‘The Education of a Poker Player’ is a masterwork of poker lore and advice, with a suitably acerbic introduction from Mr. Fleming, in fine sarcastic form. Ian Fleming was drawn to Herbert O. Yardley not least for gaming and high living, but as an icon in U.S. intelligence.
If it were possible to have worse laws than our sex laws they would be the laws that regulate gambling… To deal only with what is relevant to this brief note, while twenty million adults gamble on the football pools each week, ten million on horse-racing and five million on premium bonds, playing poker for money, a legal game over half the world including most of the British Commonwealth, is illegal. And really illegal.
The Hamilton, a respectable private London card club, found this out in a police action which effectively warned the whole of England off the game. In 1945, at Bow Street, it cost them £500. The grounds for this action? That poker is not a game of skill! Of course an old woman who marks her football coupon and wins £70,000 for her shilling bet has done nothing but study football form for 50 years. No luck in that little gamble! Moreover, she and the other 20 million experts bring in £22 million a year to the Exchequer while the poker player brings in nothing. So the pools are legal and poker isn’t. Balderdash, and hypocritical balderdash at that, to the power of n.
Which brings me, after the smoke has cleared, to this book. It is a book whose publication in London I am proud to have fathered. The circumstances were these. Knowing that I love cards, a friend sent me a cutting from an American magazine that handsomely ‘trailed’ The Education of a Poker Player with some of the late Mr Yardley’s most intriguing hands. I at once sent to America for the book, was delighted with it and gave some copies away for Christmas. The next time I talked to my publishers, Messrs Jonathan Cape, I urged them to publish the book here. They demurred.
No one in the British Isles played poker. It would not do well. I said that the book contained only a dozen pages of instruction – brilliant instruction – and that the rest was a hatful of some of the finest gambling stories I had ever read. It didn’t matter that the game was poker. These were wonderful, thrilling stories about cards. The book would certainly become a gambling classic. English card players would read it and love it. The book had zest, blood, sex, and a tough, wry humour reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. It was sharply, tautly written. It would be a bestseller – well, anyway, it would look very well on the backlist. The mention of this holy word in publishing was, I think, the clincher. Cape’s readers, that sapient, humorous, receptive duet, read the book. Yes, it was certainly all that I had said. Perhaps, if I would write a preface… I said I would and here it is and here is the book that Mr Yardley wrote.
Myself, as fine writers phrase it, I am not a good poker player. I drink and smoke and enjoy the game too much. You shouldn’t do any of these things if you want to win at poker. Poker is a cold-hearted, deadly game that breaks and bankrupts men today just as, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, écarté, backgammon, ombre and faro bankrupted our rakehelly ancestors. The last time I played poker, I lost more than I could afford in rich brassy company in a house at Sunningdale in what is now know as ‘The Canasta Belt’. These people would introduce variations which I was mocked for not understanding. In the end, numb with martinis and false bonhomie, I pretended I understood the intricacies of ‘Minnie Everley‘. I remember the name but not the variation. It was named in memory of one of the Everley sisters who in Chicago at the turn of the century kept the finest brothel America had ever known. The chamber pots were of solid gold and the sisters paraded their girls through the town, be-feathered and be-flounced, in open landaus, every Sunday morning when the bells were ringing and the quality of Chicago were on the streets and making for the churches.
I learned all this afterwards. At the time and in the name of Minnie, I played a ragged, brash game that cost me dear. I was fleeced and deserved to be. I would not have been fleeced if I had read Mr Yardley’s book and if I had, above all, digested the card-playing philosophy which lies behind his stories and his instruction. Every fine card player I have ever known has this philosophy, but I will caution you that very few fine card players are the sort of people you and I would like to play with.
It’s not fun playing against cold-hearted butchers, however soft their words, and as you read about them in these gay, smoke-filled pages I think you will often feel a chill of apprehension. But it will be an authentic chill. That is why, not as a poker player, but as a writer of thrillers, I can recommend this book to every consenting adult card player in Great Britain.
Herbert Osborne Yardley (April 13, 1889 – August 7, 1958) was an American cryptologist best known for his book The American Black Chamber (1931). The title of the book refers to the Cipher Bureau, the cryptographic organization of which Yardley was the founder and head. Under Yardley, the cryptanalysts of The American Black Chamber broke Japanese diplomatic codes and were able to furnish American negotiators with significant information during the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922. He later helped the Nationalists in China (1938–1940) to break Japanese codes.
His 1957 book on poker, Education of a Poker Player, which combined poker stories with the math behind the poker strategies, sold well. Another book of cryptographic memoirs, The Chinese Black Chamber, about his work in China, was declassified and published in 1983.