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Best of Clare Fitzgerald

Gaming Guru

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Top 10 gambling-related books I read in 2016

28 December 2016

Mike Sexton: your buddy during a layover.

Mike Sexton: your buddy during a layover.

After discovering how much fun televised poker is at the end of last year, I decided that 2016 would be a good year to actually learn a thing or two about the gaming industry outside of what I was picking up during the 40 or so hours a week I spend here at Casino City, because work-life balance is a myth.

To that end, I read arguably 20 gambling-related books this year, if you count works of fiction with gambling-related themes. To put this in perspective, I read about 50 books this year in total, so gambling-related works made up 40% of my reading outside of the thousands of pages of stuff I edited. (I also watched a couple of gambling-related movies, but not enough to make a Top 10 list.) (They were Bet Raise Fold, Rounders, Casino and Runner Runner. Three of them were good.)

Here are 10 of my favorite gambling reads of the year, although some of them are hard to compare so the order's a bit rough. Several of these books I reviewed for Casino City, and some of them I reviewed of my own volition over at Goodreads where I don't have to pretend to be professional. So if you're looking for something to read during the dark days of winter in the coming months, consider picking up one of these. And don't forget to support your local library or bookstore!

10. Getting Started in Hold'Em by Ed Miller

Ed Miller has written a lot of poker books, but most of them are a bit beyond me right now, so I picked up this one. It's a short, slightly weird little book with one very specific purpose: To stop brand-spanking-new poker players from going broke before they can figure out what the hell they're doing. It's very, very short and teaches a very, very tight style of play.

Due to its brevity and Miller's reassuringly cranky authorial style, I've developed a ritual of rereading chunks of this book before every poker game. I discovered that if I spent an afternoon watching videos about stack-to-pot ratios or anything else remotely complex before a game, my brain would be full of all sorts of information that hadn't "set" well enough for me to actually use it and was basically noise, and I'd be too scattered to play well. Rereading just the handful of pages on no-limit cash games or sit-and-go tournaments (whichever is appropriate) helps me ground myself back in the basics where I won't get in too much trouble, and then I can depart from there if I think I can handle it, depending on how the session goes. When I stress myself out that poker is hard, Ed Miller is there to say, "Yes, which is why everyone else is bad at it too. Be patient and you'll probably be fine."

Will I have to grow out of this eventually? Yes. Will it be anytime soon? Not likely.

9. Life's A Gamble by Mike Sexton

Mike Sexton's autobiography provides an interesting look into the earlier days of poker, before it was quite respectable, and a behind-the-scenes look at some of the major developments that helped it become respectable. For all that, it's not at all a business book, but is mostly a collection of amusing anecdotes about the outsize personalities that made up poker's "old guard" and the ridiculous situations they managed to continually get themselves in.

A fun read, although it helps if you're already a fan of Mike Sexton, and if you know a little bit about golf.

8. Phil Gordon's Little Green Book: Lessons and Teachings in No-Limit Texas Hold'em by Phil Gordon

This was the first proper strategy book I read, and although it was published in 2005 and the game has changed a lot since then, it was a lifesaver when I was coming from a place of "I know the rules and I found a starting hands chart on the internet," which is where I was this spring. It hits a good middle ground for a beginning player when it comes to math, in that it explains the basic mathematical underpinnings of most of the strategy, but I still found much of the advice to be concrete and actionable even with very limited memorization of the math in question. I'd preceded this book with Poker: The Real Deal, which was interesting but only marginally useful in terms of not losing all my money; between the Little Green Book and its two sequels, the Little Blue Book and the Little Gold Book, I was able to pull myself from having absolutely no idea what I was doing to being a fairly competitive player within my (admittedly pretty casual) poker group within four months. After that, the beginners gains did start to level out and progress has been slower.

Taken as as set, all of Gordon's books are accessible, friendly, and occasionally humorous, with lessons broken up into easily digestible chunks and lots of white space so the tables of percentages don't scare the mathphobic (also so you can take notes, if you're the sort to do that). I thought they made a great starting place for someone who seriously did want to learn and improve but was starting from zero.

A perfect combination.

A perfect combination.

7. Peak Poker Performance: How to Bring Your 'A' Game to Every Session by Dr. Patricia Cardner with Jonathan Little

More of a self-help book for poker players than a poker book, I was initially skeptical going into this one, because I have Opinions about the self-help genre. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my Opinions were in this case misplaced, probably because Dr. Cardner is a real doctor and not a content farmer for a corporate-run lifestyle blog.

There's a lot of brain science, which is helpful for people who really need "No, you're not ~smarter than that~ and you do need to take care of yourself" explained to them on a molecular level, and which is also just interesting for the rest of us. There's a lot of concrete advice on emotional regulation and self-awareness, and a number of poker-specific exercises for identifying and managing tilt. While the book is aimed at players of all levels (apparently some people manage to climb pretty high in stakes while still having the emotional regulation skills of a toddler, from some of the complaints I hear), I'm particularly glad I found it early in my experiences with playing the game, because while I'm not super competitive I do get stressed about money.

6. One-Eyed Jack: A Novel of the Promethean Age by Elizabeth Bear

This is the only fiction book I'm putting on this list. In this genre-bending fantasy novel, One-Eyed Jack and his partner the Suicide King, the demigodlike genii locii of Las Vegas, are fighting off a hostile magical takeover by the avatar of Los Angeles. The weapons are stories, tropes, symbols and myth — all of which both Las Vegas and Los Angeles have in abundance. On Jackie's team are the ghosts of two different John Henrys, the incarnations of several fictional Cold War spies and vampire Elvis. On Angel's team is a character known only as "the assassin," a Promethean Mage (another demigodlike creature) called Felix and the ghost of Bugsy Siegel. The axis of the action is the Hoover Dam, which is a lot more exciting than it sounds. It all comes together in an intricate but exciting magical conspiracy plot that both delights in and upends traditional genre fiction tropes.

It's a book steeped in American history and mythmaking generally and Las Vegas history and mythmaking in particular. Plus, vampire Elvis.

5. The Myth of Poker Talent: Why Anyone Can Be a Great Poker Player by Alexander "Assassinato" Fitzgerald

This was undoubtedly the most serious business poker book I read this year. It's got a lot of math. It's not about teaching you the rules; it's about teaching you how to do homework, and there is a lot of homework to do. It took me absolutely forever to get through.

And I loved it. It's organized extremely well and breaks everything down into its simplest, most accessible form, then builds it back up to the difficult bits. It's full of sarcastic comments that probably don't have too much to do with learning about poker but prevent it from getting boring, which is important if you're not usually too enthralled by math textbooks as a genre. Out of all the books on this list, this is the one I'm going to be spending the most time with in 2017, despite its focus on online play.

4. The Total Poker Manual: 266 Essential Poker Skills by Eileen Sutton

Not gonna lie: I like this book in significant part because it's pretty. Like, it's very, very pretty. I ate pizza with a knife and fork while reading this book because I didn't want to risk getting even a tiny bit of pizza grease on the pages when I turned them. This could get me indefinitely banned from visiting New York.

That said, The Total Poker Manual really is a great update to the Poker 101 genre, covering a lot of different topics and profiling a lot of cool players. It also doesn't assume its audience or players in general to be men, which I think is especially important on the "piquing outsiders' interest" level of marketing the game.

3. Hit Me!: Fighting the Las Vegas Mob by the Numbers by Danielle Gomes and Jay Bonansinga

My top three books on this list are all history books rather than strategy books, reflecting a strong bias on my part in favor of stories about detectives and gangsters and legal shenanigans and all that crazy stuff that real life produces.

Hit Me! is the story of anti-corruption officer Dennis Gomes and his fight against the Chicago mafia in Las Vegas in the 1970s. It is the same investigation that was fictionalized in the movie Casino, although obviously written from quite a different perspective.

This book has got everything that fans of mobster stories would like, with the added benefit of it all being true. I was especially impressed by the level of detail recalled, which makes it an easy, almost novelesque read.

What better way to relax?

What better way to relax?

2. Ship It Holla Ballas!: How a Bunch of 19-Year-Old College Dropouts Used the Internet to Become Poker's Loudest, Craziest, and Richest Crew by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback

This is another book that I was a little skeptical going into, considering I didn't think teenage boys were funny when I was of an age with them and I certainly don't think they're funny now that I'm an old lady of nearly 30. But Ship It Holla Ballas! turned out to be a fascinating, sympathetic look into a chaotic subculture, one that vacillates between arrogant, vapid idiocy and brilliant, media-savvy self-determination. The book shows off an amazing array of ill-advised wacky hijinks, generational warfare, existential questions about the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of poker as a career path, social awkwardness (and its darker cousin, clueless misogyny), and complicated spreadsheets.

I had fun doing a where-are-they-now hunt after I finished reading the book, trying to determine who the screennames I didn't already recognize were (everyone in the book is referred to only by their screennames; it's weird) and if they're still playing poker or not, which ended up leading me down the Where Is Tom Dwan internet rabbit hole. So be forewarned: Tom Dwan is probably in Macau, and that's all anyone knows. It's not important. Just read the book.

1. Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetah's, and Binion's World Series of Poker by James McManus

When Aaron recommended this to me, all he told me about it was that it was a journalist's account of playing and final tabling the 2000 World Series of Poker, before the Moneymaker boom kicked off. So I was surprised to find that it was also about murder and drugs and strippers. In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been, since the time profiled is specifically when poker was phasing out of being about grizzly cowboys shooting each other in back rooms and starting to be about nerds like Chris Ferguson doing math (while still dressing like cowboys though), so clearly it was to be expected that there was still some sketchy old-school violent criminal stuff involved (as opposed to the new-school, white-collar criminal stuff that has plagued poker in the 21st century).

Positively Fifth Street made the NYT Bestseller List the year it came out and is now considered a classic of poker writing, and for good reason. It's a masterpiece of journalism, seamlessly weaving together the author's personal story with the wider history of poker, and the details of the Main Event with the tragedy and skullduggery of the Binion family. Some parts are a little awkward in retrospect considering all that's changed in poker since the time the book was written — most notably Chris Ferguson's fall from grace — but it still holds up as a richly detailed look at that time period in poker's history and, of course, as a ripping story.
Top 10 gambling-related books I read in 2016 is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
Clare Fitzgerald

As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.