Thursday, April 05, 2007

Herbert O. Yardley's The Education of a Poker Player

'The Education of a Poker Player' by Herbert O' YardleyThis year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Herbert O. Yardley’s classic poker primer-slash-memoir The Education of a Poker Player. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago how during a visit to a used bookstore I’d found a copy (first edition, in fact). Finished it yesterday and thought I’d share a few thoughts.

In Big Deal: Confessions of a Professional Poker Player, Anthony Holden quotes the Crony (Al Alvarez) describing The Education of a Poker Player as “a funny, vivid, utterly unliterary book” that despite its flaws teaches an important lesson to poker players -- always to try to get the best of it, and avoid situations where you cannot. “Yardley’s Law” (as Alvarez describes it) is to “Assume the worst, believe no one, and make your move only when you are certain that you are unbeatable or have, at worst, exceptionally good odds in your favor.”

(By the way, Holden has just come out with a sequel -- Bigger Deal: A Year Inside the Poker Boom, reviewed by Tim Peters in the latest CardPlayer.)

The Education of a Poker Player is divided into three parts, with the third functioning as an appendix explaining the rules to various non-standard games (e.g., Doctor Pepper, Baseball, Spit-in-the-Ocean). Parts One and Two are both subtitled “Poker Stories,” with each presenting extended lessons in particular games deftly communicated via anecdotes from Yardley’s interesting life.

The stories in Part One emerge from Yardley’s tutelage as a teenager playing poker in Indiana saloons. These tales are all set at Monty’s Place, the young Yardley’s favorite place to play because it was the only saloon that ran a “clean” game. “Monty” is James Montgomery, the saloon’s proprietor who serves as Yardley’s poker mentor. Some have speculated that Monty is a composite of various figures Yardley encountered over the years, although Yardley himself insisted that like all of the other characters in the book, Monty was a real person.

Here’s a taste of Yardley’s prose style -- not Shakespeare, mind you, but not entirely “unliterary” either. In this passage, Yardley reflects on the various characters whom he witnessed routinely passing through Monty’s Place:
It is said that sooner or later everyone of any note comes to the Café de la Paix in Paris to sip a drink and watch the crowd. I read somewhere that a detective, looking for a murderer from Indianapolis, Indiana, took up a position at the Café, sure that his man would show up.

Well, the detective might just as well have chosen Monty’s Place. To my young mind, everyone of note came there to lose his money -- itenerant trainmen, barbers, magicians, actors, jugglers, owners of shows, drummers, coal operators, land speculators, farmers, poultrymen, cattlemen, liverymen. And of course there were the usual town bastards, drug addicts, idiots, drunkards, not to mention the bankers, small businessmen, preachers, atheists and old soldiers. There was also Doc Prittle, the local sawbones, who bragged he’d taken a six-weeks’ course in medicine at Prairie City and had a diploma to show for it. (I can’t include the whores, because they were not admitted to Monty’s Place, where men could tell a dirty story without fear of offending feminine ears.)
Monty teaches Yardley the ins and outs of five-card draw (jacks or better), five-card stud, and five-card draw (deuces wild with the joker). He also shares valuable advice about hand reading, recognizing tells, and the psychology of poker.

Part Two then traces a few incidents from Yardley’s career as a codebreaker for the U.S. government. Yardley headed MI-8, or the Black Chamber, kind of an early version of the N.S.A. He began his work there just after World War I, then he continued to be active with MI-8 through most of the 20s until the Stock Market crash precipated the shutting down of the cryptographic organization. Yardley then wrote a book, The American Black Chamber (published in 1931), that detailed much of his experience with MI-8 -- too much, actually, as far as the U.S. government was concerned. The second part of The Education of a Poker Player shows Yardley cracking Japanese codes in China while playing various poker games with both enemies and allies. In this part of the book, Yardley assumes Monty’s role as teacher, instructing his interpreter (Ling) in five-card draw (low ball), seven-card stud, and seven-card stud hi-lo.

In the end, Yardley comes off as a worldly James Bond-like figure, with many of the tales from Monty’s Place and various backrooms in China helping successfully build a kind of hard-boiled, tough guy ethos for the author. There’s genuinely useful advice about poker, as well, particularly from Monty in Part One. I’m tempted to take Monty’s guidelines for five-card draw to the tables over on PokerStars, just to see if I can follow them (and if they work).

All of the poker advice, ultimately, does closely follow Alvarez’s above-quoted paraphrase of “Yardley’s Law.” Avoid unfavorable, negative-EV situations, and do your best to let the suckers give you their money. Makes sense, actually, to try to be like Monty, who says he simply will not sit down in a game -- or stay -- unless he’s getting the best of it. “I figure the odds for every card I draw,” says Monty, “and if the odds aren’t favorable, I fold. This doesn’t sound very friendly. But what’s friendly about poker? It’s a cutthroat game, at best.”



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice review. That's about what I got from the book too. Sounds like he had an exciting life, or maybe life in the 21st century is just watered down, but most likely I'm not looking at the right places.

4/06/2007 7:56 PM  
Blogger GWC said...

did you realise that someone on pocket fives has voted your blog as "one of the best on the net"..
check it out dude, well deserved imo!

4/07/2007 7:51 AM  

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