker?” Leroy the Lion asked, seemingly rhetorically.

[RR] “A royal flush”, Roderick the Rock answered automatically. “Wait…, unless there are wild cards, then five-of-a-kind.”

[LL] “Sure, but four-of-a-kind is good enough to win most of the time.”

[RR] “In Hold ‘Em, three-of-a-kind is good enough to win most of the time.”

[LL] “Whereas two-of-a-kind is already only about an average hand on the flop. But you know who probably won a very high percentage of hands with even less than that?”

[RR] “Doyle Brunson before he published Super System?”

[LL] “Close. I’m thinking of Stu Ungar, who was truly One of a Kind.”

[RR} “I see what you did there.”

[LL] “His biography, sadly not the intended autobiography, is titled in full One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar. He was tremendous at detecting weakness in his opponents and relentless in attacking it when he spotted it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t bluff his way to good health with his bad hygiene,1 terrible eating habits, and unrestrained drug abuse.

Like Check-Raising the Devil,
Ungar’s book serves as a cautionary tale about the evils of drugs.2 He flew much higher than Mike Matusow, winning the Main Events of three World Series of Poker and three Super Bowls of Poker, and crashed much harder, landing in the hospital a couple of times before eventually succumbing at age 45.

Nolan Dalla interviewed Stu Ungar many times in 1998 when the former prodigy was beginning to feel his mortality. Quotes from the native New Yorker appear throughout the book, providing excellent insight into what he was thinking on numerous occasions where a saner person would have chosen a different path.

Ungar was already able to handle his father’s gambling bookmaking records at age 8. He made his first mark in the world by defeating many of the best gin players in New York City at age 16. When he was banned from gin tournaments in Las Vegas (because his amazing skill scared too many players from entering) and from blackjack (because his memory let him go far beyond card-counting to tracking of all of cards), he turned to poker.

Bankrolled and, equally importantly, protected by the Genovese crime family, Stuey took on all comers in gin and could have lived comfortably from the income if he didn’t like to bet on horses and sports, two gambling arenas in which he had absolutely no edge and thus couldn’t overcome the vig. He never stopped wagering significant portions of his bankroll because that was how he got his thrills.

If Ungar was precocious as a child, in many ways he remained a man-child mentally as he grew older. He never had a bank account, only obtained a driver’s license through bribery, dodged the draft similarly,3 finally obtained a Social Security number because the Horseshoe wouldn’t pay his tournament winnings without one, didn’t know how to cook or even boil water, didn’t take care of his teeth, couldn’t wash his own hair, rarely showered, and only changed his clothes occasionally (like when his wife told him to).

But he reached the top of the world in gin and poker with unmatched talent. And after wasting away over a decade to drugs, he rebounded in 1997 to become ‘The Comeback Kid’ before the final downfall of his poetic and riveting Shakespearean tragedy.”

Title One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey “The Kid” Ungar
Author Nolan Dalla & Peter Alson
Year 2005
Skill Level any
Pros An incredible story of an amazing, tender-hearted card genius who beat the best players in the world at gin and poker.
Cons An incredible story of an arrogant, uncouth, gambling degenerate who lost to the vig and drugs. Very little poker.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. He refused to go to the dentist until his teeth got too painful. Eventually, all his back teeth were capped or replaced.
  2. His daughter, Stefanie Ungar, provides the final words of the acknowledgments and the entire book, “I only hope that everyone who reads this book will not only learn about my dad’s life and all of his accomplishments, but also learn from his mistakes as well.”
  3. This was unnecessary, as Ungar would have failed the physical (for starters, he never weighed over 100 pounds).
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“Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats” Review

[LL] “The New Yorker magazine paid Al Alvarez to return to the World Series of Poker Main Event in 1994,1” Leroy the Lion related, “and his account of the tournament is one of the two sections of the coffee table book, Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats, published in 2001.

[RR] “Another long reporting delay like Fading Hearts on the River?” Roderick the Rock supposed.

[LL] “Yes, but it didn’t strike me as odd this time. Maybe because it’s an older book and the focus isn’t on how Alvarez plays poker.

But he’s also forgiven a little because he needed some of the time to write the other half of the book, which is basically a pictorial history of poker.

Alvarez begins by explaining how to play the game and how he learned to play the game primarily from Herbert O. Yardley’s 1957 book, The Education of a Poker Player.

While Las Vegas was the focus of his previous poker book, the rest of the country and other parts of the world get into the act here. Alvarez reproduces playing cards, postcards, paintings, posters, pages of books, and a panoply of other poker-related paraphernalia. Amongst the treasures are the illustrated Shakespeare on Poker, which attempts to link quotes from the Bard to the game.2

He then covers the history of poker, including the German game brag, the introduction of the 52-card deck (which added straights and flushes to the game in 1837), the first description of poker in a book (1844), jackpots, stud, Hold ‘Em (which he dates back to the 19th century), and Omaha.

Among the many memorable quotes in the book are Amarillo Slim Preston’s attitude toward playing the master of Five-Card Stud (‘I’d rather catch frost on my winter peaches than play stud with Bill Boyd.’)3 and Puggy Pearson’s assessment of what a great poker player needs (‘A gambler’s ace is his ability to think clearly under stress. That’s very important, because, you see, fear is the basis of all mankind.’).”

[RR] “He had over a dozen years to prepare after The Biggest Game in Town, right?”

[LL] “He claims he prepared for about fifteen months, far longer than Colson Whitehead, at least.

Alvarez’s own poker story recounts how he satellites into and plays two preliminary events ($1,500 Pot-Limit Hold ‘Em and $2,500 No-Limit Hold ‘Em) before entering the Main Event on his publisher’s dime. The warm ups do not help; he says he played bad, worse, and worst, mostly by being too tight-weak. But the show goes on without him, and the crowning of the champion ends up being quite a weighty topic.”

[RR] “Oh, was that the one that Russ Hamilton won and got his massive weight in silver as a bonus?”

[LL] “Indeed. The book unfortunately neglects to include the wonderful caricature that accompanied the original New Yorker article. Hamilton appears significantly bigger than his last two opponents, Hugh Vincent and John Spadavecchia, combined. Alvarez reported that the Horseshoe had prepared 300 pounds of silver ingots but were still 30 pounds short (for a bonus prize worth $28,512).”

Title Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats
Author Al Alvarez
Year 2001
Skill Level any
Pros Photographic history of poker plus details of the 1994 World Series of Poker.
Cons Fairly short book, especially given how much space is taken by photos.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. Alvarez’s article, “No Limit” is The Sporting Scene section of the August 8, 1994 issue of The New Yorker.
  2. The attempted humor is rather dry, but you can laugh at the author instead of with him when he shows the Draw Poker hand 5♣4♣3♣2♣Q♦ with the caption, “Woman, get thee to a nunnery” (Hamlet Act III, Scene I).
  3. The Five-Card Stud event at the World Series of Poker was discontinued after Boyd had won it each of the four times it was contested.
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“The Biggest Game in Town” Review

[LL] “It’s hard to imagine what poker was like back in the old days”, Leroy the Lion opened.

[RR] “I couldn’t enjoy playing if I was worried about being cheated or robbed all the time”, Roderick the Rock agreed.

[LL] “I don’t even mean the road games. Even when the World Series of Poker was young, it was a very different game.”

[RR] “Yeah, very few players, mostly professionals at that, and the rooms were filled with smoke.”

[LL] “By 1981, the Main Event had all of 75 players. Just eight tables. So small they made seat assignments by drawing names out of a plastic bowl!”

[RR] “How do you know that?”

[LL] “I just finished reading Al Alvarez’s 1983 book, The Biggest Game in Town, which as far as I can tell was the first book to tell the history of the World Series of Poker.”

[RR] “It’s amazing that it took over a dozen years before someone wrote a book about the poker championship of the world.”

[LL] “On the contrary, I think it’s surprising he wrote about it that soon considering how small the event still was. Even more surprising that it was a British author! There was very little press beyond the local Las Vegas newspapers, and CBS had only recently started given the event just a little annual television coverage.

The book goes all the way back to when the area was settled by Brigham Young in 1855 before becoming the city of Las Vegas half a century later.

Along the way, Alvarez explores the fascinating lives of Benny Binion, the founder of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, and several famous poker players including Nick ‘the Greek’ Dandolos, Johnny Moss, Jack Straus, Bobby Baldwin, Doyle Brunson, David Sklansky, and Stu Ungar. Well, maybe Sklansky’s life isn’t that interesting.”

[RR] “I’m sure the others more than make up for it.”

[LL] “Indeed, Alvarez wasn’t wanting for material. Unfortunately, he chose the Dandolos-Moss myth for his title story. In Alvarez’s version, Dandolos, a high roller from Chicago, came to town in 1949 to play the very highest stakes no-limit poker. Binion complied, convincing his childhood friend Moss to make his first trip to Las Vegas from Texas to be his main opponent. Over the course of five months, the two supposedly battled almost non-stop in front of Binion’s casino until Moss broke Dandolos to the tune of a rumored two million dollars.1

Alvarez wasn’t the first to publish the story. Jon Bradshaw covered it in Johnny Moss’s chapter in Fast Company: How Six Master Gamblers Defy the Odds – and Always Win eight years earlier. But Alvarez moves the event from 1951 to 1949, adding another problem to the tale as Binion’s Horseshoe didn’t open until 1951, so the match couldn’t have been ‘thoughtfully positioned near the entrance to the casino… surrounded by crowds six deep’.2 In 2017, Benny’s son Jack confirmed that the story conflates two separate events (a brief, private, backroom Dandolos-Moss game at the Fremont and a larger public event at Binion’s). The amounts of money involved have also probably been exaggerated over time, so even the likely true story of Moss’s huge fifth street bad beat in a Five-Card Stud hand was probably for much less than the half-million dollar pot that the book claims.3

Alvarez’s less excusable error, however, is that he credits this marathon as the inspiration for the World Series of Poker and never mentions the actual predecessor, the 1969 ‘Texas Gamblers Reunion’. Texans Tom Moore and Vic Vickrey had added poker to their 2nd Annual Gaming Fraternity Convention at the Reno Holiday Hotel but remained unhappy with their improved event, as the attendees didn’t gamble enough at the casino outside of the reunion activities. Benny Binion, one of the 36 gamblers who had participated, requested permission to use the idea and debuted the World Series of Poker debuted the next year at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino.4

Eleven years later, Alvarez is in town for the 1981 World Series of Poker, and he devotes a third of his book to three of its thirteen events:5 the $5,000 7-Card Stud, the $2,500 Limit Ace to Five Draw, and the $10,000 Main Event. Although he describes a few poker hands, his main focus, as in the rest of the book, is on the players. This wilder era was full of crazier and more colorful characters who didn’t hide behind hoodies and sunglasses, including Stu Ungar6 who had won the previous year’s Main Event.

Outside of the WSOP, other stories involve drug king Jimmy Chagra, who enjoyed playing for high stakes and wasn’t bothered by losing, and Mario Puzo, The Godfather author, who appropriately-enough loved Las Vegas, which was once heavily dominated by the mob, and various unusual characters. Mickey Appleman explains the normalcy of the latter: ‘A lot of people don’t fit in where they are, but Las Vegas takes anybody.’7

The book ends with a short paragraph on the 1982 WSOP Main Event, Jack Straus’s ‘chip and a chair’ miracle that was worthy of a full chapter if not an entire book of its own.

The Biggest Game in Town is an entertaining, well-written classic of poker history, chronicling a time long before thousand-player tournaments, television hole cams, and online poker. Even the six pages unfortunately devoted to the title story are enjoyable and should not detract from the overall value of the content.”

Title The Biggest Game in Town
Author Al Alvarez
Year 1983 (2002 printing)
Skill Level any
Pros Excellent telling of the story of Las Vegas and poker players and the 1981 World Series of Poker.
Cons Not much actual poker. Controversial origin story. No table of contents, chapter names, footnotes, bibliography, or index.
Rating 3.5

Footnotes:

  1. Two million in 1949 dollars was worth about $21 million in 2019.
  2. Page 39.
  3. Page 30.
  4. Source: Cowboys Full – The Story of Poker, page 266.
  5. Alvarez gives the count as twelve, perhaps omitting the $600 Mixed Doubles (the $400 Women’s 7-Card Stud is definitely included, so the exclusion isn’t based on openness).
  6. Stu Ungar would end up wearing sunglasses during the 1997 WSOP Main Event not to hide his eyes but his nose. His cocaine habit had collapsed his nostrils.
  7. Page 134.
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“Fading Hearts on the River: A Life in High-Stakes Poker” Review

[LL] “Almost every parent brags about their children,” Leroy the Lion noted, “but Brooks Haxton deserves the ‘2014 Parental Brag of the Year’ award for writing Fading Hearts on the River: A Life in High-Stakes Poker, a 288-page homage to his son, Isaac Haxton.”

[RR] “Very few of us will be remembered for our accomplishments after we’re dead, but out children give us a sort of immortality”, Roderick the Rock contended.

[LL] “The elder Haxton covers everything from his son’s precocious infancy — 2-year-old Isaac once explained, ‘That was gas, muffled by my diaper’1 — to his college days at Brown University to his meteoric rise as a poker player, with the largest part of the book devoted to his deep run in the 2007 PCA Paradise Island $8,000 buyin Championship Event.”

[RR] “When was this book written?”

[LL] “2014. Although Brooks could have written most of it in 2007 or 2008, he was belatedly inspired by his soon-to-be empty nest status.

A writer by trade, he is technically proficient at his craft but is not an entertaining storyteller,2 preferring to impress with his erudite knowledge. On the plus side, he understands how to play poker very well and provides detailed explanations of tournament hands and thorough descriptions of hand ranges and game theory as it applies to poker.

Isaac’s family isn’t dysfunctional like so many other poker players’ seem to be (e.g., Annie Duke’s and Howard Lederer’s), and while all the major poker opponents are unrelated males, the other main characters in Fading Hearts are all family and female: Isaac’s mom Francie, his twin 13-year-old sisters Miriam and Lillie, and his significant other, Zoe Weingart3

While his main opponent, Ryan Daut has faded into obscurity (adding just 20% to his lifetime tournament earnings since this, his first documented cash), Isaac Haxton has sustained his high-level success, recently winning the Aria $300,000 Super High Roller Bowl on December 19, 2018 for a career-best $3,672,000, which pushed him over $23 million in career tournament winnings.4 His career has survived the test of time better than this biography has.”

Title Fading Hearts on the River: A Life in High-Stakes Poker
Author Brooks Haxton (father of Isaac Haxton)
Year 2014
Skill Level any
Pros Chronicles the rise of a young poker star, mixing his life story with details of his breakout tournament.
Cons An unusual biography written by the player’s father and not the player himself. Significant amounts of non-poker content.
Rating 2.5

Footnotes:

  1. Page 53. He was able to solve 24-like math puzzles at age 4 and play chess games in his head at age 5.
  2. Brooks Haxton’s writing style contrasts markedly from Colson Whitehead’s. Like Whitehead, the younger Haxton never got his driver’s license either.
  3. The book’s subtitle is a major spoiler: “How my Son Cheats Death, Wins Millions, & Marries His College Sweetheart”.
  4. As of this writing (February 2019), Isaac Haxton ranks #13 all-time in tournament winnings.
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“The Noble Hustle” Review

Colson Whitehead is one of a number of authors who have been fortunate enough to have his publisher pay him1 to write about playing in the World Series of Main Event. But he’s the only Pulitzer Prize winner2 in the group, making The Noble Hustle3 a delightful read. Unfortunately, he isn’t a very good poker player, regularly joining other writers only in very low-stakes dealer’s choice home games and completely lacking in tournament experience.

More than a decade into the poker boom and a month after Black Friday has effectively killed internet poker in the U.S., Whitehead still lays out the basics of Texas Hold ‘Em and explains how tournaments work, but at least he does so more entertainingly than anyone else has. A driver’s license-less native of the Big Apple, he takes the bus to Atlantic City, accepts his complimentary chips and tangles with denizens of the $1/$2 Hold ‘Em tables. This is a step up from his usual game but still far from where he’s going.

Despite hiring a poker coach,4 he isn’t able to learn fast enough to impress anyone with his skills or results. Fortunately, he is honest with us about this, deprecatingly describing his style as “Tight Incompetent”.5 His two strongest features are his poker face, which he wears as a self-declared member of the Republic of Anhedonia,6, and his patience. These help him book a nice win at the $1/$2 Limit Hold ‘Em table at the Tropicana and a decent cash in a $50 buyin tournament there.

But just six weeks later he’s made the massive jumps to Las Vegas, the No-Limit Main Event, and a $10,000 buyin. Despite additional advice from Matt Matros, a writer-turned-successful-poker-player, Whitehead is far from ready. His Main Event story unfolds over the last fifty pages of the book. His demise is fully expected yet still disappointing to him, the now defunct Grantland, and the reader, who is left wishing there was more for him to tell.

Title The Noble Hustle
Author Colson Whitehead
Year 2014
Skill Level any
Pros Quick, enjoyable, easy read from a great writer.
Cons Maybe too quick, despite the content being padded unchronologically by events a year after the main narrative.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. And yes, they’ve all been men so far (see the “Journals by writers” section of Books About the WSOP Main Event). That is definitely a glaring hole in the literature. Maria Konnikova certainly could have already done it had she not gotten sidetracked by learning to play poker too well (but it’s still not too late).
  2. The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer in 2017 a year after winning the National Book Award.
  3. The subtitle of the book is “Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death”. “Death refers to busting out of a poker tournament, while beef jerky is one of the preferred snacks of poker players who may not be able to get away from the table long enough for a proper meal.
  4. Helen Ellis is also a writer by trade, but she has over $100,000 in live poker tournament cashes.
  5. On page 183, Whitehead admits to folding out of turn and unintentionally putting in an insufficient raise because he confused the chips.
  6. “Anhedonia”, meaning “the inability to feel pleasure” is a real word but a fictitious location.
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“Final Table: A Winning Poker Approach from a WSOP Champion” Review

[LL] “Originally published in the same year,” Leroy the Lion segued, “Jerry Yang’s All In and Jonathan Duhamel’s Final Table: A Winning Approach From a WSOP Champion come from Main Event winners just three years apart but are extremely different types of books from very different players.

  • Duhamel grew up in a comfortable home in a Canadian suburb.1 Yang grew up dirt poor in rural Laos.
  • Duhamel learned poker as a teenager. Yang wasn’t even allowed to play chess as a kid and didn’t learn poker until he was an adult working as a psychologist.
  • Duhamel turned pro while taking a break from college and had over $100,000 in career cashes before his WSOP victory. Yang arrived at the World Series of Poker as an anonymous amateur who had never even had a five-figure cash.
  • Duhamel writes a little about his life history but primarily aims to teach high-level poker strategy while mentioning an occasional hand from his championship. Yang splits his book between his life’s journey and his poker journey, culminating with a detailed retelling of his final table.”

[RR] “Interesting. Which did you like better?”

[LL] “Apples and oranges. Didn’t learn much about poker from Yang’s book, but it was much more riveting. Didn’t hear as much about Duhamel’s championship as I would have liked, just random bits and pieces, but his book was much more educational.

He mostly teaches what you need to know, both at the table and away from it, to play high level poker. Chapters such as ‘Getting in the Zone’, ‘Discipline’, and ‘Knowing Yourself’ could really apply to any game or sport, while others such as ‘Knowing Your Numbers’, ‘Creativity’, and ‘Taking Risks’ give more specific poker advice. He actually refers to his eighteen chapters as ‘qualities’ that all top poker pros, like Allen Cunningham, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, and Phil Ivey, possess.”

[RR] “And presumably Duhamel himself.”

[LL] “Yes. He does a fairly decent job of not bragging too much, but he does make it clear that he worked hard to improve his skills. He also concedes how lucky he was to win the Main Event.”

[RR] “Not nearly as lucky as Yang, I’m sure.”

[LL] “I guess I could also mention the handful of ‘According to Jonathan’ insets that appear throughout the book with pithy recommendations, but those are underwhelming in length and quantity (just six of them).

The most interesting story in the book is unfortunately relegated to a few paragraphs at the end. An ex-girlfriend set Duhamel up to be violently robbed, including a lot of cash and his priceless championship bracelet, which was later recovered badly damaged.”

Title Final Table: A Winning Poker Approach from a WSOP Champion
Author Jonathan Duhamel
Year 2012 (originally published in French as Cartes sur Table in 2011)
Skill Level any
Pros Well-considered thoughts from a highly skilled poker pro.
Cons Fairly short book with mostly high level advice; plenty of room for a coherent retelling of the 2010 WSOP Main Event.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. Duhamel grew up in Boucherville, a primarily French-speaking Montreal suburb of about 40,000 people.
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