“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 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 presents 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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