Monday, October 20, 2008

Harrington on Cash Games

So I just started reading Harrington on Cash Games, Volume II, after completing the first volume a couple of weeks back by the well-respected author of the tournament book series bearing his name. To be sure, Harrington's tournament books -- in particular the first two volumes and really Volume II, changed tournament poker forever. Harrington was the first to define M in a public setting like his books, and the first to break down tournament decisions into different categories based on your M level. Harrington espoused a new and original approach to playing poker tournaments in his first two tournament books, one which millions of tournament players the world around read and incorporated into their own games. It might not be an exaggeration to credit Dan Harrington as influencing tournament poker from a strategic perspective more than just about any other individual alive over the past several years or so.

However, Harrington's cash game books -- so far, anyways -- suffer from I think some of the same flaws that Volume III in his tournament books series did: lack of originality, lack of strategic consistency, and exceedingly poor choice of examples. In a nutshell, Harrington wrote two incredible books on poker tournament strategy, and then, realizing how much more money he could make (and how much more easily) writing and selling poker books than actually playing poker, Harrington succumbed to the money-grab tendency that is so prevalent in today's society and decided to write a third volume in his tournament series, even though -- trust me on this one -- there wasn't a single shred of original thought in the book. Instead, he just called Volume III "the Workbook" and presented only a number of hand examples to illustrate the points made in his first two seminal tournament books. And now in 2008 he has moved on to books about cash games, which are nowhere near Harrington's bread and butter.

Harrington does not play in the "Big Game" or any of those larger cash games that we all hear of and read about. He's not features on High Stakes Poker or any of the other cash game programs that have been aired over the past few years on tv. And even though Harrington clearly espouses a tighter approach to the game than most people we know -- something which should generally work better in cash games than in tournaments, truth be told -- when has anyone ever mentioned Dan Harrington among the great cash game players out there? It's never happened. Because he's just not that good at cash poker. And Volume II on Cash Games so far belies that fact IMO.

The biggest issue I have with the first volume of Harrington's cash game treatise is that it simply does not get into any level of detail about any single aspect of cash game play. Even though I get a good laugh reading the criticism on the online poker forums about Sklansky and Miller's book on cash no-limit holdem, that book had quite a detailed and involved treatment of many aspects of the game, and was a very enjoyable read as a result. Harrington Volume II, on the other hand, did not. I mean, the best little tidbits you get out of his entire 300-some page text are that the credibility and believability of a player's bet is directly proportional to the number of players in the pot, or that one pair is not the kind of hand generally worth getting all-in with on the flop in anything resembling deep-stack nlh play. Now, while these two points are obviously true, there's just not a whole lot of depth or substance to them. Anybody's who's played even a modicum of nlh cash will surely have figured these two concepts out for him or herself, and since Harrington doesn't go any deeper than just these generalizations, it is difficult to ascribe too much value to Harrington making these points in his books.

The other big problem I have with Volume I on Cash Games is the examples Harrington chooses to illustrate the points he is making. First, he is inconsistent without explanation in some points, a very annoying flaw for the serious reader who is takig pains to absorb all of the author's points from cover to cover in an instructive poker text like this. For example in the hand examples near the end, after taking an entire book explaining the very correct point that one pair, no matter how high, is not worth risking one's entire stack on in deepstack play, Harrington details a hand where he advocates raising allin for a fairly deep stack with KQ in the blinds with just top pair King kicker. He gives some lame excuse for why this is a good move in this spot, but he can't get around one clear fact in this particular hand: it's not a good move. It's a terrible move. And, it goes patently against the advice he himself gives all throughout the rest of the material he chooses to present. That is very annoying to a reader like me, and in fact tends to undermine the entirety of the advice he gives elsewhere in his book.

The other significant problem with Harrington's hand examples in Volume I on Cash Games is a repeat of a huge problem from Volume III on tournament play -- he picks examples and then gives his advice on how to play them, but he does so clearly with foreknowledge of how the hand turns out and what his opponent actually has. I mean, it is painful to sit and read this stuff and to be completely clueless how he could really say he is getting a certain read just from someone's preflop play, and then lo and behold at the end of the hand, the guy flips up his cards and Wow wouldya look at that, Harrington was right all along. Quite ghey, really. So, for example, in one of the hands Harrington presents, a player he describes as "aggressive" will reraise on a KQ4 flop with two spades after three players saw the flop for a single raise. Harrington will then advocate calling with you AQ, because it is clear that the aggressive player is on a drawing hand. Huh?! And while you're sitting there trying to figure out why the hike Harrington would ever draw such a conclusion, on the river you check it down and lookie there, the guy shows JT for the missed straight draw and you take down a nice pot, all thanks to Harrington's great analysis. All when in reality, you clearly should have folded on the flop in real life, with a bettor and a raiser ahead of your action in a raised pot, and with you holding just second pair top kicker. I mean, some of the stuff Harrington says in these examples in unthinkable, and when he miraculously turns out to be right again and again and again you start to wonder why the hell you're even readin all this stuff to begin with.

All that being said, I am starting Volume II on Cash Games this week, and I'm doing so mostly out of respect for the man who changed tournament poker forever. And more than that, even though Volume I on Cash Games frustrated me almost as much as Volume III on tournaments did, I do enjoy more than anything else Harrington's down-to-earth writing style, and I love his format of hand examples where the reader immediately gets to apply what Harrington is writing about. For me those example are pure fun, and it's a big part of why I continue to read his books. So I will report here once I have finished Volume II with my thoughts. I am desperately hoping that my view of these books will improve as I read Volume II, but I would suggest that there has got to be a reason why everyone and their mother has read, talks about and in fact swears by Harrington on Hold'em Tournaments, but nobody -- and I mean nobody at all -- ever even mentions Harrington's cash game books.

Has anybody else out there read Harrington's cash games books?

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Blogger l.e.s.ter said...

When did this become a poker blog? RAYS IN FOUR!!!!

12:00 AM  
Blogger Memphis MOJO said...

I read the first Harrington cash game book, and found it useless. (I apologize if that sounds harsh.) I don't intend to spend my money on the second.

Others agree. There's a review by Foucalt here:

He was criticized by Mason Malmuth and blogged about that here:

12:02 AM  
Blogger pokerpeaker said...

I read the first and will read the 2nd, but I agree with you, Hoy, and I was disappointed given cash games is what I like to play. I will re-read Sklansky's book but not Harrington's.

12:45 AM  
Blogger Gnome said...

Having read both of the Harrington cash books, my impression is that they didn't advance my game. Sure it's nice to read hand histories and hear Harrington's thoughts, but there's little from these hundreds of pages that I'll incorporate into my game.

3:12 AM  
Blogger Mr Subliminal said...

I lost my entire bankroll following the advice in one of his examples and am now back to grinding $0.05/$0.10.

3:13 AM  
Blogger CardMafia said...

Harrington's books are great for beginners looking for some basic strategies. Not much for internet players to count on.

5:59 AM  
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8:00 AM  

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