Because of the most frequent questions I get in the “Ask the Pro” section is “what books should I read to improve my game,” I thought I’d go ahead and put
my answer out there for everyone.
The starting point is that there’s no one perfect poker book for everyone. The best book for you depends on a few things:
- How much experience you have (a great beginner book is useless to an advanced player, and vice-versa).
- What games you like to play or regularly play (a textbook on standard games is pretty useless if all you play is “guts” or “Seven-Card Stud, 3s, 8s and 9s wild”).
- How “hard” you want to work (some books lay things out in easy to follow format, and others require you to do a fair amount of thinking).
Another important preliminary point: please DO NOT assume that if I haven’t listed a book here, it isn’t good. I have not read every poker book ever written (most, but not all), and to keep this article at a reasonable length, I’ve selected my personal favorites. I guarantee you that there are many good poker books that don’t appear below.
Finally, while poker books will no doubt improve your game, beware one common poker pitfall, which usually goes something like this: you read a book, go back to your regular game, win, and assume you won because you’re now a much better player. This overconfidence usually carries a price, be it rage when you lose the next time out, or the belief that you now “know it all.”
Poker books are a great starting point, and are a great supplement to experience, but they are not The Answer, all themselves. Read the books, practice, be honest with yourself about your own strengths and weaknesses, and believe that there’s always more to learn, and one of these days, you’ll be the one whom your opponents least want to face-even if they like you personally.
Books That Everyone Should Read
1) The Theory of Poker, David Sklansky
Sklansky is one of poker’s top theorists. Although he has not had great success as a tournament player, his books are a vital reference for any player who is learning the game, and The Theory of Poker is his best work, because it describes many fundamental poker principles. A bit tough if you’ve never played poker before.
2) Supersystem, Doyle Brunson
When it was written in 1978, Supersystem was certainly the greatest poker book ever written. Supersystem is still a must-read, even though some of the information is now a little out of date. Brunson is one of the greatest money and tournament players who ever lived, his style is entertaining, he taps several other poker greats to contribute chapters, and the book covers most of the more popular poker games. Beginners will probably find the book a bit tough to follow, but it’s worth the work.
3) Zen and the Art of Poker, Larry Phillips
Probably a surprise entry, for those familiar with the more famous poker books, but in poker, as in so many other parts of life, mastering and understanding yourself is something you have to do before you can hope to conquer others. A high percentage of poker players play very well when things are going their way, only to fall apart when trouble arrives. As the name implies, not really a how-to book, but a very useful part of any serious player’s arsenal.
4) Improve Your Poker, Bob Ciaffone
A lot of excellent advice for both the beginning and experienced player, from a respected teacher and player.
5) The Body Language of Poker, Mike Caro
Caro, poker’s self-styled “Mad Genius,” originally published this as “Mike Caro’s Book of Tells.” I recommend the book strongly, but with one very important caveat: don’t take every word as gospel. By that I mean, Caro often reduces the information about tells (gestures that give away information) to percentages that are too precise for my liking. And the book’s mere existence has made some of the information less reliable, because good players have read it and taken steps to avoid giving away information in the manner Caro describes. Generally, the higher up the poker ladder you go, the less useful the book will be, but you ignore this book at your peril. Read it to raise your awareness of information you might be giving away, and to help you spot information on other players, but always remember, a trembling hand for Joe might mean a big hand, and for Frank it might mean a bluff. Tells are individual, not universal. Caro’s “reliability percentages” more or less imply this, but a lot of beginners seem to miss that point.
6) The Art of War, Sun Tzu
Not a poker book at all, but poker is warfare, at least once you get beyond the friendly kitchen game for matchsticks, and anyone who doesn’t realize that will be a losing player. You’ll need to be a bit of a philosopher to translate the lessons into poker applications. Save this one until after you’ve read the technical books and played a lot of poker, but then read it to take your game to another level. If it sounds familiar, yes, actor Michael Douglas mentioned it in the movie Wall Street, while playing Gordon Gecko. The Gecko character wasn’t a good guy, and his immorality eventually did him in, but he was one tough competitor. Learn how to compete that hard while keeping your morality, and you will be a scary opponent.
7) Casino Gambling the Smart Way, Andrew N.S. Glazer
OK, OK, so I’m biased. And let me make one thing clear, Smart Way isn’t a poker book; rather, it’s a philosophical guide to casino gambling that tries to get you to look at your motivations for gambling, and then, once you’ve established those motivations, helps you figure out the best way to accommodate them. But most of the lessons apply to the emotional and psychological aspects of poker. And if you go get your copy at www.casinoselfdefense.com, it will come autographed.
Good Books for Beginners and Intermediates
1) Thursday Night Poker, Peter O. Steiner
Most of the better poker books around focus on casino or cardroom poker, but that’s not how most players start: they begin in home games, and home games are a very different animal. Steiner’s book helps the home game player more than most. He does a good job of explaining a lot of the fundamentals in ways that a beginner can follow, yet the book is also very useful to someone who has been playing for a few years.
2) Fundamentals of Poker, Mason Malmuth and Lynne Loomi
A very short, pocket-sized, non-intimidating book, more for beginners than intermediates, that does a good job of preparing the novice for his or her first poker efforts.
3) Total Poker, David Spanier
I’m sorry to say that I’ve lost (probably lent-nobody steals books but your friends) my copy of one of the first poker books I read when I started to get serious, so I wasn’t quite sure whether to place it in the “beginner and intermediate” or “intermediate and advanced” section, but either way, Spanier is a terrific writer, much more so than most of the poker-playing authors out there, and you should grab hold of this and all other Spanier books.
4) Hold ’em Poker, David Sklansky
Hold ’em is certainly THE poker game in casinos and cardrooms, and Sklansky gets novices off to a good start here. Advanced players would find this work a bit too mechanical, but Sklansky didn’t intend this book for advanced players (you’ll find that one on the next list).
5) Hold ’em Excellence, and More Hold ’em Excellence, Lou Krieger
Krieger, a mid-limit Southern California player, provides a lot of useful information for the intermediate player, in an easy to digest, short-chapter style.
6) 7-Card Stud, Roy West
West is a solid writer who aims his text squarely at low and mid-limit games. Well worth a look.
7) Scarne’s Guide to Modern Poker, John Scarne
Although Scarne’s self-confidence sometimes exceeds his expertise, that’s only because his self-confidence was more or less limitless. The book is a bit older, but certainly deserves a place among any list of good starting books.
Good Books for Intermediates and Advanced Players
1) Championship No-Limit and Pot Limit Hold ’em, T.J. Cloutier and Tom McEvoy
Cloutier is a poker tournament legend, and ’83 WSOP Champ McEvoy isn’t far behind. If you’re thinking about moving up into poker’s big leagues, this is a must-read.
2) Hold ’em Poker for Advanced Players (21st Century Edition), David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth
Although some of poker’s biggest names like to take pot-shots at Sklansky and Malmuth, mostly based on their lack of tournament and/or high-limit success, there’s no disputing this work as one of the fundamental building blocks for taking your hold ’em game to the next level. Even though some players believe that the theories in this book have become so integrated into modern play that going “counter” the text advice will produce more profits, I think you have to learn how to play the rules before you start messing around with breaking the rules.
3) Tournament Poker, Tom McEvoy
Unless you’re some sort of natural poker savant, if you aspire to tournament success, you must read this book. Tournament play is very different from ring (money) play, and McEvoy does a fine job explaining how.
4) High-Low Split Poker for Advanced Players, Ray Zee
High-low is a very different animal from straight high poker, and this book, which is actually two books in one, with separate sections for 7-stud and Omaha), does a great job of explaining just how different.
5) Seven-Card Stud for Advanced Players (21st Century Edition), David Sklansky, Mason Malmuth, and Ray Zee.
The name says it all, and you’ve already seen all three authors’ names on this list. One caveat: the book is really designed for those playing at mid-limits, like 20-40. A lot of the concepts don’t work very well at lower “no fold ’em” limits, or in very high limit games. I have a lot of respect for Sklansky and Malmuth, and when you add Ray Zee-who has won a LOT of money playing poker-to the team, you get a VERY good book.
6) Championship Stud Poker, Max Stern, Tom McEvoy, and Linda Johnson
A useful guide for both mid-limits and tournament play, especially because the authors don’t hesitate to disagree with one another. I’m very fond of the book for that reason: too many poker authors write as if their recommended plays are the gospel that no sane person should dare challenge. Stern, McEvoy and Johnson freely admit that there’s more than one road to success.
7) Championship Omaha, T.J. Cloutier and Tom McEvoy
What can I say about yet another appearance these two authors? If Cloutier and McEvoy write it, you should buy it.
8) Pot-Limit and No-Limit Poker, Bob Ciaffone and Stewart Rubin
Although most Americans play pot-limit and no-limit only in tournaments, it is very big in Europe, and very big in side action at major tournaments. Don’t even consider getting into a pot-limit or no-limit game for any significant money until you really know what you’re doing: a good player can roast you alive.
9) Real Poker: The Cooke Collection, Roy Cooke
Another Card Player columnist compiles some of his better work (which should be good hint to those of you who don’t subscribe to Card Player: subscribe!).
10) Poker Essays, Volumes I and II, Mason Malmuth
Like frequent writing partner Sklansky, Malmuth is better known as a theorist than as a successful tournament or high-limit player, and as I’ve said about Sklansky, that shouldn’t stop you-or even slow you down-from eagerly devouring his essays. My only reservation is that he tends to talk a bit too much in absolutes for my liking. Malmuth’s opinions are very useful and usually right, but they are opinions, not facts.
Good Anecdotal Books for All Players
The books in this section aren’t exactly instructional, but they aren’t just a collection of whopping good poker tales, either. A nice mix of good stories and good lessons.
1) Big Deal: A Year as a Professional Poker Player, Anthony Holden
Holden, like David Spanier a writer first and a poker player second, does a great job of describing a good player’s foray into the world of big-time poker. If you read it, you’ll almost certainly get Big Tournament Fever and start playing a lot more poker. When you read Poker Brat (the book I’m working on with Phil Hellmuth, Jr., right now) sometime in 2001, your case of Big Tournament Fever will become critical.
2) The Biggest Game in Town, A. Alvarez
Out of print at the moment, although you can probably find a copy in a poker playing friend’s library. Alvarez fits in with Holden and Spanier as a writer first and poker player second, and if you like stories about Big Time Poker, you’ll love this work.
3) The Education of a Poker Player, Herbert O. Yardley
Another oldie but goodie-enough of a goodie to still be in print, despite a 1957 publication date. Helped launch me, and probably a few hundred thousand other players. Come to think of it, a few hundred thousand might be a low estimate.
4) The Man with the $100,000 Breasts (and other gambling stories), Michael Konik
The only reason this book doesn’t land at #1 in my poker list is that a lot of the tales are about fascinating gamblers outside the world of poker. But if I were making a list of the best anecdotal gambling books of all time, I’d put this one #1. Konik is a great writer who is also a great player.
5) According to Doyle, Doyle Brunson
A very entertaining, and also informative, collection of articles one of poker’s all-time great players and personalities.
6) Tales Out of Tulsa, Bob Baldwin
Baldwin, who was the youngest player ever to win the World Series of Poker until Phil Hellmuth broke his record, has proven that wisdom at the poker tables can translate into wisdom in the business world, having gone on to high-profile casino management success. A little wisdom here, a little humor there, and you’ll be glad you picked it up.
Well, that should be enough to keep you busy for a while. Like I said at the outset, please don’t consider this list exhaustive, and please don’t assume a book or author not mentioned isn’t good. If you have nominations for books I haven’t mentioned, please go through the “contact the guide” section and let me know!