shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

In this very brief essay in Poker, Gaming, and Life, Sklansky argues:

Few people realize how much even expert players are the mercy of luck in the short run. One of the most dramatic ways to show this is by [pointing out that] no one could beat a draw game if they were never dealt a pat straight or better. [...] Without these occasional super hands being dealt to them, even the expert players could at best hope to break even.

For those who have never played draw, consider this to be roughly the same as never flopping a set or better in HE.

This is amazing to consider. If you “run bad”, you just cannot win. Luck is mandatory.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

I've been reading some older 2+2 titles recently. Sklanksy and Malmuth have this wonderful way of describing things that reminds me of my graduate school texts. I suppose you have to have gone to graduate school for some science-related field to actually enjoy that dry, dense writing.

I finished Sklansky's Poker, Gaming, and Life, and half of Malmuth's Poker Essays, both of which are collections of essays written for Card Player and other magazines in the late 1980s and 1990s.

One of the general themes that amazes me is their constant discussion of “systems”. It's clear that during the period when writing these essays, their simple ideas for poker planning were new. In many of the essays, they seem forced to actively defend the idea that winning players should treat poker like an endeavor centered around an hourly win rate, which is computed based on how much of a favorite the player is to the game she's selected. On the corners of every essay, they defend the now obvious idea that concepts like “loss limits” and “quitting while ahead” are completely silly for the winning player. In those days, it seems that the idea that you should quit a game only if you aren't a favorite or if your non-poker life calls you away was novel.

I read these defenses and imagine that during the late 80s and early 90s (while I was busy winning a mere $20/week in penny-ante wild-card games and didn't even know that “real poker” even existed) must have been a time of some enlightenment in the poker world. There were people, probably even pros, walking around who believed that the “quit while you are up” strategy was somehow smart play, no matter how good the game was. I suppose these were the same people who walked around saying that Internet thing is just for computer nerds.

Of course, the interesting shred of truth in the win/loss threshold approach (and one that Sklansky and Malmuth ignore, since they are writing only to the winners) is that the system works really well for losing players. Someone who is not a favorite to the game should let the short term luck wash over them and run off with the money if they are lucky enough to get hold of some. And, likewise, when they can't get luck on their side, they are better off running from the games as quickly as they can to limit the amount that strong players can extract from them.

(As a tangent, this is why the only thing that really upsets me in poker is the hit-and-run. It's just about the only strategy a bad player can use to defeat good players — forbidding the cards to even out and allow the good player to recover against the short term luck. In essence, the “quit when your up” is the only weapon the weak player has in her arsenal against a better field.)

I can imagine, though, despite how wrong-headed the beat-the-system approach to poker seems today, that Skalansky's and Malmuth's messages were hard for people to hear. Many people chose life as professional poker players so they didn't have to think about spreadsheets and hourly rates and marketing to the right customer base (i.e., choosing games where you're a favorite). The truth is, if you want to be a pro, or even a regularly winning player, you are just a weird sort of entertainer looking for people who actually want to see your show. You're the travelling circus that has to trick people into thinking the freak show is worth paying for. You are running a business, even if (for the recreational player) only a hobby one. You have to treat it as such and let go of the fanciful notions that somehow you are getting something for nothing.

The idea of “beating the system” using some strategy — be it a win/loss stop or anything else — is a fantasy. Playing poker for a living isn't beating the system; it's actually in a pretty simplistic way of being a cog in the machine. Grinding, that verb we use to describe the profitable poker we all hate to play, is what the real pros actually do.

It's always good when clear thinkers come along and burst the delusional bubbles. And, Sklansky and Malmuth have been doing it for decades. I suppose there must be people out there still living in the bubble, believing that some system gives them the power to beat the games. If so, they should probably all go out and buy these books. :)

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

[ This is the third part in a continuing series called So, You Want To Start Playing Poker?. The series is designed to help new players learn some basics about starting poker from the ground up.]

In a post about what game structure to select, I recommended two possible games: limit HE and NL HE. In this article, I discuss what books and materials are best to read for beginning the former.

Compared to NL HE, limit HE is much more of a technical game. Your understanding of the mathematical odds, starting hand selection, and technical details of play will determine much of your success at the lowest limits of HE. You'll need lots of practice to understand the concepts involved, but much of the hard information you'll need is available in books.

Jones Is Your Best First Choice

The book that opens most players' eyes to poker “book learning” is Lee Jones' Winning Low Limit Hold 'Em. It's the book I used when I taught the poker course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I read it many times myself when starting limit. The cover literally fell off of my copy of Lee Jones' first edition. While his second edition covers some things about NL HE, it is basically only for online “Sit and Go” tournaments.

Lee Jones does a very good job helping you understand starting hand selection and the very basics of preflop odds, pot odds and implied odds (and their limited use in limit HE). However, I believe his starting hand selection suggestions are far too loose. If you follow his starting hand recommendations exactly, you'll find yourself in a number of complicated situations. Granted, you'll have position (acting last — a central component of HE poker) when these situations come up. But, there is really no reason for a new player to make marginal choices. Avoid the goofier hands he suggests for late position.

The other downside to Jones' book, one that I didn't discover until much later, is that the material is carefully tuned for play in the extremely loose limit HE games of California. California poker is somewhat unique, because many people in the games are playing poker not because of a direct interest in the game, but because it's the only available legalized “gambling” there. Many individuals who would be playing other games (say, craps) are playing poker instead. This leads to many a poker hand played out more like a craps roll. Jones' advice is designed for those types of games — as if you are playing the house against people taking 8 the hard way.

Those caveats aside, Lee Jones' book is probably the most important book on limit HE on the market. I mention these downsides only to make sure you don't treat it as a poker bible, the way many of us did when we started with limit HE. It's a great book and you'll learn a lot. However, try to move quickly to getting enough knowledge and experience to see the places where Jones is giving bad advice for those games you play and learn to adjust it to suit your needs.

Krieger May Be Overrated

Many people recommend Lou Krieger's Hold'Em Excellence series of books for beginners. I'm less enthusiastic about them than most. I like Lou and think he writes well, but I think his books fail to give enough step-by-step advice (i.e., “when you have situation X, usually you should do Y”). New players really need this type of advice as they get started. Lou focuses more on general concepts for beginning to win. Of course, they are good concepts, but I think you'll pick them up just as easily in other books that also include step-by-step advice.

Lou is also the co-author of Poker for Dummies. Despite the inappropriate titles (I don't think someone who lacks knowledge and seeks it is ever a dummy), I'm actually a fan of some of the dummy books. Their editors are usually good at designing books to give good quick introductions. I read Poker for Dummies early in my poker learning process. I was less impressed with it than other dummy books, primarily because it tried to cover all forms of poker in one volume, which is really difficult for new players. Poker is just one of these areas where you have to start a bit specialized. Trying to generalize too early will only make it difficult for you to begin booking wins early; this may decimate your confidence. Poker is somewhat unique in that you can get benefit from specializing early, but try not to stay one for too long.

Maybe Burton To Start?

I can't help but mention the book that got me started with limit HE. I was going on a Foxwoods vacation with my in-laws, and had just discovered that casino poker actually existed (more on that sometime when I write a history of how I got into poker). I literally ran (they were about to close) the night before to the book store, after googling around for more information. I found a book written by's casino author, Bill Burton.

Reviews of his book, Get the Edge at Low-Limit Texas Hold'em say that he teaches a “tight-weak” strategy. However, if you want an overnight crash course so you won't be a total fish at extremely low limits, this may be the right book. It's written very simplistically with basic ideas and simple-minded tactics. I found it got me up to speed so I could hold my own without burning through too much bankroll as a total HE newbie, playing the $2/$4 limit HE games at Foxwoods. Tight-weak doesn't do too bad in these games, because no one there makes any bluffs, and raises in multi-way pots nearly always mean the nuts or close to it. Burton basically recommends simple statistical play, gaining most of your edge from starting hand selection and folding unless you flop top-pair, strong kicker or better. This approach actually does work in the loosest, highest rake, lowest limit games at the casino. (Remember, BTW, that the rake is really heavy at the lowest limits and you can sometimes be a favorite to a game but an underdog to the rake.)

Be Selective With Books, Just Like With Starting Hands

There are so many poker books on the market now you could break your first bankroll just buying the books. Try to get books you aren't sure about from the library first (if you can — few libraries carry a strong poker book selection), or borrow from a friend (those in NYC are welcome to contact me if they'd like to borrow some). Read through them first to see if they are worth owning and rereading. Nearly every poker book (even Hellmuth's stinker of a book, Play Poker Like the Pros, which I borrowed from Boston Public Library) that I've seen is worth a quick read, but few are worth owning. Poker books are expensive under the theory that you can “win the cost of the book in one session of applying its principles”. But, I'm not a fan of this theory. Some poker books are more or less a scam by pros to find some extra easy money; Hellmuth's is the best example. Make sure you pick the good ones that many other players recommend.


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