I have often felt that there is a connection between poker and philosophy. I was intrigued when I first heard about Larry Phillips’ first book, Zen and the Art of Poker where he attempted to show the correlation between Zen Buddhism and poker. I wondered how he could combine Taoism and poker. Tao is roughly translated as “the way” or “the path.” Basically the Tao cannot be described. It has to be lived. The Tao is the power which surrounds and flows through all things living and non-living. The symbol of Taoism is the Yin Yang. This represents balance in the universe, which the Tao regulates.
Do not be fooled into thinking that Larry Phillips' book, The Tao of Poker, is directly related to Taoism. He briefly touches on philosophy despite quoting several notable thinkers including Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism. He also discusses very little poker strategy. If you're looking to improve your specific poker game, this is not the book for you. However, the rules that Larry Phillips mentions can help you stay focused on playing your best game and give you a better understanding of how poker affects our everyday lives. He offers up a discussion on the philosophical aspects of improving those intangibles in your game that books from David Skalansky and Doyle Brunson cannot teach you.
Over 27 chapters, Larry Phillips weaves more than 285 rules that he claims will transform your game and your life. Each rule is a tip to help you achieve self-improvement. He quotes professional athletes, businessmen, celebrities, coaches, writers, poker players, gamblers, and philosophers like Sun Tzu, Phil Jackson, Warren Buffet, David Mamet, and Mike Caro to mention a few. Some of the early chapters discuss the rhythm of the game, making correct decisions, betting and control, patience, bluffing, and “Knowing Thyself.”
I found his rule “don’t arrive over eager to play” very interesting. This rule applies to live games, since most of the time there is a wait list at your local casino or card room. Getting all worked up before you even sit down will drain a decent amount of your energy.
In the middle chapters, Phillips talks about table image, body language, traps, remaining calm, and detachment. He mentions a few random tips about low limit games and touches on cold and losing streaks, “schooling,” practice, and the fatigue factor. He also has some helpful reminders such as “good players let you win small pots.”
Phillips discusses a lot of things that make players go on tilt and stay there. Although I do not agree with everything he says, there is some good advice on avoiding tilt. The last few chapters are a summary and overview. He includes one specific chapter about online poker. That is the most interesting part in his book since there aren't too many books out there that discuss online poker.
Larry Phillips is more of a poker player than a philosopher and it shows during his superficial attempts at trying to explain difficult philosophical concepts by picking a thought provoking quote or two. The Tao of Poker is a good guide for you and will make you think about the different levels to the game of poker. If you don’t have a sound emotional foundation, you will eventually make mistakes. At the same time, being completely centered and focused on a harmonious balance with nature will not automatically make you into a consistent winner. As a poker player you must find the way (the Tao) for yourself, where you are living a fine balance between being completely detached from all emotions and simultaneously aware of everything at the same time. Larry Phillips points you in that right direction.