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A Great Books Curriculum

I am not going to recommend every poker book ever written.  Instead, I am pointing you to only the very best ones.

Underline them, dog-ear them, and put them under your pillow at night because with these at your side, you can reach out and touch greatness.


The Biggest Game in Town

by Al Alvarez, Houghton Mifflin, 1983

I owe my interest in writing about gambling and gamblers to Al Alvarez and his book, “The Biggest Game in Town.”  This book is about some of the world’s greatest poker games and some of the world’s most colorful and winning players.  In a review by Nick Christenson in www.thepokerforum.com, he calls Al’s book, “the origin of contemporary poker literature.”

1983. The Biggest Game in Town was the first book to deal with the poker culture. Alvarez, an English poker player and a poet, writes about some of the classic games of high-stakes poker, some of the legendary players (many are still around today), and the fledgling World Series of Poker.

Alvarez, a poker player himself, understood the game and the people who play it.  As a poet, he uses an economy of language to convey what he saw. 

He was there first and the others stand on his shoulders.

The Biggest Game in Town

by Al Alvarez, Houghton Mifflin, 1983


Positively Fifth Street:

Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binions World Series of Poker

by James McManus, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003

Sex, drugs, murder, and high stakes poker.  The only thing missing is rock ‘n’ roll.

Author and poet James McManus was sent to Vegas on an assignment from Harper’s Magazine to cover the 2000 World Series of Poker.  He took his advance and entered the damn tournament, nearly winning it.  The San Jose Mercury News calls Positively Fifth Street, "the damnedest story ever told."

What was he supposed to be doing?  Jim was supposed to be doing two things: one was covering the trial of the murdered Ted Binion, who with his brother Jack, and sister, Becky, were carrying on the legacy of their legendary Dad, Benny Binion, who owned and passed on to them the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Vegas.  Secondly, he was supposed to be covering the progress of female players in the World Series of Poker, which was held at the Horseshoe.  

His editor told him, “Have fun and write a good story.”  Jim did and he did.

Which is more fascinating, the part about the murder and trial or the part about playing and nearly winning the World Series of Poker?  Yes.

Positively Fifth Street:

Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binions World Series of Poker

by James McManus, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003


Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers

by Katy Lederer, Crown, 2003

In Poker Face:A Girlhood Among Gamblers, Katy Lederer tells of brother, Howard, now one of the top poker pros in the world, her sister, Annie, taught by Howard and the top female pro in the world, her father, Dr. Richard Lederer, an English teacher in a private school, her alcoholic mother, and herself. 

If you’ve ever wondered about the family life of the top poker pros in the world, here is a look into the formative years of two siblings.  And then there is the third child, Katy, who toys with a life in gambling but who goes off in a different direction as poet and writer.

Everyone in the family was competitive.  The father taught the children chess but never “threw” a game to motivate the kids with success.  The day Howard finally beat him – and Howard finally did – was because Howard was the better player. 

How does Howard feel about that?  In his Las Vegas poker camp, he applauds his father for this and invites him to speak.

If the book were written today, Annie’s part would be much larger because her life has changed the most since the book was published.  Recently divorced from her husband, Ben, she has four young children, has won several major tournaments worth millions of dollars, has a book coming out, a TV show, is producing a horror film, and dates movie stars. 

Katy, another good book would be, “Poker Face:The Sequel.”

Poker Face:A Girlhood Among Gamblers

by Katy Lederer, Crown, 2003


The Theory of Poker:

by David Sklansky, Two Plus Two Publishing, 1994 update

“The beauty of poker is that on the surface it is a game of utter simplicity, yet beneath the surface, it is profound, rich, and full of subtlety.”    Thus begins Sklansky’s classic book, The Theory of Poker.  In very short order, he cuts to the chase:the object of poker is to make money.

Sklansky, a math major at the University of Pennsylvania, has sections on every aspect of poker: expectation, odds (effective, implied, reverse, pot), deception, bluffs and semi-bluffs, raising and check-raising, loose vs. tight play, position, reading hands, and the psychology of poker. 

Some books teach you how to play poker.  This one teaches you how to think poker.  This book teaches you how to win at poker.  It also stresses that losses to a good player are just temporary.  If you acquire a winning edge, you will win in the long run.

This is a textbook on a serious subject, written in a serious way.  An essential read, not necessarily an easy read.

The Theory of Poker:

by David Sklansky, Two Plus Two Publishing, 1994 update


The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King:

Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time

by Michael Craig, Warner Books, 2005

Houston billionaire banker Andy Beal strode into Vegas one day in 2001 and challenged a team of the best poker pros in the world to a game of Texas Hold ‘em at the Bellagio.  They played, on and off, over a three year period.  At times the Bellagio ran out of cranberry ($25,000) chips.

How does an excellent player from Houston with an enormous bankroll rattle Vegas’ best players?  He takes them out of their “comfort zone:” huge stakes, one-on-one matches only, and getting them up at 7 o’clock in the morning to play him.  Getting up at 7? Hell, that’s when most of them go to bed.

How did he do?  In individual matches, he beat some of the world’s best players including the legendary Chip Reese, a member of the Poker Hall of Fame.  Who did well against him?  Jen Harman was millions ahead when the cards got blurry:she needed a (second) kidney transplant.  Howard Lederer ("The Professor" in the title of the book) had Beal’s number as did Todd Brunson.

Author Craig got the players to talk about the game, not an easy task.  After all, IRS agents may read this book.  He got them to spell out their anxiety, not an easy task.  He got them to talk about the enormous losses they faced, an extremely difficult task.  They were playing with their own money and had to go to the well several times to get up a big enough stake to meet Beal’s challenge.

In an exchange of letters between Doyle Brunson, who organized the match, and Beal, there is a dispute about how much money changed hands.  The pros claim bragging rights of up to $20 million dollars.  Beal claims these are “fisherman’s stories.”

Nonetheless, has there ever been a bigger game?  This is a documentary that reads like a novel.

The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King:

Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time

by Michael Craig, Warner Books, 2005


One of a Kind:

The Rise and Fall of Stuey “The Kid” Ungar,

The World’s Greatest Poker Player

by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson, Atria, 2005

In late 1998, Stuey Ungar, three-time winner of the World Series of Poker, was found dead, alone and broke, in a sleazy porn hotel just north of The Strip.  He was 45 years old.  His friends took up a collection for his funeral.

He was a card savant.  Gin rummy, poker, blackjack – he mastered them all.  If only he stayed with cards.  Unfortunately, he also liked sports betting, something he learned from his bookmaker father in New York

The first time he ever played golf, he lost $80,000 on the putting green and never made it to the golf course.

Once when asked what else he did besides gamble, he was incredulous: he ate, slept, and gambled.  What else was there?

But then he added another vice: drugs – and they brought him down.  All the way down. And out.

One of a Kind:

The Rise and Fall of Stuey “The Kid” Ungar,

The World’s Greatest Poker Player

by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson, Atria, 2005


Doyle Brunson's Super System 2:

A Course in Power Poker

by Doyle Brunson, et al, Cardoza, 2005

He's back! And better than ever. Doyle Brunson has updated his classic primer on how to really, really play poker. He's gotten some of today's media stars like Daniel Negreanu, Jennifer Harman, and Todd Brunson (son of you-know-who) to write chapters on various games of poker. But the No Limit Hold 'em section goes to you-know-who. Who else could write it?

Now in his 70's, Doyle bridges the game from the early days of the World Series of Poker (he won it twice) to the present day.

Don't miss the early part of the book where he sets down his life story.  What a life!  What a story!  What a player!

Doyle Brunson's Super System 2:

A Course in Power Poker

by Doyle Brunson, et al, Cardoza, 2005


Ace on the River:

An Advanced Poker Guide

by Barry Greenstein, Last Knight Publishing, 2005

It started out as a chapter in Doyle Brunson's "Super System 2." It wound up as its own, gorgeous book. Glossy pages, beautiful pictures, and advanced stuff. For some reason, Doyle skipped a chapter on "Poker and Your Sexuality." Barry includes it.  Read a couple other books on poker before you tackle this one. 

Lots of personal stuff here.  Greenstein dedicates this book to the children of gamblers and thanks his own six kids for putting up with Dad while he travels a lot and sleeps during the day.  One of his sons, Joe Sebok, has a World Series of Poker bracelet, so Barry apparently has done a little tutoring.

Barry also touches on his philanthropic bent: he has contributed $3 million dollars (and counting) of tournament winnings to charity and has taken a couple other pros to South America with him to distribute medical supplies in the sweltering heat.

Barry is the real deal.  So is his fine book.

Ace on the River:

An Advanced Poker Guide

by Barry Greenstein, Last Knight Publishing, 2005

 

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