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Top 10 Poker Books

Evan Jarvis

categories Concepts
Photo Credit: Brittany Stevens | Flickr

Photo Credit: Brittany Stevens | Flickr

Ask any pro in any field and they'll tell you the secret to their success is founded in their drive to always improve their game. This isn't always done in the field - or even mostly done in the field. Improvement largely begins behind the scenes. 

In the case of poker, a lot of your learning happens when you're not at the tables. Sure, you'll learn a thing or two on the fly, but - if you want to play to win - you should be sitting down with an entire arsenal of intel already in place. The Duke of Wellington didn't show up to Waterloo with water guns and zero military training, right? 

You're damn right he didn't.

It's with this aim in mind that I’m going to give you a rundown of the best of the best poker books that helped shape me into the finely-tuned machine you see tearing up the felt - or sometimes, waiting patiently and biding my time. That's what a thorough poker education does for you: it helps you play your best and adapt to your surroundings. Sometimes you'll be making grown men cry. Sometimes you'll be letting other players fight it out. You gotta know how to act. You gotta know when to act. You gotta know when to...well, you know how it goes, and Kenny Roger isn’t going to get the better of me. Not today.

Let’s get to my recommendations. 

The 10 Best Poker Books

Listed in order of preference.

1. The Tao of Poker

Author: Larry W. Phillips
Type: General Strategy
Year: 1999    

Why you need to read it:

This is without a doubt the most comprehensive book on poker I've ever read, which is why it tops the list as my number one recommendation. The Tao of Poker not only breaks down strategies to be used on the table, it also speaks to the strategies that should be used above the rail, in the human element of the game.

The tao 'or way' of poker, dives into topics such as game selection, bankroll management, self control, luck, longevity - basically everything. In The Tao of Poker, Larry has completed the manuscript on the poker experience, and it's the only book I've ever read where I felt the author was putting everything on the table. I could relate to his stories, his analogies, and he did a great job of making the book accessible to the common person while also packing it with a lot of high-level insight. 

The format in which the book was written (broken down into 285 small secrets) makes for easy reading whether someone is in for a short sit, or a long ride. Like I said, this is the best poker book I've ever read - hands down. No stone left unturned: Larry covered it all.

Every single lesson in the book is important, but the concept that got me the most was the idea of how a good player 'weaves a web' and that others fall into this web. 

Here’s a look at what I’m talking about:

“Rule 99: Weaving a web...

The great poker player doesn’t just play the game. He spins a web. He weaves a story. It is a mystical netting, made of talk and image; seeming strength and apparent casualness; hopes, fears, and paranoia; past successes, and maybe a dash of down-home storytelling – with accompanying gestures – from the way he puts his chips into the pot to the clothes he wears. It’s a web that other players get drawn into and caught up in. He is a master self-dramatist, but – and this is important – he does all this without seeming to. He spins a web. This web might be spun in a hundred different ways: by making a miracle draw-out on a key hand, by relying on other people’s tales of his past prowess, by his imposing stature at the table, by his coolness, wit, or other forms of behavior, by his win record, or even by his quietness and solemnity.”

2. Zen and the Art of Poker

Author: Larry W. Phillips. 
Type: General Strategy
Year: 1999

Why you need to read it:

The prequel to the ‘Tao of Poker’ deals out 100 rules for success in the game of poker. Zen and the Art of Poker brings a spiritual warrior mindset to the game and teaches readers how to maintain inner peace in a world where luck can cause a ton of turmoil. 

Don’t get scared off. There’s no heavy-hitting mysticism in this read. Just good, solid advice about how to control the only thing you really can at the tables: you. 

The mixture of Zen quotes and poker strategy may seem odd at first, but Larry Phillips makes it work. He doesn’t try to mesh the teachings together; he recognizes where there are similarities and differences between the practice of Zen and the art of poker, and he shows the reader how the Zen methodologies can enhance their performance at the tables. 

Suffice it to say this is a book that definitely strays outside the norm which makes it a unique gem and one of the best poker books I've ever read.

Here’s a taste of Phillips’ teachings:

"Any high-stakes poker game, especially among experienced players, is as much a ceremony as any Zen ritual. It is a carefully choreographed give-and-take of power, rhythm, parry, thrust, withdrawal, and retreat. Mastery and virtuosity appear. One of the central assumptions of Zen is that an activity can be raised to the level of perfection. Poker, as with other activities, fits this category.”

3. Excelling at No-Limit Hold'em

Author: Jonathan Little
Type: Hold'em Strategy
Year: 2015

Why you need to read it:

It's the best collaboration since Super System and the only book to cover cash game, tournament and mental game strategy in one place. A lot of secrets and plays that had never been discussed before were brought into the spotlight as 17 world renowned poker players made their first appearance in print together. They definitely brought  A+ material to the table. 

I soaked up every word of this read and it was the first time since No Limit Hold’em Theory and Practice and The Raiser's Edge that I felt I'd learned something new. It’s a game changer. 

This is a book that will not only transform your game but also transform your life in a big way. It promotes fitness, relaxation, reflection, visualization and meditation, and proves their effectiveness as top pros say how important these things are to them. Modern strategy for the modern game!

Here’s a snippet from a section on tilt by Jared Tendler:

“When learning to play better poker it’s important not just to learn how to play certain hands from certain positions. You need to learn sound theories for the game so you can start to think like a poker player. The same is true in the mental game. The following is a theory that is critical for your understanding of what causes tilt and the steps you’ll need to take to solve it.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law describes the relationship between all emotion, including anger, and a player’s performance. Emotion is essential for performance; it’s only when there is too much (or too little) emotion that there is a problem. This is true of both positive emotions and negative emotions. Having too much confidence is a problem because it shuts down your ability to think. Being tired is a problem because you don’t have enough energy to think.”

4. No-Limit Hold’em: Theory and Practice

Authors: David Sklansky and Ed Miller
Type: Hold'em Strategy
Year: 2006

Why you need to read it:

This book taught me the fundamentals of play in the cash game world. Sklansky and Miller were the first to coin names for plays like 'the squeeze play', and the 'gap concept’. This naming of concepts made it much easier for my beginner mind to understand and start implementing them. 

The examples in the book also did a great job of proving the concepts and moves in play so that I could picture them easily in my mind. This was only the second book I read in my 12+ years of playing the game and it played a huge part in laying my foundation into solid, proper, strategic play. 

In this book, Sklansky and Miller teach you the plays, explain when they can be used best, but leave it up to the reader to decide when to execute on each. This is great ‘choose your own adventure’ style for the poker tables that will have you finding the happy ending 95% of the time.

A look at the wisdom within:

“Don’t telegraph that you have one pair unless you can profitably call big bets. One pair can be a very tricky hand to play in deep stack no limit. If you resolve to fold it every time someone makes a big bet, then you’ll find your opponents bluffing you out of pot after pot. If you plan to go to showdown with it every time, you’ll play lots of big pots against better hands, and you’ll find yourself often getting stacked.

So you have to “play poker” with it, identifying situations when you should fold it to pressure and others when you should call with it. If you welcome a big bet with one pair because you expect that bet to be a bluff, then it’s ok to telegraph your hand by playing in a way that makes it obvious what you hold. Doing so might help to induce a big bluff.”

5. Raiser's Edge

Author: Bertrand Grospellier
Type: Tournament Strategy
Year: 2011

Why you need to read it:

The Raiser's Edge was the conclusion to the Kill Phil, Kill Everyone series and is the most profound transformative book I've read on tournament play. (And also, who doesn’t love a good play on words, right?)

In this book, ElkY (Grospellier) introduces the concept of fear equity, which creates poker's holy trinity between pot equity and fold equity. Finally, he explains how ‘Image’ and ‘Aura’ (or the ‘web’ Phillips described) have a place in poker literature. It adds a whole other level to the game. 

ElkY goes on to discuss the different player types in up-and-coming markets, thereby giving readers a good idea of what countries are worth travelling to in order to find the best value.

On the strategic side, everything in the book was exceedingly sound. He wrote about strategic play for each stage of the tournament and each stack size. The book also went in-depth into the concept of the bubble factor, which is one of the most crucial factors for success in tournament poker. Between their use of graphics for bubble factors, power numbers, shove charts and having three extremely talented writers on board, this book is one of the original masterpieces in the tournament poker realm.

Take a look inside the book...

“Bubble factors are highest when the tournament is close to a big jump in prize money. When the jump is fairly small or far in the future, pressure is lower. MTTs typically have two periods of intense pressure: right before the money bubble and the final-table bubble. Each tournament has a different prize structure, so sometimes the money bubble has more pressure, while sometimes it’s the final table. The tournament pressure isn’t the same for everyone—medium stacks have the highest pressure when they face off against anyone with more chips. Big-stack versus big-stack clashes also involve high bubble factors. High tournament pressure puts a premium on survival, which is a fact that aggressive players can take advantage of.
Any bubble is the perfect opportunity for big stacks to play the bully; any raise from the big stack is frequently followed by folds from the rest of the table. The big-stack’s bubble factor is low against anyone smaller, but the other stacks have high bubble factors, so they have to get out of the way.”

6. Ace on the River

Author: Barry Greenstein
Type: General Strategy
Year: 2005

Why you need to read it:

Barry's book is different than most others as it doesn't so much teach you how to play poker at the tables – it teaches you how to play life in the poker world. 

I listened to this book on audio book and I felt that - for this sort of material - it was much more appropriate; text books and theory style books with lots of numbers and graphs being best suited to print. 

Barry teaches the reader everything they need to know about the poker world, like how to make the most of it and what to watch out for. He also clears up a lot of common myths. 
Barry provides the reader with a behind the scenes look into the industry and sheds light on a lot of things that the casual poker fan would have no idea about (bankrolling, backing, makeup, loan sharking). 

For anyone looking to move to Vegas or another big Mecca to become a full-time poker professional, Barry's book is a must read for preparation. It will save the up-and-comer a lot of pain and suffering, and help them avoid losses that may come from being swindled by an experienced con man. All in all, an incredible proactive read for anyone thinking of taking the plunge.

Here’s one of Barry’s early hard-won lessons:

“I was cheated twice that I know of at the Cameo Club - once with marked cards for a period of a couple of months, and the second time by a player named Rick Riolo with a set-up involving cameras. It was an inside job, with the manager of the club reading people's cards with infrared cameras and communicating with Rick and another player through speakers in their ears. But Rick's partner, who liked me, said, "You don't want to play this game." After a couple of losses, I understood what he was trying to tell me and I quit. It helped that Rick's partner considered me to be a nice person and tipped me off. It also helped that I had been cheated before, so when I was losing and thought I should be winning, I was more alert.”

7. Caro's Book of Tells: The Body Language and Psychology of Poker

Author: Mike Caro
Type: Psychology
Year: 2004

Why you need to read it:

To me, this is the bible of poker tells. Caro helps the reader to paint a picture and get inside the mind of the opponent the moment he sits at the table. Mike doesn't start with the body; no, he goes beyond that. He goes so far as to list chip stacking tells so that the player can see the whole picture. 

Mike then goes on to focus on every key area of the body: face, hands, torso, arms and eyes - and his information is 100% accurate. What I also enjoyed is that Mike added a 'reliability factor' for each tell to make it clear that some tells are easier to fake than others. 

Mike also reminds the reader that it's important to look for actors and to take a complete picture - a mental snapshot of your opponent - to get a full feel for what kind of person and player they are rather than basing your decision on one single tell, which may only have 55% reliability.

Take a peek inside the book:

“While the majority of tells occur during the competition for a poker pot, there is some valuable information that can be learned about our opponents when they're not involved in a poker hand. Poker tests our perception. It also tests our logic and our competitive instincts. In a sense it's a safe and sane form of warfare. Poker war is not only the competition for each pot, hand after hand. Poker war is bigger than just hand-to-hand combat, because there are important things happening between hands — things you should be observing.”

8. The Mathematics of Poker

Authors: Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman. 
Type: General Strategy
Year: 2009

Why you need to read it:

The Mathematics of Poker taught me the theory and practice of ‘Game Theory Optimal Play’. While I don't have an advanced enough mathematical mind to understand all their equations, the introductions and summaries of each chapter were enough to get the point across. This said, if you’re an extreme math person, this is probably the most lucrative read you’ll get your hands on. 

Chen and Ankenman did an extraordinarily good job of teaching incorruptible play, and how one should approach the game of poker from a purely theoretical standpoint by understanding the complexity and depth of the game.

They also offered great value in their appendices with an introduction to why all chips are not created equal in tournaments, and how one may use the Kelly Criterion for bankroll management. This is an intimidating read, but if someone can get just 80% out of this masterpiece, that's sufficient – no math background required. Sweet. 

9. Harrington on Hold’em

Authors: Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie
Type: Tournament Strategy
Year: 2004

Why you need to read it:

This is the second book I ever read and the most defining text on tournament play until The Raiser's Edge and Jonathan Little's Secrets were released. Harrington on Modern Poker Tournaments introduced the zone concept - green, yellow, orange and red - and how to play different stack sizes based on how many big blinds we have or what our ‘M’ is. It’s great for players of all levels, being both accessible to the novice and enlightening to the grinders.

This was also the first book to touch on the concept of ICM and had countless examples to demonstrate and clarify the concept. Harrington made great strides to show how tournament strategy is different than cash game strategy, and he proved first hand its effectiveness as he final tabled the WSOP Main Event two years in a row. 

Harrington's trilogy on tournament strategy is a staple of any poker library, and the concepts are still very relevant today (just requiring some slight adjustments to specifics as general raise size and defense strategies). The theory is sound, solid and rooted in mathematics, and when players learn to adjust their strategies to the different 'zones' they will find themselves in, their game changes for the better. 

The other concept Harrington coined in this series was that of 'inflection points', which is a crucial moment in the tournament where you or your opponents are either going to gain or lose a lot of flexibility. He outlines when it's time to take big risks and when it's time to play it safe. This concept of being able to change gears is crucial and one that was talked about for a long time by poker announcers but rarely put in print. Props to Dan for putting pen to paper on that one!

See what Harrington has to say about switching up your style:

“No matter what style you like, you can't stick exclusively to that style. Your opponents are always observing you, trying to figure out what you're doing. Once they have you pegged, you might as well be playing with your cards face-up. They'll know what you're doing and what your bets mean, and from that point you’ll be winning small pots and losing big ones.

Once you begin modulating your style, however, you'll discover one of the amusing paradoxes of poker: You'll make the easiest money when you're playing in a style opposite to your natural one. The conservative player will have great success stealing pots and bluffing, because players will give him credit for having real hands. The super-aggressive player will find that his great hands are getting called, because no one knows that he's stopped playing trash.

When should you switch? There's no clear-cut answer to this question. It just depends on how quickly players react to your natural style. If you're playing solid hands, and people keep calling you down, there's no need to switch. The same holds if you're stealing pots and players won't fight you. Keep playing your natural style until you get a sense some number of the players have picked up a line on you. Then switch.”

10. The Yoga of Poker

Author: Andrew Lichtenberger
Type: Lifestyle
Year: 2015

Why you need it:

Want to master your mind and transcend the grind? Then buy this book. OK, Chewy's (Lichtenberger’s) book isn't for everyone, but for those who have moved beyond money and are on a path in search of happiness, this is a guide book that can help get you there. His writing style is a bit outside the box and I feel the book could have been structured a bit better, but for his first write, the message is on-point and the personal experience is real - and that's enough to seal the deal in my opinion. 

Chewy doesn't speak often, but when he does his words are full of wisdom. It is a true blessing to have a book on the market by the great Andrew 'luckychewy' Lichtenberger.

Honourable Mention!

Mental Game of Poker 1 is also a great read.  Author Jared Tendler goes into the different causes and effect of tilt and basically shows the reader that other people have this issue too, and no one is alone in their battle with the beast. You got a feel for his message in the quote I shared earlier from Excelling at No-Limit Hold’em. This was an indescribably comforting message to receive when I was in the midst of the roughest year of my career in 2013. His words fell on me like lifelines, and as soon as I finished that book my outlook (and game) improved. 

If you really want to perform your best at the table – and at life – then pick up these books. Remember: your education is an investment in your game, and an investment that is guaranteed to pay off, big time. 

Enough about my favorites! Hit up the comments and tell me about some of your favourite poker books and why you dig 'em. 

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