Larry W. Phillips, author of Zen and the Art of Poker, has done something unique with his book. He's taken a philosophy that many times seems to emphasize passivity and mixed it with a game that often rewards action. If this seems odd to you - well, you're probably right. It is odd. But within that observation lies the reason there aren't hundreds of books on Zen and poker - the particularly balanced mindset required to blend two seemingly opposite worlds together into a text that makes sense is beyond the grasp of many who play and write about the game of poker. Luckily for the rest of us that mindset isn't beyond Phillips, and the result is a highly useful book that goes beyond the usual poker advice and provides guidance in the more .
One thing is for certain: Zen and the Art of Poker is not a book for anyone who needs to have their hand held as they learn the game of poker. There are no sections on when to raise, when to bluff, how to calculate pot odds, or other moment-to-moment decisions one must make regularly in a poker game. In fact, the book assumes that one already knows how to play the game and is looking for guidance of a different sort. "This book is a calmative," Phillips writes in the second chapter. "Its theme is patience. But not patience of the usual kind - or even of the poker kind - but patience of the soul, and of the heart." Anyone looking to learn the game will be sorely disappointed. The intended audience is definitely intermediate-level and up.
The book is divided into sections that cover various aspects of Zen and poker: Fundamentals, Calmness and Rhythm, Nuts and Bolts, Warrior Zen, and Emotions and Opponents. Each section addresses its many sub-topics through the use of what Phillips calls "Poker Rules." Each rule is a short statement that can be easily memorized and brought to mind in the proper context. Rules such as #1 - "Learn to use inaction as a weapon" - are then expounded upon. Sometimes the discussion of a rule can go on for several pages, and other times it takes a mere sentence or two, but it is never too much or too little.
To enlighten the points he makes, Phillips intersperses quotes from a wide range of sources between his Poker Rules. Some of these sources are very much what one would expect in this book - quotes from Zen masters, Zen and the Art of Archery, Japanese and Chinese proverbs, and selections from Sun Tzu's timeless The Art of War. Other sources are less expected, but clarify the Poker Rules quite well - quotes from Davy Crockett, Chuck Norris, Peter Hoeg's novel Smilla's Sense of Snow, and basketball coach Phil Jackson. Applying this wide-ranging collection of wisdom to poker is a reflection of Zen, the realization that all things are connected, and works well within the context of the book.
Phillips definitely leans toward the tight-aggressive style of play; his approach is that of waiting for the right opportunity and striking with full force when given the opportunity. While he eschews the loose, hyper-aggressive style favored by many players who watch a lot of televised poker, he also makes it clear that playing on instinct is a perfectly acceptable course of action once a player has accumulated enough experience. However, new players wanting validation of a style that involves running over the table every time they sit down will be disappointed; in fact, much of the discussion in the book will drive players like these up the wall. Phillips prefers to advance the importance of focus, mental preparation, respecting one's opponents, and accepting that failure is part of the cycle of the game that allows the intelligent player to advance.
Players new to poker who are looking for an instructional manual will do much better by finding a different text to focus their initial efforts upon. Because it assumes a certain level of proficiency, players who have at least a few years' experience, but find themselves running into the same mental traps over and over, have the most to gain from the insights Zen and the Art of Poker provides. If you need a guide to finding a calm mindset that will allow you to play your best possible game, this may be the book for you.