Since Robert Pirsig started the Zen and… craze in the mid-seventies, the public has been inundated with books relating eastern mysticism and everyday western life. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before someone wrote Zen and the Art of Poker, which applies the principles of this sect of Buddhism to the ultimate game of strategy and deception.
In this book there are five major sections, each of which contain from four to six essays on the application of Zen to the game of poker. There is also an introduction and two appendices, one on Zen and poker tournaments, and one that covers “Zen and Poker Computer Software” and a bibliography. The bibliography refers to a number of good poker books, but mostly contains references for the many Zen quotes that Phillips applies to poker throughout the book.
I’ll give Phillips a great deal of credit. Early in the book he explains some of the inherent contradictions between Zen and ligaz11 poker, including the facts that the poker requires a great measure of aggression, and that the way one measures long term success in poker is by winning tournaments and accumulating money, both very un-Zen-like ideas. In general, these contradictions haven’t stopped the rash of books that lead to even more ludicrous associations, such as, Zen and the Art of Street Fighting and Zenvesting: The Art of Abundance and Managing Money. In fact, Phillips sets these issues aside in an honest manner, and therefore I was willing to give him complete license on this matter throughout the rest of the book.
The author then goes on to explain where Zen is useful in poker, including notions of calmness, not associating result (winning or losing pots) with right action (playing well), and taking a long-term view of the game. These lessons need to be learned in order for players to play their best game, and if Zen concepts help a player on the path to this goal, then that makes plenty of sense to me.
The book is interspersed with quotes from Zen literature and other sources. Most of these are relevant to the points that Phillips discusses. Some of them are quite amusing and appropriate, but in a few places they seem a bit forced, as if Phillips had problems in spots finding other sources that reinforce all of his points. This is tough to do and these places are not all that distracting. In general, the author does a good job of making his citations relevant, although overall the first half of the book seems to flow a lot better than that last half.
There is one place where I think Phillips goes way wrong, and it’s glaring enough for me to almost not recommend the book. In essay number 11, “The Wall of Cards: Cyclical Luck”, Phillips discusses the streaky nature of the cards, saying, “A mistake in many areas of life, not just poker, is to struggle against the trend.” He believes that players who have a run of cards where they are missing draws and having good hands beat should play more cautiously because they’re running bad. “Don’t just downscale your bets when you get cold, downscale the actual way you play the game,” (emphasis by the original author). Phillips is not saying that one should play differently because players perceptions change as one wins and loses, a concept with which I would agree which has been expressed most eloquently by poker author Mike Caro. The author clearly means that one should play differently because the cards have been running well or bad. “Longtime, experienced card players believe in the bunching of luck. … Ignore this phenomenon at your peril.” Certainly, good and bad cards “bunch”, but this is well explained by statistical models of random behavior. The problem with Phillips’ theory is that one can only tell when a streak is staring, continuing, or ending by looking backwards in time. It cannot be done looking forward. Players who do not truly believe this fact as I have stated it will hurt their game because of it. Phillips advice in this regard must be ignored by the serious poker player.
Mason Malmuth, renowned poker author and sometime gambling book reviewer, believes that poker books which give 90% good advice and 10% bad advice are worse for players than not reading that book at all. There is considerable merit to this position, but I think it would be a bit strong to make this as a blanket statement. Despite the fact that on the topic of streaky cards Phillips is dead wrong, I believe the book still has merit to the cautious reader, but his advice on this topic seriously mars this book.
Poker players must learn to control their emotions and accept the realities of the conditions of the game in which they play. Poker players who cannot do this will be long term losers. Phillips’ Zen approach is a reasonably good method for a player to gain control of their own game, although the reader has to buy in to the Zen way of thinking. If the reader can accept Zen principles, and can ignore the parts of the book that contain bad advice (essays number 11 and 25, specifically), then this book may be very useful in helping a player maintain the involved yet detached state of mind that is most appropriate for winning play.
For those poker players who appreciate Zen concepts, Zen and the Art of Poker may significantly help them improve their self-control at the poker table. Overall, this book is good at explaining how and why a player should work on this aspect of their game, although not all types of people will be receptive to this style of writing. However, the book does contain a small amount of very bad advice, that on playing streaks in poker, that, if followed, has the danger of undoing the positive effects of the rest of the book. Read this book if Zen principles can help improve one’s self-control at the game, but follow Phillips’ advice on “card bunching” at one’s risk.