Review: Zen And The Art of Poker

2 Star, Book Reviews

August 12, 2007

Author: Larry W. Phillips (if you have website/contact info for Larry, please let me know)

Publisher Plume/Penguin

Ok, I’ll admit I was more than a little suspicious when I saw the title of this book. It certainly smacks of a quickly written attempt to cash in. So I was somewhat relieved to find that the author did in fact put substantial effort into trying to draw a prallel between Zen philosophy and poker play. However, I don’t believe he was particularly successful from the poker perspective. I have no idea what the zen guys think of this book. It would be unfair to the author to wholly criticize him for this, however, because he does point out that there are substantial limits to the parallel, but i feel that there are problems even in the areas he felt were harmonious.

First and foremost, the author advocates a calm, relaxed and, well, zenlike state of mind for poker play. In fact, the belief that this is the correct state of mind is axiomatic to the book. However, I don’t believe that it’s obvious that this sort of state is necessarily best. There are certainly numerous historical examples of successful players who have aggressive and even angry or explosive personalities. Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you someone who’s had a lot of practice. That sort of thing. I’m worried that the whole premise of this book may be wrong, but I have no way to prove the point one way or the other, so I’ll leave the issue where it is.

A more substantial concern with the book is that the author seems to have an incomplete or subtly flawed set of playing skills. This comes through in some surprising ways. For example, consider his rule # 73: Get to the point where you “put someone on a hand” and proceed on that assumption, and take the penalties that accrue from being wrong and the profits that accrue from being right.

Now hold on. that’s just silly. While you may eventually come to the conclusion that you opponent can have only one holding, sticking to that conclusion in the face of future evidence that contradicts it is bankroll suicide by intelectual inflexability. If you’re wrong, admit you’re wrong ad take the best future actions based on this new knowledge rather than just accruing the damage from having made a mistake. Of course, there’s also the argument about whether putting opponents on a specific hand (as opposed to a range) is ever appropriate, but I’ll ignore that for now.

Similarly, Rule 83: be very careful when you are flush with money from a big win at first sounds like good advice. But then Phillips spouts off this nonsense: Now I’m going to tell you a secret: You will lose that money back. I don’t mean gradually, bit by bit, over time (though it could happen that way) – I mean a large, serious chunk of it, all at once. This is of course is a steaming pile. If you play in games where you have a positive expectation (like any serious player should), you DON’T expect the money previously won to ever be lost. A little bit might temporarily disappear due to a bad run of cards, but you expectation is to continue that infinite climb to more and more money taken out of the game of poker. A big, unexpected win is nothing more than a dramatic stair-step on the upward line of your life’s results.

I could go on, but hopefully I’ve made my point. Some basic concepts of correct play and expectation are lost on Mr. Phillips. About 3/4 of his “rules” are indeed valid commentary on poker, but the other 1/4 are of questionable value or blatantly wrong. It’s a general principle of mine that I reduce a book’s rating for bad material far more readily than I increase it for good material. That is because misinformation is far more costly than correct information is profitable. So I can’t in good conscience rate this book highly.

Rating: 2 stars

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