Category Archives: Books

“The Noble Hustle” Review

Colson Whitehead is one of a number of authors who have been fortunate enough to have his publisher pay him1 to write about playing in the World Series of Main Event. But he’s the only Pulitzer Prize winner2 in the group, making The Noble Hustle3 a delightful read. Unfortunately, he isn’t a very good poker player, regularly joining other writers only in very low-stakes dealer’s choice home games and completely lacking in tournament experience.

More than a decade into the poker boom and a month after Black Friday has effectively killed internet poker in the U.S., Whitehead still lays out the basics of Texas Hold ‘Em and explains how tournaments work, but at least he does so more entertainingly than anyone else has. A driver’s license-less native of the Big Apple, he takes the bus to Atlantic City, accepts his complimentary chips and tangles with denizens of the $1/$2 Hold ‘Em tables. This is a step up from his usual game but still far from where he’s going.

Despite hiring a poker coach,4 he isn’t able to learn fast enough to impress anyone with his skills or results. Fortunately, he is honest with us about this, deprecatingly describing his style as “Tight Incompetent”.5 His two strongest features are his poker face, which he wears as a self-declared member of the Republic of Anhedonia,6, and his patience. These help him book a nice win at the $1/$2 Limit Hold ‘Em table at the Tropicana and a decent cash in a $50 buyin tournament there.

But just six weeks later he’s made the massive jumps to Las Vegas, the No-Limit Main Event, and a $10,000 buyin. Despite additional advice from Matt Matros, a writer-turned-successful-poker-player, Whitehead is far from ready. His Main Event story unfolds over the last fifty pages of the book. His demise is fully expected yet still disappointing to him, the now defunct Grantland, and the reader, who is left wishing there was more for him to tell.

Title The Noble Hustle
Author Colson Whitehead
Year 2014
Skill Level any
Pros Quick, enjoyable, easy read from a great writer.
Cons Maybe too quick, despite the content being padded unchronologically by events a year after the main narrative.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. And yes, they’ve all been men so far (see the “Journals by writers” section of Books About the WSOP Main Event). That is definitely a glaring hole in the literature. Maria Konnikova certainly could have already done it had she not gotten sidetracked by learning to play poker too well (but it’s still not too late).
  2. The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer in 2017 a year after winning the National Book Award.
  3. The subtitle of the book is “Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death”. “Death refers to busting out of a poker tournament, while beef jerky is one of the preferred snacks of poker players who may not be able to get away from the table long enough for a proper meal.
  4. Helen Ellis is also a writer by trade, but she has over $100,000 in live poker tournament cashes.
  5. On page 183, Whitehead admits to folding out of turn and unintentionally putting in an insufficient raise because he confused the chips.
  6. “Anhedonia”, meaning “the inability to feel pleasure” is a real word but a fictitious location.
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“The Education of a Poker Player” Review

[LL] “The oldest poker book I’ve read is older than I am”, Leroy the Lion claimed.

[RR] “Super System isn’t nearly as old as you are”, Roderick the Rock countered.

[LL] “That was only the second oldest. Near the end of his life in 1957, cryptologist Herbert O. Yardley penned a classic poker book that has been called ‘the poker bible before Doyle published Super System‘. The Education of a Poker Player2 chronicles two main times in Yardley’s life when he played poker: as a young adult at a local tavern and later in life as a code-breaker in China.”

[RR] “Whoa, a poker book set in China?”

[LL] “Indeed, and one of the main characters is the author’s Chinese translator whom he teaches what he learned in the first part of the book.

Yardley’s book is entertaining enough to be read solely for its stories as most of the poker instruction is separated out in between the plot. But if you want to learn how to play various old types of poker — Five-Card Draw (with and without wild cards), Five-Card Draw Low, Five-Card Stud, and Seven-Card Stud (High, Low, and High-Low) — you could skip the story and focus on the poker. Then you’d miss what makes this one of the most readable poker books though; it’s even a bit raunchy at times.”

[RR] “An R-rated poker book?”

[LL] “Closer to PG-13, but still pretty out there for 1957. As are some of the poker variations in the third part of the book: Five-Card Stud with the Joker, Six-Card Stud (which gone the way of the B battery), and several Seven-Card Stud variations: Betty Hutton (9s and 5s wild), Doctor Pepper (2s, 4s, and Tens wild), Razz, HIgh Hand with the Joker, Low Hand with the Joker, Hi-Lo with the Joker, Baseball (3s and 9s wild with 4s giving an extra down card), Football (ditto but with 4s, 6s, and 2s), Low Spade-High Hand (a.k.a. Chicago), Low Hole Card Wild; and Five-Card Draw with the Joker, Low Ball with the Joker, and Spit in the Ocean (Five-Card Draw with Deuces Wild and a fifth, wild card shared by everyone.

Overall, Yardley’s instruction is a bit basic and a bit tight but can still be useful if you find yourself in dealer’s choice games with old school players as it mostly covers games that are no longer played in casinos.”

Title The Education of a Poker Player
Author Herbert O. Yardley
Year 1957
Skill Level Beginner
Pros Well-written with poker instruction interwoven into an interesting non-fiction plot.
Cons Dated (albeit mostly with regards to the poker varieties played) and extremely tight play.
Rating 2.5

Footnotes:

  1. Jon Pill’s review also goes into detail on Yardley’s career.
  2. Yardley’s book is not to be confused with James McManus’s 2015 novel by the same name. The poker author unabashedly borrowed the title from the older book because his young male protagonist Vincent Killeen occasionally plays poker and learns his skills from Yardley’s book. McManus’s story is well-written and worth reading if you like coming-of-age novels but decidedly not much of a poker book.
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“Play Poker Like the Pros” Review

[LL] “Phil Hellmuth is famous for his braggadocio,” Leroy the Lion began, “so it won’t surprise you that the name of his book, Play Poker Like the Pros, is a major exaggeration; this is definitely a beginner’s book. The puffery continues on the cover by calling Johnny Chan ‘seven-time World Champion of Poker’, which makes it sound like he’s won the WSOP Main Event seven times. A similar inaccuracy in the introduction calls Hellmuth ‘a seven-time winner of the World Series of Poker’. Both numbers actually refer to how many WSOP bracelets each player had won at the time the book was written.

Hellmuth even deluded himself into thinking his chops as a poet merited the inclusion of a poem on poker titled ‘The Universe Conspired to Help’, which could have been subtitled ‘Ode to Myself’. Spare yourself the agony of reading it, as it’s miles from decent with no concept of meter or feet (and no, Phil, ‘was it’ and ‘achieve it’ don’t rhyme).”

[RR] “So you really loved the book, eh?” Roderick the Rock noted sarcastically.

[LL] “His style works for him. He’s doubled his bracelet count since this book was published, so he obviously knows a lot that he didn’t write down. Like many of the books of this era, the main subject is limit poker, often without explicitly saying so. Hellmuth of all people should have realized that the tide had turned, as four of his seven bracelets at that point were in No Limit Hold ‘Em, and that included his cherished Main Event title. Worse still, the Limit sections of this book are littered with real-world No Limit hand examples!”

[RR] “That’s probably because Limit Hold ‘Em is so boring compared to No Limit.”

[LL] “Especially if you play Limit Hold ‘Em Hellmuth’s way. He endorses the same supertight strategy that he started his poker career with as an undergraduate in the University of Wisconsin Student Union game. Initially, he lets you play just the top 10 starting hands (all the pairs from Aces down to Sevens, plus Ace-King and Ace-Queen) and nothing else. The good part is that he wants you to raise every time. This is the quintessential tight aggressive (TAG) strategy, except that he believes that if ‘tight is right’, then super tight is even better.

Once you have reached the ‘intermediate skill’ level, you can add the ‘majority play hands’ to your arsenal. These are the remaining pairs (Sixes through Twos), suited Aces, and King-Queen. He recommends reraising with small pairs preflop, hoping to either hit a set or steal the pot with a continuation bet on a high flop. Suited Aces need many opponents to get paid off properly when you finally hit your nut flush. King-Queen, however, wants fewer opponents and should be raised preflop.”

[LL] “For No Limit Hold ‘Em, Hellmuth lets you begin with a few more hands: the Top 10 from Limit Hold ‘Em plus the remaining pairs, Ace-King, and Ace-Queen.1 With Aces through Queens and Ace-King, he wants you to bet big preflop, which can only work until your opponents figure out your strategy. With Jacks through Nines, he says to reraise preflop because you’d prefer not to see a flop. For the other hands, just raise, hoping to take it down but letting you get away cheaply if you miss the flop.

Intermediate players can add suited Aces with the caveat that you’re looking for the nut flush, not a low pair or a pair of Aces with a bad kicker. Suited connectors can be played if you need to put in less than five percent of your chips to see the flop.

Sadly, although Hellmuth covers Limit Hold ‘Em tournament strategy, he doesn’t discuss No Limit Hold ‘Em tourneys; fortunately, I suspect his advice wouldn’t differ much. Play supertight while the weakest players are being eliminated then shift to stealing the blinds from the remaining supertight players then steal from everyone at the money bubble. He’s willing to fold rather than risk his remaining chips even if he thinks he has an advantage.”

[LL] “The second half of the book covers six non-Hold ‘Em poker variants: Omaha, Omaha Eight or Better, Pot-Limit Omaha, Seven-Card Stud, Razz, and Stud Eight or Better. Although Hellmuth is known mostly for his Hold ‘Em skills,2 he’s won numerous Omaha and Stud tournaments, including the $250 Limit Seven-Card Stud for the European Poker Championship in 2000, the $1,000 Omaha Hi/Lo at the 2003 L.A. Poker Classic, and the $1,100 Limit Omaha / Stud 8 or Better in the same festival just last month.

Hellmuth considers starting hand selection by far the most important part of all of the games, so for each variant he copiously describes which starting hands you should play and why. For playing the later streets, he sets forth some sound strategy, although, given the limited amount of space, the advice is fairly broad. Still, I found these sections much more useful than the Limit Hold ‘Em parts.

Perhaps Hellmuth’s most notable contribution from this book was the introduction of a small set of animal player types:

  • Mouse: a very timid player who plays only the best starting hands and doesn’t raise often.
  • Lion: a tight player who is good at bluffing and reading bluffs.
  • Jackal: a loose and wild player
  • Elephant: a loose calling station
  • Eagle: a ‘Top 100’ player3

I’ll end with my favorite quote of the book: ‘Playing suited connectors is like eating potato chips; once you eat one chip, you can’t help eating many more!'”4

Title Play Poker Like the Pros
Author Phil Hellmuth
Year 2003
Skill Level Beginner
Pros A good beginner’s guide to Limit Hold ‘Em, Limit Omaha, and Seven-Card Stud.
Cons Very little on No Limit games. Condescending tone.
Rating 2.5

Footnotes:

  1. This tight range works out to 8.3% of all starting hands.
  2. Hellmuth’s first eleven WSOP bracelets were all won in Hold ‘Em events (two of his last three were in Razz).
  3. Play Poker Like the Eagles is the book I would much prefer Hellmuth had written, but he admits on page 33 that that ‘is a lofty and worthwhile goal, but it is beyond the scope of this book’.
  4. You might say that Hellmuth lays off the suited connectors on page 131. On the flip side, his worst quote on page 350 claims, “[UltimateBet.com] is the only site that I currently recommend. It’s regulated by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission and is honest and professional.”
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“Poker Plays You Can Use” Review

[SS] “Perfect timing that you joined us just now, Iggy”, greeted Stan the Stat. “We were just discussing New Year’s Resolutions, and the first section was about improving your game!”

[II] “Oh, yeah. Half of my resolutions this year are about getting better at Hold ‘Em!” Iggy the Improver volunteered.

[RR] “What about the other fifty? {Chuckles.} How many new poker books did you get for Christmas?” Roderick the Rock asked.

[II] “Just two, but they’re really good ones.”

[SS] “Do tell.”

[II] “The first one is Poker Plays You Can Use by Doug Hull.”

[RR] “I’ve never heard of it…, or him.”

[II] “He’s not famous… yet. But his advice is very sensible without being obvious, straightforward without being dull. And, Stan, you’d really like the way he’s organized his book! Each ‘play’ is categorized by the weaknesses it exploits, the skills it uses, and a difficulty level.”

[SS] “That sounds awesome.”

[II] “Hull groups the plays by type and indicates the most closely related plays.”

[RR] “Can you give us an example?”

[II] “The sections are ‘Bluffs and Semi-bluffs’, ‘Getting Value’, ‘Good Folds’, and ‘Three-bet pots’.1 Since the first section contains almost sixty percent of the plays, here’s a medium-difficulty play from there.”

[II] “‘When a bad barreling card comes, wait for the river.’ This play takes advantage of tight, predictable opponents by utilizing the two-barrel bluff in your arsenal. After raising preflop and getting your continuation bet called by a nit, it may make sense to check the turn and bluff the river instead. For example, out of position, holding 8♥8♦ on a 3♠7♦9♥6♣ board, your opponent is likely ahead with top pair or an overpair and will call if you semi-bluff the turn with your straight draw and second pair. If he checks behind, however, when a K♣ appears on the river, you can represent top pair and take down the pot with a healthy river bet.”

Title Poker Plays You Can Use
Author Doug Hull
Year 2013
Skill Level Intermediate to Advanced
Pros Very well organized. Provides immediately useful suggestions. Includes in-game exercises to improve your skills.
Cons Too brief despite containing 306 pages (as that includes the exercises and appendixes)! With almost fifty plays, each play gets only about five pages. Also a tad pricey (list price $49.99 paperback, $44.99 ebook), although it has gone on sale at least once.
Rating 4.5

Footnotes:

  1. Both Rod and Stan would have had a minor quibble with the inconsistent capitalization, but that’s the wrong type of nit to pick on in this blog.
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