By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

LEDYARD, Conn. -- As my man Shakespeare might have put it had he been lucky enough to live through the current Golden Age of Hold 'em: Poker doth murder sleep.

Last Thursday -- actually, early Friday morning -- after five or six grueling hours slaving away at an Act III tournament, I had trouble nodding off. No matter what I tried, the ZZZs did not falleth from the heavens like the gentle rain. So I did what any self-respecting degenerate would have done under the circumstances --I got up out of the motel bed, put on my clothes, jumped in the rental car and headed back to Foxwoods for a 2 a.m. poker fix.

There were no seats open in the $5-5 no-limit hold 'em game -- my usual side game of choice -- and I was a little burned out on no-limit, anyway; so I decided to try the $10-20 seven-card stud, which had a couple of empty seats.

I soon discovered why.

Before I even sat down, the self-appointed table captain, a rather large and loud fellow with an equally outsized sense of his own importance, started ragging me about the book I was carrying -- Ray Zee's "High-Low-Split Poker For Advanced Players."

"So you're an advanced player," he brayed. "Well, this ain't no high-low game, professor."

I decided to try to take the high road, and started to explain that I was no advanced player -- that, in fact, I had only played that form of poker two or three times in my life -- but, as you've probably already guessed, he was not interested in the sound of anybody's voice but his own. So I just shut up, sat down, bought a couple of hundred dollars worth of chips ... and hoped he would either just leave me alone or turn his attention to one of the other players.

Who, when I finally began to look around, were quite a crew. Not to put too fine a point on it, but seven-card stud is not a game much favored by kids ... or even by the middle-aged. One guy was obviously a veteran of the Korean conflict -- he was wearing a baseball cap that announced his wartime service -- and the gentleman to his left was even older.

There was also a young woman who seemed convinced that she was the unluckiest poker player ever to walk the earth, whining and moaning after virtually every hand, including those pots she won -- "See, even when I win a pot, it's tiny" -- a circumstance that might have had something to do with the fact that she rarely bet and even more rarely raised, even with dominant hands.

She also had the odd habit of complaining after chasing with obvious losers. Once, Table Captain started betting from the gun, caught a couple of queens on board, and kept betting throughout, eventually showing two pair, which beat her jacks-up. She turned to a woman who was watching and whined, "Why do these kinds of things always happen to me?"

Why, indeed?

The other guy was quiet enough, but he gave off an unmistakable don't-screw-with-me-I-might-be-mobbed-up vibe. Since Table Captain's private code of ethics apparently doesn't allow him to be too aggressive with the ancient or the opposite sex, I was the only safe target left.

So we heard a lot of minor variations on the following: "Do all advanced players fold every hand?"

After I called down his obvious flush draw and subsequent bluff with a pair of nines, there were a few minutes of blessed silence.

But then a new dealer arrived -- and she had no compunctions about picking on the elderly. She, too, was a large person, and thus could not -- or would not -- reach down to the far end of the table, where our Korean War vet sat and deposited his bets.

So she kept lecturing him on tossing his chips closer to her, taking the tone of a third-grade teacher lecturing her eight-year-olds. The poor old fellow finally exploded, suddenly leaping up from the table and yelling, "I'm not getting paid to do your job!" before disappearing from the room.


"Gee, he never acted like that before," said Table Captain.

"Yeah, I wonder what's wrong with him?" said the whining, moaning woman.

For her part, the dealer just kept dealing as if nothing unusual had happened, an enigmatic Mona Lisa expression on her face.

The situation seemed most unpromising to me -- poker should be fun, not some kind of weird group therapy session -- and I decided to leave. I quietly picked up my chips and book and turned to leave. But, for Table Captain, this was an opportunity not to be missed.

"Hey, professor, maybe next time you'll play a few hands," he said, "or don't you advanced players do that?"

"So let me get this straight," I said, breaking my vow of silence. "You think I should play some hands badly, just so you'll like me better?"

Table Captain looked at me like I was seven kinds of a--hole.

As I walked away, I heard him say, with a sneer in his voice, "Books! You can't learn how to play poker from a book."

His deficiencies notwithstanding, Table Captain raises an interesting question: Can you learn how to play winning poker from books?

As with so many questions involving poker, particularly hold 'em, the correct answer is ... it depends. You can certainly learn enough from books to beat most home games and most low-to-middle-limit casino games. Beating really good players in high-stakes games requires a lot more -- experience, rapid pattern recognition, the ability to read opponents (and not to be read by opponents) ... in other words, things that require lots of hands-on experience.

However, even if you aspire to play successfully at the higher levels, reading wisely and constantly thinking about poker will greatly compress your learning curve and significantly reduce the cost of lessons. At least, that's what I believe.

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That raises another question: Which books?

Let's assume you have played enough to have some kind of experiential context for the literary advice you are going to acquire.

1.) I'd start off with Doyle Brunson's "Super System." (Actually, only the no-limit hold 'em section is written by Brunson; the other five sections -- on draw poker, seven-card stud, lowball, high-low split games and limit hold 'em -- are written by, respectively, Mike Caro, Chip Reese, Joey Hawthorne, David Sklansky and Bobby Baldwin.) Though all 600-plus pages of "Super System" can be pretty accurately summed up in a single sentence -- Aggression is good, more aggression is better, even more aggression is best -- it's a lesson whose importance cannot be over-emphasized. Poker knowledge has become infinitely more sophisticated since "Super System" was first published in 1978, but at least one thing has not changed: It is virtually impossible to become a top-level poker player if you are not extremely aggressive. And "Super System" pounds that important idea home like no other book. A must read if you are serious about improving your game.

2.) "Championship No-Limit & Pot-Limit Hold 'Em," by T.J. Cloutier and Tom McEvoy. Cloutier, whose voice dominates this book, might be the winningest poker player ever; and his folksy, unsentimental writing style is easy on the brain. In a lot of ways, it's an updated version of "Super System," taking into account some of the important advancements in poker knowledge over the past 26 years. Like Brunson, Cloutier's basic message is to attack, attack, attack. But he also explains when -- and how -- to back off.

3.) If you are psychologically, spiritually and/or philosophically inclined, you'll want to get your hands on "The Tao of Poker" and "Zen and the Art of Poker" by Larry W. Phillips. These books deal with how to think about and how to handle ephemeral but vital issues like knowing yourself, patience, luck, calmness in the face of disaster, letting the game come to you, hubris and arrogance, and the like. I love both books -- I've read both many times and never failed to learn something new and important -- but they are obviously not for everybody.

4.) "Fundamental Secrets of Winning Poker," by Mike Caro. Caro, the self-proclaimed "Mad Genius of Poker," is a trip and a half. This is less a book than a paper version of the best of Caro's lectures on the game. Caro has a wonderfully quirky style -- both his thinking and his writing -- and you'll get advice here that you won't be able to find anywhere else. Use that advice with caution.

5.) If you are technically inclined ... if you are interested in the most advanced theoretical thinking about poker in all its forms ... and if you are not turned off by the driest writing style this side of a new set of IRS guidelines ... then you'll definitely want to try some of the many books by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth. Two of the best -- Sklansky's "The Theory of Poker" and "Hold 'em Poker for Advanced Players," by Sklansky and Malmuth. Smart, wise and dull. Well, as Meat Loaf sang, "Two out of three ain't bad."

1.) I took a lot of heat from some of my faithful correspondents when I recommended "How to Play Poker Like the Pros," by Phil Hellmuth. The criticisms were two-fold:

  • Hellmuth is a big baby, self-involved and self-aggrandizing, a poor loser and a compulsive loudmouth who gives himself too much credit and gives his opponents, no matter how talented, no credit.

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    All pretty much true, which is why Hellmuth is known as "Super Brat" and "The John McEnroe of Poker." However, Hellmuth, by any standard, is also one of the most successful tournament players who ever lived. Which, when it comes to writing a valuable teaching book, is a lot more to the point.

  • The book is too conservative, too simplistic and does not even begin to reflect the way that Hellmuth actually plays.

    Well, doh. Hellmuth is a world-class expert; beginners are not. What this book does is lay down a clear set of simple guidelines to get fledgling players off to a safe and solid start, just as Hellmuth claims. Yes, if you seriously continue on your poker journey, you will quickly put this book behind you. But, in the meantime, you will keep the economic pain to a minimum.

    2.) I have not read them, but many people I trust have recommended two books by Lou Krieger -- "Hold 'em Excellence" and "More Hold 'em Excellence."

    1.) "The Biggest Game in Town," by A. Alvarez. This classic by Alvarez, an English critic and poet and friend of Sylvia Plath, is about the 1981 World Series of Poker. Which is a little like saying that "Moby Dick" is about whale hunting. The best poker book ever written, and there is no close second.

    2.) "Positively Fifth Street," by James McManus. McManus went out to Vegas to cover the trial of Ted Binion's killers for Harpers. While he was there, he won a seat in the 2000 World Series of Poker and somehow managed to finish fifth, winning $250,000. In "Positively Fifth Street," he deftly intertwines the sensational Binion murder case (Ted was the son of Benny Binion, the inventor of the World Series of Poker and one of Vegas's true geniuses) and his own quest for poker riches and immortality to paint a stunning picture of American life on the edge at the turn of the century.

    3.) "Poker Face," by Katy Lederer. Lederer is the younger sister of Howard Lederer and Annie Duke, both world-class players. "Poker Face" is not a poker book, per se, but a "Liar's Club"-like memoir -- it reads like a piece of poetry -- about what it was like to grow up in the same intense, difficult and brilliant family that produced Howard and Annie.

    Last week: Won $9,517 (cashed at another Act III at Foxwoods)

    CTD (career-to-date): plus $28,297

    Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for and also writing a book for HarperCollins. You can watch the 2004 World Series of Poker Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.

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