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The Armchair Education of a Poker Player

by Jennifer Mason |  Published: Feb 01, 2011


I was recently given a copy of Herbert O. Yardley’s 1957 poker book The Education of a Poker Player. Perhaps because it was delivered from Amazon with the unexpected and rather amusingly ambiguous inscription, “Dearest Richard, Hope you enjoy this as much as Ian Fleming, Love from Your Mother”, I already felt as if this sort of book, part memoir, part instructional manual, probably finds its way into a lot of people’s collections because there is something timeless at its core.
At times anecdotal, at times didactic, this depiction of a poker lifestyle so different from its image today has a strange appeal. Reading the slim volume and marvelling at the seedy glamour of the early professional card players’ lives (Real spies! Real assassins! Literal betting of the farm!) it was clear how the perception and form of the game has changed hugely in just two generations.
Each section is named after a form of poker prevalent at the time, from ‘Five-Card Draw, Jacks or Better’ to ‘Seven-Card Stud (Hi-Lo)’ and eases the reader into their lessons with tales from either the author’s early years learning the basics at Monty’s Place or his travels under an assumed name as a professional code-breaker and secret advisor to the Chinese. This marvellously deadpan sentence sums up the way in which Yardley juxtaposes the most outlandish stories with pages of hands remarked upon with succinct and self-confident authority (for example “2nd makes a bad call with two nines. A sucker play.”) weaving no-nonsense anti-donkey strategy with plots worthy of James Bond:
“I choose China as the locale for the remainder of my story about how I win at poker because poker was instrumental in catching a secret agent whose mission was either to assassinate or to capture the Generalissimo.”
There are more similarities, however, to be found between Yardley’s extraordinary career and the lives of today’s young professional than would at first appear evident skimming page after page of bar-room and governmental intrigue and nitty notes on five-card stud strategy. The youthful Yardley, prior to his involvement with “The American Black Chamber” had time and intelligence to spare, and a mentor in the form of James “Monty” Montgomery, like a worldly Mr. Miyagi, filling him in not only on the rules, but on gamblers’ character types, their styles, weaknesses, and ways of cheating. Much of what he has to say on these subjects rings true.
“An occasional player would complain that ‘Yardley is always raising,’ but no one caught on to the fact that I worked this trick only when I dealt,” he says, of utilising position. “If you want to know when to call and when to bluff, identify yourself with your opponent’s cunning,” he advises. In other words, “Don’t bluff a mug.”
He studied the character and actions of his opponents, categorising them and adapting his strategy to win against each type effectively. There is no superstition in Yardley’s game plan, and little deviation from the solid “play your good hands and know your odds” strategy. “I do not believe in luck,” he says, “Only in the immutable law of averages.” When he talks about his “scientific study of thousands of individual poker hands in each of all the various methods of play” it suggests that he would have leaped on Hold’em Manager like a lion on a gazelle.
Not that there is any mention of hold’em or tournament poker of any kind; Benny Binion’s first seeds of the World Series were sown in 1970. The straight had only been added to the poker rankings during the American Civil War. Lowball and split-pot poker didn’t surface until around 1900. The first popular strategy books on poker were years away and the Internet had yet to provide an easily-accessible platform for intelligent young people to immerse themselves in the theory of the game.
You may hear people say, of previous generations’ famous players, that the only reason they succeeded so readily in the early days of poker was their being one step ahead of the curve, a curve shooting so sharply upwards in recent years that were they to be reanimated and take a seat at $1/$2 short-handed no-limit online they would be as lost as tiddlywinks champions at the Olympic 100 meters. This seems to me to be more a reflection of the confidence of a knowingly self-educated generation than fair indictment of the unsophisticated attitude to analysis of poker in previous years. Also bear in mind that the game du jour (no-limit hold’em) is a different animal from the games Yardley discusses. There are fewer decisions to be made in today’s variant, on less information, each of them critical. It may not be true now that, “Whether you become proficient or not in the art of deceit, if you will only follow the minimum requirements to stay on you will come out a winner.” However the most important quality shared by successful players of all eras is an obsessive interest in the game and understanding of what it takes to win at the time, in the environment provided. It is only necessary to be ahead of the current curve, and there is no doubt that Yardley is sure he was.
It’s true that the standard of play has improved, and the numbers playing skyrocketed, but poker players now, as then, seem unable to resist setting out what it is that gives them their edge. Now the education of a poker player takes place to a certain extent on training sites, in books, and on forums — a huge wealth of information, although most of it lacking the life-lessons Yardley recounts so convincingly. As Monty tells him right at the start of his journey, just as applicable to today’s students of the game, “You’re lucky, kid. You’re learning as you go along. I had no one to point out my mistakes. I had to learn the hard way.” ♠

Jen Mason is a part of She is responsible for its live tournament coverage in the UK and abroad.