The game of poker has been around for a few hundred years, and writing about the game has been active for just about as long. R. F. Foster first penned the rules of the game in his 1837 treatise Foster’s Complete Hoyle, noting that the game had similarities to the Persian game as nas. From there, writing about the game became almost as fun a pursuit as playing the game itself!
Some have done it very well over the past century and a half, however. In this essay, we’re going to look back at the last 40 years of poker writing, which seems appropriate as it is the time frame that seems to coincide with many people’s knowledge of the game. Thus, we’re not going to hear from Sir Edmund Hoyle (where “according to Hoyle” comes from) or Herbert O. Yardley (although his memory is more than deserving). We’re also going to leave out those who have written strategy tomes, thus there won’t be any mention of Doyle Brunson, Mike Caro, or David Sklansky.
What follows is those who have made a sizeable impact on the poker writing community. Anyone who says they don’t know who these men are has not put enough into their craft to care about who came before them, how memorable they were, or the talent in their writing. Let’s start it off with a couple of honorable mention candidates.
Mike Paulle – for those who came to the game of poker after the Aughts, you might not remember the man/mountain that Mike Paulle was. One of the most noted tournaments reporters of the Nineties and Aughts, Mike was well known for his precise and meticulous tournament writings. Mike wrote for the now-defunct website PokerPages.com and graced the pages of CardPlayer Magazine. If you can run across any of the material he was able to create from the “golden age” of poker, it’s well worth your time.
Michael Craig – this might be a name not familiar to many in today’s poker world, but for a span in the Aughts, Michael was the go-to man for many poker tomes. He would write about the battle between billionaire Andy Beal and “The Corporation,” which became the noteworthy book The Professor, The Banker, and The Suicide King. Craig was also notable for his work with Bluff Magazine, bringing it to a spot of notability alongside CardPlayer Magazine in the Aughts, a previously unimaginable achievement.
Nolan Dalla – for years Nolan was THE MAN when it came to the media at the World Series of Poker. He would be the one who led the newbies through the ropes, hung out with the vets covering the event, and every night (and often into the early morning) he would make sure that every tournament was written up, no matter the stage of the event, and a press release for every champion who won a bracelet was posted (he also handled winner’s interviews when the WSOP was broadcast on Bluff Magazine’s Sirius channel for a couple of years – yes, that existed at one point).
Nolan reaches back to the days when Binion’s was running the operation of the WSOP and, to be honest, the WSOP lost a lot of its prestige when Nolan was removed from his position as Media Director.He’s also responsible, along with Peter Alson, for the biography of the legendary Stu Ungar, One of a Kind, one of the best biographies of a poker player ever written.
And now, in no particular order…
NOTABLE POKER WRITERS
James McManus – James is one that many poker players might remember because he actually made a pretty significant achievement in the poker world. Tasked with writing about the murder trial of Ted Binion after the turn of the millennium (2000), James took the advance he had received from Harper’s Magazine and decided to satellite into the Championship Event of the World Series of Poker. While doing his work with the Binion murder trial, James also plied his card skills on the felt at Binion’s Horseshoe. He would do so well that he made the final table of the Championship Event, eventually finishing in fifth place for almost a quarter million dollars.
The book that James produced, Positively Fifth Street, is legendary in the game, but it is his tome Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker that is the overlooked gem in the poker world. That book is about as close as a “history of poker” that you will get, and it seems that James was the best man to take on that task. He still plays the game today – perhaps you’ll see him on the felt soon!
Max Shapiro – if Johnny Moss was considered the “Grand Old Man of poker,” then Max is considered the “Grand Old Man of poker writers.” Max was a staple of tournament coverage from the Seventies on to the mid- to late-Aughts, bringing a very concise style to his reporting. It was his comedic takes, however, that seems to have catapulted Max over the top.
In the pages of CardPlayer Magazine (and in between his very serious and excellent tournament reporting), Max would regale readers with the tales from the Barstow Casino, the establishment run by noted raconteur Big Denny. Using characters he had passed in his life in the California poker rooms of Gardena, Max created a fanciful (was it though?) world of hustlers, card sharps, and women who would run with these types of people. It was all done for a laugh, also Max has not ever said just how much of it was true and how much was his humorous conjecture.
Andy Glazer – this is another gentleman that left this mortal coil woefully before his time. Andy was the tournament reporter for CardPlayer Magazine and his efforts weren’t unnoticed by those around him. He befriended Phil Hellmuth when he was REALLY just the “Poker Brat” and that friendship would last until Andy’s passing in 2004. His nickname was “The Poker Pundit,” but he could also play a mean game too – I often wonder what Andy would have thought of today’s poker world…
Anthony Holden – Anthony is one of two British writers who will grace this list. Anthony is best known for his book Big Deal, in which Anthony tried to become a professional poker player for a year, and its follow-up, Bigger Deal, where Anthony instead chose to just follow a year on the tournament poker circuit. But it was other things that Anthony did that make him the fascinating character that he is.
Anthony is well-versed in poetry, opera, and theater. He has written biographies about Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, and Sir Laurence Olivier, just to mention a few. He is also advancing in age, so I certainly hope that we can give some kudos to one of the true Renaissance men in the poker writers’ Guild.
Al Alvarez – better known as A. Alvarez, Al shares many of the characteristics that Anthony also has. Al wrote one of the biggest books about the game of poker, The Biggest Game in Town, which pulled the veil back on the 1981 World Series of Poker. But it was his work outside the world of poker that also made Al notable.
An essayist, poet, and critic, Al wrote about the travails of suicide (partly inspired by a friendship with poet Sylvia Plath), the oil industry, and his poetry was groundbreaking. Much like the other men on this list, Al was a well-rounded individual with excellent mental acuity and a curiosity to learn about all things in life. This showed up (like the other men on this list) in their writings, whether dealing with poker or other avenues in life.
Yes, you’ll notice that none of these writers come from the 21st century. Perhaps because the century is still in its infancy (hell, it’s barely able to drink legally), perhaps because there hasn’t been anyone who has stepped forward, perhaps because there hasn’t been anyone who has staked their claim to this level of abilities and knowledge. The question becomes can anyone approach this level of expertise, not only in the world of poker but in other categories of life’s experiences?
A few others worthy of mention:
David Spanier – [various titles]
David Johns & Marvin Karlins – “Deal Me In”
Liam Teller – “The Home Game”
Ben Mezrich – “Straight Flush”
Dana Smith/Tom McEvoy/Ralph Wheeler – “The Championship Table at the World Series of Poker”
I know you are excluding Doyle Brunson, but “Poker Wisdom of a Champion” is a great non-strategy book written by him.
Some excellent choices there, JJ. I would add that Victoria Coren-Mitchell BARELY missed out on making this list. Her autobiography “For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker” was a thoroughly enjoyable read and her work in other areas outside the game make Victoria quite notable.