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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

(continued from page 1)

Brunson's title was different. It was the first truly intellectual guide to poker, written by real, highly successful players (a different collaborator, handpicked by Brunson, oversaw each chapter). The players/authors gave away actual secrets and valuable information for anyone with the discipline to absorb the material and follow its advice. Lucky for the authors, of course, that was a small percentage of readers. And an even smaller number would be willing to play for the sky-high stakes that the authors consider routine. Nevertheless, there are few top players who did not learn a lot from the original Super System.

Now Brunson's done it again. For the sequel, the great poker player has chosen a mostly fresh roster of authors (partly to avoid cannibalizing his first book). His son Todd handles Seven-Card Stud high/low 8 or better, the limit Texas Hold'em chapter is written by Jennifer Harman (she's been successful in playing that game for very high stakes), and former World Series champ Bobby Baldwin contributes the chapter on Omaha 8 or better. But the most intriguing chapter in Super System II was written by Daniel Negreanu, who won the Toyota Player of the Year award at this year's World Series. It centers around Triple Draw (a poker variation in which you get dealt five cards, draw three times and go for the lowest possible hand). "We disagreed on certain points," says Brunson. "If you have 2-3-4-7-Jack, and your opponent in front of you draws, I said you should draw. Daniel thought you should stay pat. It turns out that, under those conditions, Jack wins 52 percent of the time." Brunson hesitates for a beat, then adds, "Triple Draw is a game that people play the worst. After reading this book I think they will play it a lot better."

While both Super System books are eye-opening, regardless of the stakes you play for, there is one particularly good volume focusing on smaller stakes: the appropriately titled Small Stakes Hold'em by Ed Miller, David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth (Two Plus Two, 2004).

Comp City: A Guide to Free Las Vegas Vacations by Max Rubin (Huntington Press, 2003, $19.95). Even losing players can get an edge if they know how to play the casinos. Such is the thrust of Comp City, which clues you in on the ways in which casinos evaluate comps, how you can look like a higher roller than you really are, and a take-no-prisoners gambit for getting a totally free vacation that won't require you to gamble a dime (just don't expect to get invited back). Some of the advice requires degrees of ballsiness that most of us simply don't have, but most of it is totally useful and aboveboard—such as when Rubin recommends that you sit at a busy table, which will allow you to play fewer hands per hour and lose less money over the long term (which, unless you're counting cards or pulling a sophisticated advantage play, you will). Once you're playing, you make your biggest bets when the pit boss is paying attention.

One thing that Rubin emphasizes is that you should always come off as a major-league loser—one way is to discreetly sweep chips from the table and place them in your pocket. "The casino will typically comp you 10 percent of a big loss," says Rubin. "If you lose, or appear to lose, $10,000 in a short period of time, most casinos will give you at least $1,000 worth of comps right up front, no matter what else happens during the course of your stay. Win or lose, always ask for as much as you can possibly get in terms of comps. If they say no, ask what you need to do to get what you want."

Blackjack Attack: Playing the Pros' Way by Don Schlesinger (RGE Publishing, 2004, $39.99). The subtitle is not hyperbole. Schlesinger had been a feature columnist for a digest-sized publication called Blackjack Forum (which was practically a trade magazine for card counters) and a winning player for the last 25 years. The Forum is gone, but Schlesinger's columns, and a whole lot more, live on in this book. Absolutely not for those who are unversed in counting, Blackjack Attack serves as an advanced course. (Neophytes should turn to Blackbelt in Blackjack by Arnold Snyder [Cardoza, 2004] or Professional Blackjack by Stanford Wong [Pi Yee Press, 1994]). In Schlesinger's book, subjects discussed in great detail include the mathematically perfect time to walk away from a table, risks of ruin (i.e. going broke) under specific conditions, and a streamlined list of exceptions to the rules of standard card counting.

The book is loaded with mathematical charts and tables, a chapter on team play, and the results of countless computer simulations that augment and challenge long-standing card-counting theories. "I have a whole chapter on score," says Schlesinger, "which is a way of comparing the attractiveness of games with a dollar-and-cents value. It helps you to determine the most advantageous game"—based on such elements as betting limits, the degree to which you can vary your bet, and the number of decks in the shoe. "My preference is a six-deck Las Vegas Strip game with the most favorable rules—dealer stands on 17s, player can double-down after splits, can re-split aces and can later surrender. Those rules make it so that the basic strategy player [who isn't counting but is making the optimal decision in each situation] can bring the house advantage down to only .26 percent. For a card counter, who can achieve a relatively large [betting] spread, that sort of game can offer some of the best profit potential out there."

Betting Thoroughbreds: A Professional's Guide for the Horseplayer by Steven Davidowitz (Plume, 1997, $18). Considering that the erudite Davidowitz gambles on a sport in which the pari-mutuel system pits him against other players (rather than against the house), you have to wonder why he'd write a book that tells his competitors what he does. "By opening research and consolidating your ideas, you find better examples and reinforce a lot of principles of what you do," says Davidowitz, who coined the oft-used phrase track bias (which refers to the ways in which track conditions influence how certain horses run). "There is also the feedback you get from others—notations, letters, criticism—and what it does to help you move forward. When you feel you understand an aspect of the game in a way that no one else does, you have a responsibility to write about it." And write he does. The book is broken up into 28 concise, well-organized chapters, in which Davidowitz uses personal experience to convey his strategies for becoming a winning horseplayer. "Without being a jerk about this, my book covers the game as it really is and provides tools that you can use in order to become a stronger horseplayer," says Davidowitz. "But you've got to do some research and try it out. I emphasize that the individual has to evaluate himself, in terms of his specific skills, to go after a winning approach.

"Let's say you are a highly visual person, then go to the paddock and look at the horses and jockeys. If you are a problem solver, get into the trainer patterns and past performances, so you can see how the inlay of a race will work out. Even though the [house take] is severe in racing, you are betting against everyone else, not against the house. Since everyone else can be wrong, you can sometimes get 25-to-1 on horses that should be 3-to-1, because the horse has won only one race—but it was on this track, with this jockey, with this trainer. When the public is wrong, you can get great value."

Fast Company by Jon Bradshaw (Trafalgar Square Books, 2003, $14.95). Visit the home of top sports bettor Billy Baxter, and a first edition of this book rests on a small shelf behind his desk. Poker legend Puggy Pearson has got a copy as well. These guys may not be huge readers—unless it's the facial tics of opponents across a poker table—but they know the real thing when they see it. And this is that. First published in 1975, the book chronicles the late Bradshaw's immersion into the world of gambling back when it was still pretty much of a closed society. He eats steak with Minnesota Fats, sweats Johnny Moss at the Dunes poker room in Vegas, makes a painful visit to Titanic Thompson while the notoriously cheating con man lingers at death's door. But the book never gets sentimental or puffy, and the Thompson chapter serves as a pretty good cautionary tale about how a money-chasing, never-say-die professional gambler can easily end up: broke, broken, ill of health and compulsively trying to hustle low-stakes action.

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