Category Archives: Reviews

“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 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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“All In: From Refugee Camp to Poker Champ” Review

[LL] “How much do you know about Jerry Yang?” Leroy the Lion inquired.

[RR] “Not much. Chinese guy who became a billionaire during the dot-com era by founding Yahoo”, Roderick the Rock replied.

[LL] “Actually, that Jerry Yang is Taiwanese-American, but I meant the other Jerry Yang, who is about the same age as the entrepreneur.”

[RR] “Oh, you mean the amateur who won the World Series of Poker in 2007. All I know is that he got very lucky and then basically disappeared from the poker world.”

[LL] “Luckier than you think. But he did continue to play; he just hasn’t had any other notable successes unless you count 5th place in the 2010 NBC National Heads-Up Championship for $75,000.”

[RR] “That’s what, like two heads-up wins?”

[LL] “Three. The blinds went up pretty fast though.”

[RR] “Perfect for the luck master.”

[LL] “That’s really the story of his life, which is actually very interesting. In his autobiography, All In: From Refugee Camp to Poker Champ, Yang (or more accurately, his ghostwriter Mark Tabb) deftly jumps back and forth detailing his two treacherous journeys, in poker and in life, where a single misstep could be fatal, one literally and the other figuratively. The book opens with the Californian heads up at the World Series of Poker Main Event but then flashes back to the separate tracks of his childhood in Laos and the start of his poker career.

Although the title cleverly rhymes ‘camp’ with ‘champ’, Yang’s beginnings were so humble that getting to the refugee camp was already a major accomplishment. Before leaving his birth country, he was so poor that he had never worn shoes or underwear and played soccer with pig-bladder balls and marbles with carved rocks. He, his family, and his entire village are in constant danger from North Vietnamese soldiers, crop failures, and Mother Nature, so his father decides to risk everything, as little as that is, to leave the country and hopefully relocate to the United States. Carrying just some food and a few of their meager belongings, they try to use the cover of darkness to reach the Mekong River, which they hope to find a way to cross into Thailand.

Meanwhile, Yang’s poker story begins on his sofa, where he is enchanted by the World Series of Poker Main Event final table playing on ESPN. He quickly realizes that Texas Hold ‘Em is about much more than the cards and is immediately hooked. He starts with a meager $50 bankroll, playing small tournaments in local casinos while dreaming of satelliting into the WSOP Main Event.

Yang needs a lot of luck to survive his two difficult journeys, but he’s an intelligent, quick learner who goes from ESL1 classes to high school valedictorian. He also has the courage and ambition to rise from his impoverished youth to a successful career as a psychologist and family counselor and the World Series of Poker Main Event champion.”

[RR] “Sometimes you need to make your own luck.”

Title All In: From Refugee Camp to Poker Champ
Author Jerry Yang with Mark Tabb
Year 2011
Skill Level any (history) / Beginner (poker strategy)2
Pros Fascinating stories of Yang’s escape from Laos and success at the poker table.
Cons On the poker side of things, Yang’s luck is extraordinary3, leaving his poker journey inspirational but nearly irreproducible.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. English as a Second Language.
  2. Yang details several WSOP Main Event hands throughout the book which contain some poker advice, but he ends the book with an appendix titled “Jerry’s Winning Poker Strategies”, which contain the brief sections on “8 Things Beginning Players Need to Know”, “Top 8 Rookie Mistakes”, “Top 8 Tells”, “Top 8 Hand to Play”, and “Basic Tournament Strategy”.
  3. For example, during his first day of the 2007 WSOP Main Event, Yang was dealt pocket Aces seven times, far above the one or maybe two you would expect.
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“Check-Raising the Devil” Review

[LL] “What do you think of Mike Matusow?” Leroy the Lion inquired.

[RR] “He’s an obnoxious, loud-mouthed druggie with integrity issues”, Roderick the Rock opined.

[LL] “Wow, tell us how you really feel. What if I told you most of his problems stemmed from an undiagnosed and untreated illness?”

[RR] “I guess I’d excuse his past behavior a little, but it wouldn’t really make me like him more.”

[LL] “Well, Mike Matusow was eventually diagnosed as bipolar. He experiences higher highs and lower lows than most people. The way he’s led his life has contributed greatly to the roller coaster, reaching the top of the poker world and the bottom of a solitary confinement cell in prison. His autobiography, Check-Raising the Devil, shares all the excitement of his life, both the good and the bad.

Matusow’s first addiction isn’t to drugs but to video poker. With the odds against him even with perfect strategy, he nevertheless continually wastes away his paychecks for the small thrill he experiences when he wins. Gambler’s Anonymous fails to cure him, but a friend who sees him playing introduces him to real poker. At 21 years old, Matusow discovers he’s a ‘natural’ and has found his true calling. Soon he is playing $1/$2 Limit Hold ‘Em cash games almost every day and making about $500 a week. Fortunately, his new addiction is profitable! Within a year, he wins his first tournament for $10,000 and earns a nickname, ‘The Loud Mouth’, which doesn’t like. Instead he starts calling himself just ‘The Mouth’, and the adjusted moniker sticks.

Still primarily a Limit Hold ‘Em player, Matusow finds the day’s Hold ‘Em satellite full at the 1997 World Series of Poker, so he decides to take a crack at a Limit Omaha Hi-Lo satellite. After some brief advice from Mark Gregorich to restrict his play to hands with A2, A3, or A4, he not only wins the satellite but reaches the final table of the bracelet event, ultimately falling to Scotty Nguyen heads up. His first WSOP cash brings in $81,700.

Matusow doesn’t play the Main Event because of his lack of experience with No-Limit poker,1 but he vows to learn. Two years later his work pays off in the WSOP $3,500 No Limit Hold ‘Em, where he defeats Alex Brenes2 heads up for $265,475 and his first WSOP bracelet.

A cold streak playing high stakes cash Limit Hold ‘Em and Omaha Hi-Lo cost his entire bankroll, and he chooses not to look for a backer, instead starting over by borrowing $100,000 against his house.

A couple of party-hardy friends introduce him to Ecstasy, which he was soon addicted to, even though he denies it. He next gets hooked on crystal meth through his girlfriend Teri yet managed to keep playing poker well for a while.”

[RR] “So, high among Matusow’s bad choices must be the type of people he liked to hang out with.”

[LL] “Yes, yet during this phase in 2001, Matusow makes it to the WSOP Main Event final table, where he places sixth for $239,765.

Because he wants to win so badly, what many other people would consider a tremendous success sends him into depression, and the drug use takes its toll. Matusow is on and off meth while losing $700,000 over the next half year. He finally turns things around after Teri breaks up with him. He gets off drugs, working out a gym and running when he feels withdrawal symptoms, and loses 20 pounds.3

After failing to cash in a few events at the 2002 WSOP, Matusow satellites in to the $5,000 Limit Omaha Hi-Lo then upends Daniel Negreanu heads up for his second bracelet (and $148,520). More importantly, he wins without using drugs.

After staying drug-free for a while, he relapses before the 2003 WSOP, where John Brody stakes him on the condition that he stay clean. Instead, Matusow takes smaller amounts surreptitiously and plays only well enough to break even.

After a trip to France with Howard Lederer and David Grey, Matusow finally gets the help he needs. A psychologist orders him to stay clean for thirty days, then a psychiatrist diagnoses him as bipolar. With proper medication4 Matusow is finally able to get off illegal drugs for good on July 23, 2003.

The next dark chapter of his life is spent in jail after his ‘friend’ Mike Vento (real name Gennaro), who had stuck with him during his month-long cleanse, asks him to buy some cocaine for him. It’s a sting, and Matusow eventually chooses to spend six months in jail instead of risking a sentence as long as ten years.

After serving his time, which did have the upside of forcing him onto a regular schedule with his medications, Matusow makes it back to the 2005 WSOP Main Event final table, this time finishing 9th for exactly a million dollars, of which he nets about $250,000,5 plus a freeroll into the Tournament of Champions in November. He precedes to win that event over Johnny Chan for another million dollars!

Three years later, Matusow wins his third WSOP bracelet6 in the $5,000 No-Limit 2-to-7 Lowball for $537,862, the last big highlight in the book.”

[RR] “He’s been more successful than I realized.”

[LL] “So, you like him a little more now? Actually, you don’t have to like him to enjoy the book, but you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t at least develop a little sympathy for him. Mistakes, he’s made a few. But he soldiers on and at least is able to continue doing what he does best, which is play poker.”

Title Check-Raising the Devil
Author Mike Matusow
Year 2009
Skill Level any
Pros The biography of one of the least boring people in the poker world.
Cons Way more than you ever wanted to know about drugs (but legal and illegal).
Rating 2.5

Footnotes:

  1. Matusow says on page 72, “… no matter what anyone tells you, No-Limit Hold ‘Em and Limit Hold ‘Em are not the same game. They’re as different from each other as piss and water.”
  2. Alex Brenes is Humberto Brenes’s younger brother. Their brother Eric also plays poker professionally.
  3. The book covers his first weight loss bet with Ted Forrest in 2008, but was published before the infamous followup prop bet.
  4. Matusow took Depakote for his bipolar disorder and Lexipro for his depression.
  5. Matusow had to pay his backers and some other outstanding debts.
  6. In 2013, Matusow won a fourth bracelet in the $5,000 Seven-Card Stud Hi-Lo. Impressively, each of his bracelets has been in a different game: Hold ‘Em, Omaha, 2-7 Draw, and Seven-Card Stud.
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“Poker Wizards” Review

[LL] “The next book I read was Warwick Dunnett’s Poker Wizards: Wisdom from the World’s Top No-Limit Hold’em Players“, Leroy the Lion stated.

[RR] “So it’s actually done with magic?” Roderick the Rock queried.

[LL] “Sure,… if you define ‘magic’ as hard work, aggression, and observation.

Dunnett interviewed Chris Ferguson, Daniel Negreanu, Dan Harrington, Marcel Luske, Kathy Liebert, T.J. Cloutier, Mike Sexton, and Mel Judah, asking each of them a predetermined set of questions about how to play poker, so this book is a bit of a Groundhog Day, with the same topics mostly repeating nine times:

  • The Making of a Poker Wizard: what it takes to become a top poker pro.
  • Tournament Strategy
  • Aggression
  • Starting Hand Concepts
  • Specific Hand Strategy for No-Limit Hold ‘Em Tournaments
  • Tells
  • Playing Online
  • Psychology
  • Money Management

For consistency, the tournament scenario starts with a full table of players with 10,000 chips and blinds at 100/200. Your opponents play reasonably well and moderately aggressively.

Many times the pros give similar advice, but sometimes they don’t.”

[RR] “Isn’t that confusing?”

[LL] “It can be. In the final chapter, Dunnett briefly summarizes the players’ responses to each question, which I suppose leads to the best way to use this book — skim everything once to get the lay of the land then go back and reread the sections of the pros whose styles you like the most, since it’s impossible to follow all of the advice at the same time (for example, Ferguson and Harrington play much tighter than the others).

The good news is that sometimes a particular pro has ideas that the others simply didn’t think of. Ferguson is the only player who discusses game theory, Luske and Liebert are the only two who cover cash game strategy, and Sexton alone elaborates on bluffing.

And the second to last chapter is very different from the rest, with mentalist and lie detector Marc Salem exploring ‘How to Read People and Detect Lies’ in much more detail than the poker pros had examined tells. The material in this section is pretty strong, although none of it is groundbreaking.

Overall, Poker Wizards was an easy read with some good tips, but it didn’t leave me spellbound.”

Title Poker Wizards: Wisdom from the World’s Top No-Limit Hold’em Players
Author Warwick Dunnett
Year 2008
Skill Level Beginner
Pros Biographies and good advice from some very strong poker pros.
Cons Repetitive with sometimes contradictory advice.
Rating 2.5
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