Ever since Doyle Brunson published his now-iconic poker strategy book Super / System: A Course in Power Poker way back in 1978, players have voraciously read the teachings of accomplished pros.
Brunson paved the way for Mike Caro and his The Body Language of Poker (1984), David Sklansky with The Theory of Poker: A Professional Poker Player Teaches You How to Think Like One (1998), and Dan Harrington’s trilogy Harrington on Hold ’em (2004, 2005, and 2006).
And today, more than four decades after “Texas Dolly” let the world know how to play poker at an elite level, pros like Phil Hellmuth, Jonathan Little, and Phil Gordon have all published successful tomes on poker strategy.
But while learning the nuts and bolts of “game theory optimal” (GTO) tactics can certainly be insightful, strategy books often neglect to focus on poker’s more colorful side.
Long before ESPN cameras were broadcasting wall-to-wall footage of the World Series of Poker (WSOP), the game’s greatest players convened in Las Vegas for an annual convention of sorts.
Competing for gold bracelets, glory, and gobs of cash, legends like Barry Greenstein, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Ivey created a world unto their own.
With a cast of characters straight out of a storybook and Sin City providing the perfect backdrop, poker’s “old days” gave rise to plenty of stories that provide the foundation of poker lore.
If you’re interested more in how the best players on the planet really lived — both on and off the felt — diving into the world of non-strategy poker books is a great bet.
Between the cigarette smoke billowing throughout Binion’s Horseshoe casino in Downtown Las Vegas, side deals and backing arrangements that were never publicized, and players from every walk of life taking part in the great game of Texas Hold’em, poker books can be much more than math formulas and push/fold charts.
On that note, strap in and get ready for a tour of the seven non-strategy poker books every player should have handy on their bookshelf.
1 – The Biggest Game in Town | Al Alvarez | 1983
“The prize money was piled at one corner of the table in packets of crisp hundred-dollar bills: $33,500 for the winner, $13,400 for the runner-up.
One of Binion’s giant security guards sat beside it, a Roman gladiator in desert brown, eyes fixed grimly on the cash — the only person there not watching the players or the cards.
It took Moss perhaps two hours head-to-head to clean out his opponent. Afterward, he and his wife, Virgie, helped the Binions and other gambling friends devour a bilious anniversary cake in the Sombrero Room.
That night, Moss was playing again.”
Just as Brunson’s Super / System was the first strategy book of its kind, The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez provided readers with their first glimpse into the secretive enclave known as the WSOP.
Alvarez — an English writer and poet capable of weaving the most mundane stories into works of art — begins by introducing readers to the seedier side of the game.
Back in 1981, Alvarez embarked on a journey to cover the WSOP Main Event — a $10,000 No Limit Texas Hold’em tournament that has crowned the World Champion of poker for 49 years running.
And in those days, poker pros weren’t 20-something math whizzes wearing hoodies and headphones. Nope, back in poker’s golden era, the game was dominated by “Texas Road Gamblers” like Brunson and Johnny Moss — grinders who had to carry shotguns with them from game to game just in case a robbery broke out.
Alvarez introduces you to a rogue’s gallery of sorts, including Benny Binion, a career criminal who found an oasis in the desert in 1951 when he opened Binion’s Horseshoe casino in Downtown Las Vegas.
Some three decades later, Binion had the brainstorm of a lifetime when he decided to invite the best poker players on the planet to a festival of high-stakes card games at the Horseshoe.
The very first WSOP was held in 1970 under Binion’s watchful eye, with pros using a revolving cash game format to crown the best player in the room.
By 1972, the format for minting the World Champion had changed to a freezeout No Limit Texas Hold’em tournament, one which drew just eight pros ponying up the $10,000 buy-in — a hefty entrance fee worth more than $60,000 when adjusted for inflation.
Amarillo Slim Preston took down the title that year, and as attendance grew each and every year, legendary names like Walter “Puggy” Pearson (1973), Moss (1974), Brian “Sailor” Roberts (1975), and Brunson himself (1976 and 1977) earned World Champion honors.
By 1981, with Alvarez on hand to document every flop and fold, the grizzled Texas Road Gamblers had given way to a wiry youngster from New York City by the name of Stu Ungar.
At just 27 years young, Ungar — who Alvarez famously described as “loose-jointed and deathly pale, with a nervous, rapid-fire slurring voice” — stunned the poker world by winning the 1980 WSOP Main Event for $385,000. Ungar beat out a 73-player field that year, and he returned in 1981 to defend his title against 74 opponents.
Throughout The Biggest Game in Town, Alvarez plays the role of a fly on the wall to perfection. He’s tableside as the pros vie for massive cash game pots in the WSOP’s famed side games.
He’s in the elevator while another New York pro, Mickey Appleman, negotiates a night of entertainment with one of Las Vegas’ plentiful courtesans.
And he’s there at the buffet with Brunson as the latter regales him with tales of growing up dirt poor in Texas.
This color commentary of sorts is a gold mine for any poker enthusiast with a sense of nostalgia. Instead of the polished and artificial coverage put forth by outlets like ESPN and the World Poker Tour (WPT), Alvarez simply invites readers to experience a place and time unlike anything else.
As the pages get turned, however, Alvarez shifts his focus from the ephemera of the WSOP festival to the game at hand — the $10,000 Main Event.
Tracking every move made by Ungar — who wound up defeating Perry Green to clinch consecutive World Championships — along with Brunson, Eric Drache, and Jack “Treetop” Straus, Alvarez does what the television cameras never could.
Rather than show you how the 1981 WSOP went down on the felt, the author finds a way to let the key characters in this utterly unique drama tell their own stories.
2 – Ace on the River: An Advanced Poker Guide | Barry Greenstein | 2005
“In 1992, I finally decided to try the final event at the World Series of Poker.
Through the luck of the draw, my starting table was full of well-known pros, including Johnny Chan, Erik Seidel, Bobby Hoff, Carl McKelvey, Paul “Eskimo” Clark, and Dewey Tomko. Many people said it was the toughest table they had ever seen. In most people’s eyes, I was the only weak spot.
At the end of the first day, I had more chips than anyone else at our table.”
This one’s a bit of a cheat — as Barry Greenstein devotes a decent chunk of Ace on the River to strategy instruction — but this book is just too good to leave off the list.
Better known as the “Robin Hood of Poker” based on his propensity for donating much of his tournament winnings to charity, Greenstein is an old-school cash game grinder who came up at the Cameo Card Club in California.
After dominating the Seven Card Stud cash games in the Golden State, Greenstein eventually made his way to the WSOP for the first time in 1991.
That appearance produced a 22nd place finish in the Main Event, good for just over $8,000 in prize money, but a loss on his buy-in nonetheless.
The consummate cash game pro, Greenstein famously won more money at the 2003 WSOP playing side games than Chris Moneymaker’s $2.5 million haul for capturing the Main Event crown. You can learn more about Greenstein’s WSOP experiences, but when you pick up Ace on the River for the first time, the focus will be entirely off the felt.
The book’s title stems from Greenstein’s win at the WPT Jack Binion World Poker Open, when an ace fell on the river to give him a double elimination at the final table.
And while Greenstein spends plenty of time in the book’s later chapters to analyze that hand, and many others, in great detail, the bulk of his pages are devoted to a more philosophical examination of poker.
Beginning with the book’s dedication page, you know immediately that Greenstein is prepared to bare his soul to educate readers on the reality of playing poker for a living:
“This book is dedicated to the children of gamblers. They were rarely promised anything, because the promise may have been too hard to keep.”
From there, printed on glossy paper bursting with color, Greenstein guides readers through every conceivable facet of approaching poker professionally.
Want to learn more about making friends with the floor staff, thus ensuring tipoffs when the whale shows up in the juiciest game? Look no further than Chapter 2, titled “The Poker Society,” to discover how pros navigate the maze of card room employees they rely upon.
Interested in the emotional makeup shared by most successful pros? Check out Chapter 7 on “The Psychology of Gambling.”
Greenstein pulls no punches in Ace on the River, candidly discussing how pros might neglect their nuptial vows when on the road for an extended period. He even delves into the “worst hand of his life,” played out at a private home game when Greenstein was still hustling to make ends meet.
I won’t spoil that story for you, but suffice it to say, a bad beat on the river — one which never should have happened in the first place — almost prompted Greenstein to take a lethal plunge from the nearest bridge as he walked many miles home penniless and full of self-pity.
Many poker books glamorize the game, but Greenstein tells it like it is, discussing common threats like cheats, loan absconders, “leaks” like betting on sports or table games, and many other pitfalls every pro has experienced along the way.
3 – Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker | James McManus | 2003
“I try to bear all this in mind a few hands later, when it gets folded around to me and with a suited K-J, I raise T.J.’s blind to $20,000.
This may not be the smartest move I’ve made this week, but I need to steal somebody’s blind to avoid being blinded out myself. When T.J. mucks his hand, it feels like lead sinkers have been tenderly unhooked from my scrotum.
Good girl, Mr. Cloutier.”
A homage of sorts to Alvarez and The Biggest Game in Town, James McManus’ 2003 book Positively Fifth Street provides an updated first-person perspective on the WSOP Main Event.
On assignment to write a magazine article on the 2000 edition, McManus decides to do a bit of “gonzo” journalism by taking his own shot at the Main Event.
After entering a satellite tournament and successfully parlaying most of his magazine advance into a coveted $10,000 seat in the Main Event, McManus lives the dream shared by every recreational player.
After brushing up on the basic skills and strategy needed to compete with poker’s crown royalty, McManus weaves his way through the Main Event minefield with aplomb. He invites the reader to experience every pivotal hand like they were playing it themselves, opening up about the sheer terror one feels when a legend like T.J. Cloutier stares you down following a raise.
Every page immerses the reader in detail, and as the book progresses, you almost feel like you’re right there at the table fighting tooth and nail to preserve your chip stack.
In the end, McManus makes it all the way to the final table, where he faces off against none other than Cloutier and eventual champion Chris “Jesus” Ferguson.
If playing in the WSOP Main Event is on your poker bucket list, but the five-figure price point is just a bit too steep, spend the $20 or so needed to get your hands on Positively Fifth Street. You won’t be sorry.
4 – The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time | Book by Michael Craig | 2005
“Todd (Brunson) had left a bigger game at Table One as it was breaking up to get a seat in this smaller game with the newcomer. Even when the game came down to heads up — one-on-one — he could not make a dent in Beal’s growing stacks of chips.
As the poker room started emptying out, they played on, talking a little.
‘I want to play higher,’ Andy told Todd.
‘Okay,’ Todd said. ‘I’ll play you higher.’
‘No, not this time. I’d like to come back and play a lot higher, like $10,000-$20,000.’”
Tournaments like the WSOP are rife with interpersonal drama, but the high-stakes cash games are where pros cement their reputation or go broke trying.
Author Michael Craig delves deep into one of poker’s most storied cash games ever held.
Taking place at the turn of the 21st century — just a few years before Moneymaker’s 2003 Main Event triumph sparked the “Poker Boom” — the cash game in question might just be the largest ever played in terms of stakes.
That’s because the ultimate whale was sitting in, as billionaire investment guru Andy Beal (representing the “Banker” component of the three-part title) found himself obsessed with No Limit Texas Hold’em.
After enjoying a few sessions at the Bellagio’s legendary “Bobby’s Room,” losing wads of dough while making a few friends along the way, Beal returned intent on vanquishing any and all pros who would accept his challenge.
That challenge involved playing one-on-one in a series of ultra-high-stakes heads-up matches. While today’s top cash games use blinds like $2,000/$4,000, Beal wanted to play with astronomical $50,000/$100,000 blinds.
Realizing that each individual lacked the bankroll needed to survive swings at those stakes, a group of the best players in the world pooled their resources to form “The Corporation.”
With elite talents including Ted Forrest (the “Suicide King”), Howard Lederer (“The Professor”), Doyle Brunson, Jennifer Harman, Minh Ly, Todd Brunson, David Grey, Chip Reese, Gus Hansen, Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein, and Lyle Berman all combining their bankrolls, this murderer’s row took turns taking Beal on with their livelihoods on the line.
The Corporation wound up losing its entire $10 million stake to Beal in their first go-round, but in the end, a fearsome young gun enters the fray and begins to push back against their well-heeled nemesis.
I won’t ruin the ending for you here, so if you want to know how the highest-stakes cash game ever held turns out, pick up a copy of The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King today.
5 – The Education of a Poker Player | Herbert O. Yardley | 1957
“’Where’d you learn these tricks?’ Monty asked.
‘From my Uncle Charley. He was a magician.’
‘Don’t you ever feel sorry for the suckers you fleece?’
‘No, I don’t. My method is painless. I give them the axe. You bleed them to death slowly.’
‘Curious philosophy for a card sharp.’”
Taking place in the heady days after America and its Allies won World War II, The Education of a Poker Player tells the true-life tale of cardsharp Herbert O. Yardley.
Modern players may not recognize ancient games like Five Card Draw and Deuces Wild (with a Joker), but back in the 1940s and 1950s, these “home game” variants were all the rage.
As was cheating, with the winningest players of the era regularly deploying tricks like “dealing seconds” to take advantage of the sucker at the table.
Told from a first-person point of view as Yardley travels the nation’s backroads in search of yet another game, The Education of a Poker Player does just that — teach today’s crop of players about the game’s long lineage from backrooms and basements to television screens worldwide.
6 – The Moneymaker Effect: The Inside Story of the Tournament That Forever Changed Poker | Eric Raskin | 2013
“I showed my bluff. That was strictly an emotional thing — I was so wound up and happy that I got out of this miserable trap that I put myself in and glad to have all of these chips.
It was a stupid thing to show the bluff, but I was proud of myself!
And that’s when I felt like people started talking about me in a good way. Like I’m not such a fish anymore.”
I’ve mentioned Chris Moneymaker a few times throughout this page, and for good reason.
If not for the amateur player and accountant’s improbable victory at the 2003 WSOP Main Event where Moneymaker turned a $39 online satellite entry into $2.5 million, you wouldn’t be reading this today.
That year, with ESPN cameras on hand to document the action, Moneymaker sat down as an anonymous member of the 813-player field.
Over the course of several days, during which ESPN included his face as part of a montage entitled “Dead Money,” Moneymaker outmaneuvered top pros of the era like Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey en route to the final table.
From there, as they say, the rest is history…
After millions of viewers at home watched the mild-mannered Moneymaker conquer consummate Las Vegas pro Sammy Farha for the title, the Poker Boom was born.
One year later, the WSOP Main Event field size tripled to 2,576 hopefuls, and it doubled to 5,619 in 2005. By 2006, poker’s premier tournament hit its peak at 8,773 entrants, more than 10 times the size of Moneymaker’s championship field.
Therein lies the “Moneymaker Effect,” which author Eric Raskin explores in great detail through a series of interviews with key players from the 2003 WSOP.
7 – Poker and Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game | Martin Harris | 2019
“That same year folk-blues artist Townes Van Zandt recorded the mini-epic ‘Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold’ for his album ‘High, Low and In Between.’
It is a surreal song describing a hand of five-card stud between the title characters in which the players’ cards are personified as though waging an apocalyptic battle, with Mr. Gold’s four wicked kings ultimately falling to Mr. Mudd’s four angelic aces.”
The most recently published title on our list, Poker and Pop Culture is the brainchild of veteran poker reporter and English professor Martin Harris.
Readers of the PokerNews Live Updates coverage from tournaments worldwide will recognize Harris as “Short-Stacked Shamus,” but whatever you call him, he’s the recognized authority on poker scholarship.
This book tackles every conceivable connection between poker and pop culture at large, from classic films like The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and Rounders (1998) to President Richard Nixon’s reputation as a feared cardsharp during his days dominating naval base cash games during World War II.
Strategy books will always hold a special place in the poker world, tracing a long lineage back from Jonathan Little’s Excelling at No Limit Hold’em (2015) all the way to Doyle Brunson’s Super / System: A Course in Power Poker (1978).
But while absorbing the collected teachings of your favorite poker pro is always useful on a pragmatic level, learning how these intrepid souls really live is much more worthwhile in a tangible sense.
The stories told in the seven non-strategy poker books above will never be forgotten, simply because they resonate with readers on a primal level.
Most of us have no idea what it’s like to synthesize poker data through supercomputer minds like Little and “Texas Dolly.”
These folks are outliers, through and through, and while their strategic advice is certainly welcome, it’s not always usable in the real world.
But everybody can identify with Greenstein’s opening tale about going bust on a mistake misdeal, only to walk home and contemplate hurling himself off the nearest bridge.
All of us watched Moneymaker spark his eponymous effect on ESPN, tangling with top pros and taking home the World Championship in style.
And anyone who has ever felt their throat clench up and their heart race while playing their very first bracelet tournament at the WSOP knows exactly what McManus’ Main Event journey really meant.
With that in mind, make a point to add these fine poker titles to your book collection and expand your study horizons beyond the realm of pure strategy.
Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...
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