Book Review: Decide To Play Great Poker: A Strategy Guide To No-Limit Texas Hold’em by David Foulke, Alpha Architect
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 Decide to Play Great Poker: A Strategy Guide to No-Limit Texas Hold'Em 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?
Decide to Play Great Poker: A Strategy Guide to No-Limit Texas Hold'Em 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