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Why I Read the Books

The yin and yang of poker

by Lee H. Jones |  Published: Nov 13, 2007

"Don't know much about biology"

It doesn't happen so often anymore, but every once in a while I'll still hear a player at the table pronounce that you can't learn poker from "the books." They always pronounce it, lest we miss this nugget of gold in the midst of the table buzz.

I'm always delighted to hear somebody say that, because it means there's a very good chance that (1) he's not that strong a player, and (2) he doesn't realize that he's not that strong a player. Folks like that are good for my bankroll and (unless they're boorish jerks) are always welcome at my table.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have no misconception that you can learn to play poker well simply by reading the books. But playing the game and studying the game are the yin and yang of poker - as neither is complete without the other.

Let me give you two examples of why I read the books. In this case, both examples come from a stupendously good book: Rolf Slotboom's Secrets of Professional Pot-Limit Omaha. If you've been reading my Card Player column recently, you know that I've gotten into pot-limit Omaha (PLO) since moving to the UK, and I heard that a lot of people were reading Rolf's book and using it. Thus, I had two reasons to read his book:

1. I don't want my opponents to know something about the game that I don't know. That's really bad for my bankroll.

2. Every good general studies his foe and learns where that foe went to school and what military texts he studied. In short, it's always a good thing to memorize the opposing team's playbook.

OK, enough preamble …

Example No. 1: If one opponent isn't enough, two may be
We're playing $2-$4 PLO online. I'm in the cutoff position (one in front of the button) with K-K-Q-8 double-suited. There's one call in front of me and I make a full-pot raise to $18. I have two reasons for raising: (1) I've got a big hand and I don't mind building a pot, and (2) I might get the button out, which is always a good thing. The button jumps right in for $18 cold and the original limper calls. So now we've got a pot of $57. We've all got about $250 behind. The flop is great/scary: K-J-10 with two clubs (I have no clubs). So, I've got top set, but could be behind already and/or against some monster draws. The early limper checks, and I decide to bet. Obviously, I'm nervous about the straight, but I've got one of the key cards (a queen). Furthermore, if I check, I'm giving a free card to the club draws, and even if a blank comes on the turn, I run the risk of getting pushed off the best hand. So, I bet $30. The button promptly raises to $140. Well, in the PLO world, that's supposed to be A-Q, at least. That is, a conservative player making a big raise with that board has the nut straight and probably some kind of backup (the flush draw and/or two pair or a set). I've pretty much decided that I'm going to fold, when suddenly the original limper pushes all in for $250. That is virtually a signed affidavit that he's got the nut straight. For a nanosecond, my brain thinks fold, but then I recall a paragraph that I'd just read in Rolf's book. He pointed out that if you have a set and are sure that you're up against a made straight or flush, you're rarely getting the right price to call a pot-sized raise - unless, he emphasized, you have two opponents in the pot. Of course, this is basic Sklansky Theory of Poker stuff (that book thing again), but it was Rolf's words that were fresh in my head. If I were up against just the button, I'd be getting 2-1 odds with only seven outs going to the turn; that's a bad call. But once the limper jumps in for all of his chips, it changes the math considerably. Now, I'll get two cards for my remaining money ($220), against a pot of $580, assuming the button calls all in, too (which seems almost certain). That's 2.6-1 odds and I'm definitely that good with two cards to come. I called the rest of my chips, as did the button. When the hands were turned up, the limper did, indeed, have A-Q, as he had promised. Surprisingly, the button had the naked nut-flush draw, and got himself priced into a monster pot. The turn and river were both complete blanks, and the limper who'd flopped the nut straight dragged an $800 pot. I ran the odds on the hand: I had 43 percent equity, the flush draw had 28 percent, and the made straight had 29 percent. I was delighted - as putting your money in that good is how you win in poker. Now I'm sure that there are people who've never read the books who would have seen this situation and handled it correctly. But, I'll say this: Very few people who read and remember the books would misplay this; a lot of seat-of-the-pants players would miss the opportunity.

Example No. 2: Betting through the field into the maniac
When you find a maniac at your table, it's tempting to give him enough rope to hang himself by check-raising him on the flop. And some maniacs are so deliciously predictable: They raise preflop, and then when everybody checks to them on the flop (as they almost always do), they bet.

It's $2-$4 PLO again. I have Q-J-10-9 with a single suit in the big blind. There's a couple of callers and the table maniac makes it $20 from the button. We all have about $400 each, so I call without hesitation - as I can hit a big hand. Both limpers call. I kinda hit the flop: J 9 4 (I have only one spade). Top two pair isn't the nuts in PLO, but against the virtually random hand that the maniac has, I like my chances. So, I'm all set to check-raise, when I remember Rolf's point about situations like this. Specifically, the limpers also know that the maniac is going to bet. They could be waiting to check-raise him, too, but with a hand bigger than mine. Rolf's strategy here is a minimum-bet through the field - to see who's willing to play. So, I fire an $8 bet right out (yes, into an $80 pot). All hell breaks loose: The first limper raises to $60 and the second limper makes it $200. The maniac and I clear out and watch all the money go in. The first limper has a wrap straight draw plus the nut-flush draw, and the second limper has a set of nines. That $8 bet saved me, well, way more than the cost of Rolf Slotboom's book.

"Don't know much trigonometry"

Lee Jones is an executive consultant with the European Poker Tour, and the author of the best-selling book Winning Low Limit Hold'em.