Zen and the Art of Poker at first seems to simply play on the recent slew of ‘Zen and…’ books on the market today. Author Larry Phillips even openly admits at the beginning of his book that poker and Zen ostensibly share very little in common: poker requires aggression and deception and measures success with money, while Zen, a specific sect of Buddhism, teaches antithetical beliefs. Phillips proves throughout his book, however, that Zen practices are incredibly invaluable to any poker player struggling with the numerous psychological and emotional challenges of the game. A player already familiar with different strategies who wants to improve on his or her own tactics and become more aware of the flow of his or her play can best appreciate Zen and the Art of Poker.
It sets out by concisely defining various Zen principles for the reader, such as calmness, then connects these principles to poker play. Important lessons the book teaches include the nature of patience, making peace with folding, the long run aspects of the game, using inaction as a weapon, the interplay of skill and chance, and potential hidden motives for playing. It argues that successful poker players learn to accept the realities of their chosen game (including the powerlessness that accompanies an element of luck) and to control their emotions.
Phillips provides an original and creative approach to the game, commensurate with David Apostolico’s Tournament Poker & the Art of War. He handles his explanations of Zen and its connection to poker with writing that is commendably smooth, focused, and direct. His comparisons between the two rarely seem forced and, in fact, most often seem so evident after his explanations that the reader never considers the outward absurdity of the connection after a few pages. Only Phillips’ advice on lucky streaks and card bunching appears questionable. The end of the book, which deals with Zen and tournament play as well as Zen and poker computer software, among other topics, loses some of the sharpness of the main chapters, but not so much as to detract from the book entirely. Zen and the Art of Poker explains in a novel way a calm approach to poker that will focus and control any player’s game.