“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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