I’m not one of those players who proudly announces, “I’ve never read a poker book in my life!” as if it’s some badge of honor to play poker on pure talent while never utilizing the libraries of poker knowledge that exist. It’s just plain silly.
Poker authors learned the hard lessons for you. Why not learn from them? To paraphrase Joey Knish in Rounders, they’re showing you the playbook they put together off their own beats. If someone dropped you in the middle of a foreign land, gave you a car and said, “A cardroom is just three miles away; go play poker,” would you drive aimlessly hoping to run into this casino, or would you ask this person for directions? Sure, your dad or your grandmother probably taught you the basics of poker, but can you play optimally just knowing the rules and what beats what? Of course not.
Admittedly, I learned to play poker as a child, but not effectively. I just tried to make hands and beat my dad. As an adult I realized if I were going to play poker for money, I’d need help. Why should I put my hard-earned money on the table without being prepared? That’s when I ordered Doyle Brunson’s Super System. That book paid for itself a hundred times over, and I was lucky because I didn’t have to buy it back when it cost $100.
With that book started a long list of poker titles that filled my shelves. I read everything I could find: Caro’s Book of Tells, Play Poker Like the Pros, Read ’Em and Reap, Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold’em, Super System 2, Ace on the River, and the list goes on. I may not be as bright as the other bulbs in the chandelier, but if I could extract one premise or one idea from each book I would be that much more advanced than I was when I started. I’ve learned something from every book I’ve read, whether it’s readily at the front of my mind or buried in my subconscious, so each tome has its benefits.
But of all the chapters in all the dozens of books I’ve read, the following five have affected me the most. I chose chapters that had a specific role in my poker maturity and conveyed a complete idea or game. For example, Daniel Negreanu’s small-ball section of his Power Hold’em Strategy technically is a chapter, but it takes up almost half of his overall book, so I felt it didn’t have a place on this particular list, as remarkable as it is.
So here they are, the five greatest chapters in poker strategy literature (to me), and they’re in no particular order.
No Limit Hold’em
Doyle Brunson, Super System
The Cadillac of poker games, you hear people say this all the time about no-limit hold’em, but it was Doyle who coined the phrase, and he did so in this chapter. Brunson teaches you immediately that to be a winning no-limit hold’em player you MUST be aggressive. It sounds like old news when you hear it today, but that’s only because we live in the post-poker-boom age that has a saturated televised poker market and, of course, the instant gratification of the Internet. Super System, the bible of poker, was written in the late ’70s, a time when if you wanted to learn something you HAD to go to the library or bookstore.
But this chapter doesn’t merely just say, “play aggressively.” It takes concepts that wouldn’t occur to the average person and conveys them in a way that person can understand. For instance, Brunson turns the antiquated “check to the raiser” philosophy on its ear by saying when he has the image of an aggressive player he always bets into the preflop raiser when he turns a big hand. Back then “turn” meant flop, so if he flopped a monster, such as trips or two baby pair, he would lead out with a bet into the preflop raiser, who is supposed to have a big hand there.
Even this concept may seem simple to you now because maybe now you’re educated in the game, but to someone who only knew “what beats what” before he read the book, this was an epiphany. And, for me, Super System’s no-limit hold’em chapter (and the rest of the book for that matter) is full of epiphanies.
Seven-Card Stud 8 or Better
Todd Brunson, Super System 2
Early in my poker career I played just no-limit hold’em (tournaments at first, then cash games). But I could see there were going to be so many no-limit hold’em players that I’d need something else to excel at if I were to find soft spots and make money. I’m a concept guy, meaning I like to have a simple concept to follow so I can grasp what I’m learning.
Years ago, during an interview on our Ante Up PokerCast, Chip Reese (RIP) was asked to give our listeners a tip for those just learning stud/8. He said, “Always go for the low.” What a great tip! It isn’t a hard-and-fast rule for advanced play, but for someone who never sat in a split-pot game and steered clear of the complexities of stud, this was sheer brilliance. If you go for the low you could back into a high as well and win the whole pot. It’s also an easy way to fold marginal hands before fourth street. So when Super System 2 came out, I immediately was drawn to Todd Brunson’s stud/8 chapter. I often say this chapter literally changed my life.
Like his father, Todd has a way of explaining concepts that really hit home simply, and his sense of humor really makes it a fun read. Everything you need to know about stud/8 is found in this excellent chapter, but its message can be summed up in one word: scooping. Todd calls this the Platinum Rule: If you’re going to enter a pot and you can’t win the whole pot with the hand you hope to make, then strongly consider folding.
The concepts in this chapter made me a better stud player overall and was the main reason I cashed in the H.O.R.S.E. event when the World Series of Poker Circuit visited West Palm Beach, Fla., this year. My eternal thanks go to Todd and Chip.
The Theory of Leverage
Howard Lederer, FTP Strategy Guide, Tournament Edition
After reading Howard’s chapter on leverage I felt like I was a nerd who got invited to be part of the cool clique in high school. It’s a concept that not many people know about, but all of the top players understand. Whenever I know I’m going to play in a bigger buy-in tournament I like to grab this book the night before and reread this chapter.
Basically a leveraged bet is a no-limit hold’em tactic where you make a smallish bet (in relation to the pot size) that has the implication of future bigger bets on later streets. It basically allows you to control the pot size and send an imposing message without risking too much of your stack. It’s similar to the idea behind Negreanu’s small-ball system, but not exactly. Lederer teaches you how to put the pressure on your opponents without putting yourself in harm’s way, and he instructs you how to use leverage during every phase of a tournament and at every point in a hand. It’s also a chapter that helps with your bluffing game, interestingly enough.
My favorite part of the chapter is his recollection of a World Series of Poker hand against Phil Ivey, which perfectly explains the concept and shows you just how powerful it can be.
I do, however, feel this chapter is for the slow-blind-structure-large-sta rting-stack tournaments. For those of us who enter $100-type events with 20-minute blinds it’s harder to implement leverage concepts, but it can be done if you pick the right players and scenarios. If you’re playing larger tournaments with bigger buy-ins this definitely is a must-read.
The Squeeze Play
Dan Harrington, Harrington on Hold’em Vol. II, The Endgame
Actually, the Squeeze Play is just a sub-section of Harrington’s Making Moves “chapter.” His series really isn’t broken down into chapters but rather parts. So I’m making an executive decision and calling this a chapter, though the entire concept quite literally fits on just one page.
There are plenty of books and sites that teach you to use the squeeze play, but Harrington has done it so successfully on the grandest stage in front of millions of viewers that his advice is the standard by which all others are measured.
Anyone who knows me knows I used to be a poker TV junkie (I used to write a monthly column about in Ante Up), and my addiction all began with the incredible ESPN coverage of the 2004 WSOP, in particular the main event.
At the final table of this world championship Harrington made a move that, at the time, I was just floored by because I thought he had balls the size of Smart cars. So when that hand and that move came up in his book, I immediately could identify with that moment and his explanation of the concept. That’s why this chapter is on my list.
Many of you know what a squeeze play is now, but if you were just a recreational player in 2004 then you didn’t know what it was, either. Harrington didn’t invent this move, but he explains what a squeeze play is (making a large reraise with nothing when you have one raiser and one caller before you) and then takes you through the criteria needed to make this a successful bluff. He follows this up with a narrative about the 2004 World Series of Poker hand that had me riveted to my seat. Great stuff, and of course his entire series is incredible, but the squeeze play is one of my favorite moves in poker, and I owe it all to Harrington.
The Fundamental Theorem of Poker
David Sklansky, The Theory of Poker
Like many players who have dabbled in reading David Sklansky, his brain is just too smart for me. I can’t keep it all in my head. But his Fundamental Theorem of Poker is simple enough that it can get you thinking on another level without having to understand everything he’s telling you. Only in the past few years have you started to hear the term “meta” or “meta game” in mainstream poker, which refers to “transcending” beyond ABC poker. In other words, you act according to how you want your opponent to think you act, and then use that knowledge against him later. Sort of like bluffing and getting caught and then playing identically later when you have the nuts. Well, Sklansky’s Fundamental Theorem of Poker is sort of the grandfather of “meta” thinking. At its basic root, the theorem states the best way to play is to act the way you would if you knew your opponents’ cards.
It wasn’t so much the chapter that made me a better player, as it was the way it made me think at the table. You often hear about Level 3 and Level 4 thinking. Well, his theorem is that in a nutshell. When I’m at the table I often think, “What do they think I have?” and once I come up with a hand or range I act accordingly. Sklansky made me think this way with that one contribution to poker literature. Of course he’s contributed to some of the greatest poker books printed, but this chapter is what really made a difference for me. I hope you enjoyed this little peek into my poker reading, and I hope it encourages you to read our strategy columnists and to buy poker books that will help your game.
— Chris Cosenza is co-publisher of Ante Up. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.