Poker Book Reviews
The recent popularity of online poker, particularly the variant known as Texas Hold'em, has stimulated the publication of numerous books aimed at players wanting to learn to play or improve their game. A few of these books are reviewed on this page, with links to amazon.com, who pay me a small commission on sales.
- Lee Jones: Winning Low Limit Hold'em (2nd edition)
- Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie: Harrington on Hold'em. Volume1: Strategic Play
- Lou Krieger and Sheree Bykofsky: The Rules of Poker. Essentials for every game
- Stewart Wolpin: The Rules of Neighborhood Poker according to Hoyle
- James Ernest, Phil Foglio & Mike Selinker: Dealer's Choice - The Complete Handbook of Saturday Night Poker
- Steve Maricic: Mr. Lucky's Favorite Poker Games
- Jonathan Maxwell: Cards
- James McManus: Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker
On other pages of pagat.com you can read about poker in general. There are reviews of on-line poker rooms and pages on poker software, the history of poker, the rules of poker and its many variants, the betting process, the rank of poker hands and sources of poker equipment.
Lee Jones: Winning Low Limit Hold'em (2nd edition)
Lee Jones gives an excellent account of how to win at low stakes limit holdem. Ideally suited for inexperienced players this book might also transform the game of some experienced players who might not think they need it.
The book gives a detailed yet straightforward account of how to play various hands and handle basic situations; the advice is very clear and easy to follow. The first 60 pages give the reader detailed, hand by hand instructions on how to play pre-flop holdings. It's not possible to give full instructions for every hand after the flop, but he successfully breaks down the possibilities into manageable chunks. Throughout, the focus is on fundamentals such as your position, the pot size, and your cards. Simple methods, such as how to play top pair with top kicker on the flop, are given as well as advice on more difficult situations such as what to do with two overcards on the flop, or when to call with an inside straight draw. No time is spent discussing tells or on how to judge whether your opponent is bluffing. However, on the internet, tells are a minority concern and understanding these considerations is not necessary to be a winning player.
Jones sets out to give his audience the information they need to win at low stakes limit holdem, at which I think he succeeds. As the standard of poker on the internet is very poor at these tables this information will enable players to make money at many $2-4 tables and almost all $0.5-1 tables. I am told that the standard is similarly poor in American, particularly Californian, casinos; this book may well be all that is required to make money there as well. Of course, a little experience will always be required before you can properly execute any decent poker strategy, but with this book and some practice I think most players can start to win.
Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie: Harrington on Hold'em. Volume1: Strategic Play
This book covers the early stages of a no limit Texas hold'em tournament. The book begins with 60 pages of introductory material covering hold'em tournament rules and broad strategy, then the focus shifts rapidly to a detailed analysis of play using a variety of scenarios as examples; these take up the remaining 300 pages. I found the advice in this book very convincing and enjoyable to read.
The main part of the book consists of lessons followed by example hands. The lessons describe concepts, primarily using situations from professional tournaments, while the example hands are used as problems to train the reader in thinking through the strategies proposed. These problems are excellent: each hand is well described and between them they cover a wide range of ideas and situations. Harrington makes sure to detail the tournament type, stack sizes of all players and observed playing styles in previous hands. Following each problem a recommended course of action is outlined and justified; the authors take a range of factors into account and always pinpoint the key features of the hand.
The level of the advice in this book is advanced; it will not be easy to put the advice here into practice properly without effort and experience. I think it would be a mistake to take the, often aggressive, approaches suggested here too far against the weak, generally loose passive, players often found on the internet. On small stakes internet tables, tight and straightforward play is probably the most reliable.
Lou Krieger and Sheree Bykofsky: The Rules of Poker. Essentials for every game
This book sets out a detailed set of rules for poker. It is not intended for beginners, and it does not provide instruction on how to play. Drawing on their considerable experience the authors systematically discuss every stage of a poker game, highlighting situations that can give rise to argument and recommending solutions. This is not a book that anyone is likely to read from cover to cover. It is primarily a reference book where one can find advice on particular topics, and for this purpose it has a fairly good index. Nevertheless the style is readable and far from dry, and players who browse through the book will find many useful examples and interesting anecdotes from actual poker events.
The first part of the book deals with "Responsibilities and Etiquette". This includes the general conduct of a game, how to allocate seats and tables, buying and selling chips, joining and leaving games, issues of player behaviour and the responsibilities of the dealer and floor manager. The second part "Structures of Play" covers the cards, deal, betting structures and hand ranking. The third part "Rules of the Games" goes into the specifics of the variants most often played in casinos: Texas Hold'em, Seven and Five Card Stud, Omaha, Draw Poker and Lowball. Finally the "Tournaments" section indicates how tournament rules differ from those used in cash games.
Although the title refers to "every game" the emphasis is very much on formal poker as played in casinos and public card rooms. Home poker players may well disagree with some of the rules given, and will not find any advice here on the more colourful poker variants that are popular in dealer's choice games. Such players may prefer the approach in Stewart Wolpin's book, reviewed below.
Stewart Wolpin: The Rules of Neighborhood Poker according to Hoyle
This book, nothing to do with Hoyle of course, provides a thorough and entertaining introduction to home poker, which would be useful both for beginners and for regular players who would like to deepen their knowledge of the game and extend their repertoire of variants.
The first section of the book, on basics, explains the principles of poker and gives advice on how to organise a game. The author does not just explain the mechanics of poker, but also makes an excellent job of conveying the atmosphere and culture of a typical small stakes home poker game, in which a group of friends meet regularly and play primarily for fun rather than for profit.
The second and largest section of the book is devoted to "the games". The overall game is of course "dealer's choice", in which each dealer in turn chooses what variant will be played for that deal only. The author introduces a large number of popular variants, by my count around fifty, but considerably more if you include the options within each variant. These are organised according to type: five card stud, seven card stud, draw games, community card games and guts, and there are two subsections "poker by the numbers" and "they only call it poker" containing some non-poker card games that are often allowed as options in dealer's choice poker.
Most of the variants come with some useful advice on how to play them and what sort of hand is likely to win; also with the author's opinion of why they are interesting and what kind of player they might appeal to, and often with an example deal, going through the betting decisions of the players and the reasons for them.
Finally there is a short by useful third section consisting of a glossary of poker terms as used in home games and an index.
James Ernest, Phil Foglio & Mike Selinker: Dealer's Choice - The Complete Handbook of Saturday Night Poker
The third chapter, which occupies over half of the book, explains over two hundred poker variants that can be used in dealer's choice games, some well-known and others invented by the authors and their friends. There is not much detailed discussion of strategy, but some general comments on the characteristics of each variant. They are not grouped by type but listed in alphabetical order, and since many variants have alternative names and subvariants, that means that the order is essentially random. There is an overall index at the back of the book that will enable to find a variant if you know its name and happen to call it by one of the same names that the authors use.
The fourth chapter is 'who likes what', which suggests what games work well at various stages of a poker evening. It describes various types of poker player you might meet, what games may suit them and how to best deal with them. Next there is a strategy chapter which does not go into detail on specific variants but rather gives some good, general, down to earth advice on playing in nickel ante dealer's choice games where the aim is to have fun rather than get rich. As in many good poker books, the final chapter is a glossary of poker jargon.
Steve Maricic: Mr. Lucky's Favorite Poker Games
Like the two books reviewed above, this book offers a collection of poker variants suitable for a dealer's choice game, but the presentation is very different. It is framed as a story about the fictional adventures of Mr. Lucky (the 'tough teddy bear from Bayonne') and his friends who travel not only around the world but also backward and forward in time learning different poker games from everyone they meet. Your level of enjoyment of this book will depend largely on whether or not you share the author's sense of humour and find this story entertaining.
There is a short introduction to poker basics at the start of the book and a glossary of terms at the end. Over 100 poker variants are explained, some of them well-known and some unique to this book, though few clues are given as to which are which.
Fortunately for those of us who cannot summon up much interest in the exploits of Mr. Lucky it is easy to pick out the poker variants themselves, which are summarised in neat grey boxes scattered throughout the book. Although the surrounding dialogue includes some clarification of the rules, there is very little discussion of strategy and almost no guidance on what the different games are like to play. Therefore readers will have the pleasure of discovering for themselves which variants they like best and which work well with their poker group.
Jonathan Maxwell: Cards
This must surely be one of the best poker novels ever written. It is a candid account of the experiences of a professional poker player. This is not a star player, but a young man who lives to play poker and cannot bear the idea of a day job.
He is convinced that he understands the game better than his opponents and much of the time he is probably right, but does he have the discipline to put his knowledge into practice and win? When he does win, what will he do with his money other than use it to buy into bigger and bigger games until eventually he loses it all and returns to where he started, playing low stakes poker in seedy casinos to try to win back the money he borrowed to pay his rent?
Since poker is central to this player's existence, no apology is made for describing the actual games in detail. One might think that a card-by-card account of hundreds of Texas Hold'em deals would quickly become tedious to read, but in fact the reverse is the case. The brief interspersed comments give a compelling insight into the player's mood, his tactics and his feelings about the other players ranging from friendship to dislike and from contempt to respect.
A knowledge of the basics of Texas Hold'em is taken for granted, yet I have found that even non-poker players can get something from this book. I would strongly recommend it do anyone who is considering playing poker professionally, or who would like for any reason to understand the mentality of someone who would choose this way of life.
James McManus: Cowboys Full - The Story of Poker
This book is a collection of anecdotes about the history of poker and the careers of famous American players past and present. For the last century and a half the game of poker has been an essential part of North American culture. Many prominent politicians and generals have been enthusiastic poker players and the tactics and culture of poker have influenced their actions in international relations and military campaigns.
The stories are loosely grouped into themes and arranged broadly in chronological order, charting the development of poker from the lawless past to the more regulated context of today. Not all the stories are accurate - for example the author thinks that the trial in 1870 in which Mark Twain achieved a verdict that Seven Up was a game of skill rather than chance relates to a variant of Seven Card Stud, whereas in fact the Seven Up in question was not a poker game at all but a form of the trick-taking game All Fours. However, most of the stories in the book no doubt contain more than a grain of truth. They are entertainingly told and give a sense of the importance of poker in American history.
There is an earlier book Positively Fifth Street by the same author, which gives an autobiographical account of his successful journey to the final table of Binion's World Poker Series in 2000. The anecdotal style is similar to Cowboys Full, but in this book it worked less well. The frequent digressions into stories with only a tenuous connection to the theme of the book are ultimately more distracting than entertaining. A shorter book that focussed on the main story would perhaps have been more readable.