Poker Reviews: Blogs, a DVD, and Books

“No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en;
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”

–William Shakespeare
Apologies to my loyal readers, as this post marks the first in three weeks, but working for the fastest growing Online Poker Room in the world has left me with little time and even less energy. I can happily report that the few sessions I’ve put in at the tables (virtual and real) have been extremely profitable, and the cards have been kind.
I haven’t had any poker epiphanies, but I thought I’d run through some stuff that’s been on my mind or that has made me think a little bit harder about my game.
Full Tilt Poker: bigger and better every day
If you haven’t noticed, hand histories are now available for Full Tilt Poker ring games and are now supported by Poker Tracker. It took a while, but we got there!
Also, congrats to my man Bill Rini who has taken the plunge and signed his soul over to Full Tilt Poker. Bill will be a great addition to the Full Tilt team, and I look forward to building the site along his side.
Old school Online Poker Wisdom
Props go out to one of the few remaining original heroes of RGP, Mr. Andrew Prock. For those of you that are unfamiliar, Prock’s blog is an infrequently updated treasure chest of nuggets of superb limit holdem wisdom. Rarely do I find myself reading a Prock post where I don’t find my self saying, “damn, why didn’t I think of it like that.” Enough with the praise, here are two recent posts that had me awestruck at the simplicity of optimal strategy in such a complex game:
Prock on “The Wall”
“The Wall” is a pretty standard strategy used in limit games by most of the better players. It is a very simple strategy, and applicable to a wide range of hands and situations.

  • When you have the initiative, bet.
  • If you lose the initiative, call.

Prock on “The Biggest Leak”
For most average players, their biggest leak is that they call too much under all circumstances. You see this in the low limit fish on every round of play. You see this in the high limit fish postflop tenacity.
Both of the above seem so common-sensical to be obvious, but meditating on them a bit makes one realize how many levels of thinking are involved in limit poker. I’ve always been a strong advocate of Occam’s Razor, the principle which states: Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred.. Maybe I’m a romantic game-theorist, but I think Occam’s Razor applies to games: the simplest strategy is usually the best. Thanks for the wisdom Andy.
Poker on DVD
Final Table Poker With Phil Gordon
I finally got a chance to check out Phil Gordon’s Poker DVD, and was pleasantly surprised by both the quality of the production as well as the strength of the instruction. In short, the DVD is an excellent walk-through of the way a world-class tournament player (although some people might argue otherwise, I truly believe Phil is one of the best NL tourney players when he’s got his A game) thinks about many difficult situations in the context of a tournament.
The DVD takes you through Phil’s thought process at the final table in a simulated WPT event, and covers a variety of different situations that arise in every tournament. For stone-cold beginners looking to learn how to play tournament poker, this is a great start, since it really illustrates the many levels of thinking involved in no-limit tournament play, while also focusing on fundamental concepts such as pot odds and starting hands. For intermediate players, it will help them improve the way they think about their final table play– the first time I was caught at a final table against a group of tough players, I wasn’t sure how to adjust my game from survival mode to attack mode, and ended up being outplayed by more experience players. Final Table Poker prepares the intermediate player for the wide range of situations that can come up at the final table, giving the player some “virtual experience” to draw on when they make it to the final table in a real tournament.

The DVD’s biggest strength is that it’s very well suited for “situational learners.” Many people have difficulty immersing themselves in a poker tournament– there are so many variables to account for, and books that try to create a context for decision often fall short at attempts to immerse the reader in the environment. For example, although Harrington’s books offer some great problems to ponder, it’s usually difficult for me to get a feel for the table from lead-ins like:
Situation: Late in a major tournament. The table is a mix of conservative and aggressive players.
The biggest strength of Final Table Poker is that you’re forced to sit behind Phil for an hour and a half, and have no choice but to observe the tendencies of the other players. Thus, when the decision points come up, you can understand the decision in the context of the game far better than you can in any book.
For a much more in-depth review, I recommend checking out Bill Rini’s review here. Bill is rarely wrong with his reads, and his review is on the money.
Bottom Line: If you’re a a newcomer to tournament poker, an intermediate player who lacks final table experience, or consider yourself a “situational learner,” you’ll get your money’s worth from Final Table Poker. While there probably is nothing new for experienced tournament players, the DVD is genuinely funny and entertaining to watch.
Poker in Print
One of a Kind: Rise and Fall of Stuey Ungar
I just finished “One of a Kind: Rise and Fall of Stuey Ungar” the Nolan Dalla/Peter Alson, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. The book is a biography of Stuey’s life from childhood to death, held together by actual quotes collected by Dalla in the 90’s before Stuey’s death.
Dalla and Alson tell many great stories about Stuey’s incredible talent for gambling and insatiable appetite for action, but seemed hesitant to explore the dark side of Ungar. The book offers many explanations for what made him so great at any card game he played, but there is little exploration of the demons that drove Stuey to his many vices. The authors leave it to the reader to determine Ungar’s propensity for things that hurt the people that cared about him.
Bottom Line: “One of a Kind” was an interesting read, and the interspersion of quotes from “The Kid” himself give the reader a chance to get inside the mind of Ungar. I’m usually not a huge fan of biographies, and I found some parts of the book to be uninteresting, but there are enough great stories in it to make it a worthwhile read.
The Professor, The Banker, and the Suicide King
I won’t say too much about this book other than “read it.” This one was difficult to put down from start to finish, and contains some great stories told by a great writer. Hats off to Michael Craig for capturing the crazy world of ultra-high-stakes poker. According to a reliable source, Craig was able to get the real inside story behind many of the craziest bets and biggest games in poker over the past decade. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Craig’s tales, some of which were so crazy that they seem almost like folklore.
Alright it’s time to hit the tables. I still have to plow through Harrington on Hold Em Volume II and Barry Greenstein’s “Ace on the River,” but that’ll have to wait until after I test my luck against the fish. Good cards to everyone not at my table, and thanks for reading.


BG organized a poker tournament this Sunday in memory of Jason’s friend, Charlie Tuttle.
I encourage everybody to sign up, even if you don’t have the time to play. The prize pool goes to a good cause.

WPBT “Charlie” Tournament
No Limit Hold’Em

Tournament 9680072
Sunday, July 17th
18:00 ET
$20 buy-in

Look undet the Private Tourneys tab. The buy-in will go to
Charlie’s family to do with as they like.

Climbing the Limit Poker Mountain

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”
–Abigail Adams
Over a year ago, I wrote about reaching a plateau in my knowledge of limit poker. The light-bulb moments of discovery so common during the head-first plunge into holdem had become so infrequent that I felt my knowledge had reached some sort of plateau. I knew there was much more to learn, but couldn’t figure out how to climb any higher, advancing my knowledge and reaching the peak. And here I am a year later, playing much higher limits and having a much better “feel” for the game, but I still feel like there’s a long way to go to reach the top of the mountain.
During last year’s WSOP, Jesse May investigated the freakish playing style of Ted Forrest. At the time, I hadn’t seen much of Ted’s play, but what I had seen impressed me. I can’t explain what it was, but every time I saw Ted, it looked like he knew something that his opponents didn’t know. Some sort of poker secret that gave him a little bit of an edge over the other world class players sitting at his table.
And then I read this paragraph:
“But as far as I can tell, about eight to ten years ago Ted Forrest got into running poker simulations through a computer. He got together with the Eight or Better Kid, that maniacal pudge faced infuriatingly always right paranoid control freak from the Midwest USA, and they started running simulations that nobody had thought of. Weird simulations, flexible maybes, particular situations with certain kinds of players involving percentages of things that might possibly be happening. I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I seen what it did to them. I seen strange looks on their faces and strange glints in their eyes. They don’t play like everybody else, and I seen them spin people round and round and round.”
Simulation. And hard work. Stuff that nobody’s ever done. All of these things struck a chord, and I thought I finally understood Ted Forrest’s ever-present mischevious smile.
Rewind to May of 2003. After playing 30,000 hands of Turbo Texas Hold Em on my PC, I strolled into Hollywood Park casino, ready to take on the $2-$4 game. Beating other players seemed easier than squeaking out a small edge against the house at the Blackjack tables, and I figured nobody else at the $2-$4 table even knew what Turbo Texas Hold Em was. I had to be at least even money in this game. I’d never played online, so this would be my first time playing for real money.
After figuring out how to post the blinds and act in turn, I started to look beyond my cards and observe the other players. I noticed that they played a lot worse than the computer players on Turbo Texas Hold Em. I noticed that I seemed to be the only one who folded more often than called, and that the concept of “implied odds” and “pot odds” seemed unknown to the other players. They all seemed to have one thing in common: they were there to gamble.
As I continued to gain experience at the live tables and the virtual tables, I began to see that my advantage over my opponents came mostly from two things: discipline and knowledge accumulated away from the table. Unlike my opponents, I wasn’t there to gamble. I was there to play my best poker and the discipline to throw away my cards when I didn’t have the best of it gave me an advantage over people who were happy to put their money in on a coin flip. These same opponents also weren’t interested in studying the game, putting in the long hours away from the table thinking about such fine-grained concepts as how much equity suited aces have in multi-way pots.
The only real advice I ever got about poker was excellent, and came from a fellow card-counter who had made the switch to poker. His advice: “move up in limits as fast as you can.” He didn’t specify what “you can” meant, but my interpretation was “as fast as your bankroll will allow.”
As my bankroll grew and allowed it, I moved up in limits. The players were much tougher, but still lacked discipline and had flaws in their game when it came to the mathematical side of the game. Experience is a great teacher, but most people have a hard time with probability, odds, and mathematical concepts in general. My tough opponents still seemed to make a lot of small mistakes despite the fact that they had been playing this game for years.
The stakes were getting higher, and some of the players were getting better, but still, most of my opponents came to the table to gamble. I continued to study the works of two players who seemed to understand the value of computer simulations, Abdul Jalib and Izmet Fekali. Both men had come up with strategy suggestions that differed significantly from that offered by the old-school poker theorists such as Sklansky and Malmuth, and they seemed to be right.
Every time I sat down at the table against opponents with more experience than me, I was bolstered by the confidence of countless hours of studying the game, as well as the results of millions of simulated hands that my opponents had never seen. I felt that I was a “student of the game,” and combined with discipline and focus, this made up for any disadvantage I had in experience.
At this point I was convinced that simulations seemed to hold the key to gaining and edge over my opponents. They had experience and knowledge, but if even the mighty Sklansky couldn’t figure out optimal strategy, then there was much to be learned from simulations. Experience was important too, but great poker players are not made by experience alone.
Back to Ted Forrest.
“I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I seen what it did to them. I seen strange looks on their faces and strange glints in their eyes. They don’t play like everybody else, and I seen them spin people round and round and round.”
How do you get an edge over people who have mastered this game? If all of the experts know the odds and how to exploit their tiny edges, how do you beat the experts? What is the difference between the best players in the game and the good players in the game?
The tiny percentages of Expected Value that accumulate by making the right play over and over again in the toughest situations differentiate the great from the good. I’m convinced that these tiny edges can be discovered through careful and thoughtful simulation.
Now that I’ve accumulated some experience and studied all the works of the great minds of poker, it’s time for me to make some of my own discoveries. As an undergrad, I shored up my knowledge of many subjects, carefully studying the findings and contributions of the experts to their respective fields. In graduate school, it was time to take these concepts and discover something on my own– make my own contribution to the field through new ways of applying what I’d learned as an undergrad.
So I’ve begun my ascent toward the peak of limit hold ’em knowledge. Running simulation after simulation and thinking hard about the results of each one isn’t always fun, but the end of the climb is always the hardest part. If I’m ever going to find an edge over the great players, it’s not going to be because of my experience or natural card sense. However, I do think I may be able to “out-study” them.
All simulation and no play makes HDouble a dull boy, but hopefully a dull boy who knows the game inside and out.
What are you doing to improve your game? What are your opponents doing?