Tim's Reviews > Aces and Kings: Inside Stories and Million-Dollar Strategies from Poker's Greatest Players

Aces and Kings by Michael Kaplan
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Mar 25, 12

bookshelves: poker, reviewed
Read in January, 2006

Another Card Player review:

The subtitle of this fine book by two magazine writers suggests that Aces and Kings offers a strategic window into high-stakes poker. Don’t bet on it. Most of us are never going to play million-dollar pots, and most of us are never going to play poker like the luminaries profiled in these pages. But don’t let that deter you from reading it. Kaplan and Reagan, both of whom have written about the game widely for magazines, have done an excellent job of preparing a kind of who’s who in the world of poker, a series of mini-biographies of players from early giants like Puggy Pearson, Stu Ungar, and Doyle Brunson to the superstars of today like Phil Ivey, Chris Ferguson—and Doyle Brunson. (How does Brunson do it?)

The book is especially good when it comes to the old-school, before poker players began to cloak themselves with the mantle of professionalism. Men like Pearson and Ungar were individualists, aggressive and fiercely competitive, succeeding in a fringe netherworld without the benefit of endorsement deals and agents.

Take the Damon Runyon-esque story of Puggy Pearson. Born in rural Kentucky in 1929 to sharecropper parents, Pearson moved to Nashville at age 10 and started hustling pool games: “he was seduced by the insular world of con men, cardsharps, hustlers, and suckers.” When he discovered poker, he became a early proponent of the aggressive, no-holds-barred style that would become a trademark of players like Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar. He moved to Las Vegas in the early 1960s and quickly became a local celebrity. Kaplan and Reagan quote Brunson’s analysis of the man: “Puggy was like a tiger in the jungle….He had the instincts to play any game at any stakes.”

But is that “analysis” helpful to poker players? What are those instincts? Clearly, Pearson could smell weakness a mile away—and exploit it mercilessly (see, for example, how he talked Eric Drache, who would become one of the first tournament directors for the World Series of Poker, into mucking a pair of aces). Or consider this quote, from Pearson about Stu Ungar: “He’s unafraid of risking his chips to take advantage of weakness. It’s harder to do than it sounds; it’s wired into your heart or it isn’t.” In other words, “Kids, don’t try this at home.”

In the case of players like Pearson and Ungar, their talent was innate, and probably impossible to articulate in any systematic way. You could read a hundred books about them—and understand exactly what they are doing—and not still be any closer to beating them. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned and applied in Aces and Kings.

Take, for example, Chip Reese, the poker wunderkind who, in 1973, between Dartmouth and Stanford Law, sat down at what was then the “Big Game” in Las Vegas: Seven-Card High-Low ($400/$800). He bought in for $15,000, and over the next four days, transformed it into $390,000. That’s great fun to read about (we all dream of the big run, the big score). But Reese actually offers an insight worth pondering—that winners are the ones who make the fewest mistakes: “I don’t outplay anybody or make these giant superstar plays that no one else can understand….if you played a videotape [of my play] back, you’d see not necessarily that I am doing something so much greater than someone else when I am at my best but that I am deteriorating less when I am not.”

In the chapter on Erik Seidel, Billy Baxter offers his own perspective on what separates winners from losers: “The real betting skills comes after the flop: determining what the other guys have, the best way to extract funds from them, when they are bluffing, when you should bluff.” That’s easier said than done, of course, but with an observation like that you have something you can work on, a skill you can develop, enhance, and refine. And some lessons are even more explicitly valuable. Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, one of the most cerebral players in the game says, “Many players tend to bluff with medium-strength hands, but…that’s needlessly risky. When you have the worst of it, bluffing is your only chance to win. When you have a middling hand, there’s still a chance of winning on the merit of your cards.”

In all, the book covers more than 20 players, including three women (Annie Duke, Jennifer Harman, and Cyndy Violette), but who it doesn’t cover is surprising. Where is Johnny Moss? T. J. Cloutier? Kathy Liebert? Obviously, the authors have to make judgments about who’s in and who’s not, but Cloutier strikes me as someone who simply has to be in a book like this. But that’s really a minor quibble; with Aces and Kings, Kaplan and Reagan have brought a significant chunk of the world of poker very much to life. And there is a great strategic lesson here: the great players are in an entirely different league from most of the rest of us.
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