Non-poker books that will improve your poker game

One should spend most of their poker study time on actual poker scholarship: reviewing hands, discussing situations with friends, watching videos, reading strategy forums. Yet doing only these things would be a major leak.

Below are a few books I’ve read that have helped me with my poker game (I’m sure there are many others I haven’t read or heard of, so please post those in the comments.) There are two books from each of the following broad categories: Thinking, Doing, and Living. 


Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life | Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff

Thinking Strategically

This book is a very clear and non-technical introduction to what is undoubtedly a very complicated and technical subject: Game Theory. Even if it would be a difficult read, it’s not a topic I would recommend casually sledging through — poker is game theory. Thankfully, however, the authors do an amazing job at making this an entertaining read with many interesting case studies from many disparate situations and industries. Required reading at several elite MBA programs; skip the MBA and just get this book. 

Bonus/advanced reading: Playing for Real: A Text on Game Theory


Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts | Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson 

Mistakes Were Made

There has been a flurry of popular books related to rationality in the past few years. As one can tell from some previous posts, this is a topic with which I am very involved, so I tend to pay more attention to original research articles and more nerdy sources like Less Wrong and Overcoming Bias. However, Mistakes Were Made is a refreshing detour from that heavy reading: it is a well-written, entertaining, and highly enjoyable look into human (ir)rationality and it’s devastating consequences. If this book won’t make you take responsibility for your poor plays and accept (and correct for) the constant self-deception that is inherent in human thinking, then I don’t know what will. 

Bonus/advanced reading: Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases


The Book of Five Rings | Miyamoto Musashi

The Book of the Five Rings

Forget Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: this book is the real deal. Musashi was the most accomplished samurai of his time, traveling around Japan and participating in high-profile duels with the country’s most talented swordsmen. He never lost. In the latter part of his life he focussed on creating art (he was a master calligrapher and drawer), teaching, and writing. The Book of the Five Rings was his final gift to the world, finished just before his death in 1645 when he was 62 years old. Rather than writing some hyperbole about how this is one of the greatest treatises on martial arts and practical Zen philosophy, I’ll leave you with a quote that affected me quite deeply (and has left me never scared to bluff shove the river or make hero calls, when necessary). 

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him.”


Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion | David Sirlin 

Playing to Win

A short and fun read about conquering competitive gaming. It’s no secret that there is a major skill overlap between different games, whether it be StarCraft, Scrabble, tennis, or Magic: The Gathering — it’s not an accident that so many high-level poker players transferred from one of these other gaming arenas. This book will teach one how to focus on winning, rather than playing, and overcome mental hiccups commonly associated with gaming, such as the notion of “playing cheaply.” David Sirlin is a video game developer and Street Fighter champion; his breakdown of different player types based on chess and Street Fighter will especially resonate comically with poker players. This book is also available for free on the author’s website.


The Miracle of Mindfulness | Thich Naht Hanh 

The Miracle of Mindfulness

The Miracle of Mindfulness is a wonderful and accessible introduction to meditation. This doesn’t mean it teaches one how to sit still in the middle of the room, breathing slowly with eyes shut, waiting for nirvana. Rather, it is about being aware of the present moment, which by itself will have a transformative effect on one’s life. It is about achieving the same level of presence weather washing the dishes or running a marathon. Among other things, this short book helped me cut back on tweeting, texting, surfing the web, or other distractions when at the felt. When one plays poker, one should be playing poker. 


Letters from a Stoic | Seneca 

Playing to Win

Seneca was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Rome, though if references to classical times were deleted from these letters, one would think he is your typical middle-class American grandfather giving advice to his grandchild. I specifically say American because the Letters felt like they could have been transcendentalist works written by Emerson or Thoreau almost two millenia later. Seneca praises the virtues of studying practical philosophy, appreciating nature and simplicity, and being detached from the tides of fortune. More than anything this text espouses controlling yourself rather than being controlled. I can’t think of a single more important poker lesson. 

Bonus/advanced reading: Meditations