I’ve broken this list into halves — books about the game of poker, most of which make for fun reading if you are a player or have been a player, and a list of books about playing the game which is far from exhaustive and no substitute for actual real-life experience.
Books About Poker Players and Poker Games
“Positively Fifth Street,” James McManus
Sent on an investigative journalistic hop to Vegas to look into the murder of Benny Binion, the father of the World Series of Poker, McManus ends up staking himself to play in the tournament while interviewing and chasing all of the usual suspects (quite literally) you’d expect.
“Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers,” Katy Lederer
Katy Lederer is Annie Duke’s sister, and her book provides an intense and remarkably personal view of growing up in a family of card players (both Annie Duke and their brother Howard Lederer, who have multiple WSOP bracelets). One of the few poker books I’ve recommended to non-players.
“Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death,” Colson Whitehead
This is the book that made me fall in love with Whitehead’s writing. He not only plays in the WSOP but makes it to the final table with a whirlwind education in the game and a writer’s take on the dynamics, personalities and context of high stakes poker. I was roaring at the first Iggy Pop reference, and that’s before the cards flew.
“The Biggest Game In Town,” Al Alvarez
Yet another journalistic take on the WSOP, but written in 1981 before ESPN, thousands of entrants and big money made it the March Madness of no-limit hold’em. Alvarez’s book covers the WSOP when it was much more of a cult, a true venture on the wild side, and purely from the rail and not a seat at the table. If Damon Runyon had to write about Las Vegas and not the Nathan Detroit New York of the 1950s, you’d end up here.
“One Of A Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stu ‘The Kid’ Ungar,” Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson
Once you get into legends and WSOP lore, you inevitably run into the sad tale of Stu Ungar, poker prodigy, likely mentat of the felt, and owner of far too many compulsive behaviors. Whether it was his completely random take on playing golf with the big boys (he used a tee from anywhere, including a water trap) or winning and then losing seven figures at poker, or his mastery of just about any game involving people and 52 playing cards, Ungar was a larger than life character who died very young. Dalla and Alson capture him fairly, colorfully and fully.
“Annie Duke: How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker,” David Diamond
It’s a book about Annie Duke rather than a book by her — so the typical erudite treatise on decision making, poker strategy, game theory and behavior psychology is instead a parallel story about Duke’s personal life and her first World Series of Poker tournament win. The book seems to focus more on her mental health than her mental strength, and as such isn’t as useful as a teaching tool. It reads, at times, like a long transcription of the ESPN coverage of the WSOP, but without the commentators deconstructing each player’s hand in real time. There are a few grammatical and one glaring poker error as well (there’s a nut straight constructed using three cards from the Omaha player’s hand, while the player did indeed have the nut straight but only using two cards to make a straight to a K, not an A — a minor detail but indicative of the emphasis on telling a human interest story about poker players rather than a poker playing story with a human angle).
“The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King,” Michael Craig
Craig’s volume fills in the rest of the Lederer/Duke family written history, prominently featuring Annie Duke’s brother Howard Lederer (“The Professor”). The fairly linear narrative pits Howard and a cast of poker legends in a series of the all-time richest poker games played in Vegas for tens of millions of dollars. Andy Beal, the banker, a self-taught high stakes poker player and risk aficionado is traced from his bankroll roots in distressed banking services to his desire to play the Sky Masterston sized players in Vegas. There is some insight into both Beal’s and his opponent’s strategies, but this is more a glimpse into how the higher end of the poker spectrum functions: players investing in each other, maintaining six figure piles of chips or cash, and setting boundaries on their risk appetite and tolerance. It’s not a poker book but does paint a picture of the type of mental fortitude needed to play at that level.
Books About Learning to Play Poker
Again, there’s no way to learn without actually playing, and expert players will pick up on everything from a pinkie shake indicating you just overbet a hand to the speed with which you make successive bets to determine whether you just made two pairs. But these books represent my “Poker 101” and “Poker 201” courses.
“No Limit Hold’em: Theory and Practice,” David Sklansky
Sklansky is effectively the Richard Feynmann of poker — he puts probabilities together to form an underlying physics of poker, ranging from the value of starting hands to the elements of position play and how those starting hands gain or lose value depending upon your ordinal position. It’s a bit dated, and it should serve as the summer reading for any course of poker study, but it is a classic.
“Doyle Brunson’s Super/System,” Doyle Brunson
Brunson is a poker legend, and this book is a combination of his collected wit and wisdom, with guest chapters by Sklansky as well as the king of poker tells Mike Caro among others. Opinions vary – Brunson claims in the original edition that he never plays A-K, and his love of suited connectors is highly position and betting pattern dependent in terms of real value. Like Sklansky, though, this is required reading to complete a basic education.
“Decide To Play Great Poker,” Annie Duke
Duke’s sister gets a nod on the non-fiction but non-player list; Duke’s book is the successor to Sklansky and Brunson as she applies game theory, behavioral psychology and information management theories to poker. While most books will tell you to throw away A-9, Duke walks you through playing the hand against a variety of opponents and in multiple positions (Fun but stupid side note: I played in Annie Duke’s charity poker tournament, at a table where she was dealing, and lost a large pot to her sister Katy while holding A-9 — and she yelled at me for not following the advice of the book I claimed I read).
“Thinking In Bets,” Annie Duke
The follow up to her first “how to” book, this one gets into the behavioral theory of decision making far beyond the felt.