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Top 5 literary descriptions of poker

Yesterday I wrote about Pocket Kings by Ted Heller, which gives one of the most convincing literary descriptions of poker that I’ve ever read. (Much more so than all those books and articles where the author goes on expense account to compete at the World Series of Poker. I hope to never see that again.)

OK, here’s my list of the best literary descriptions of poker, starting at the top:

1. James Jones, From Here to Eternity. The best ever. An entirely convincing poker scene near the beginning drives the whole plot of this classic novel.

2. Dealer’s Choice, by Patrick Marber. Deemonds!

3. David Spanier, Total Poker. Lots of wonderful stories as well as some poker insight. He wrote some other books about poker that were not so interesting or readable.

4. Frank Wallace, Poker: A guaranteed income for life by using the advanced concepts of poker. I tracked this one down and read it after reading about it in Total Poker. Wallace’s book is pretty much devoid of any intentional literary merit, but I agree with Spanier that on its own terms it’s a kind of outsider-art masterpiece.

5. Ted Heller, Pocket Kings. See my review from yesterday.

That’s it. I can’t think of anything else I’ve read about poker that would be worth mentioning here. Lots of poker manuals which in some cases are well written but I would not say they are particularly interesting to read except for the poker content, and lots of books about poker by serious writers with poker scenes that do not seem at all insightful in any general way. So the above four, that’s all I have to offer.

Am I missing anything that’s worth including in the above list?

P.S. In my first version of this post, I forgot Dealer’s Choice. I added it after Phil reminded me.

20 Comments

  1. Sam says:

    Maybe your tastes (or definition of literature) are too highbrow for these to count, but I would add the genre novel “Last Call” by Tim Powers, and of course the movie Rounders starring Matt Damon.

  2. Eliot J says:

    Annie Duke’s “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts” takes poker decision-making and strategy to the next level…not to mention that she’s one of the great practitioners of the sport.

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      Your comment has pushed me to order the book. It’s the second time I see it recommended in the last few days: https://www.oaktreecapital.com/docs/default-source/memos/you-bet.pdf

      • Ben says:

        Good link. That was an interesting read.

        I think the literary tools that poker provide as a game that other games don’t:

        1. The rules are super well known
        2. There’s a grayscale on the danger levels. It does everything from no-money to might-as-well be Russian Roulette

        And by this, it’s easy to draw analogies to anything, which makes poker particularly powerful as a literary tool. For instance, if this rancid billionaire investor-type told us he modeled his worldview entirely after that oil drilling book — Not relatable! We all know what oil drilling is, but most of us have never done it or anything really comparable to it.

        Instead he launders his life philosophy of economic exploitation through poker. Which makes it like, super relatable and easy to read! I know what poker is and I’ve played it! Which is cool, cause now it’s like I get to share in the experience of not investing in Kodak and whatnot.

        I assume this generalizes the other books cuz assuming is fun and there’s only like half until the next post is revealed.

  3. Sean M says:

    Tommy Angelo has some books that are of value above and beyond their instructional content

    A Rubber Band Story and Other Poker Tales is well worth the quick read.

  4. Phil says:

    What about Dealer’s Choice, the play by Patrick Marber? I didn’t see it, but you did, and you bought a copy of the script and loaned it to me, and I thought it was great!

  5. Dogen says:

    I remember the movie “Stranger Than Paradise” very fondly, and I remember its poker content seemed exceptional to me. I wonder how it’s held up after 35 years.

  6. Corey says:

    I liked Hunting Fish which is autobiography but not devoid of literary content. It covers the nitty gritty of making a living as a poker player of that era and also is very insightful about the structure of the poker world (again, of that era) as a whole.

  7. Phil says:

    When I was a kid, The Sting was one of my favorite movies. It has a decent poker scene. My favorite part about the poker is immediately after the game, when Lonnigan asks his henchman “what was I supposed to do, call him out for cheating better than me?”

  8. Bruce McCullough says:

    “The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time”

    Andrew Beal, owner of Beal Bank in Tx, decides to master heads-up NLHE. Then he takes on a group of professional poker players in days’ long heads-up contests. They can switch out when they’re tired, he can’t. They trade notes on Beal’s tendencies; he’s got no one with whom to do likewise. A most enjoyable read. The pros included Ted Forrest, Jennifer Harman Doyle Brunson, Howard Lederer, Barry Greenstein, and others. Beal took them all on. The author of the book, Michael Craig, missed his calling; this is the only book he ever wrote. I’d read anything he wrote.

  9. Tim says:

    Herbert Yardley (the cryptologist) ‘The Education of a Poker Player’. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/113504.The_Education_of_a_Poker_Player

  10. Ted Heller says:

    Hey, thanks for mentioning my book. Glad you liked it.

    • Ted says:

      By the way, let me add two excellent non-fiction poker books: The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus.

    • Andrew says:

      Ted:

      That’s the coolest thing that you saw my post. I really loved Slab Rat. Pocket Kings was good, but I feel like it got a bit taken over by its plot.

      Regarding your other recommendations: Yes, both the Alvarez book and the McManus books were readable, but I felt they each lacked something. In particular, Alvarez lacked all skepticism; he just treated these poker players like heroes. Spanier loved poker too, but he seemed a bit less starry-eyed. As for McManus: sure, his book as ok, but by the time he wrote it, I felt that the whole “writer goes to play at the World Series of Poker” thing had been played out. That particular subgenre reached its low point in a book by the otherwise admirable Colson Whitehead. But that’s the point: this particular gimmick is so bad that it could even bring down the mighty Colson Whitehead. It’s the quicksand of subgenres. Anyway, back to McManus: I think he was trying to hard, in an upscale version of how I think Bill Simmons tries too hard. Sensitive guy, poet, but also a man’s man, etc. . . . I’m sure it’s all true, but I think all the posing got in the way of the writing. It could’ve been a much better book if it hadn’t been about himself, I think.

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