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The Gambler's Library

Our list of the game's top tomes
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004

Ask Chris Moneymaker to name the poker books he's read, and the 2003 World Series of Poker champion will proudly proclaim that he hasn't examined a single one. Considering the plethora of great gambling books on the market, one can view that response two ways: He's Chris Moneymaker, a guy who won $2.5 million playing poker for a week, so maybe he doesn't need to bone up on the subject. Or maybe if he'd cracked open a couple of the highly regarded books on the game, he'd have become a better player and would have lasted beyond the first day of this year's tournament.

The good news for us non-poker champs is that there is money to be made as long as you know what you're doing. Instead of learning as you're burning thousands of dollars in the process, one can go the smarter and cheaper route by reading books on the subject. Unfortunately, mixed in with the truly great and helpful volumes are ill-advised Baedekers that can actually hurt your game if you follow the authors' advice.

Howard Schwartz, longtime manager of the Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, has spent the last couple of decades reading the good, the bad and the ugly. He helped compile the following list of indispensable tomes that should be in every gambler's library. What follows is a shelf's worth of book titles, in no particular order. From poker to blackjack to horse racing, these books offer advice that will leave you smarter, savvier and maybe a little bit richer.

Getting the Best of It by David Sklansky (Two Plus Two, 1989, $29.95). David Sklansky has an annoying habit of coming off as if he's the smartest guy in gambling. But what's even more annoying is that he might be right. In this book, largely compiled of columns he wrote for the now defunct Gambling Times magazine, Sklansky offers advice that goes beyond telling you how to play specific hands in particular games (although there is some of that). The book's bigger strength resides in its showing you how to think. This even applies to non-gambling situations—epitomized by a chapter devoted to the key elements of smart decision making.

Much of the book is counterintuitive, some of it is based on hard-core mathematics (he runs the numbers so you don't have to), and it offers suggestions that sound like common sense—only you won't have thought of them until you read them. The information is so sharp, so right on, so easily adaptable to various propositions that the stock trading firm Susquehanna International Group makes it a must-read for all new employees. "One thing in the book, which applies to sports betting and options trading, concerns having a middle on a sports bet or a hedge on an options trade," says Sklansky. "Because you can only place one winning bet, there is an argument to be made that hedging and middling can cost you money. In terms of middling, let's say you lay 6 and take 8—which means you will either break even or scoop both bets if the favorite wins by exactly 7 points—"but you think the line should be 10. Then you should just make a single bet and lay 6. However, if you have a bankroll problem, and making the two bets allows you to bet more, because you put less money at risk, it might be a good bet. Sometimes making a bad bet is a good idea if it reduces volatility."

The other great overview-of-gambling book is Beyond Counting by James Grosjean (RGE Publishing, 2000). The author is an econometrist who provides strategies for seemingly unbeatable pit games (played straight, they always favor the casino) that can be deployed when the conditions are favorable. Unfortunately, the book is out of print and difficult to find, but worth snapping up if you come across it.

Real World Sports Betting: How Real People Make Real Money in the Global Sports Marketplace by Kevin O'Neill (Strategic Sports Publishing, 2004, $29.95). Go to your local bar, on a Sunday afternoon in the fall, and you can be sure that just about everyone has some kind of action on the day's football games. Just as surely, you can be certain that the weekend gamblers did their wagering without a whole lot of forethought. O'Neill, a handicapper and analyst who publishes a sports gambling newsletter called "The Max," offers approaches that will help you bet smarter. Real World Sports Betting provides tips on how to shop around for the best prices, ways to take advantage of arbitraging and middling opportunities (when you don't have a strong opinion one way or the other), and a guide to creating multilevel criteria for every bet you make.

The ultimate payoff of this book is that it helps you combine handicapping skills with betting skills to become a fully rounded gambler. "My goal," says O'Neill, "is to get readers into the 52 percent winning range. Get a point or two on your side, and you can turn sports betting into a profitable hobby"—rather than the financial sinkhole that it typically is.

Among the big mistakes that amateur gamblers make is putting too much emphasis on freak events. "People see something happening 10 times and they think it's meaningful, but it's not," says O'Neill, adding that amateur bettors need to maintain patience and pay increased attention to the ever-fluctuating point spreads. "One of the most overrated things is watching games, especially since the average person severely overreacts to each individual play. People get highly emotional with sports as well as with money. Combine those two things and you can have a hard time of it if you're not careful."

Super System II by Doyle Brunson (Cardoza, 2004, $34.95). Before the publication of Doyle Brunson's Super System, back in 1978 (originally titled How I Made Over $1 Million Playing Poker), poker books comprised a sorry genre. They were usually ghostwritten biographies or full-of-hot-air memoirs or instructional books that wouldn't really help you to get the money.

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