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The Education of a Poker Player
Herbert O. Yardley
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (1957)
ISBN: 0964294915
Pages: 233 pages
Reviewed: 3/97

I found a copy of Yardley's poker classic at a used bookstore, and decided it wouldn't hurt to have a copy on my shelf. It turns out to be a very thin book, short even by the lightweight standards of contemporary poker publishers, and as one would expect, light on useful strategy information. I can't comment about whether or not this information was all that valuable when the book was published, but it falls well short of the level of detail provided by more modern poker strategy books.

The Education of a Poker Player is a semi-autobiographical book that seems to divide into two halves (a third section has only a dated description of a few poker games). The first half details Yardley's education under the tutelage of "Monty," a club owner and poker hustler. Monty teaches Yardley the ropes, giving him advice on starting cards, reading players, and general strategy. Their interactions read like miniature lectures, and in general the stories aren't exactly gripping.

The lecturer, Monty, seems unusually contemptuous of poor poker players, referring to them most often as "simpletons." I may be unusually sensitive about this, but I really have a strong negative reaction to the suggestion that anyone who doesn't play poker well is an inferior human being. Yardley, however, seems to sympathize with this view, demonstrating more contempt than I think is appropriate.

The second half of the book places Yardley in China, as a codebreaker for the Chinese during World War II. I didn't realize this when I picked up the book, but Yardley was in charge of codes and ciphers for U.S. military intelligence during World War I, heading the secret MI-8 division nicknamed "The Black Chamber." (History is not my strong point, but a web search on Yardley's name turns up some interesting information.) By World War II, he was no longer wanted by the U.S., apparently, so he secretly went to work for the Chinese, under the assumed name Herbert Osborne (his middle name). Anyway, while again the poker stories fall short of fascinating, the second half does offer an interesting if narrow glimpse of Chinese wartime intelligence maneuvering.

That's about it. The book really was very brief. My only other observation was that the play-by-play examples that cap off each section seem like the poker strategy equivalent of moralizing, in that they aren't so much sound argument as rigged demonstrations of strategic points. He may describe the correct strategy, but the main appeal of his argument is often just that the player playing correctly did better in the hand than the player playing incorrectly. It's hard to say whether or not this is a good pedagogical strategy. My feeling is that even if he makes his point, he also reinforces the mistaken notion that we should look to single outcomes to learn about strategy.

I realize that many serious poker players consider this book a seminal contribution to the poker literature (and in fact I've gotten some mail suggesting that my review is off-base). I can't, however, re-create the experience of making it my first poker reading, and I suspect few newcomers to poker strategy will come across it before having read later, more sophisticated books. So I'll just add that it's certainly possible it holds up better as a first poker book. However, I didn't find it to be especially interesting (from a poker strategy standpoint) or insightful.

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