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23/06/2006 No. 53
he Guardian Poker Column
Victoria Coren
Friday June 23, 2006
How to play poker
(How to play has been running from issue 16)

In last week's column, I made a distinction between three types of poker book: the strategy guide, the novel, and the storytelling biographical genre.

But there is an element of crossover between these categories. A satisfying strategy guide will always tell a couple of poker stories. A good poker biography or compendium of player interviews will always give sufficient detail of hands or playing styles (or at least outlook on the game) to inspire the keen reader with new strategic thoughts.

Des Wilson's newly published Swimming With the Devilfish, a clear member of the biographical category, is a case in point. Wilson spent a year following the eponymous Dave "Devilfish" Ulliott, getting under the skin of the British poker circuit and meeting many other top professional names along the way. The result is an enjoyable journey around the card-playing world, coloured equally by Wilson's impressive journalistic background and his huge enthusiasm for the beautiful game.

A careful reader should finish this biography as a better player. This is not because it contains pure tactical advice, although Wilson did make sure to quiz several of the pros about the nuts and bolts. For example, the much- admired London player Jeff Duval explains the importance of economy with your chip stack in tournaments ("You can bet with inferior hands, but you can't call with inferior hands"), and of exploiting the ability to buy more chips during cash play: "If you're to have an edge, you should have the biggest stack or one of the biggest in relation to the size of the game."

Short, memorable nuggets of this kind are extremely valuable additions to your stock of poker knowledge. But no less valuable are the examples of lives led by some of the featured players. The legendary Willie Tann, gold bracelet winner at last year's World Series of Poker, is impressively honest about the fortunes he has won playing cards but lost playing dice - a salutary lesson for anyone whose hobby takes them into casinos.

Poker novels and biographies exist mainly for entertainment; nevertheless, it is always useful to learn about players' lives. I don't believe in following strategy guides to the letter anyway, but in using them as inspiration to think more deeply about one's own technique and the ways in which poker is generally played. It is important to put some extra thought into the game, away from the table and the immediate distraction of particular hands. With that in mind, any poker-themed book can provide an opportunity for thought, calculation and improvement.

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