Monday, August 28, 2006

Quick Poker Update, and The Greatest Poker Books Ever Written

Today's post is about the great poker books I have read, and how useful and enjoyable they are likely to be to the average poker player (and poker blogger) out there. I've been writing this post for several weeks, and basically the research for this post has been done over the past four or five years, as I have truly devoured every single poker book I've ever gotten anything resembling a good recommendation on.

But first a few quick updates:

First, thanks for the many responses I got for two teams to join my fantasy football league this past Friday. The two lucky readers are TrophyHubby and jeciimd, two guys you might recognize from our weekly Mondays at the Hoy nlh tournaments on pokerstars. Anyways the league had our draft this weekend, and I think I did ok. Not my typical dominating draft day performance for fantasy football, I will say that. I got the first overall pick, with which I took Larry Johnson. But the problem with this pick is that I didn't get to pick again then until #20 and #21. And then not until #40 and #41. It's rough getting to pick 1st but then not again until #20, believe you me. Yes you get the top overall pick, something which has tremendous value, but then by #20 and #21, all the "great" ffl guys are generally gone. This definitely had an impact on my ability to get good ffl talent deep at the big-scoring positions of rb and wr, so I tried to focus on securing at least one stud at every position I could, and then playable starters to fill out the roster. Picking 1, 20, 21, 40 and 41 for the first five rounds is not a good great position to be in, despite getting the first overall pick in the draft.

In the end, I picked up Larry Johnson, Corey Dillon, Cedric Benson, Chris Brown and Kevan Barlow at runningback (we will play two each week), and Marvin Harrison, Joey Galloway, Keyshawn Johnson and Michael Clayton at wide receiver (play 3 each week). At tight end I nabbed Antonio Gates but was forced to use a 3rd round pick to get him since I had a full 20 picks before I would get on the clock again, and he would doubtless have been long gone. My quarterback situation is potentially my most dubious, as I have Kurt Warner, Byron Leftwich and Chris Simms (we will play one each week). Any one of those guys could turn out to be a playable starting ffl qb this season, and I'm banking on whichever one that is making itself clear early on so I can dump one of the stiffs at this position. I love Hurt Warner's passing offense this year in Arizona, but I definitely am not confident that Warner will be the guy throwing to those receivers throughout the season. In fact, I'm confident that Hurt won't play more than, say, 10 or 12 full games this season. I'm just hoping I don't get screwed too bad when he first decides to go down. I really don't care if he loses a limb permanently on a vicious illegal hit...just don't do it until the end of the 4th quarter in whatever game it happens, ok Hurt? Anyways my kicker is Jay Feely and my team defense is Jacksonville, both picks I am happy with. So I think I did a nice job amassing potential in the key ffl scoring positions, but I'll just need to identify the contenders and the pretenders at my #2 rb and #3 wr positions as soon as I can, and hopefully make some good trades to improve where I can along the way.

And Terrell Owens....what the fruck is the matter with you man? It's one thing to claim an injured hamstring, even if it is being exaggerated just to get TO out of preseason workouts and games. But now this weekend it comes out that you've missed a mandatory team meeting, a mandatory offense meeting, and mandatory rehab session last week, causing the team to fine him $10,000? Come on guy. What a piece of slime. Yes I am biased against this anus since I am a rabid Philadelphia Eagles fan, the last team this clown ruined with his cancerous attitude in the locker room. But things are starting off for Bozo in Dallas about as bad as could have been expected. And given what happened last year with Andy Reid in Philly, and given Bill Parcells's controlling nature, I predict those two are heading for a major butting of heads that is not likely to turn out well for TO. Hopefully he can ruin the Cowboys' franchise like he did in Philly before he is run out of town. What a scumbag. And the best part is, anyone who knows TO knows that he will now have to go and purposefully miss another team meeting just to show the team that TO is the boss of TO. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- what an anus. Can't wait till my Eagles soar back into the NFC Championship again this year.

OK before I forget, tonight is the night again! Come join your favorite bloggers and my favorite homegame guys in a battle for the $20 buyins at the weekly Mondays at the Hoy online poker tournament this evening:

What: Mondays at the Hoy
Buyin: $20 + $2 No-Limit Holdem
Where: Pokerstars, "Private" tab
When: 10pm ET, every Monday night
Password: hammer

Lately we've been averaging around 20 players per week, down from the highs before the summer doldrums kicked in, so I anticipate this will be one of the last weeks of the smaller events. Next Monday will be Labor Day, and although I will definitely run the tournament next week for whoever is interested (I will be there tonight and next week for sure), I also expect that one to be on the slow side due to the holiday. But after that I'm hoping that all of the blogger events will increase in popularity as people return from summers away, vacations, etc. and get back to business in September. Anyways, tonight should be another great week for all you first-timers out there to get your feet wet playing in a real life blogger tournament. No need to have any kind of a blog to play -- you just have to read this blog, or read about the Hoy tournament on some other site. That's it. Just hear about it, get the password from somewhere, and come play with some of the funnest, trashtalkiest and most skilled no-limit holdem players around. And with the $20 buyin, the stakes can get pretty high pretty fast. First prize is usually in the neighborhood of $200, so there is a lot to play for, not to mention the priceless glory that comes along with winning the Hoy tournament any Monday night.

And don't forget, I am coming off of two wins and three final tables in the weekly blogger tournaments last week, so I am definitely looking to overcome cc's overcards, to talk some mad smack to drraz and try to tilt him out of his chat privileges for another month, and to outlast perennial Hoy tournament casher Jules on my way to making my first cash in my own tournament, after some three months of trying. And I think I even got the $20 buyin right this week on the setup, but please let me know if I screwed that up again as well.


For a long time I've wanted to write this post, and finally the time is now for me to talk about what I think are the best poker books I've read. And let me tell you, I've read quite a few. In fact it seems like almost the only thing I've read over the past few years has been poker books. Hammer Wife sometimes gets crazy because so much of our bookshelf space is taken up by my poker-related acquisitions over the past few years, especially because many of the best books end up being large texts that take up a lot of shelf space. But this all makes me as close to a poker book expert as anyone I know, and I thought I would share my thoughts here as far as which books I think are best, and why.

First and foremost, I am really a Super System guy. And I'm talking about the original Super System, although the newer volume has some good chapters as well. Super System was the first hardcore poker book I ever read, and I cannot overstate the impact that the chapters on holdem have had on my entire poker outlook. I don't play everything exactly the way that Doyle suggests it be played, but his general aggressive, pot-stealing strategy and approach, especially to no-limit holdem, simply cannot be topped in my book (pun intended). As a general statement, anybody who hasn't read Super System is at a significant disadvantage to someone who has carefully read it and selectively applies it to his or her holdem game. Just don't read this book (or the follow-up volume released a year or two ago) expecting to see some top-notch writing for writing's sake. The writing itself can be almost painfully bad in my view, in particular with its overuse of bold text in some of the oddest places, but the advice and strategy cannot be topped the way I see it. And the book contains a great chapter on Draw poker (does anyone even play that anymore) by the Mad Genius of Poker, Mike Caro, which also contains a lot of useful information on tells and how to read your opponents, plus an excellent chapter on 7-Card Stud by a very young Chip Reese, still today regarded as the best overall poker player in the world (and winner of this year's first-ever HORSE event in the WSOP). David Sklansky also writes a typically pompous piece on Stud Hilo, but that piece focuses mainly on the "cards speak" variation without the 8 qualifier for the low hand, a game that was much more popular in the casinos in 1979 than it is today, while the current preference is Stud Eight or Better. In all, Super System is a great way to learn about a lot of different poker games, all written by a recognized successful expert in the field, and again the no-limit holdem chapter is, in my view, second to none as far as overall strategy and approach to the game.

Super System II is also a fine poker book, with the no-limit holdem section basically the same copy as Doyle's original from thirty years earlier, with just a couple of small changes and additions thrown in. However, I did also enjoy Jennifer Harman's section on limit holdem, as well as Doyle's son Todd Brunson's very clear and helpful strategies for Stud Hi-Lo 8 or Better, another of my favorite games as my readers know. Even Daniel Negreanu's contribution on Triple Draw is enjoyable and useful to most of us who are not Triple Draw experts, and frankly represents the only significant writing on this fairly fringe poker variant that I know of. In all, nothing is going to top the original Super System in terms of overall poker content, but SS2 does a nice job as a follow-up work. Mike Caro also chips in with another set of poker tips for the modern poker player, which rounds out a number of solid offerings from recognized professionals in today's poker world.

After Super System, the next seminal work in the arena of holdem strategy has got to be Harrington on Holdem. If you're a holdem guy, and in particular a holdem tournament player, Harington is an absolute must-read. If you've ever been sitting at a poker table, either live or on-line, and heard people talking about so-and-so's M being below 5, but didn't know what they were talking about, or if you've read or heard others discussing the merits of making a continuation bet on a raggy flop, then you are sorely missing Dan Harrington's poker wisdom. Written by one of the most notoriously tight holdem players on the professional circuit, Harrington has a way of making a great many points that you might have understood on some basic level, but never really thought about in the way that he presents them. And the writing itself is actually fairly readable, especially for poker book standards. Just as with Super System, I personally laugh at the thought of someone seriously pursuing tournament Texas Holdem but not having ever read Volumes 1 and 2 of Harrington on Holdem. Personally I've read each volume several times and have almost ruined my copies of each with my foldovers, highlights and underlining of key passages and points. Although I'm not such a huge fan of Harrington's Volume III released earlier this year. Unlike the first two volumes, Volume 3 is all just hand examples and analysis, which is helpful but simply does not compare to the kinds of strategy and advice provided almost page by page through the first two sets of Harrington's works. As I said above, if you play no-limit holdem tournaments but have not read Harrington on Holdem, Volumes 1 and 2, then you're an effing clown. 'Nuff said.

Another great poker book I've read is Phil Gordon's Little Green Book. I read this book on a recommendation from my buddy Buckhoya, yes the guy who got me into online poker in the first place, and I have to say it lived up to all the hype. Little tidbits such as "the fourth raise always means Aces" and others like it have really rung true and have stuck with me through my poker playing career. I highly recommend this book as a quick but useful read for any serious holdem player. It's not nearly as detailed as far as providing a comprehensive holdem strategy, but Gordon includes many useful ideas and concepts in the book that will come in handy sooner or later (probably sooner) for anyone who regularly plays no-limit holdem, either live or online.

I also finished Gordon's follow-up book, Little Blue Book, last week while on vacation, after receiving an advance copy from Gordon's press assistant while at the WPBT gathering in Vegas last month. And I have to admit, I feel very similarly with this book as I do about Harrington's Volume III. This is mostly because it shares the exact same weaknesses in my view -- namely, that it is merely a book of specific hand examples and analysis, as opposed to chapters full of general holdem advice organized by topic or types of hands, etc. And this is not to say that Harrington III or Little Blue Book don't contain any useful strategy, because surely they do, but rather that I feel that each of them reads more like a book by a guy who has already written his poker strategy book, and now wants to cash in again with another poker book despite having already imparted all of his general poker strategy tips, so he is left with simply analyzing a bunch of real-life hands and applying the strategy already covered in an earlier book. Like his first effort, Phil Gordon is actually not a terrible writer as far as poker books are concerned, which is a welcome change from most of the major poker texts out there, but in my view Harrington and Gordon's books read more like regular books written by actual authors, as opposed to much of Super System for example, which reads like a poker guy who knows a ton about poker but not so much about writing in general.

Another poker book that I definitely place on the "good" list is T.J. Cloutier and Tom McEvoy's Championship Pot-Limit and No-Limit Holdem. This book seems to be mostly written by TJ, a guy whose poker resume needs no introduction, and it is chock full of tidbits from two world champions many times over as far as how to play certain hands. It's almost laughable in places how tight TJ advocates playing in tournaments, and I'm quite sure that explains why TJ hasn't exactly lit it up over the past several years in the major events (though he did win a WSOP bracelet in 2005, as I recall), but the advice he gives is still generally right-on for mostly any tournament player. And TJ writes in a very straightforward, almost in-your-face manner, which combines very well with McEvoy's softer, more down-to-earth tone. Personally, some of my favorite aspects of the book are where the two authors discuss their differing ways of playing the same holdem hand or the same situation. The value of getting specific hand advice such as what you find in this book from two world-class holdem players like this cannot be overstated, and I recommend this book to anyone looking for a new poker strategy book who hasn't already found his or her way to Cloutier and McEvoy's many works.

Mike Caro's Big Book of Poker Tells is another must-read for any serious poker player as far as I'm concerned. Like the original Super System, this is one of those books that was written in the middle of the 1970s, but is still every bit as applicable today as it ever has been. Almost every pro admits to having read and studied Caro's seminal work on reading other poker players, and his general theme of "strong means weak and weak means strong" works its way into so many different players' acts at the poker table (virtual or IRL) that it's not even remotely funny how much this book will help you, even the very first time you play after you read one of his chapters. Between watching players' eyes when the cards come out, their apparent level of interest, and more specific advice like never betting after someone "tsk's" their tongue, the Big Book of Poker Tells is literally filled with practical, moneymaking advice. And, like Harrington and Super System, it has been so widely read by so many professionals and amateur poker players, that you can actually even use some of Caro's tips as feints against other players, if you just take the time to read and study what the self-proclaimed "Mad Genius of Poker" has to say about reading people and their tells at the poker table. And for me, it is even very applicable to how players bet and play in online poker games, albeit with the physical tell aspects not as useful given the lack of ability to physically see your opponents. Even online, people still try to bet quickly or take a long time in yet another effort to act strong when they're weak, or weak when they're strong, so Caro's book would be most likely be very helpful and directly applicable to all of my readers' poker experiences as well. In general, this is one of the most useful and most practically applicable poker texts available, and I highly recommend it for a number of reasons to any serious degenerate gambler poker enthusiast.

There are also a few other major poker texts that are generally well-liked but which I have not had a positive reaction to for the most part. For example, I really got nothing whatsoever out of Barry Greenstein's Ace on the River. It must just be me, because I've heard more than one or two positive commentaries on this book, including I believe from Felicia whose poker opinions I respect, but I found almost nothing substantive of value in Barry's book, despite having thoroughly enjoyed watching Barry play in televised events and especially recently in "High Stakes Poker" on GSN. Similarly, I also read The Psychology of Poker by Dr. Alan Schoonmaker, also on a rec from Felicia, and again I got very little out of the book. Unlike Ace on the River, Psychology did contain a lot of substantive advice and strategies on poker. My problem with Psychology of Poker was that I already knew all that stuff. I could have written that book in fact. I think The Psychology of Poker would be a great read for anyone who is not familiar with the loose/tight and aggressive/passive distinctions, and how to best play against each type of player, but I would suggest that most experienced poker players probably already know most of this information fairly well.

One other book I read but did not get much out of, despite many poker players I know really enjoying the book (drraz, for ironic is that?), is The Zen of Poker. Again, I found there to be plenty of substantive information in Zen, but in this case I just found it not to be very helpful in a practical sense. I read Zen back in my super-tilty days, back when I used to get repeatedly banned from Pokerstars chat, etc., as I thought it would be a help to my tilty game. What I found instead was a bunch of great generalized advice like "don't tilt" and "be one with the game", etc., but without any specific ideas about how to actually accomplish this. Again, it's good general poker advice, but it didn't do me much practical good at all, despite me having been able to significantly decrease my level of tilt over the past several months since reading that book. David Sklansky's Tournament Poker for Advanced Players also comes to mind as a book that I took the time to read but really wish I hadn't. I suppose some of what David has to say in this book is decent advice for cash games, but for the most part the book is about 500 pages of generalized strategies for limit holdem games, plus about 100 tons of Sklansky's trademarked brand of pomposity that even I can't take. And I'm someone in my job who deals with blowhards all day, every day, but Sklansky's level of conceit and his tendency to talk down to his readers are so distracting and stupid to me that I can hardly wait to finish reading him so I can move on to something else and clear the nasty taste from my mouth. I am not a fan of Sklansky at all (can you tell?), and I doubt I would read anything else from him after being so disappointed with this particular book.

I'll tell you one poker book that I really wanted to hate, but I have to admit, begrudingly, is actually really, really good: Phil Hellmuth's Play Poker Like the Pros. I had read Hellmuth's no-limit holdem book several months ago, and I thought it was fairly good, though the writing again suffers from much of the same issues as many other books written by poker players who are not (and never would be) authors by trade -- Hellmuth's prolific use of exclamation points alone is enough to drive any amateur book editor or punctuation nazi crazy I'm sure. But when I picked up the full version of Hellmuth's poker book, I have to admit I pored through the thing, and it really is quite good. I've re-read the entirety of the book several times now, and I have to say, the King of Tilt has really got an excellent assortment of advice on all the major poker variations. I mean, as much as I wanted to hate Hellmuth's book, it is honestly one of the best all-around poker books I've ever had my hands on. Phil's book has an extensive array of strategy on limit holdem for anyone interested in that kind of thing, plus some really great and easy-to-understand explanations on pot-limit Omaha, Omaha 8 or better, Stud, Stud hilo and Razz. I would strongly recommend Hellmuth's big book to any player who is interested in learning how to play the typical HORSE type of games, but doesn't have experience in many games other than the holdem cash games and tournaments typicaly of many of today's players. Phil's "best starting hands" charts for each of these games alone are probably worth the book's purchase price to anyone who plans to take any serious amount of time playing these games. In all, I think Phil gives really thorough and excellent strategy -- albeit perhaps a bit on the tight side -- for all of the major poker games played today, and as much as I am surprised and annoyed to admit it, I have to rank Play Poker Like the Pros is right up there with Super System as the best overall strategy books that deal with all of the major poker variations. To be clear, Phil does not necessarily go into tremendous detail or describe many particularly advanced plays for some of the poker variations, but, like the Super System books, he provides a very solid basis in all the major poker variants for anyone who has never played them, or is anything short of an expert in them.

I'm such a poker book junkie that I've even read this year the new World Poker Tour books by Erick Lindgren and Antonio Esfandiari. Lindgren's first book effort is called Making the Final Table, and it has some interesting stuff as far as the logistics of successful WPT tournament play, from a guy who has had a lot of success in the first few seasons of the WPT. There is also what I think is some really excellent original holdem strategy, from a guy who is definitely one of the more aggressive young players on the professional circuit today. Erick weaves helpful tidbits like "Bet small on raggy flops, and big on flops containing draws" and "You should want your opponent to have pocket Aces when you call a small raise preflop with a drawing hand like JTs" in with a lot of practical advice on surviving a multi-day poker tournament to create what I found to be a helpful, and actually re-readable, poker text. In general I think Erick does a very good job and as I mentioned, he really does have some fairly unique strategy and advice on playing tournament no-limit holdem that differs from most of what you're going to read in most other poker books, even the great ones. Antonio Esfandiari's book on beating no-limit cash games, called In the Money, is a bit more light on substantive original poker strategy, but he also has a few tidbits that you won't exactly find anywhere else, like the very mathematically correct fact that, if you are betting the right amount when you think your opponent is on a draw, then it should be irrelevant to you whether he calls your bet or not. Ironically, it is Antonio's departures from the strictly cash games subject of his book that I found to be most insightful, but those are few and far between. In general I would give only a lukewarm recommendation for In the Money for someone who is looking to get a leg up on the competition in no-limit cash games, as for me it was just not as directly helpful as many of the other books I've mentioned above. But it wasn't a bad read by any means, and I enjoyed most the portions of the book detailing Antonio's rise to fame and fortune as a professional poker player from his beginnings as a magician (hence his nickname) who was once hired by Phil Hellmuth to do tricks at a private party for poker players at Hellmuth's house. But if you really need limit holdem help for cash games, I would have to recommend either Super System, or Phil Hellmuth's Play Poker Like the Pros for their extensive and detailed coverage of this very popular casino and online poker games today.

One last honorable mention also goes to Positively Fifth Street by James McManus. This was the first and one of the only fictional poker novels I've read, and to this day it ranks as perhaps my favorite poker novel. For those of you who don't know, this book details the author's trials and tribulations when he was sent to Vegas in 2000 during the WSOP to cover the story of Benny Binion's death and subsequent murder trial, and how the author ended up buying his way into the main event as a player/reporter. Long story short, McManus ends up going on a huge run in the main event, knocking out T.J. Cloutier among others at the end, and going out in 4th place overall just a few hours before Chris "Jesus" Ferguson took down the first-ever $1 million first prize. McManus really does a great job weaving his WSOP experiences in with the story of Binion's death and trial that he had been sent to cover, and he includes many individual hand histories and other specific poker stories that very effectively capture the incredible awe inspired by playing in the main event, with all those top-notch players. I imagine that anyone looking to read a great poker story would really enjoy this book, and I highly recommend it.

Since we're all degenerates here, one other honorable mention in the area of gambling fiction -- I really loved Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House. This is a book about the MIT blackjack teams that have reportedly made millions of dollars for their investors going back 20 or 30 years at this point -- a group that known poker professional Andy Block was a member of when he matriculated at MIT before his time at Harvard Law School. So this is a blackjack book, and not a poker book, but if you have any interest in card-counting, blackjack, and gambling and casinos in general, then I really think you will like this book. Mezrich's follow-up work called Busting Vegas is not nearly as good or original in my book, but if you're looking for a good, quick read, and something which you will truly enjoy and barely be able to put down, I highly recommend Bringing Down the House. But only if you have time to read something that is not related to poker.

I guess that's it for now. Suffice it to say, I've read countless other poker books as well, but these are the ones that most quickly come to mind, either because I loved them, was disappointed by them, or just that I read them the most recently. In any event, take my recommendations with a grain of salt. I'm just some guy who plays a lot of online poker and who loves to read. Ymmv.

OK that's all for now. I welcome anyone's comments on these or other good poker books that are out there. Come to think of it, I am in need of a new shipment myself, so I'd love some ideas that are not mentioned in my post above. See you tonight at 10pm ET on pokerstars for Mondays at the Hoy! I'm serious, if you read this blog every day, then let's go, get off your asses and play in the Hoy tonight -- it's the tournament specially designed just for people who read this blog! How can you pass that up?!


Blogger slb159 said...

Gl tonight...I'll stop by to see how you're doing.
Any of those books give advice on how to deal with continuation bets? :)

12:38 AM  
Blogger smokkee said...

SLB, if you're facing a c-bet and you think you're opponent missed the flop, reraise him regardless of your holdings. if he calls and the turn shows a blank, bet again then, pray you're not up against a monster. hope this helps.

hoy, i got a few paragraphs into this post. i'm gonna have to take the rest of the afternoon off to read the rest. GL tonight.

2:13 AM  
Blogger slb159 said...

Thx smokkee...I kinda was kidding, since this is what I have to deal with playing against Hoy every just busting on him. I have an idea on how to play those CB's, but Hoy's the kinda guy who you never know what he's holding.

2:21 AM  
Blogger drewspop said...

GL tonight. I like LJ, Harrison, and Gates, my top 3 picks in the blogger fantasy league. I think those guys are a good start to a team. I just need your Mr. McNabb to have someone to throw to this year.

2:47 AM  
Blogger surflexus said...

OK...I won the fake (10+1 single table) Hoy a few weeks ago. I'm going to give my best shot at the Real McCoy tonight.... :)

6:46 AM  
Blogger WillWonka said...

Nice Post... I, myself, have never been able to make it though a poker strategy book. I have a few... the books that I have made it through have been more in the biography mode... such as Moneymakers and Matt Matros's (really good) and Positievely Fifth street.

I really need to concentrate and finish Harrington's books. I have I and II. I've also started SS and Theory of Poker; but have not gotten too far.

9:30 AM  

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