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.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

[ This is the second part in a continuing series about starting playing poker from the ground up.]

There are two sets of choices to make when picking which poker game to learn first. The first choice is whether or not you'll start with limit poker or “big bet” poker. The second choice is which specific game to learn first.

Before I give further advice on this choice, I should note that those of you that might be invited to a game at the home of a friend might be facing an existing structure. Due to televised popularity, many home games are the two games I will recommend in this article — either purely limit texas hold'em (usually spoken as “limit hold'em” and abbreviated in writing as “limit HE”) or no-limit HE (abbreviated in writing as “NL HE”). However, there are still many home games in the USA that are “dealer's choice” of some sort.

Personally, I started with dealer's choice poker myself, and I found it a useful introduction to poker. However, I was playing for extremely low stakes. I would certainly warn against starting too soon with mixed games (more or less, another name for dealer's choice) for stakes that are enough to hurt.

A few years ago, I used to tell people outright to start with limit HE. I felt then that a number of factors demanded that one start there. First of all, it's the easiest way to limit one's losses. Mistakes aren't that expensive. Low-limit HE (up until about $5/$10) is also a straight-forward game that you can beat with some basic discipline, knowledge of the odds, and patience.

It's honestly tough to recommend that one only play limit HE at first given the current state of poker, unless you happen to live near a public poker room (in CA, CT, or NJ) that has constant juicy limit HE games. NL HE has taken over the poker world by storm. On the Internet, many sites have much juicier NL HE action than limit HE. Indeed, on many sites, limit HE games are so filled with multi-tabling sharks that it's very tough for an newbie to avoid losing.

However, the problem in starting with NL HE is two-fold. First, mistakes are extremely costly, and the bankroll requirements for a new player can be large. You can mitigate this some by playing extremely tight, which tends to work ok at big casinos and online — where player turnover at the tables usually keeps you from being pegged as “tight-weak” and getting run over. However, in the home game world, it's tough to play extremely tight and get enough action on your good hands, unless you opponents are truly horrible players. OTOH, you should probably take the losses and still start a bit “tight weak“, as the variance (the amount your bankroll fluctuates up and down from session to session) will be substantially less than any other approach. This worked pretty well for me when I started NL HE; I got run over some, but didn't lose too much.

The second problem with NL HE as a game for newbies is that still, even to this day in the middle of the NL HE boom, there are very few books at the lowest introductory level designed for NL HE cash games. Sure, there are at least a dozen starter books for new players who want to try tournament NL HE. Some of those books “pretend” to be about cash games but are really written by tournament experts who aren't the sharp cash game players they once were. There are precious few books designed for new NL HE cash game players. There are a few gems out there, but I know from my own learning that they were far over my head until I had at least a few thousands hands of NL HE experience behind me.

I have been unsuccessful in my arguments to keep people away from NL HE as a starter game. The interest and draw seems too great. So, I inevitably live with the fact that new players will be drawn in and they'll have to fly blind for a while.

In next week's post, I'll be nonetheless suggesting starting books for both limit HE and NL HE.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

I have been asked a number of times by friends and acquaintances about poker. It is USAmericans' favorite game, and was so even before the boom. Post-boom, it's ok now for even the intellectual elite, who would otherwise frown on “gambling”, to like and enjoy poker.

I am somewhat used to the “Oh, so you're a doctor, I wanted to ask you...” syndrome of being a good poker player. As someone who also knows about computers, I have often been the person whom friends and acquaintances come to and ask their computer questions. Since I have barely ever used Microsoft products, I'm usually no help there — to their surprise. However, in poker, I'm well versed and knowledgeable in the ways that they need me to be, since I started from the very bottom games that interest new players.

When I started teaching my friend Dan how to play, [ profile] roryk told me:

It seems fun and innocent and cool to be teaching someone, until one of the people you get into playing cards completely destroys their life with it. 90% of the people are suckers in the games, and more likely than not if you get someone playing, they are going to be a sucker. [...] So just save yourself some hassle and tell them not to get involved and that it is a brutal, frustrating game.

I gave that advice serious consideration, but in the end, rejected it (Sorry [ profile] roryk). I have never had anyone come to me to ask about poker whom I judged to be susceptible to losing themselves in addiction. I have a good sense for this, but even if I do screw up and get someone involved who can't handle it, I am certainly not going to blame myself. Should everyone who ever served an alcoholic their first drink blame themselves? Of course not, it isn't their fault; it's a mix of bad genetics, bad environment, and a lack of self-control on the part of the alcoholic.

I model poker as an example of the typical USAmerican male hobby. Upper-middle class men spend a lot of money on their hobbies. Think of golf, for example. I know men who must dump a grand or two each and every year into their golf habits. They'll never make a dime of that back, of course. It's our culture; the “pursuit of happiness” appears right there in a one of our founding documents. Golf makes some men happy, so they dump all their so-called “disposable income” into it.

[ profile] roryk is right, of course, many experts estimate that 90% of regular poker players are long-term losers. I've never seen hard data, nor a even rigorously computed estimation of that number, but it's still probably correct. But being one of the 90% is far from having a problem. If the player doesn't have a gambling problem, there isn't any inherent additional harm in giving poker a go and dropping a few grand a year in poker instead of golf. Indeed, poker losses can surely be mitigated by careful study to no more than any other hobby someone might undertake. And, the new player might even end up a winner for the year. I think it's a fun hobby and a great way to study the psychology of others, regardless of financial outcome.

The first thing I always tell people who have interest in poker, is that they will be losers forever unless they plan a rigorous, diligent, involved and constant learning process that will take up a large portion of their free time. As a new player, you must realize that to become a strong player, it takes study and lots and lots of active practice (not the passive practice of playing without an eye to game improvement). It takes discipline, concentration and nerves of steel. But, it's also rewarding, just as it is always rewarding to engage in competitive hard work with direct financial reward.

Having heard the caveats, you may still want to give poker a go. You have some “disposable income” and want to take your shot. Then, I suggest you set a budget for the hobby and be disciplined about it. It can be disheartening to realized you don't have the time to put in to learn how to beat the games, but any hobby one might engage in can turn out that way, despite substantial financial investments. It's important that you make an up-front budgeting decision on how much you're willing to spend on the hobby and stick to it. I am sure that every day, a USAmerican man realizes he's never going to be that good of a golfer but that he'll keep playing anyway because he enjoys it, but he surely does so on a budget.

Anyway, the upshot is that I have no qualms about helping people learn poker, with the caveats set forth. So, then the next question always comes: How do I get started and what type of game should I play? What should I read? Where should I go to start playing?.

I've answered these questions many times over during the past few years. I've decided, after [ profile] tmckearney asked a few questions and I started putting down the usual answers, that I'll instead do a series in this journal, geared to help complete poker newbies get started. Each Sunday night, until I run out of things to say, I'll make a post helping new players navigate their way through the world of poker.


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November 2016

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