Book Review — Decide to Play Great Poker: A Strategy Guide to No-Limit Texas Hold’Em
Among a certain set of people, the desire to be good at poker is just in their bones. Maybe it’s because they want to win some money, maybe it’s because they like besting their buddies in friendly games, or maybe they are simply intrigued by the complexities of the game.
If you are among this set of people, then I have a great book for you: “Decide to Play Great Poker: A Strategy Guide to No-Limit Texas Hold’Em,” by Annie Duke (with an assist by John Vorhaus). Annie knows whereof she speaks. She is #3 on the Women’s All Time Money List, and as one moves through this fantastic strategy overview of the most popular poker game in the U.S., it becomes quickly apparent why she became one of the most successful and feared poker players in history.
We had the pleasure of meeting up with Annie a few weeks ago (she lives nearby), and we were saddened to learn that she’s hung up her poker cleats to focus on corporate coaching and giving presentations on decision science. Although she is obviously well-know in the poker world, she is becoming increasingly well-known in the business community as well.
Annie pursued a PhD in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she focused on cognitive and behavioral psychology, and that experience today provides her with a formidable academic background that serves as a unique complement to the real-world decision-making skills she honed at the poker table. She is a highly sought-after public speaker who can provide insight into the decision-making, and critical-thinking structures that allow individuals to overcome decision traps and cognitive bias, particularly in corporate settings. In short, she’s a fascinating, fun, and popular presenter. Poker and business psychology? What’s not to like? You can check out her professional web site at: annieduke.com.
Also, she has gotten more involved in philanthropy over the years. For instance, she launched How I Decide, which is a non-profit foundation focused on extending the scope of what under-served youth learn both in schools and through programs outside of school time, so they can develop core life skills that support better decision making: self-regulation, conscious habit formation, effective information processing, and management of uncertainty. It’s nice to see Annie’s deep academic psychology background applied to such a worthy cause.
And of course she also writes a ripping good poker book. We wanted to share in this review the thinking underlying her illustrious poker (and now business and philanthropic) career, and how it can help other poker players.
At the outset, it should be noted that this is not a book for novices. If you have just begun learning how to play poker, this is not the book for you. If you are an experienced player, however, and want to take your game to the next level, then this book is superb.
Many poker books will show you a bunch of different hands, and then tell you how to play them. This book is not like that. Annie approaches the game at a more abstract level.
Annie emphasizes how successful poker is about managing uncertainty so you can simplify your decision-making. It is about forcing opponents into difficult situations and giving them a chance to make a mistake. It is about maximizing profits when you have the best hand. It is about flexible thinking around position and the dynamic looseness or tightness of the game. It is also about understanding how other people think, and how you can manipulate their thinking through the story you tell about your hand through your play. It is about these, and much, much more.
While it is difficult to convey all the concepts in this book in a brief review, it’s worthwhile examining some of the big ones.
What I like about the book?
This book covers the game of No-Limit Texas Hold’Em, from soup to nuts. The overall scope and broad coverage of the game makes it an invaluable resource for the aspiring poker addict. The first section of the book is devoted to some important theoretical concepts, such as position, looseness, raising, and overall decision-making before the flop, and then in the second section Annie covers post-flop play and more subtle considerations, including bluffing. Below are some highlights of her analysis.
Annie explores the information disadvantage of entering a pot in early position. She suggests a couple of simple, common sense rules of thumb. When playing early, only play hands where decision-making is easy and that you are likely to win. This means playing hands that are more likely to be the best hand or make the best hand, like bigger pairs or AK/AQ. Avoid playing hands that leave you floundering, trying to guess if your hand is good or not, when you are in early position. When playing late? Here’s a surprise: you can play just about anything. Annie also discusses the illusion of suit value – amateurs tend to overvalue suited hole cards.
The main point of raising is to gather information. When you force an opponent to be selective, by asking them to pay more to play, you learn more about what they are holding. You should avoid limping, especially in early position, since others will limp in behind you (in a “limpede) and you will learn little about their hands, since they will play a lot of hands just for a call. Raising also reduces the field (maybe to heads-up), and puts you in control of the hand. Annie claims that raising to heads-up might ensure you win roughly two thirds of the time against most opponents since a hold’em completely misses the flop that often and you can bet your opponent out of the hand when they miss. Next Annie enters the mind of the amateur. Amateurs tend to raise big with weak hands to chase people out, but they raise small when they are very strong to keep people in the hand, in an attempt to be tricky. Some pros do the opposite. They raise big with good hands to attract players who mistake the raise as a sign of weakness, and raise small with bad hands, again using reverse psychology, to make people think they are strong. Annie argues you must be a chameleon and do neither since either strategy creates a readable pattern. She suggests raising the same amount no matter what your hand is in a game where raising is effective and limping no matter what your starting hand is in a game where raising is ineffective.
Next, Annie lays out the math behind looseness. How big are pots compared to the blinds? When the ratio is high, you should play tight, since it costs little to keep folding, but offers a big payout when you hit a hand. Then the ratio is low, you should play loose to avoid the risk of ruin, because otherwise your stack will get eaten by the blinds. In other words, “play tight in a loose game, and loose in a tight game,” because pots tend to be big in loose games and small in tight games.
Now we know a bit about the importance of raising, but also that it loses effectiveness in loose games because in loose games players aren’t selective, so raising doesn’t tell you much about their hands or get you to heads-up, as desired. Annie provides a nice mental model for how to think about this. Normally, in early position, you might play 20% of your hands. In loose games, however, the power of position is diminished, and the payoff is bigger, so you can play a few more hands that can make big flops. Next you want to flatten the function between early position and later position, by folding more often when you’re late. Annie also provides some rules-of-thumb for which cards to play, based on your position, with a focus on hands that have a good shot of being the best hand, like suited aces and almost any pair.
RESPONDING TO RAISES
Annie introduces the “squeeze play,” which is when there’s a raise, a call, and you re-raise. Now your opponents are pitted against each other: the original raiser is afraid of both you and the caller, and the caller may not be able to stand the re-raise, otherwise he would have re-raised himself. As Annie puts it, “Fold. Fold. Next hand.” Annie also discusses multi-way pots, and provides some comments on playing from the blinds.
PART 2 – PLAY ON THE FLOP
The next section of the book addresses play after the flop. First, Annie reviews how to size your bets after the flop to force out opponents who need a draw to win. The idea is you are trying to price out the hands that need a draw. If you offer him 3-to-1 odds, when he holds a flush draw that is 4-to-1 against hitting with one card to come, either he folds or he makes a mathematical mistake. Turns out this means you should generally bet about half to 75% of the existing pot. Next Annie takes us through a few categories of hands, which collectively provide a powerful, integrated framework.
FLOPPING HUGE, IN POSITION
Annie says many make the mistake of checking when they flop huge. They don’t want to scare away the action. Wrong. Betting your big hands instead gives bluffers a chance to make a big mistake, and does well against someone planning to call. Annie also discusses how to identify the “weak lead,” like a blind who called your raise before the flop, but bets into you after the flop. Now you should play possum, and flat-call to maximize profit because that bet is usually a sign of a vulnerable hand. What about a pre-flop raiser, who checks after the flop? It’s a trap. This signals his strength, but also gives you a chance, for instance if you flopped the nuts, to trap him instead and go after his stack with a bet that will almost surely get a raise out of him.
BIG FLOP, BAD POSITION
Out of position, if you were the raiser before the flop, don’t check your big hand, since you will betray your strength (that was counterintutive at first but now it makes sense since you continuation bet almost all hands, so a bet with a big hand reads weaker, like a continuation bet). Also, your bet is no worse than a check against a strong hand, and you might extract some money from bluffers.
Next up is a discussion of how to maximize profits in multi-way pots. The analysis here gets much more sophisticated, as Annie reviews different hand permutations that include variations on position, board texture (suited and/or connectors), lead, and so forth. While there are exceptions, once again checking is generally a bad idea, even though our gut tells us not to give away our hand by betting.
FLOPPING BIG ON TEXTURED BOARDS
Now things get even more complicated, since when boards are textured, there are many more ways opponents can hit a hand and beat you. Once again, Annie counsels aggression. If you bet big, either you get a lot of folds, or all the money is in on the flop and your decision-making is simplified on the turn. There is also a discussion of check-raising, and why this can also simplify decision-making.
ACT QUICKLY ON THE DRAW
A big draw is when you get a flop that gives you a lot of outs. This was where I saw a huge flaw in my own playing. My approach is to bet my odds on the flop, but then on the turn, I’ll sit there and calculate my odds, but if I’m not getting paid to stick around, I’ll fold. Big mistake. The secret to playing a big draw? Make sure you see both cards, since a big draw is usually a mathematical favorite with two cards left to come but not with one. How do you do this? Play fast. This way, your opponents won’t know if you hit a big hand or need a draw since you are betting big. Deny them that information. Now this is a very subtle and clever approach, and I now realize that for years I have been telegraphing that I needed a draw on the river. For instance, in a heads-up situation, a good player would see my hesitation on the turn, and could price me out of the hand with a big bet. How could I have been so stupid! While there is a lot to this chapter, Annie again generally counsels aggression, as a means of pushing people out of the pot, and simplifying decision-making, although we should be much more cautious with a small draw and multi-way situations.
Top pair is a very difficult hand to play, because you are either way ahead or way behind, but you don’t know which. For example, if you flop a pair of aces holding AJ and your opponent has AQ, you are way behind but against AT you are way ahead. The problem is that most people play AQ and AT the same way, so it is hard to figure out which situation you are in. Annie counsels play small and slow on the flop to 1) reduce your loss against the better hands, 2) maximize your profit against the worse hand by not giving them a chance to fold and 3) maximizing your chance to get the best hand to fold on the turn because playing slow on the flop and raising on the turn is scary to opponents. If your opponents are drawing to a flush, things could end badly for you. The solution is to make him overpay to see the draw, so as to induce folds and, once again, simplify decision-making. At this point, Annie dives into some detailed analysis for textured and untextured boards, which makes it hard to summarize, but in short, these are meant to give you some intuition for how to play pairs in a variety of situations.
PART 3 – THE REST OF IT
This last section is the most challenging of the book, since it involves esoteric topics such as playing rivers, and bluffing, which involves telling a story and taking money from weak hands. For instance, there are some interesting details on how flush cards make for good bluffing opportunities. Again, rather than go into the details, I would refer you to a quote from the book:
Properly used, the bluff is a jigsaw, cutting intricate pieces of a puzzle to a high degree of detail. Improperly used – and believe me, you see this all the time – it’s a chainsaw with which players hack off their own limbs.
Additionally, most players have limited river play experience, and Annie provides some good wisdom for approaching this part of the game as well. Finally, Annie offers some advice on how to succeed as a poker player, including some observations on probabilities, psychology, and even lifestyle considerations.
Although this may be a reflection of my own lack of poker sophistication, I could have used more help integrating the math into the intuition. An example: on the shifting tight/loose function between early and late, could we get some parameters? When playing in a loose game, how much tighter should I be playing when late, versus in a regular game? I’m not looking for absolutes, but for some directional guidance on the magnitude, so I can set up the model in my head. Visual aids, such as some simple charts, would have been helpful to more fully demonstrate this and other concepts. The writing style bordered on the anecdotal at times on mathematical concepts like this. Also, while the glossary was helpful, I wanted an index.
I can’t imagine any reasonably seasoned amateur would not benefit from reading this book. Annie’s approach offers some intuitive guidelines that enhance a statistics-based or gut-level approach used by many weekend players. Annie provides a lot more behavioral and tactical nuance. For instance, I have always played very tight, but I have a new appreciation for the role of loose play, which can be appropriate when table dynamics shift. Similarly, I had always taken a very straightforward approach to betting, for instance, by using pot odds. But I think I have been playing too passively, giving up opportunities to extract information, make pots too expensive for opponents, and simplify decision-making. Also, a big theme of this book is aggression, and I have a new appreciation for it. Amateurs like me are often too passive, sometimes because we’re trying to play psychological games or we fear driving people out of pots, and don’t appreciate the benefits of aggressive play. Bet, bet, bet. If you consistently bet your monster and semi-strong hands, you develop credibility, which then gives you some scope to play weaker hands that are still profitable, and makes you harder to read.
Thanks, Annie, I’ll be using your suggestions!
Here is a link to the 2004 Tournament of Champions, which featured some of the best players in the world. Go to 5:46 to see Annie call Phil Helmuth’s All-In to win $2 million.
Next Phil Helmuth says, “She #$%@ check-raised me 6 times. I know she didn’t have it all 6 times…I love Annie, but #$%@…Another #@%$ second for me…NO MONEY…I see it but I don’t #$%@ believe it.”
Believe it, Phil.
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Definitions of common statistics used in our analysis are available here (towards the bottom)