Separating fact from fiction is difficult, but a few authors made a serious attempt to do just that. Thanks to the five books listed below, we have a much clearer understanding of poker’s history.
So without any further adieu, I present you with the five best poker history books ever written.
Author’s note: The books listed are very poker-centric, but if poker history is a topic of interest, you’ll want to branch out into gambling history books to get a complete picture of how poker fits into early Americana.
Gardena Poker Clubs
Gardena Poker Clubs: A High Stakes History, by Max Votolato, follows the California poker scene from its quasi-legal origins in the 1930’s through the modern day.
Votolato focuses on the sleepy town of Gardena, California, which became a poker Mecca due to its early embrasure of legal card rooms.
Gardena Poker Clubs has a narrow focus, but the story of poker’s legality in California requires an in-depth exploration, and the city of Gardena deserves the focus it’s given.
After reading Votolato’s book you’ll have a new appreciation for Gardena. People like Ernie Primm and Russ Miller who fought for legal poker, often ended up in handcuffs before they were successful. Without their stick-to-itiveness, the California poker scene would be much different today.
This is the newest book on the list, published in 2017. It’s a really fascinating read for anyone interested in poker, or the California gambling scene.
Biggest Game In Town
I had a difficult time deciding if A. Alvarez’s Biggest Game In Town belonged in the “history” category. It’s more of a narrative about the author’s time and experiences at the 1981 World Series of Poker.
However, most of what Alvarez relays have to do with the professional poker players he meets and their stories.
If you’re new to poker history this is the perfect jumping off point. A quick and entertaining read with a lot of familiar names. Alvarez will introduce you to some of poker’s most legendary characters, from Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese to Eric Drache and the Binions.
Considering how well it stands the test of time, it’s hard to believe this book was published nearly 35 years ago, in 1983.
Cowboys Full: The Story Of Poker, by James McManus, is something of a poker encyclopedia.
It’s a thick book (around 500 pages) that covers a lot of topics. Topics range from the game’s origins to famous practitioners, to the internet era – Cowboys Full was published in 2009, and ends during the poker boom years, before Black Friday. This is also before legalized online poker in New Jersey and Nevada.
Be warned, Cowboys Full can be somewhat dry in parts. It’s more of a textbook (written by a talented author) than a page-turner. That being said, the book has plenty of tales – some verified and some not – and is chock full of tidbits that will pique the reader’s interest.
Because Cowboys Full covers a lot of ground it is a general introduction to poker history. If you want to explore some of the stories you’ll have to consult the 50 pages of footnotes.
If you fancy yourself a poker buff and don’t have this book on your shelf… you’re doing it wrong.
Ghosts At The Table
Ghosts At The Table is a collection of stories published in 2008 by noted UK writer, Des Wilson.
The book is divided into four sections, called the “Four Ages Of Poker”:
- Riverboat Gamblers
- Texas Rounders
- Living Legends
- Internet Gamers
Rather than providing a 30,000-foot view of each era, Wilson focuses on specific people, places, or events. Wilson tries to uncover new details and bring each story to life.
In all, there are 11 “stories” in Ghosts At The Table. The stories include Wilson’s commitment to finding out what happened to 1979 World Series of Poker Champion Hal Fowler and by extension the man he defeated, Bobby Hoff.
Wilson also digs into whether or not the match between Johnny Moss and Nick “The Greek” Dandalos took place.
Ghosts doesn’t provide definitive answers to some of the questions Wilson sets out to answer. However, Wilson’s desire to learn and relay the real stories (as told to him) is a breath of fresh air. This book really challenges things considered poker gospel.
Wilson’s willingness to challenge orthodoxy and call it like he sees it is unparalleled. Take for example that he was commissioned to write a biography about the late David Ulliott, which turned into Swimming With The Devilfish, published in 2006. Ulliott disliked Wilson’s portrayal of him so much he later wrote his own autobiography detailing events from his point of view.
Knights Of The Green Cloth
Knights of the Green Cloth, by Robert K. DeArment, is my favorite poker book. It’s a terrific overview of the earliest days of poker and the lives of professional gamblers. It includes a ton of footnotes for further reading. Knights is responsible for no-less-than 20 out-of-print books being added to my poker bookshelf.
Knights is full of history and vignettes. This doozy from Canada Bill Jones (the same Canada Bill Jones that Mike McDermott quotes in Rounders) is a classic.
After getting cleaned out, Canada Bill’s partner George Devol asked him, “didn’t you know that game was crooked?” and according to Knights, Canada Bill Jones replied, “sure, but it’s the only game in town.”
A classic Knights tale
Or there is the tale of Swiftwater Bill Gates being setup for the kill in a draw poker game. Gates is dealt four Aces by a group of cheaters and after a raising war develops he borrows money to continue in the hand. A friend of Gates loans him the money despite knowing the game is not on the level. His friend trusted that Gates has a plan to outsmart the cheaters.
According to the story, instead of standing pat or drawing one, Gates discarded two aces and drew three cards. He won the pot with a pair of Aces.
The book explains the method to Gates’ madness thusly.
Gates was certain the cheaters wouldn’t be so brash dealing him a pat four Aces and his opponent a pat straight flush, so he knew the deck must be stacked. He also realized both the first and second cards would fill the straight flush since Gates might either stand pat or draw one with his four Aces. Since Gates had all four Aces and his opponent had committed to drawing a single card, he could only improve to two hands:
- fill his flush and beat Bill’s pair (Bill knows three of the suit are dead, the two “stacked” cards and the Ace), or
- make a single pair that can’t beat Aces.
Knights is full of stories and it paints a picture of the life of a gambler in the 1800’s making this a must read on our list.
What is your favorite poker history book? Be sure to follow USPoker on Twitter and let us know.