Thematic Book Lists

Several years ago I began making topical lists of books, mostly because I was asked for “good poker books” or “books about New Jersey.” I updated these enumerations from time to time, and they tend to revolve around a center somewhere in New Jersey (worked for William Gibson’s sprawl trilogy). The list includes poker (playing and players), ice hockey, the Jersey shore, and Princeton University. There are a lot of degenerates in these books, in casinos, bars, bands, and mathematics departments. They filled me with joy over many years.

The poker book list is broken this list into halves — books about the game of poker, most of which make for fun reading if you are a player or have been a player, and a list of books about playing the game which is far from exhaustive and no substitute for actual real-life experience.

Poker Players, and Other Degenerates

Mostly fun if you play, or known someone who does, or want to understand the national fixation with the game.

“Positively Fifth Street,” James McManus

Sent on an investigative journalistic hop to Vegas to look into the murder of Benny Binion, the father of the World Series of Poker, McManus ends up staking himself to play in the tournament while interviewing and chasing all of the usual suspects (quite literally) you’d expect.

“Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers,” Katy Lederer

Katy Lederer is Annie Duke’s sister, and her book provides an intense and remarkably personal view of growing up in a family of card players (both Annie Duke and their brother Howard Lederer, who have multiple WSOP bracelets). One of the few poker books I’ve recommended to non-players.

“The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death,” Colson Whitehead

This is the book that made me fall in love with Whitehead’s writing. He not only plays in the WSOP but makes it to the final table with a whirlwind education in the game and a writer’s take on the dynamics, personalities and context of high stakes poker. I was roaring at the first Iggy Pop reference, and that’s before the cards flew.

“The Biggest Game In Town,” Al Alvarez

Yet another journalistic take on the WSOP, but written in 1981 before ESPN, thousands of entrants and big money made it the March Madness of no-limit hold’em. Alvarez’s book covers the WSOP when it was much more of a cult, a true venture on the wild side, and purely from the rail and not a seat at the table. If Damon Runyon had to write about Las Vegas and not the Nathan Detroit New York of the 1950s, you’d end up here.

“One Of A Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stu ‘The Kid’ Ungar,” Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson

Once you get into legends and WSOP lore, you inevitably run into the sad tale of Stu Ungar, poker prodigy, likely mentat of the felt, and owner of far too many compulsive behaviors. Whether it was his completely random take on playing golf with the big boys (he used a tee from anywhere, including a water trap) or winning and then losing seven figures at poker, or his mastery of just about any game involving people and 52 playing cards, Ungar was a larger than life character who died very young. Dalla and Alson capture him fairly, colorfully and fully.

“Annie Duke: How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker,” David Diamond

It’s a book about Annie Duke rather than a book by her — so the typical erudite treatise on decision making, poker strategy, game theory and behavior psychology is instead a parallel story about Duke’s personal life and her first World Series of Poker tournament win. The book seems to focus more on her mental health than her mental strength, and as such isn’t as useful as a teaching tool. It reads, at times, like a long transcription of the ESPN coverage of the WSOP, but without the commentators deconstructing each player’s hand in real time. There are a few grammatical and one glaring poker error as well (there’s a nut straight constructed using three cards from the Omaha player’s hand, while the player did indeed have the nut straight but only using two cards to make a straight to a K, not an A — a minor detail but indicative of the emphasis on telling a human interest story about poker players rather than a poker playing story with a human angle).

“The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King,” Michael Craig

Craig’s volume fills in the rest of the Lederer-Duke family written history, prominently featuring Annie Duke’s brother Howard Lederer (“The Professor”). The fairly linear narrative pits Howard and a cast of poker legends in a series of the all-time richest poker games played in Vegas for tens of millions of dollars. Andy Beal, the banker, a self-taught high stakes poker player and risk aficionado is traced from his bankroll roots in distressed banking services to his desire to play the Sky Masterston sized players in Vegas. There is some insight into both Beal’s and his opponent’s strategies, but this is more a glimpse into how the higher end of the poker spectrum functions: players investing in each other, maintaining six figure piles of chips or cash, and setting boundaries on their risk appetite and tolerance. It’s not a poker book but does paint a picture of the type of mental fortitude needed to play at that level.

Learning To Play Poker

There is simply no way to learn without actually playing, and expert players will pick up on everything from a pinkie shake indicating you just over bet a hand to the speed with which you make successive bets to determine whether you just made two pairs. These books represent my “Poker 101” and “Poker 201” courses. Get to at least upperclass level before you commit real money.

“No Limit Hold’em: Theory and Practice,” David Sklansky

Sklansky is effectively the Richard Feynmann of poker — he puts probabilities together to form an underlying physics of poker, ranging from the value of starting hands to the elements of position play and how those starting hands gain or lose value depending upon your ordinal position. It’s a bit dated, and it should serve as the summer reading for any course of poker study, but it is a classic.

“Doyle Brunson’s Super/System,” Doyle Brunson

Brunson is a poker legend, and this book is a combination of his collected wit and wisdom, with guest chapters by Sklansky as well as the king of poker tells Mike Caro among others. Opinions vary — Brunson claims in the original edition that he never plays A-K, and his love of suited connectors is highly position and betting pattern dependent in terms of real value. Like Sklansky, though, this is required reading to complete a basic education.

“Decide To Play Great Poker,” Annie Duke

Duke’s sister gets a nod on the non-fiction but non-player list; Duke’s book is the successor to Sklansky and Brunson as she applies game theory, behavioral psychology and information management theories to poker. While most books will tell you to throw away A-9, Duke walks you through playing the hand against a variety of opponents and in multiple positions (Fun but stupid side note: I played in Annie Duke’s charity poker tournament, at a table where she was dealing, and lost a large pot to her sister Katy while holding A-9 — and she yelled at me for not following the advice of the book I claimed I read).

“Thinking In Bets,” Annie Duke

The follow up to her first “how to” book, this one gets into the behavioral theory of decision making far beyond the felt. It’s on my list of business books that doubles as a sports book, but it’s applicable across a broad spectrum of gaming, work and family situations (and those times you end up in the intersecting ovals of the Venn diagram).

Ice Hockey: Players, Games, and Politics

Not how to play the game, but how it is played and appreciated by those around it. Perhaps it’s the 5:00 am mornings, the long winter drives, or the synthetic family closeness that envelops a season, but hockey families have a rhythm and grace all their own, and these books capture all of those dynamics.

“Orr: My Story”, Bobby Orr. It’s top of the list, because it’s that good. Orr’s Cup-winning goal gets a single (but compound) sentence, because his story is about how he developed as a player, a gentleman, and a businessman. It’s frank, it’s funny and touching, and it’s a peek into an Original Six era that was one of the best encapsulations of a simpler era of sports.

“Last Season”, Roy MacGregor. One of only three fictional books in the lists, and one of the few sports-related books that’s ever made me profoundly sad. Perhaps it’s “Bats” discovering his limitations as a man and player; perhaps it’s the surprise ending.

“Ice Time”, Jay Atkinson. A book for hockey dads by a hockey dad himself, who also happens to be an outstanding sports writer. Atkinson follows the trials, travails and training of the Methuen, Massachusetts high school team, but this book truly digs into what it means to be a good youth sports parent.

“Boys of Winter”, Wayne Coffey. Of all of the content scribbled about the Miracle on Ice, this is far and away my favorite collection of insights and stories. Coffey takes a look at each player, and how their lives were shaped before and after the famous 4–3 game in Lake Placid. I quote from the introduction frequently as our youth hockey season winds down, as Jim Craig’s few pages alone are worth the cover price.

“Blades of Glory”, John Rosengren. Sort of the foil to “Ice Time”, Rosengren follows big-time high school hockey in the first state of hockey (Minnesota). Another great look at a season from deep inside the locker room. Casual references to players from rival high schools read like a who’s who of young NHL players, with the New Jersey Devils’ one-time players Zach Parise and Paul Martin making cameo appearances as themselves.

“Home Team”, Roy MacGregor. He’s so good he gets two slots. Non-fiction and closer to home (literally). Blend “Last Season” with “Ice Time” and you get this book, a look at fathers and sons in and around NHL draft events. Expectations, met, exceeded, undershot or crushed, and how hockey families sometimes are more about family than hockey.

“They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven”, Ken Baker. You’ve probably never heard of Ken Baker, as he was a goalie for Colgate but never “made it”. I only discovered this book after reading Kathyrn Bertine’s “All The Sundays Yet To Come” (figure skating and anorexia in South America, but quite funny), as she and Baker were friendly at Colgate. As an adult league player, and someone who has met many guys who always wondered if they could have made it in the ECHL, this is a great read: Baker tells a story of fulfilling his dream of playing professional hockey well after he had hung up his skates, and the result has the poignancy of a Disney movie blended with the rough edges of “Slap Shot.”

“The Game”, Ken Dryden. Stanley Cup, Montreal Canadiens, Cornell University, and now big-time Canadian politician. Awesome read, and in a newly released reprint.

“Beyond The Crease”, Martin Brodeur (and Damien Cox). Not at all what I was expecting. Rather than the usual “I was taped to the goal by my older brother who fired pucks at me from a carbon-dioxide powered air gun” story of his life from 3 years old to 3 Stanley Cups, Brodeur’s book focuses on much more recent events, including his relationship to the Devils management and the league, how he sees the sport evolving, and what it was like to represent his country in the Olympics. His reflections on playing in Torino, and echoing his father’s footsteps on Italian Olympic ground, are alone worth the purchase price.

“Breaking the Ice”, Angela Ruggiero. So this one is about brother-baiting and boy-badgering, but it’s about the only book I can find that addresses women’s hockey.

“The Hockey I Love”, Vladislav Tretiak. Yes, the Russian goaltender, who was pulled from the Miracle on Ice game. The book ends in the late 70s, a few years before the Lake Placid Olympics, so you don’t get Tretiak’s views on the game for which he’s probably best known in the States. What you do find is a discourse on playing in some of the most famous international hockey series of the 70s.

“Searching For Bobby Orr”, Stephen Brunt. How do you define Bobby Orr? Great player? Career cut short by injuries? Definition of the Bruins franchise? Poster boy wonder for agent impropriety and conflicts of interest? Brunt explores every theme with the right mix of detail, interest and narrative; this isn’t an encyclopedia of Bobby Orr’s great moments as much as it is a montage of what made him great despite an encyclopedia of encumbrances.

“Hockey Dad Chronicles”, Ed Wenck. Summarizes what most of us with kids playing hockey go through every weekend morning during the school year, or hockey season, depending upon how you measure it. It’s less cynical than a Little League book, more truthful than something written as a movie script.

“Home Ice”, Jack Falla. I’ve now given this book as a gift to more people than I can count. Falla covered the Bruins in detail and hockey in general for the Mass media, but this book contains his short stories about his backyard rink. What comes out is a love of the that pervades every angle of his life — why else would he incrementally engineer his boards, making them easier to install and tear down year after year? Falla bottles up the warmth and spirit of kids tearing around a frozen pond, on a personal scale, only wearing out when the daylight fades long before the energy and passion ebb.

“Open Ice”, Jack Falla. The sequel to both “Home Ice” and “Saved,” this one was published immediately before Falla’s way too early passing in 2008. While his first collection of essays captures the joys of a home rink, this one covers the entire spectrum of hockey; reading it I felt an old emotion rekindled or a joyful moment resurfaced, bringing my favorite moments to life again and again.

“Saved,” Jack Falla. Completing the hat trick of Falla’s work is a hockey novel. Hockey fiction is about as rare and tough as a flawless diamond; even “Slap Shot” was based mostly on the real-world adventures of Dave Hanson (see below). Falla makes a cameo appearance in this book (read both short story collections first to find the Hidden Jack). It has the same feel-good quality as his short stories, and is more credible than a Broadway musical.

“The Seven AM Practice”, Roy MacGregor. I adore MacGregor’s work, and you can pick this one up in fair used condition, very cheaply, from Amazon. It’s another collection of stories about how hockey tradition forms in the spaces between generations and family members. At the end of 2019, I was fortunate to coach my under-6 year old ice hockey team with a former NHL player sharing the bench, coaching three of his grandsons in a game that was so much fun we didn’t keep score. It took me ten years to appreciate this book, but it was so worth it.

“Hobey Baker, American Legend”, Emil Salvini. Published by the Hobey Baker Foundation, this is a cross between an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and a history book (Baker is the basis for Amory in Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise”). It presents a fair and balanced view of one of the most spectacular athletes of the early 20th century. Salvini is also the guy behind “Tales Of The New Jersey Shore”

“Slap Shot Original,” Dave Hanson. The back story to the movie “Slap Shot.” It’s frightening to see how much of the movie is only a minor caricature of real life, and Hanson’s writing stands up as a memoir. The movie is the “Dark Side of the Moon” equivalent of sports films, having legs that have run for more than 25 years, and Hanson’s book is like being in the locker room before, during and after the game that became a movie.

“Zamboni,” Eric Dregni. Everything you wanted to know about how ice is cut, how and why the Zamboni came to be, and how one family found a need and filled it. I got it as a gift from my parents the same year I took a Zamboni driving class. For purists and students of the game.

Down The Shore Shore With A Book

What better way to assemble a beach reading list than an array of books that involve sand in varying quantities. “Down the shore” evokes Springsteen, summer romance, Atlantic City in its heyday and not, and endless possibilities. They’re all here. If you know that “down” replaces any preposition that would otherwise indicate location, dependence or adjacency, you’ll know that truly capturing the salty smell of a Jersey summer is difficult. If you aren’t familiar with the derogatory uses of “bennie”, and want to appreciate what we lost in superstorm Sandy, then read all of these.

“Rock and Roll Tour of the Jersey Shore,” Stan Goldstein and Jean Mikle

Found this when I was trying to put together a Fourth of July/Sandy themed tour for one of my friends who is a life-long, dyed in the Jersey wool Bruce fan. It’s full of great trivia, simple things to do, and history of the Asbury Park music scene (Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Southside Johnny and friends). If “down the shore” is the anti-pretentious antidote to the Hamptons, then this book is the anti-Rick Steves guide to the music that powered those ten true summers of your teenaged years.

“Deep Tank Jersey,” James Campion

This is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the Jersey shore, wants to play in a rock band, wants to fathom the depth of summer time possibilities, or wants to write the Great American Novel. James Campion is a high school classmate of mine, an incredibly talented writer, the scribe heir to Hunter S. Thompson, and so immersed in Jersey culture that he conveys it with a denseness just this side of fresh Fralinger’s taffy. If you ever saw Monty feed his drummer shrimp from the upper level of the Shell in Beach Haven, well, here’s the back story. If you have no idea what that means, or don’t remember Dog Voices playing outside Continental Airlines Arena during the Devils cup runs of 1995 and 2000, then definitely pick this up.

“One Last Good Time,” Michael Kardos

I bought this because it appeared in a list of books by Princeton alumni, and it was about the Jersey Shore. It captures the feel of what happens behind the fun house on the boardwalk almost too perfectly in a set of inter-related short stories. Great read, equally and simultaneously hair-raising and melancholy, like seeing a ghost on Labor Day.

“Tales From An Endless Summer,” Bruce Novotny

For years, Labor Day made me depressed. Whether it was wearing my flip flops around the house to deny the impending start of school, or noticing that the seagulls’ feathers had changed to all white (thanks, Jane, for clueing me in), or dreading the long drive back to Boston, Labor Day was a ravine in the calendar — summer and school, rules and freedom, potential and, well, winter. Novotny gets it in one, and I’ve read this book twice just to know that I’m not suffering from seasonal affective disorder phase shifted three months earlier. It’s set on Long Beach Island, it’s full of surfer culture, and while you think it should have a Beach Boys soundtrack, it’s Springsteen through and through.

“A Boardwalk Story,” J. Louis Yampolsky

Not as crafted as the others, but as close as you can get to the age between “Boardwalk Empire” and the arrival of Resorts in Atlantic City in 1979. A good, fast-moving story; set 30 years later and it would be the backstory for the movie “Atlantic City.” Like Novotny’s book, I bought my paper copy in a bookstore on Long Beach Island, so the book and the memories of that fixture in time and space are forever linked.

Going Back: Princeton University In Non-Textbook Print

Aside from books about the University itself, there aren’t many books that are well and thorough situated and saturated in New Jersey (thanks, band, for the reference). This list includes fiction set on or mostly near campus, history of math and science that involves Princeton based figures, and books that capture some of the zeitgeist (like Carril’s book) of life in orange and black.

“Rule of Four,” Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

It’s the Princeton answer to Dan Brown. Some of the characters, in particular the female supporting cast, are lacking in depth, but if you’re looking for something that moves with the puzzle-in-the real world complexity of “DaVinci Code” without the heavy handed ness, “Rule of Four” delivers. Scenes in the steam tunnels beneath the Princeton campus are accurate (according to those who so explored).

“The Mind-Body Problem”, Rebecca Goldstein

A wonderful book by a Princetonian about discovering identity and faith in the midst of conflicting science and ivory tower isolation. The opening sequence in the book is one of my favorites of all time. Could have been written about half of the faculty in Fine Tower in just about any decade.

“A Beautiful Mind,” Sylvia Nassar

Frightening, observant and borderline poetic biography of the late John Nash, Nobel Prize winner and at the same time semi-derisively known as “The Ghost of Fine Hall.” I truly believe I was one of the first students to take his Game Theory course (which I dropped two weeks in, my bad, a decision I rue to this day).

“Mushroom: The Story of the A-Bomb Kid”, John Aristotle Phillips

This was still part urban myth part campus legend when I was an undergraduate. Phillips decided to design an atomic bomb for his senior thesis in the Princeton physics department, partly as a joke, partly because it was the only thing that seemed compelling and motivating enough. The book captures the spirit, the intent, the terror, and the high dynamic range love affair that is the senior thesis better than anything else. The science is real (frighteningly real). Buy it used for under a buck and read it.

“The Final Club,” Geoffrey Wolff

It’s the “Great Gatsby” with more overt anti-Semitism (face it: Gatsby is a tale of hidden identity veiled in anti-Semitism). “Final Club” takes place at Princeton and Reunions, and tells a Gatsby parallel story with a bit more brute force.

“Lost in the Meritocracy,” Walter Kirn

I loved this — while “Final Club” captured the elitism and subtle class distinctions that still haunt parts of Princeton, Kirn’s book brought back happy memories of the slightly goofy, artistic misfits I knew through WPRB, Colonial Club, the marching band and various musical groups

“The Smart Take From The Strong,” Pete Carril

The origin of the Princeton Offense and one of the few books that I treat as a management tome as well as a sports book. It is the first (and probably only) sports book read by former Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz (I gave it to him when he took over from Scott McNealy). Carril was my physical education teacher freshman year and shared some of his acerbic and unique views of the world from behind his newspaper and cigar smoke veil. Gems like “If you’re here or you’re not here you’re here so leave me alone” captured his spirit; his book is a reference guide to how to build a team out of unique, skilled but overlooked players and consistently win with someone else’s rules.

“Fermat’s Enigma,” Simon Singh

I adore Simon Singh’s history of science (and math) writing because he turns even arcane subject matter into a finely crafted story. Much of the story involves Andrew Wiles, a Princeton professor of mathematics who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, a problem that had been open for several hundred years.

“Incompleteness”, Rebecca Goldstein

Yes, Rebecca Goldstein gets two books, although this one is a biography of logician Kurt Godel. Roughly a third of it is set at the Institute for Advanced Study and while it has a requisite Einstein scene there’s not much other Princeton content or context. Consider this the real life source material for “The Mind-Body Problem.”

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By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach

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