Review of Frank Wallace’s “Poker: A Guaranteed Income For Life”

Poker: A Guaranteed Income For Life
Advanced Concepts of Poker

by Frank Wallace

I first read Frank Wallace’s Advanced Concepts of Poker in 1999. This was when I was first getting into higher-stakes poker, setting up dealer’s choice home games at my college, and trying to convince friends and random acquaintances to come over and lose some money to me.

The Internet was relatively new in those days. I did a search for poker strategy, and someone had scanned Wallace’s whole book and made it available as a download. I printed it out and read it several times. It was the basis of many of my still-present concepts of poker, and I still think it’s a great book. Even if it doesn’t touch on poker strategy, and even if it focuses too much on deception and taking advantage of degenerate gamblers, it is still a great, interesting read.

Frank Wallace was an interesting dude. He wrote Poker: A Guaranteed Income for Life in 1968. He self-published it, along with a few other poker books, and made a lot of money. He then got into philosophy/spiritualism, and published books about Neo-Tech, which people say was a modern take on Objectivism. It seems to share some similarities with Scientology in that Wallace claimed that he had access to secrets that would make the believers more successful and happy (though I doubt there was any mention of aliens).

Also, Wallace was convicted of tax evasion in the early 1990′s. The interesting thing was that he did not want to use the standard oath (“swear to tell the whole truth…” bit). He wanted to use his own oath he’d written himself, but they didn’t allow it. A few years later, another court rule that Wallace was actually legally able to do just that, so they had another trial where he used his own oath. He died in 2006 after being struck by a car. Just a really interesting (albeit weird and potentially scummy) dude.

Wallace’s poker book is all about getting edges on weak players. The book focuses on a home game where the main character, John Finn, continually takes advantage of a regular cast of mediocre and degenerate poker players. Unbeknownst to the regulars of the game, John Finn is a professional poker player who sets up and runs several home games, and plays in them pretty much constantly. (They think he’s just a teacher.)

Finn actively nurses these home games, like someone running a fish farm: he raises the stakes in a very calculated way; he promotes a loose, carefree atmosphere; he subtly ensures that the weakest players are encouraged to play while the stronger players are made to feel very unwelcome; he very calculatedly only wins as much money as the games can handle, because he could break the games at will.

John Finn is, in essence, a con artist. But he is not a cheater. He takes advantage of the weak tendencies in his fellow poker players, but he does nothing that is not available to other people. He does not mark cards; he does not stack the deck; he does not collude. But he is willing to lie to everyone’s face about his intentions and his actions, if it means it will gain him a small financial edge. In this respect, he is a pretty good role model not only for poker players, but for all young capitalists.

The main objection to his book was that people saw it as immoral. John Finn basically lies to people who consider him to be their friend. He lies about what he does for a living; he lies about how much he makes from the games; he lies about his skill level. You could view the book as a primer on how to take advantage of your friends and acquaintances.

Apart from the moral concerns inherent in deception (which you probably aren’t too worried about if you are truly interested in becoming the best poker player you can be) the book’s primary failing is in focusing way too much on deception and lying, and not enough on fundamental strategy. That wouldn’t be bad if Wallace pointed out how much skill good poker-playing required, and that he wouldn’t be addressing strategy in his book, but Wallace is calling his book ‘Advanced Concepts of Poker’, which implies he’ll be giving you some serious tools. Instead, we just get a lot of vignettes (interesting though they are) about how John Finn outsmarts a bunch of suckers.

Wallace leads you to believe that the main skill in poker is in these little psychological mind-games that are played, which does a great disservice to the immense amount of strategic expertise great poker-playing requires. Although I believe most people don’t realize just how important psychology is in poker, the kind of psychology Wallace is focusing on is mostly kindergarten-level stuff. (One example: at one point John Finn throws a sandwich he brought into a pot where he’s really strong, because he knows the players are hungry and this will make them stay in longer than they should.)

Okay, the book’s weaknesses aside, it does give great advice about what sets winning players apart from losing players. The winning player is able to think critically and objectively about what is happening around him, while the losing player thinks emotionally or weakly. Many of Wallace’s sections are variations on this theme. The winning poker player keeps extensive records on how much was won and lost during each session, not just for himself but for other players. The winning player keeps notes on the status of the games he plays in: are they stable?, could they handle a raise in stakes?, is another player needed? The winning player keeps notes on the psychological states and tells of the players he plays with. These are all really valuable ideas, and ones that got me on a good start in thinking very objectively about how I was doing overall in the game.

Also, one of the book’s strengths is just its writing. The interludes where he shows John Finn in action, mercilessly relieving his poker friends of money, are some of the best cases of poker writing I can think of. Wallace does demonstrate a good working knowledge of poker strategy in his writing, and it’s apparent to me that he had a good poker mind. His descriptions of the action are interesting and compelling. Mainly, it’s just really fun watching John Finn continually rape the other dudes, not just at the table, but in planning the games and his approach to the games.

By focusing on a set group of players, and by having ongoing plot lines amongst that group, Wallace does a really good job in keeping interest throughout the book. It’s something other poker writers could take a page from. All in all, I highly recommend this book, even with all its flaws.