20 Poker Books Every Player Must Read

Jason KirkGuest Post by Jason Kirk, September 16, 2014

If you’ve played poker for a while, chances are you’ve built yourself at least a small library of poker strategy books. My own personal library has grown over the years to include dozens of books, from strategy tomes to some of the literature that has accrued around the game over the years. Some poker books are better than others, and everyone has their personal favorites, but reading some of the best poker books mentioned in this article can help to round out your knowledge of both the game in its many varieties and the culture that has grown up around it throughout its history.

(Photo credit: CC-BY-3.0, Jorgeroyan, Jorge Royan Photo)

 

THE STRATEGY CLASSIC

Super SystemTwo-time World Series champion Doyle Brunson turned the poker world upside down when he first published Super System in 1978, showing the world how to play what he called “power poker,” the root of the hyper-aggressive game favored by today’s most successful no-limit hold’em players. Suddenly even the most clueless amateurs were learning to compete with professionals thanks to having the most dominant no-limit player in the world show them what they’d been doing wrong all along, and Brunson wished he’d never published the book. The game was better off for it, though, and remains so today as one of the top poker books of all time. The noteworthy introduction contains Brunson’s autobiography, giving players in the modern era a firsthand account of what it meant to be a world-class poker player in an era when the game was still played almost exclusively underground. And the chapters from top players of the time’s most dominant forms of poker, including five-card draw and seven-card stud, can still help a player get an edge against unfamiliar opponents.

 

 

TOURNAMENT POKER

Harrington on Hold'emIt’s no understatement to say that Harrington On Hold’em, Volume 1, written by the 1995 World Series of Poker Main Event champion, had the greatest impact of any book on poker strategy since Super System. Upon its release in 2004, Harrington became the bible of tournament poker. Along with its two later companion volumes, it changed the landscape of tournament poker to the point where anybody who wasn’t playing according to Harrington at least had a familiarity with its approach in order to understand their opponents. Tournaments have evolved significantly in the decade since it was published, but the fundamentals presented in Harrington On Hold’em remain valid. Particularly well-explained and considered is the concept of M, a measure of how healthy a player’s chip stack is for any given moment in a poker tournament first conceived by mathematician/poker player Paul Magriel. Learning to play Harrington’s tight-aggressive, creative style of game using M is still a good place to start.

Every Hand RevealedFor a look at how to play a looser, flashier tournament game with success, Gus Hansen’s Every Hand Revealed is still my favorite. Hansen made his name winning televised poker tournaments during the early poker boom years, where the highly edited footage could make him look like the world’s luckiest madman. After winning the 2007 Aussie Millions Main Event, he wrote this book, which stays true to its promise by showing how Hansen navigated the 747-player field to win the $1.5 million top prize. Thanks to a tendency toward prolific note-taking, the man known as the “Great Dane” goes into intricate detail and shows, often with a touch of self-aware humor, that there is indeed a method to what many take for madness. The end result is a volume that serves as a combination tournament strategy guide and insight into the mindset of a high-level professional tournament poker player.

 

 

BIG-BET POKER

Small StakesPerhaps the most lasting effect of the poker boom is that where fixed-limit poker once dominated, most of today’s poker games are played in big-bet formats. Learning to play these complex games today often involves video training, but there are still some strategy guides worth reading. Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em by Ed Miller, Matt Flynn, and Sunny Mehta conveys advanced concepts clearly through example hands, making for an excellent homework complement to video courses and actual play at the tables. For no-limit players looking to stretch their wings, pot-limit Omaha is often the next step in big-bet games. Jeff Hwang’s clear and concise Pot-Limit Omaha Poker is an excellent modern introduction to the game based on hundreds of hours of live PLO experience, and his Advanced Pot-Limit Omaha series offers three volumes exploring higher-level play in depth, for those who find themselves bitten by all the possibilities four hole cards can offer.

 

 

GAME VARIETY

Super System 2Big-bet games may run the scene, but mixed games are more popular today than ever before. That makes Super System 2 an excellent place to start for players wanting to learn basic competence in a wide variety of modern games. Like the original, this book’s chapters are all written by world-class players. While advanced play in most of the given games is covered in depth by other more tightly-focused poker books, you can do much worse than learning to play poker from WSOP bracelet winners Bobby Baldwin (Omaha hi-lo), Lyle Berman (pot-limit Omaha), Todd Brunson (seven-card Stud hi-lo), Jennifer Harman (limit hold’em), and Daniel Negreanu (triple draw lowball). And even in an era where more detailed treatises have been written on the game, Doyle Brunson’s revised advice on no-limit hold’em is still worth a read, as one of the top 10 poker books, even if it’s mostly to remember how far the game has come in a very short time.

 

 

THE MENTAL GAME

Elements of PokerGetting enough of a handle on the basics of poker to begin winning is the first step to long-term success. But there are plenty of poker players with a firm command of strategy who continue to lose, or merely break even, because they’re unable to play their A-game with consistency due to mental blocks of one sort or another. Elements of Poker by Tommy Angelo won’t lead you directly to a poker life without tilt, but it does serve as an excellent guide to finding it on your own. Angelo’s method of doing so has won plaudits from a number of people well known for their prowess at the tables. Bob Ciaffone’s Improve Your Poker is older but the advice in its opening sections, covering general gambling skills like bankroll management, reading opponents, and deception, is worth revisiting from time to time.

 

 

THE WORLD SERIES OF POKER

The Biggest Game in TownAl Alvarez was a fish out of water in Las Vegas in 1981, when the English author visited the World Series of Poker and captured its essence for his seminal piece of the poker canon, The Biggest Game In Town. Though amateurs and younger players were beginning to establish a foothold by then, the gathering still maintained the air of a gamblers’ family reunion, and Alvarez made the most of the access he was afforded to the Binion family and old-timers from the WSOP’s earliest days. He also catches the first wave of top pros at their peak and characterizes them with deft strokes, and relates even their more far-fetched tales with a certain amount of incredulity, building up the mythology of the old road gamblers like few other works about poker have done. The end result is a lyrical, colorful time capsule of what tournament poker looked like at the start of its second decade.

 

Positively Fifth StreetNovelist and English professor James McManus traveled from his home in Chicago to Las Vegas in 2000 on assignment for Harper’s magazine, originally to write about the rise of women in poker. What he ended up producing was something entirely different thanks to the confluence of two landmark events. The first was the trial of the accused killers of WSOP founder Benny Binion’s son, Ted Binion, which McManus followed closely. The second was McManus’ own journey from winning a single-table satellite to making the final table of the Main Event. Together they combined to make Positively Fifth Street an eminently readable journey through to the WSOP in its last incarnation before the poker boom changed it forever.

 

Las VegasThe WSOP changed with the poker boom, moving from downtown Las Vegas to the Rio off-Strip and from the late spring into the peak of the desert summer. The underside of Las Vegas stayed the same as it ever was, though, and no book explores that better than Paul McGuire’s Lost Vegas: The Redneck Riviera, Existentialist Conversations with Strippers, and the World Series of Poker. McGuire (a long-time friend of mine) wrote this book based on his experience living in one of Vegas’ many down-and-out sections for the duration of the 2005 WSOP, which he covered online for LasVegasVegas and his own blog, the Tao of Poker.

 

 

 

 

LIVE POKER

Book of Poker TellsMike Caro’s Book of Poker Tells was the original guide to picking up on body language at a live poker table. It had a great impact on the game, but it has since been superseded by Zach Elwood’s 2012 volume, Reading Poker Tells. Elwood’s work builds upon Caro’s with the introduction of more situational awareness, creating a guide for the modern player that has earned praise from an assortment of pro players, November Niners, poker coaches, and enthusiastic amateurs. Perhaps the highest compliment of all came from poker pro Kathy Liebert, who said, “I sincerely hope this book does not become popular.”

Professional Poker Dealer's HandbookPoker dealers in live games are a lot like sports referees: they don’t get enough respect because you’ll only notice them if they make a mistake. From the mechanical details of pitching cards, to the rule sets for a variety of games, to calculating main and side pots, to counting the rack and other accounting functions most players never think about, The Professional Poker Dealer’s Handbook by Dan Paymar, Donna Harris, and Mason Malmuth is a detailed look at exactly how much goes into running a live poker game with efficiency. Only the game’s most hardened grumps could walk away from this book without an appreciation of the people who keep the tables running smoothly.

 

 

 

 

OLD-TIME POKER

Education of a Poker PlayerHerbert O. Yardley rose to fame after writing The American Black Chamber, a memoir of his time in signals intelligence from World War I through the 1920s, in 1931. Twenty-six years later he published The Education of a Poker Player, a treatise on the most popular games of the time told through stories from the former spy’s past. Considering he played poker throughout his youth and then at all his duty stations (“in my hometown, in Indianapolis, Washington, New York, Hollywood, London, Paris, Cairo, Rome, Hong Kong, Chungking, and on boats and trains and airplanes”) in the first three decades of the 20th century, Education gives great insight into how the game was played long before the dawn of the tournament era.

Cowboy's FullFor a larger overview of poker’s history than any first-person account can give, there’s another book from James McManus. Cowboys Full: The Story Of Poker is his attempt to “show how the story of poker explains who we are,” delving into poker’s roots in 19th-century New Orleans and following its eventual penetration into every nook and cranny of American life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FICTION

Shut Up and DealJesse May’s insight into both the game of poker and its players’ psyches has led to a long and successful career as a poker commentator on television. It also led to Shut Up and Deal, his 1998 debut novel, which shouldn’t be missed by anybody who loves both poker and fiction. The narrator, Mickey, is a young poker player turned pro in the early 1990s, when Atlantic City was just beginning to peak and live poker in Connecticut was just beginning. The book ambles along without much of a plot, steeped instead in character and setting, making it the perfect account of a poker player taking life day to day, score to score, and trying desperately to stay in the action.

The literature of poker is both wide and deep, making all of these volumes mere jumping-off points for the reader curious about the game’s place in both their own lives and in the world at large. You can find details of some of the aforementioned food poker books online and please refer to this collection of poker book reviews for additional poker-related books to read.

 


Jason KirkJason Kirk has been writing about poker since 2005 and has covered the World Series of Poker, World Poker Tour, and WSOP Circuit in various capacities for numerous outlets. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife of 10 years and two dogs. Read all of Jason Kirk's articles.

 


 

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