You Got to Know When to Hold 'Em 

You'd be surprised how easy it is to win at poker if you're willing to hit the books.

As Jared Diamond demonstrates in Guns, Germs, and Steel, when Francisco Pizarro and 168 Spanish soldiers defeated Atahuallpa's army of 80,000 Incas at Cajamarca in 1532, the decisive factor was the Spaniards' ability to read and write. Because while it may seem as though civilizations master each other with avionics and blunderbusses, viruses and Tomahawk missiles, really we do it with books. (Relative levels of book learning are a function of the shape of the continent you hail from, believe it or not, but that's a whole other discussion.) "Literacy," Diamond makes clear, "made the Spaniards heirs to a huge body of knowledge about human behavior and history. By contrast, not only did Atahuallpa have no conception of the Spaniards themselves, and no personal experience of any invaders from overseas, but he also had never even heard (or read) of similar threats to anyone else, anywhere else, anytime previously in history."

Poker is another form of combat that repays literate groundwork--in spades, as it were. The first time an opponent checkraises you (tempting you to attack by checking, then ambushing you with a raise when you bet) you tend not to know what to do. Many novices are even offended by such tactics, sometimes adopting rules that prohibit them. Not very sporting, old chap. Most ungentlemanly. These people fail to appreciate not only a legitimate tactic but the very nature of poker, the art form of what Lakota Sioux warriors called the trickster coyote.

Decades of experience can provide some hilariously expensive lessons by trial and error in how to respond to a checkraise. (You can reraise all-in, for example, forcing your opponent to risk as many chips as possible. You can fold. You can learn to read clues that a checkraise is coming and decline to bet, thereby obtaining a free card that may give you a stronger hand than the guy who wanted to checkraise is holding. You can tempt someone to checkraise by feigning weakness on an earlier street when you're actually holding the nuts.) Weapons like these don't come fast or cheap, or at least they didn't used to. But these days you can add them to your arsenal in a couple of weeks by reading the right books while enacting their advice on a computer program--in theory, at least.

In early 2000 I wangled an assignment--and $4,000--from the editor of Harper's magazine to head to Las Vegas to cover the progress of women at the World Series of Poker and report on the impact advice books and computer programs were having on the game. What he didn't know, though, was that I planned to use my advance to try and win a seat in the tournament--as I'd just spent five months playing no-limit hold'em against computer programs and studying strategy manuals. (I wound up finishing fifth in the championship event, taking home a total of $260,000.) The Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas stocks 133 poker titles, but I hadn't had time to read all of them. Peter Ruchman, one of the managers, put three books at the top of my list: Doyle Brunson's Super/System, T.J. Cloutier and Tom McEvoy's Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold'em, and David Sklansky's The Theory of Poker. I already owned the first one; Peter had FedExed the second two to me. The next day I had all three open on my lap as I pondered whether to call bets of 60,000 virtual dollars on my Wilson Turbo computer program. Because such programs reshuffle and deal in a flash, your digital opponents decide what to do in split seconds, and you can automatically zip to the next hand the instant you fold, it's possible to play hundreds of hands per hour instead of the 20 or so played when vying for real money in a brick-and-mortar casino. In one snowbound season of research and practice, I probably made a decade's worth of no-limit decisions. By playing hundreds of thousands of hands (and winning 13 virtual tournaments), I sharpened my card sense and bankroll-management skills, and developed what I hoped was a decent feel for no-limit wagering tactics. Yet I didn't wanna kid myself. Computerized action gives you zero opportunities to read faces or body language for "tells" about the strength of your opponents' hands, and may even undermine the mental and physical stamina required for actual poker. Then there's the shaky-knees factor, virtually absent when playing for free on a screen. My opponents at Binion's would be well-funded hombres and artists, and the $4,000 at risk would be real, with better than ten-to-one odds that I'd lose every cent of it.

God may play dice with the universe, despite Einstein's last hope, but serious gamblers, scorning metaphysical crapshoots and the casino's house edge, prefer no-limit Texas hold'em. Light years removed from the alcohol-soaked nickel-dime-quarter games of kitchen and dorm room, where the most you can lose is your beer money and just who walks away with it depends less on skill than on luck, no-limit tournament action is always a ruthlessly disciplined fight to the death. The beverage of choice at these tables is mineral water, and the aces primly quaffing it have worked long and hard to make luck as tiny a factor as possible. How did they learn to do this? They went back to school.

These days an education--even a refresher course--in no-limit hold'em can easily cost as much as four years at Stanford or Princeton. Even the textbooks are pricey: Super/System goes for $50, Theory of Poker for $29.95, Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold'em for $39.95. The last two are published in paperback, yet at 20 times the price they'd still cost only a fraction of the bankroll required to play uninformed no-limit hold'em for a session or two, let alone year after year. It goes without saying that all three spell out how to steal blinds and antes and pots.

On the morning of day one of the 2000 Big One, I reopened Championship No-Limit Hold'em and continued to cram for my first exam since I was an undergrad at Circle 28 years earlier. Even during that addled epoch, my knack for making educated guesses was reliably measured by the epistemology papers and symbolic-logic midterms I endured as a philosophy major, as well as by the ACT, SAT, and GRE marathons. So nothing had changed. Instead of using a number two pencil to darken slot A, B, C, or D, that day I'd be moving clay chips after divining whether to bet, call, raise, or fold.

Reviewing all 12 of T.J.'s practice hands, I pored over underlined passages to check whether I'd absorbed the logic of his analyses. In practice hand ten, he gives the reader J-J (two jacks) in early position during the early stage of a tournament, then asks: "Do you bring it in with a raise, or do you just limp in?" (To limp into a pot before the flop means to call the big blind--the mandatory bet made by the player two to the left of the dealer--but not raise.) My plan was to raise two-and-a-half times the big blind. Why so small? Because opponents may read a larger raise as a signal of weakness. Also, if an opponent reraises, you have to assume he has aces or kings, so you can't call his reraise with jacks. You forfeit your original bet, but at least it wasn't large to begin with.

Cloutier's book covers the advantages of both limping and raising. Limping, he says, protects you against getting reraised before the flop; if a player acting after you makes a big raise, you just fold. What you want is to see the flop as cheaply as possible and have another jack hit the board. "Of course," he admits, "if you had raised before the flop, they may not have played those little-ace or K-Q hands," but that's the chance you take when you limp. His remarks about luck might be called Texas Fatalism: "You can set up all the plays in the world, you can play perfectly on a hand, and you can still lose. And there's nothing that you can do about it." In one of the best poker novels of late, Jesse May's Shut Up and Deal, the narrator points out that the game requires a combination of luck and skill, but then he says something less obvious. "People think mastering the skill is the hard part, but they're wrong. The trick to poker is mastering the luck. That's philosophy. Understanding luck is philosophy, and there are some people who aren't ever gonna fade it. That's what sets poker apart. And that's what keeps everyone coming back for more." If it weren't for the luck factor, the same five or six people would win every tournament. They'd be the only ones who'd keep playing them, however, so the prize pools would get pretty small.

Although born in northern California, Cloutier has lived in Richardson, Texas, for over two decades, and he's now considered to be among the last of the Texas road warriors. After retiring from the Canadian Football League, he worked as a food wholesaler with his father and brother-in-law; when that business failed, he drove a bread truck for Toscana and later became night manager at the Wonder Bread bakery in San Francisco. In 1976 he moved to Dallas to work as a wildcatter, playing poker first on his days off, then, as the oil boom sputtered, pretty much every day, and he gradually learned the game's subtleties.

Championship Hold'em is actually Cloutier in taped conversation with McEvoy, the 1982 world champion and a Grand Rapids native. Their ideas (maybe 80 percent Cloutier's, 20 percent McEvoy's) have been transcribed and edited by Dana Smith into a kind of oral history of their no-limit hold'em experience, intercut with manly asides and violence-flecked "Tales From T.J."--minichapters meant to remind us where most of this wisdom got learned. "Ken Haroldson, who killed that judge, Judge Woods, down in San Antonio--he played in that game. There was R.D. Matthews...he always packed a gun, but his big thing was getting 'em with a baseball bat." About another regular opponent, a man who was later gunned down with his wife, Cloutier writes: "George loved to play poker, but he was a stone killer....Around Texas, they said that George had been accused of killing about 30 or 40 people, but he was never actually convicted of murder."

Poker's gunslinging past is the visceral subtext of all the advice that the former CFL tight end has to offer, and he frequently reminds us how much time he has spent with hombres who settle their differences with ruthless finality, who would put you all-in in the primo no-limit encounter. "The Big Texan was a whale of man and he ran the best game in Dallas," goes another tale, explaining why the author is hesitant to offend the guy. Cloutier restrains himself even when the Big Texan accuses him of making an illegal raise and literally slaps him on the hand. "Well, I rared up and was really going to let him have it because I never cared for him one iota anyway. But I thought better of it because I needed that game; it paid all my expenses for the year." The Big Texan then has the gall to tell Cloutier that if he had hit him, he would have gone for his gun. "Buddy," says Cloutier, "if I had hit you, you'd never have had a chance to get that gun out."

McEvoy's own book, Tournament Poker, covers general strategy for the most popular games. His advice on satellite and supersatellite strategy--that is, for the small preliminary tournaments designed to give players with flimsy bankrolls a chance to win seats in the bigger events--is indispensable for anyone hoping to enter a high buy-in tournament. He also explains how to make the most of your stack, tall or short, at various stages of the tournament proper, and how to negotiate deals at the end. His tone is humane, folksy, sensible: "Don't worry about second-guessing yourself because you have only a limited amount of chips to play with and you have to double up at some point anyway. So don't be too concerned about being the first player eliminated. Tenth place pays the same as second place in a 10-handed satellite: nothing." With a degree in accounting from the University of Michigan, McEvoy spent a dozen years as a CPA before moving his family to Las Vegas and trying to support them as a poker player. Though his financial straits have been dire at times--he told me he's "the poorest famous person I know"--he now owns four WSOP prize bracelets and has won almost 10 percent of the tournaments he's entered.

Dana Smith used to teach high school English and journalism, so she knows her way around a gerund and a comma splice. She's also savvy enough to let some bowlegged lingo barge its way into the prose ("on the flop," "on fourth street," "at fifth street"), letting her lead author sound like a pugnacious wildcatter: "A man is a stone fool any time a pair hits the board and he's drawing to a middle-buster or an open-end straight." Who wants no-limit hold'em advice from some pointy-headed grammarian anyway?

When Cloutier calls more blandly analytical experts "poker mathematician types," he is referring, above all, to David Sklansky (more on him later) and Mason Malmuth. He says that they fail to adapt to the ebb and flow of tournament competition, implying that this is because they've lost touch with poker's outlaw heritage. McEvoy interjects that their play is "too mechanical," then ups the ante by charging that "they lack flair." Whether things like adaptability and flair can be taught in a book is an interesting question, and I don't know the answer. But the issue itself reminds me of Edward O. Wilson's remark in On Human Nature--that neurobiology cannot be learned at the feet of a guru, just as philosophy "must not be left in the hands of the merely wise."

Guru cattiness aside, what Championship No-Limit mainly offers is solid advice proven lucrative over decades of roadhouse games and high-stakes tournaments. There are sections on the three main stages of tournaments, reading your opponents, avoiding trouble hands, defending--or not defending--your big and small blinds, how to practice, whether to play satellites or super-satellites when your bankroll gets thin. (Cloutier recommends the former because you begin with more chips to maneuver; supers, he argues, are relatively mindless affairs in which luck becomes too large a factor.) What about whether to concentrate on side games or tournaments? Not a close call. "There is so much dead money in tournaments that good players have a huge overlay, especially in pot-limit and no-limit games, because the skill factor is so much higher in these games than it is in limit." In keeping with his roughhewn image and tone, Cloutier's chapters never take long to get down to the nitty-gritty: which hands to play when. Should you enter a raised pot from late position with the 6-5 of clubs? (Writing in 1997, Cloutier frowns on this move much more than Doyle Brunson did 19 years earlier.) What about when you "flop middle set?" (That is, when playing pocket jacks, the board shows A-J-6, and your opponent leads off with a bet.) "You don't try to shut him out" with a big raise, says Cloutier; instead, you should "flat-call" the bet--call when a raise is anticipated. Why not move all-in, trying to win the pot then and there, especially against the chance that a second ace will appear on the board, providing mediocre hands like A-J or A-6 with a bigger full house? (Aces full of sixes beating your jacks full of aces.) Cloutier's answer: "Columbus took a chance, so I'm going to take one, too." If his opponent turns over a better hand on fifth street, or reaches for a sidearm, the big man from Richardson presumably will knock him unconscious, then rake in the blood-spattered pot.

The mother of poker advice books remains Doyle Brunson's Super/System. First published in 1978 with a $100 price tag, the original edition sold out almost immediately and changed the face of poker forever. Like The Simpsons, The West Wing, and The Sopranos, it was written by a half-dozen maestros. Mike Caro covers draw poker, Chip Reese seven-card stud, Joey Hawthorne the three most popular lowball games, David Sklansky high-low split games, and Bobby Baldwin limit hold'em. Brunson himself covers no-limit hold'em, spending 97 loud-and-clear pages on what he calls "the Cadillac of poker games." (The other chapters average under 70.) His message? Attack! After that, attack some more. Bludgeon your opponents with big pocket pairs, with suited connectors, with nothing. Just don't forget to reraise, to put your opponents all-in. "I'm a very aggressive player," he redundantly states at one point. "I'm reaching out and picking up small pots all the time. I'm always betting at those pots...hammering at them. And I don't want anybody to stop me from doing that. I don't want anyone to defeat my style of play." What part of this message, dear reader, do you not understand?

Like an unchallenged warlord dressing down lily-livered recruits, he tells us exactly what to do in slippery situations, while making painfully clear the importance of attitude and table image. Some players, he says, make dainty little bets when trying to win a large pot, a tactic he refers to with unvarnished scorn as a "Post-Oak bluff," presumably after a tight-weak player he once had the pleasure of whupping. (Whether the victim's name was Post, Oak, or what is never revealed.) "Well, that's a gutless bet," Brunson continues, then uses a footnote, of all things, to reiterate in boldface, "I NEVER make a Post-Oak bluff," before the main text swaggers onward: "The tight player who made that weak bet on the flop is asking me to take his money. And, in most cases, that's exactly what I'm going to do when the next card falls--regardless of what it is. I'm going to move in on that tight player because I feel confident he's going to throw his hand away and not put his whole stack in jeopardy."

Well over 2,000 years ago, in The Art of War, Sun Tzu illuminated what might at first blush seem mere testosterone-drenched saber rattling: "What discourages opponents from coming is the prospect of harm." Brunson's updated version goes like this: "My opponents are afraid to play back at me because they know I'm subject to set them all-in." The benefits he reaps from striking fear into their hearts can become exponential. By accumulating a series of small pots, seldom much more than the antes and blinds, he can afford to "take the worst of it" (have the odds be slightly against him) when a big pot comes along. "I've already got that pot paid for with all the small pots I've picked up." Once he wins one of these big pots, subsequent small pots fall into even greater jeopardy, and the snowball keeps building. Avalanches like Stuey "the Kid" Ungar and Johnny Moss were famous for playing this way.

Super/System was launched with maximal authority because Brunson had just won the no-limit world championship at Binion's in '76 and '77 and narrowly missed the hat trick in '78, a few weeks after the book was published. He finished second that year to--who else? His coauthor, Baldwin. And then second to Ungar in 1980.

There's no rhyme or reason, by the way, for that slash in his title, and throughout the book's 605 pages punctuation follows the rule of "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Still, no one doubts that it changed the game for good, adversely affecting Brunson's bottom line. Putting his trade secrets down in black and white has proven roughly akin to Coca-Cola publishing its recipe, the Dallas Cowboys their playbook, or the CIA names and photographs of its field agents. Most poker experts have learned to keep their favorite tactics a secret, or at least try to camouflage them for as long as possible.

If Brunson is the reluctant dean of strategy authors, David Sklansky remains the wonkiest theoretician. Nicknamed "Einstein," Sklansky got an Ivy League education at Penn and worked in the corporate world before quitting to play poker professionally in LA and Las Vegas. He was only 27 when Brunson invited him to write the high-low chapter, and it made Sklansky's name. While Brunson regrets publishing his modus operandi, Sklansky has savored his guru status and produced nine widely respected books of his own, which cover and extend the state of the art of nearly every variety of limit poker. Sklansky's logic, strategic insight, and creatively applied mathematics have proven so sound that his books are assigned to trainees at Susquehanna Partners and several other options-trading firms. No other poker writer's books sell as briskly.

The Theory of Poker is the definitive philosophical statement of the game's fundamentals. Beginners read it to ground themselves in the basics, veteran pros to plug holes in their games and get a better handle on the logic behind their more artful moves. It's a book to reread every three or four years and dip into periodically, especially before a big game. As its title indicates, Theory offers little in the way of nuts-and-bolts advice. Instead, it clarifies the questions to ask when making all poker decisions.

Sklansky writes like a somewhat pedantic calculus or logic professor, a tweedy juggernaut of probability and syllogism. He has the math down, of course, often to the fourth or fifth decimal, and this, combined with hundreds of icily rational directives for playing "correctly," has left some readers feeling browbeaten or intimidated. A taskmaster for his students, Sklansky is frankly contemptuous of the pedagogy of his rivals. Rating the relative value of J-10 suited, he snorts: "Those writers who have called this the best hand, even in full games, are out of their minds!"

The heart of his philosophy is what he calls the Fundamental Theorem of Poker: Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents' cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose. Sound simple? It is and it isn't. Of course you'd win more if you were privy to your opponents' pocket cards, but reading those cards as they lie facedown on the felt is an inexact science at best. Sklansky teaches you to make highly educated guesses based on previous plays, current position, and a host of related criteria. He also makes clear how much correct play depends on the pot odds--that is, on the ratio of the size of the pot to the bet you must call to continue with the hand.

Arranged in 25 chapters, the subjects in Theory range from simple things like why it's better to raise than to call through relatively advanced stuff like reverse implied pot odds and randomizing bluffs via game theory. A typical chapter begins with a clear definition of, say, the semibluff: betting with a hand you don't think is currently the strongest but which has a reasonable chance of improving to the best hand--a flush draw with no pairs on board, for example. After showing how this tactic conforms to the fundamental theorem, Sklansky gives practical reasons to semibluff. (It withholds a free card from your opponent; often gets you a free card on subsequent betting rounds; adds deception to your game, since when you do hit your hand, it will be harder for opponents to read its strength, helping you win larger pots; and gives you a chance to win the pot immediately, possibly against a superior hand.) Even getting caught in a failed semibluff can be valuable as advertising. Once you reveal yourself as a bluffer, you tend to be paid off more handsomely when you do make your hand.

Sklansky isn't afraid to repeat points for emphasis, and his self-published books often read as though they were also self-edited. He's writing sophisticated primers, he wants us to know, not well-crafted short stories. (He went to Penn, godammit, not Iowa!) In the preface to Hold'em Poker for Advanced Players, cowritten with Malmuth, the authors stipulate preemptively: "The purpose of this book is not to get an 'A' from our English teacher. Rather it is to show you how to make a lot of money in all but the toughest of hold'em games." They even mock the notion that writerly elegance amounts to much anyway. "So if we end a sentence with a preposition or use a few too many words or even introduce a new subject in a slightly inappropriate place, you can take solace from the fact that you can buy lots more books by Hemingway with the money we make you." If only they knew how strenuously Papa's so-called final drafts had to be burnished by Maxwell Perkins, they wouldn't be quite so defensive.

In Poker, Gaming, & Life Sklansky takes on issues outside the poker world. To keep stealthy crimes from becoming "good plays" for criminals, he proposes that sentences be made "more severe even if the crime itself is no more heinous than others where it's easier to be caught. If this results in especially severe punishments that are deemed unconstitutional, amend the constitution." His forte is revealing a counterintuitive idea to be the sane or correct one. He has persuasive opinions about advertising, cheating on your taxes, airline seats for children, racial diversity, and risking your life during wartime. Looking back at Vietnam, he says we can judge "whether the soldiers who were taking maybe a 1 percent chance of dying were getting a fair risk-vs.-reward ratio. If we had won, Vietnam certainly would have been a little different than it is today, but would that difference have been worth more than 50,000 American lives?" To get the reverse implied pot odds, we'll have to ask the Vietnamese players (the Nguyens--Scotty and Men "The Master"--or Tracy Phan or David "The Dragon" Phan, to name only four) currently dominating the card game invented by American cowboys.

As for the rest of us, we may never face down a dragon or a bat-wielding enforcer, but those of us Cloutier refers to as "book-learned types" have other advantages. We're used to processing the world off the page, translating printed language and numbers into ideas and action. The most literate among us have learned how to unpack information and meaning from some rather cryptic sources, so we should feel extra confident as we head to Las Vegas with our inch-thick life savings stuffed in our pocket. Because as complex as no-limit hold'em may be, fathoming Dante's matrix of Beatrice, the number three, and God's grace, for example, or making poststructuralist sense of the last and first sentence of Finnegans Wake can't be too much less tricky than calculating the reverse implied pot odds while drawing to the nut flush with one pair already on board and two million dollars at stake, all this without the tactical implications of our thought process showing up on our features.

Now can it?

Drawn from a chapter of James McManus's book Positively Fifth Street, to be published in April by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.


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