The following seven biographies are entertaining and provide the best looks behind the curtain of the poker world from a number of different eras.
Poker Tilt, by Dutch Boyd and Laurence Samuels (2014)
Poker Tilt is the story of one of poker’s earliest TV magnets during the boom years, Russ “Dutch” Boyd.
What makes Poker Tilt a bit different from most other poker biographies is the brutally honest approach Boyd and his coauthor approached the project with.
Boyd received a lot of airtime during ESPN’s coverage of the 2003 World Series of Poker, and this notoriety stirred up a lot of sediment from the poker sea floor. Boyd is by no means a choir boy. He founded the first failed online poker site, Poker Spot, and later became one of the most polarizing figures during the early poker boom as a member of “The Crew.”
From his bipolar diagnosis to his ups and downs in poker, to the creation of Poker Spot and the subsequent scandal, to the formation of “The Crew,” Boyd doesn’t hold anything back and provides a lot of color when it comes to the earliest days of the online poker industry.
One Of A Kind, by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson (2005)
One Of A Kind: The Rise And Fall OF Stuey “The Kid” Ungar, The World’s Greatest Poker Player, is a posthumous look at the rise, fall, rise, and fall of Stu Ungar.
Ungar was a gambling savant, but like so many other geniuses, he was constantly battling inner demons, which caused Ungar to lead a very tortured life.
Coauthors Dalla and Alson don’t hold back when it comes to Ungar’s many character flaws, largely drawing upon the experiences of the people who knew and understood him best.
Titanic Thompson, by Kevin Cook (2011)
Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet On Everything offers a thorough look into the life of one of the most interesting people to ever walk the earth, Titanic Thompson.
A lot of books have been written about Titanic Thompson, but Cook’s is hands down the best.
Thompson was the bridge between the gamblers of old – who were essentially running crooked games – and the early road gamblers who shifted gears and turned to beating poker games to ply their trade.
He was a hustler, a cheat, and a murderer, but he also knew the odds, which meant he could profit by skill or cunning. He was also considered the best golfer of his generation, capable of breaking par right or left handed. And he had a bag of tricks that went way beyond dealing seconds and other cheating techniques.
Thompson’s only mission in life was to separate people from their money, and as is often the case, when his skills deteriorated with age, so did his bankroll.
Education Of A Poker Player, by Herbert O. Yardley (1957)
Part poker strategy guide and part autobiography, The Education of a Poker Player: Including Where and How One Learns to Win was the first book that really got down to the nitty gritty and detailed the predatory relationship between professional poker players and amateurs, and explained how winning players actually beat the game.
Yardley isn’t a professional in the modern sense, he was more of a skilled player who recognizes an easily beatable game when he sees one. He’s also a pretty interesting guy, having worked for the US government as a code breaker, and helped establish the US government’s cryptology department after the first World War.
Check Raising The Devil, by Mike Matusow, with Tim Lavalli and Amy Calistri (2009)
Mike Matusow is one of the best-known poker players in the world, and his off the felt struggles are anything but a secret.
In Check Raising the Devil, Matusow (through his talented coauthors) provides his side of the story, and while it sheds some light on how he got into trouble, the book contains a second layer that is even more interesting: Matusow’s constant tightrope walk between being flush with cash and flat broke.
Despite all the money he’s won, Matusow is constantly one step away from being busto, and often has his entire bankroll on the line year after year.
Life’s A Gamble, by Mike Sexton (2016)
Mike Sexton is known to most poker players as the smiling host of the World Poker Tour who survived the rough and tumble poker world for several decades and has some terrific stories. That side of Sexton is front and center in his autobiography.
But as you’ll learn in Life’s A Gamble, he’s also got some degen in him.
This book could have been better, but Sexton doesn’t speak ill of others other than being sympathetic and pulls a lot of punches. Still, the book is a fun read and offers some insight into the pre-boom years in Las Vegas, as well as the formation of partypoker.
Forty Years A Gambler, by George Devol (1887)
Forty Years a Gambler: Life Of The Mississippi (or, Life On The Mississippi) is the first poker autobiography, and details the life of George Devol, a Mississippi River gambler who fleeced people out of their money.
The tales are a bit exaggerated, and in some spots Devol makes some attempts to make gamblers like himself (who were essentially card cheats) look virtuous, but within the tall tales are the nuggets of truth, and bits and pieces of what the life of a professional gambler was like in the 1800’s.