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Review of "Poker, Life and Other Confusing Things"

My lastest book was just reviewed in Fun ‘N’ Games magazine. Unless you’re one of the regular customers on Gold Transportation’s junkets to various gambling centers like Atlantic City you won’t have seen this. But the editor and publisher Ed Gallo sent me a copy of his review. I kinda like it and Ed said I could reproduce it here….. so here it is.


Poker, as Reber notes, is a people game played with cards for money. He certainly isn’t the first to say this but he is the first to take apart that “people” element in a totally new way. Reber is unique. As he puts it, “I’ve lived two parallel lives. In one I am a semi-degenerate gambler, a poker junkie and horse player; in the other, a scientist specializing in cognitive psychology and related topics in the neurosciences, the origins of consciousness and the philosophy of mind.”

He’s serious. He’s the author of two major books on gambling, final-tabled major tournaments, has two WSOP money finishes and has been a winning cash game player for decades. He is also a distinguished scientist who held an endowed chair in the City University of New York and has been elected Fellow of such prestigious organizations as the Association for Psychological Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Fulbright Foundation.

These two parallel lives give him a special perspective. In this book he takes what is known about human psychology and uses it to gain insight into poker and, with a gentle twist, takes what we know about poker and uses that to provide further understanding of the human condition.

In one of my favorite chapters, he takes a look at what goes on in the mind of a poker player who’s been running good, hitting cards and piling up the chips. We all know how much fun this is but what I’ve never seen before is Reber’s analysis of what this run of good fortune does to the player’s head, what impact it has on the others at the table and, intriguingly, what an attentive player can do to exploit this situation.

The word “belief” appears in chapter after chapter, particularly those that explode myths about poker. In the chapter cryptically titled “Locus of Control” he examines the belief patterns that long-term winning players have that differ from those whose money they are winning. In the even more oddly titled “Superstitions, Pigeons and Poker Players” he peels back the irrational beliefs that so many players have and cleverly shows how these beliefs mirror the very ones that other animals (like pigeons) have.

Luck gets taken apart from every conceivable angle. It is explored in the context of randomness, statistical regression, timing and rhythm and all of it wrapped around the key notion that it is a player’s belief in the role of luck that is the dominant element.

Do you want to know why sometimes it is so hard to get up from a poker game and go home? Reber explains it (spoiler alert: it’s dopamine, a neurotransmitter). Do you want to understand why even the very best poker players can end up as life-time losers? As Reber shows, playing poker professionally is psychologically far more complex than merely being a very good poker player. There are life-issues here involving risk aversion, long-term commitment, friendships, physical well-being and many others that either support or overwhelm poker skills.

He also introduces us to a crazy quilt collection of characters who populate the world of poker. My favorites are two who made an impact on Reber, “Harry,” a bookie and one of his life-long friends and “Charlie,” whose short afternoon at his table changed the lives of everyone lucky enough to be there that day.

Finally, for the celebrity-sighting crowd, Reber puts some of the game’s best known players “on the couch,” including Stuey Ungar, Phil Ivey, Mike Matusow, Phil Hellmuth and one really crazy dude, Roy “The Boy” Brindley.

This book is just totally different from anything else I’ve seen. In the Preface, Reber tells us what he’s up to. He says it best:

“Poker is a fascinating mirror of life and shares the psychological burdens…. If threatened we are prone to counterattack. If stressed we often lose our deliberative abilities…. We pride ourselves on rationality but the ascension of our species works against it. When things look bleak, we reach for gods and angels, faces in the clouds, mystical rustling in the bushes…. It is not easy to overcome these tendencies…. They are found everywhere and penetrate all the even mildly interesting things we do – and that includes playing complex and intensely competitive games like poker. They are also the reason why is it such a devilishly hard game to master. Poker is a microcosm of life precisely because it is the most intellectually complex, emotionally rich, and social game we’ve ever invented.”

Indeed it is and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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