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The Ageless Wisdom of John Fox

Timeless observations in an oldie but goodie

by John Vorhaus |  Published: Mar 06, 2009

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Every now and then, I forget my poker. Not my "what beats what?" of course; I still remember that a straight beats a flush. Rather, I forget what brought me into the game in the first place, how I got hooked on it and why I've always felt so passionate about it. Whenever that happens, I revisit my source and bible for the game, the first poker book I ever read, John Fox's inimitable tome, Play Poker, Quit Work and Sleep Till Noon!

If you've never heard of this book, I'm not entirely surprised, for it was (self) published way back in 1977, in the dark ages of poker, and since it focused entirely on draw poker, once hold'em took over, it was summarily set aside by everyone except oddballs and geeks like me. But it's the book that got me into the game, and I reread it periodically, just to return to my wellspring. Play Poker … is now over 30 years old, but some of its observations are timeless - as useful to poker players worldwide today as they were to the denizens of the Gardena demimonde for whom Fox originally penned the work.

Fox opens the book by noting the negative effect of fatigue on poker ability. "The best player in the world with a temporarily dulled brain," he writes, "is not even the match of an average player using full concentration." We all know this, of course - or think we do. But the problem with impaired judgment is that judgment of your judgment is the first judgment to go. So Fox reminds us - and face it, we always need reminding - never to play when tired, ill, or unduly overwrought. He saves his most trenchant observation, though, for poker players who drink.

One cheery note to drinkers on drinking - studies have shown that if you are a very bad player to start with, drinking probably won't hurt your game too much. For anyone else, one drink is too much, two drinks are ridiculous.

Think about this the next time you're in Vegas and the cocktail waitress croons, "House'll buy you a drink." Do you really want to look ridiculous in the eyes of John Fox?

In considering what time of the day and month to play, Fox offers a long, authoritative ("the author has statistics taken over a twenty year period") treatise that concludes that 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. is best because "drunks and assorted weirdos tend to come in late at night after the bars close." Gosh, I love winning money from assorted weirdos. Fox further opines, "The first part of the month is good because weak players who get their pay or pension checks on the first haven't been eliminated yet. Near the end of the month, only the better, tighter players tend to be left." One could argue that this observation has been overtaken by events - we no longer live in a "first of the month" society - but does it not translate well to poker tournaments, where dead money is a fact of the field, and part of our job is to capture weakly defended stacks before they migrate to other, better players? That's the real gift of Fox's wisdom: Its literal interpretation may no longer be relevant, but there's usually a hidden gem if you know where to look.

Sometimes, it's true, you have to look under the rock of Fox's own idiocy. He advises, for example, trying to play in games with beautiful women because, "Beautiful women tend to play badly themselves - even for women." Well, that's not right. Just ask Annie Duke, who might be inclined to kick Fox's a-- for his Neanderthal attitude. Fox goes on to add, however, that beautiful women "tend to attract men into their game … who tend to play loosely and erratically in order to 'show off.'" Hey, to deny that testosterone fuels poker is to deny reality. It was true in 1977, and it's true today. So even when Fox is wrong (or at least politically incorrect), he's often right.

Sometimes he just makes you laugh out loud - as when, for example, recommending to play against tattooed players. "Anyone foolish enough to allow themselves to be talked into getting tattooed should be well qualified to lose to almost anybody else." We cannot, of course, take the "tattoo tell" literally, but there's merit in knowing whether your foes are ill-considered in their life choices and loose in their personal behavior, for a poker table is a microcosm of the macrocosm: If they make mistakes away from the game, they're liable to make mistakes in it, as well. (Not that getting a tattoo is necessarily a mistake - though the Calvin and Hobbes on my backside …)

Nail biters, chain smokers, rich people, young people, nervous players, superstitious players, and "ghetto residents" all strike Fox as fruitful targets of opposition. His rationales are often shaky ("Nail biters are easy to read and their close decisions are usually wrong"), but the concept of profiling the enemy is still one of value today. Even if we separate our foes into no narrower categories than drunk or sober, tight or loose, straightforward or tricky, we put ourselves ahead of the indiscriminating field. And let's not forget Fox's observation: "For some reason, young, bearded, long haired types who you might think would be wild or radical players are frequently quite good." So, Chris Ferguson, there you go.

"Don't play against excellent players," counsels Fox, and again this might be self-evident, but there's something eternally profound in his underlying logic. "Remember, you're not trying to show how good you are - you're trying to win money. Don't get into an ego battle with a good player." In this moment, I'm realizing how really deeply influenced I am by Fox, both as a player and a writer. One of my first poker "discoveries" was, "Don't challenge strong players, challenge weak ones. That's what they're there for." So, did I discover this, or unconsciously ape Fox's thoughts? I don't know. That was a long time ago. But I've rediscovered him now - yet again - and I have a feeling that 1977 will have quite a lot to say to 2009. Over the next few columns, we'll dig deeper into the wisdom and estimable wit of John Fox. I'm sure it will be worth our time.

John Vorhaus is the author of the Killer Poker book series and the new poker novel Under the Gun, in bookstores now. He resides in cyberspace at vorza.com, and blogs the world from somnifer.typepad.com. John Vorhaus' photo: Gerard Brewer.