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Poker News | Poker Book Review

Reviewing the Classics - Zen and the Art of Poker

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I have reviewed many of the newest poker books on the market for PokerWorks.   I am beginning a new series, going back in time to look at some of the best poker writing of the past 25 years, beginning with Larry Phillips’ Zen and the Art of Poker.

Regardless of how much study of the basics of poker strategy we engage in, mastering the “inner” game is ultimately even more important.  It doesn’t matter how great a mathematical expert you are if you cannot learn to control yourself at the table, maximizing wins and minimizing losses through a deep understanding of who you are and how to make best use of your strengths, and perhaps more importantly, gradually eliminate most of your weaknesses.  Allowing you to succeed at this inner game is the purpose of Zen and the Art of Poker, which I feel is every bit as important a book as any of the classics on poker theory.

For those who watch a lot of poker on television, the first concept in the book may come as a bit of a shock, as the most basic idea he presents is “folding.”  Phillips says that poker, “…at least a great deal of the time (is) a game of withdrawing, not the thrusting, attacking game that it may appear to the casual observer…and while it is true that this pulling back always contains within it a nugget of aggression, an explosive core ever waiting to attack, a vast majority of the time it is of a more stationary nature.  Until the player can make peace with this state emotionally, he cannot master poker.”  

Phillips goes on to explain how to use your very inaction as a weapon against your opponents, allowing your ability to comfortably withdraw from the action to contrast with your skill at attacking suddenly when the time is right.  In reading these words, I was brought back to the fourth season of High Stakes Poker, and the play of Doyle Brunson.  Doyle folded his hands over and over, while other players were in many more pots.  Even when he played a hand pre-flop, he very effortlessly folded either when he missed on the flop or found himself to be in what he felt was a marginal situation where he could very well be losing.  And yet, at the end of the day, who was the big winner?  That’s right, it was Doyle.  He waited until the situation was right, against a player who had been playing many marginal hands, and attacked, taking down the largest pot to that point in the show’s history.  Knowing how to fold, over and over again, if necessary, may be the most important skill a successful poker player possesses, and Phillips’ treatment of the subject is invaluable.

The book is divided into five general sections:  Fundamentals, Calmness and Rhythm, Nuts and Bolts, Warrior Zen, and Emotions and Opponents, which are further broken down into a set of 100 poker rules in all.  Within these areas, Phillips instructs the reader how to develop a neutral state, one where the player creates a heightened state of observation without becoming emotionally involved in the inevitable swings in a game of poker, or a series of games over time.  

He reminds us that, just because you have gracefully folded hands for two hours in a row, it doesn’t mean that you are now “owed” some good cards.  In fact, the bad cards might continue for days, weeks or months.  As each deal is a completely separate event, it is your responsibility to wipe the slate clean each time the cards are shuffled, and await the new deal in peace.  However, he also admonishes the reader to look for patterns within the mathematics, and adjust his/her game accordingly.  For example, when you are running well, loosen the reins on your game because it is very likely “your time.”  

We have all had the experience of this at the table, when, seemingly regardless of what cards you choose to play, you hit your hand, time after time.  We have also seen opponents do the same thing, and we’ve also had times when all of our hands lose, no matter what we do.  These are rhythms that we need to look for, to allow us to “find our place” in the game, pushing forward or pulling back in response to what the universe is dealing us at the moment.  This is a very difficult lesson to learn.  Most players want to “make their own luck”, forcing the issue when it is simply not the right time to do so.  Good professional players recognize that a lifetime of sessions at the table are merely “one long game.”   Looking at it this way takes the pressure off of trying to force a win every single time you play, which usually leads to deeper losses.

It is important to note that this book is almost exclusively focused on cash game play.  Phillips adds a short appendix on tournament play, but if you are strictly a tournament player, you will not get nearly as much value out of it.  Each of the 100 rules illuminates a separate small piece of the inner game of poker.  If you choose to read this book, one way to approach it is to go through it until you find one of the rules that strikes a deep chord inside you, and then to focus on applying that principle to your own game.  Once you’ve got that one handled, move on to another rule and do the same, and so on.

Having read the book numerous times, I still come back to it when I find that my game is suffering from an excess of emotional involvement.  Sometimes, I read it cover to cover all over again, and occasionally, I just open to a page at random, knowing that whatever principle I come upon will somehow speak to what it is I am needing help with.  I feel that this book belongs in every poker library, to be used not only to improve one’s game, but also to illuminate one’s life.

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