I was rereading Yardley’s book as part of my preparations for today’s meeting of my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class. I’m having the students read an excerpt as well as James McManus’s chapters about Yardley that appear in his 2009 history Cowboys Full. I don’t think it is that big of a stretch to suggest that the appearance of The Education of a Poker Player might well have helped spark a proto-“poker boom” of sorts nearly a half-century before the one we all remember taking place in 2003.
Heralding the book’s publication was an excerpt in the November 9, 1957 issue of the very popular weekly magazine The Saturday Evening Post, advertised on the cover as “How to Win at Poker.” McManus reports how that issue “broke its newsstand record by selling 5.6 million copies.” The book, appearing one week later, was a big commercial success too, while also drawing a lot of favorable reviews.
Yardley, in his late 60s when The Education of a Poker Player appeared, was already something of a known entity. As McManus outlines in his chapters on Yardley -- and as one can read about in David Kahn’s 2004 book The Reader of Gentleman’s Main: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking -- Yardley had already had a significant and somewhat famous career as a cryptographer, having proven his skills as a code-breaker in the service of several different governments.
Near the end of World War I when the U.S. finally became involved, Yardley was enlisted in military intelligence, becoming part of the group known as MI-8, a.k.a. the “American Black Chamber.” Soon he was leading MI-8, and would remain in that position through the 1920s until the unit was dissolved following the stock market crash in October 1929.
In 1931, Yardley wrote his first best-seller, The American Black Chamber, a book that won him a lot of sales but also criticism for its revelation of various secrets regarding America’s intelligence activities. Created quite an uproar, so much so that a couple of years later when Yardley had a second book prepared on the subject its publication was suppressed thanks to a new bill signed into law by then-president FDR.
The gifted code-breaker ended up having to find other means to make a living. He wrote a few “hard-boiled”-type spy novels, none of which I have read (although I am curious to track them down). He was also a consultant in Hollywood on the 1935 WWI spy film Rendezvous starring William Powell, the story of which was based on Yardley’s controversial book.
Eventually, Yardley would get recruited by China to do some intelligence work for them, and he writes about those experiences some in Education. Canada would call on him too, just prior to WWII, though cut him loose after the U.S. and U.K. -- still miffed about Yardley having given up so much in that 1931 book -- pressured the Canadians to drop him.
By the mid-1950s poker was no longer strictly a game played in saloons, on steamboats, or in other potentially nefarious locales, but had found its way into the homes of many of those middle-class readers of The Saturday Evening Post. It had also evolved somewhat from the “cheating game” of the 19th century (as McManus dubs it) into more of a “square game” in which knowledge of strategy really could help one succeed. “By 1957, the public was primed for a serious book about poker” says McManus. Like I say I do think if we looked into it more closely we could support an argument that a “boom” of sorts was taking place around that time for poker in America, with the appearance of Yardley’s book significantly contributing to it.
In any event, the book remains a fascinating read, full of colorful stories and even some useful strategy advice, too. If you’re curious, you can read my review for a fuller account of it, or check out this “Poker & Pop Culture” piece that also shares more about the book and its significance.