The Ten Most Important Poker Books Ever Written and Why They’re Essential
After reviewing the many books I’ve read over the years (and I think I’ve covered all the major titles), here’s my list of the most important non-fiction books ever written about poker.
I’m frequently asked which are my favorite poker books.
I get this question more often from non-players than players. I think that’s because there’s still a fair amount of curiosity, even intrigue when it comes to poker — especially among those who don’t play regularly and know little about the game, or the people in it.
That said, there’s a difference between the “best” poker books and those which have had the greatest impact on the game and how it’s widely perceived. Certainly, there’s some crossover too, but the most meaningful poker books are those rare few texts which broadened poker’s mass appeal and gave us a greater understanding of things we didn’t know before. A meaningful poker book challenges old assumptions we once held and reshapes our vision. This applies to the way others look at the game and the way we see ourselves. The best authors even took risks and made sacrifices in pursuit of new subject matter and came to unexpected conclusions.
Indeed, to make my list, the book had to represent a historical breakthrough. Yet, considering poker’s long and rich history which traces way back to the foundation of the republic, including all the colorful characters who have partaken in its enticement, it’s puzzling as to why an abundance of great non-fiction narratives about poker don’t exist. By “narrative,” I mean a book that chronicles events that actually happened.
After reviewing the many books I’ve read over the years (and I think I’ve covered all the major titles), here’s my list of the most important non-fiction books ever written about poker. I’ll proceed in reverse order, starting with the “honorable mention” category, ultimately leading up to my top choice.
Note: All of these books are narratives. Strategy books are not included and deserve a separate list. Moreover, works of fiction could be another category.
All In: The (Almost) Entirely True Story of the World Series of Poker, by Storms Reback and Jonathan Grotenstein (2002) — This is the first book to chronicle the expansive history of the World Series of Poker, which first spawned from a gaggle of gamblers who assembled in Reno during the late 1960s. The two authors provide lots of groundbreaking new material about how and why certain traditions began, acquired from extensive interviews and painstaking research. The book concludes with Chris Moneymaker’s championship victory in 2003, which provides the perfect stopping point on what would become an entirely different era. READ MORE HERE
Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories, by Johnny Hughes (2012) — Texas-based writer Johnny Hughes has given us two excellent narratives. His other book was the 2007 release, Texas Poker Wisdom. As expected, there’s plenty of homespun intrigue and humor contained in the pages of both. Fortunately, Hughes was able to travel around the state where so much of poker’s history remains burrowed in the roots and was able to dig up so many treasured tales. Were it not for Hughes and others like him, all these stories would be lost forever. We all owe him a debt of gratitude. READ MORE HERE
Poker Face by Ulvis Alberts (1981) — Undoubtedly the best poker photography book ever created, this is actually a two-volume master set of photographs taken during two different periods in poker history. The first edition of Poker Face released in 1981 includes photos (mostly black and white) from an era when the players seemed larger than life. It remains the only comprehensive archive of poker that exists of that period. Twenty-five years later, Latvian-based photographer Alberts (who made his name photographing several rock n’ roll icons years earlier) returned to Las Vegas again and shot the modern poker scene, this time in color. That collection became known as Poker Face 2, released in 2006. READ MORE HERE
Ace on the River by Barry Greenstein (2005) — When just about every big name in the game was releasing a new poker book, Greenstein decided to take a completely different route. He bankrolled the creation of a book that captured not just the essential strategic components of the game, but controversial lifestyle issues, as well. Ace on the River is almost too grand a project for one book or a single writer (even someone of Greenstein’s stature). But where it comes up short in some aspects, it soars in others. Brave. Bold. Intriguing. READ MORE HERE
THE TOP TEN:
(10) Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus (2010)
James McManus is arguably poker’s most-knowledgable historian and perhaps even most gifted writer. Accordingly, he merits a mandatory inclusion on any “best of” rankings. This is one of two books by the Chicago-based author which makes my top ten list. Frankly, it’s not his best work. Cowboy’s Full doesn’t quite grip readers in the same manner as his previous work did, which ranks higher on the list. Nevertheless, Cowboy’s Full is a book that desperately needed to be written. Fortunately, McManus was available to canonize the game’s early history in a manner that brings a voice of authority to a period that’s mostly been a scattershot of myths and misunderstandings, no one knowing fact from fiction. Finally, thanks to McManus’ work we now know more about the earliest foundations of the game. READ MORE HERE
(9) Lost Vegas: The Redneck Riviera, Existentialist Conversations with Strippers, and the World Series of Poker, by Paul MacGuire (2010)
This is a quirky, behind-the-scenes look at what happened at the World Series of Poker and the surrounding Las Vegas scene at the height of the poker boom. As expected, the debauchery is wonderful. New York-based author Paul McGuire’s (a.k.a. “Dr. Pauly”) trashy narrative — that’s meant as a compliment — reads as if the late Hunter S. Thompson’s was reincarnated and channeled into the contemporary poker scene. It’s every bit as mesmerizing as HST’s rambling exposes on boring political conventions and lopsided Super Bowls, where the author is actually more interesting than the subject matter he’s covering. Indeed, what everyone really wants to know is what went on in the hallways, at the bars, and inside hotel rooms. Naturally, the supporting case includes dope and strippers. Those who know “Dr. Pauly” realize there are probably stories (best) left out of his narrative. Still, the stuff that made it into the final draft is pretty damn compelling and one of the few looks at poker without all the usual filters. READ MORE HERE
(8) Shut Up and Deal by Jesse May (1998)
This is advertised as fiction. But everyone who was around the Atlantic City poker scene (including yours truly) when poker was first legalized in New Jersey in 1993 knows exactly who all the bizarre characters are in this riveting and often wickedly funny narrative of what those ballbusting games were like when the poker room was a printing press for those who know how to push the right buttons. READ MORE HERE
(7) According to Doyle by Doyle Brunson (Original 1987 — Reprinted 2008)
Poker legend Doyle Brunson has written and released four books, each worthy of reading. Two are narratives of his life as a poker player and gambler, and two are primarily on strategy (Super/System I and II). While his long-awaited biography (The Godfather of Poker: The Doyle Brunson Story) is further detailed and polished, this rough cut of short stories from his early days as a professional gambler in paperback form is a joy to read. What makes this worthy of a top ten pick is, it’s not only an essential part of history that we’d be without were it not for Brunson’s willingness to share — just as important, Brunson often takes the high road and interweaves lessons about what he’s learned about poker and life through his unrivaled experiences. READ MORE HERE
(6) The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time, by Michael Craig (2006)
Michael Craig was the first (and only writer, to date) to scale the granite wall separating the small fraternity of elites from the rest of the world, peering into the high-limit section of “nosebleed” stakes poker games when millions of dollars were being won and lost in a single poker session. This narrative chronicles the story of multi-millionaire Dallas-based banker Andy Beal’s leap into the lions’ den at the Bellagio, where he nearly bankrupted “the corporation.” Amazing breakthrough book by a fine writer who spares no detail in uncovering what happened behind the wall. READ MORE HERE
(5) Positively Fifth Street, by James McManus (2004)
The stars lined up perfectly for a college professor from Chicago who came to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker for the first time, on paid assignment for Harpers (magazine). Just about everything had to go just right, from winning his seat into the Main Event to the eventual outcome. No one could have foreseen this roll of a lifetime — not just by finishing fifth in the world championship, but the rich legacy of poker literature this book ignited in the years to come. On top of McManus’ incredible tale, we also enjoy the details of the Ted Binion murder trial, interspersed into the narrative. This all makes for a compelling page-turner and certainly one of the best poker narratives ever written. READ MORE HERE
(4) The Biggest Game in Town, by Al Alvarez (1982)
Long before everyone else even thought about writing about what high-stakes poker was really like, British writer Al Alvarez was the first to break through the invisible barrier and bring the fascinating cast of characters in poker to life. Here, we meet all the big names we mostly take for granted now in print for the first time. Alvarez introduces the world to Doyle, Puggy, Slim, Treetop, Stuey, and the Grand Old Man in a manner that etches them as icons to be remembered (and to some extent) revered forever. READ MORE HERE
(3) Ghosts at the Table, by Des Wilson (2009)
This could easily be number one, especially for its wonderful attention to detail and narrative courage, which sets a number of myths about poker straight for the first time. English writer (and former social activist) Des Wilson spent several months traveling across America and elsewhere during 2005 and 2006, hoping to discover what became of the many legends we’ve accepted purely on faith and rarely question. Surprise! Come to find out, there’s a lot more to the stories than what we’ve been told. Some of these tales believed for decades are actually exposed as falsehoods. Not only was immense research required to write this book, but the author also needed to be utterly confident in his findings enough to challenge conventional wisdom. Then, there’s the bonus payoff which finally solves one of poker’s most intriguing mysteries — the disappearance of 1979 world poker champion Hal Fowler. READ MORE HERE
(2) Poker Faces by David Hayano (1983)
Long forgotten and sadly out-of-print, this book released more than 30 years ago began as a doctoral thesis and then became something far more. During the early 1980s, writer and graduate student David M. Hayano spent more than a year mulling in and around the low-rent district of Gardena (California), even playing in the self-dealt draw poker games. He was eager to learn about the kinds of people who spent countless hours doing little more than playing cards and wanted to know more about what motivated them to spend much of their lives doing this. A book that could have simply remained an academic exercise became a well-focused (some might say shocking) snapshot of the poker subculture at that time. What’s really special is, this is the anti-Alvarez book (released at about the same time). There are no poker legends nor gold bracelets on the pages of this book. It’s about the broken dreams of nickel and dimers. The game is probably way too diverse to write something like Hayano did, nowadays. Thankfully, he did complete the project, published a book, and ended up giving us the first real portrait of what we know today as a modern cardroom, which is accompanied by some remarkably interesting details about the lives of the people Hayano met. A forgotten and underappreciated classic. READ MORE HERE
(1) Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player, by Anthony Holden (1992)
This is my top pick among a towering pyramid of other excellent poker books for a number of reasons. First, it was groundbreaking for its time. Highly-respected British author Anthony Holden, who was best known as the royal’s biographer, arrived quite unexpectedly on the poker scene having already published a number of best-selling books, mostly on famous people and history. To have someone of Holden’s immense talent, not just coming to Las Vegas to cover an event, but willing to drop everything and play poker professionally around the world for an entire year was a stunning project that easily could have backfired. Instead, Holden’s amazing experiences traveling all over with the poker players we’ve all come to know produced the best account of poker and its players. As for its timing, this was an in-between period for the game (one could even say a recession), when poker was still in its formative stages, ten years before the boom. This makes Holden’s revelations as fresh and relevant today as the time it was published. Add in Holden’s natural mastery for creating mood and scene and this book stands at the top of a very strong mountain of poker literature. A timeless classic. READ MORE HERE
Note 1: In the next “Talking Points” video, I’ll talk more about these poker books and why they were chosen.
Note 2: One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘the Kid’ Ungar (released in 2005) may deserve a mention, too. Let’s add it to the “Honorable Mention” category.
Note 3: Upon further reflection, also worthy of mention — The Education of a Poker Player, by Herbert O. Yardley (1957) and Check-Raising the Devil, by Mike Matusow, Amy Calistri, and Tim Lavalli (2009).
WATCH: Video of this discussion