Practice Makes Perfect

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No Limit Hold'em Theory and Practice
by David Sklansky and Ed Miller

David Sklansky and 2+2 publishing are known for their high level of poker scholarship and the latest release No Limit Hold'em Theory and Practice is no exception. The book sets out to cover all of the complexities of the game of NLHE with the same degree of exacting detail Sklansky has treated other games with in previous volumes. Although the explosion of NLHE is already three years old, and has been gaining popularity since 2000, for a long time it was quite neglected and there are large gaps in the poker literature. This book sets out to fill those gaps, and does an admirable job of it.

The first poker book I ever read cover to cover was Lou Krieger's Hold'em Excellence (click for review), which is a great introductory volume with a pretty hand ranking chart in full color for easy access on the back. This book will help the novice learn the game quickly and effectively and even have a good shot at being profitable. It will never make you a great player, and in fact a lot of the methodology can stunt your growth as a player if you don't learn how to adapt and try new things. One bold inset from Theory and Practice (TAP) sums this up nicely- "A system of hand rankings … is worse than useless".

What this means is all that time I spent staring at that pretty multicolored chart of hand rankings telling me what to play in which position allowed me to reach a level of play that has a very definitive plateau, and without departing from that way of thinking I will be trapped in it forever. But hope is not lost! First of all, I found Pocketfives, and realized there is much, much more to this game than I ever imagined from all of the discussions I've followed here and the opportunities I have had to watch great players at work.

Also, I branched out, I discovered the Harrington books, which are the best tournament NLHE guides available, bar none. I went back and gave Hold'em Poker for Advanced Players another shot, even though it made my head spin the first time I tried to read it. I paid attention to what successful players are doing and asked questions when I had the chance. I have yet to read Theory of Poker, which is next on my list as I’ve heard it is the bedrock of poker literature, so maybe lacking that basis TAP was more challenging for me. Either way this book should be on the shelf of every serious student of the game and anyone who plays for profit.

Another bit that particularly impressed me regarding the “call bluff”, which is calling on the flop in order to set up bluffing opportunities on the turn and river:

“Some people think the call bluff is a particularly clever play… But it’s no cleverer than any other play. Don’t be too enamored with yourself when you pull one off successfully. It’s all in a day’s work.”

A poker player is nothing without confidence, but many people confuse confidence with ego, and Sklansky lets no opportunity to strip your ego bare pass by. There are kinder gentler books out there that do this too, like Zen and the Art of Poker and the Tao of Poker, which teach the Buddhist principles of selflessness and rejection of ego at the poker table. Sklanksy and Miller just slap you around and remind you that you’re nothing special. Different approaches, same result- you can’t play this game successfully if your image controls you rather than the other way around.

A question that comes up quite frequently in the forums is “How do I beat bad players?” or, “Should I move up in levels? I think I will be more profitable against better players.” TAP answers these questions more succinctly and clearly than I have ever seen it put before. In a section called “Multiple Level Thinking” they describe the levels of thought that you can approach each poker decision with, starting with “zeroeth level” or “what do I have”, aka “what are my cards”. Then you can take into account what your opponent may have. Going a level deeper you can try to decide what he thinks YOU may have, and so on. Here’s the kicker:

“you can think only one level deeper than your opponent, as for instance the third level means thinking about how your opponent may be reasoning on the second level. If your opponent doesn’t think on the second level, then your third level won’t be applicable.”

Eureeka! The answer at last! Most of us have known for a long time that at micro limits you have to play showdown poker most of the time, and just try to maximize your +EV situations based on hand values. This is because MOST of your opponents aren’t even thinking past 0th level! You can’t bluff someone who doesn’t put you on a hand to begin with. Playing against more sophisticated opponents won’t help you be more profitable unless you are capable of also stepping your game up to a level ABOVE theirs. Don’t get too attached to thinking like a Quantum Physicist,

“The key to no limit isn’t always thinking on the fourth or fifth level. Usually thinking that deeply is unnecessary and only likely to lead you to absurd conclusions about what’s going on”.

In other words, “Tailor your thinking to your situation and opponent. If you can reliably figure out how your opponents think and stay one step ahead of them, you’ll make a lot of money.”

I am a reader. I have always loved books and spent a lot of my time reading, so when I began to take poker seriously it was natural for me to explore the game through books. But as I read and learned more, one thing kept coming up- the only real way to learn this game is by playing it. Poker schools and books ease the transition and can accelerate your learning curve, but there is no substitute for the lessons found at the table. Layer upon layer of information is there for the taking if you are observant and dedicated enough to read between the lines, take risks, try new things, keep records, compare notes with other players, take more risks, and just let the cards fall where they may. This is not a game of cards, it is a game of infinite patience and infinite imagination.

Sklansky and Miller never once tell you “If you hold XY you should do Z”. Instead they approach the game in segments, explaining each poker “move” with intricate detail and analysis. With this range of hands you might do A 50% if the time, B 20% of the time, C 20% of the time and something completely different 10% of the time. As we have found time and again in the forums, the answer in poker is invariably “It depends”. This can be very frustrating for the novice and intermediate player who are just looking for answers. My only advice for you is, be patient. While you may feel you are wading into quicksand, if you take it slowly eventually you may learn to walk on water. Or at least do the back float. In the meantime, pick yourself up a pair of water wings at your local online retailer or corner book shop: No Limit Hold’em Theory and Practice. It won't make you an Olympic swimmer, but it may save you from drowning.