Mar. 22nd, 2008


Mar. 22nd, 2008 03:12 pm
peterbirks: (Default)
Every so often, when I am feeling calm, I go back to reading Sklansky and Miller on No Limit Hold'Em, because I know that the bad editing and lazy writing will get me worked up within a few minutes.

The problem with all this is that any criticism of lazy thought is confused by people with a criticism of the thought itself, so they end up refuting a point that you haven't made. Luckly, that doesn't surprise me any more. Hell, Roland Barthes has never been understood in the UK or the US when he differentiates between the signifier and the signified.

Page 12: "Manipulating The Pot Size":

Here's a typical piece of confused thought that buries a valid point in a non-sequitur.

"Good players keep the pot small when they are vulnerable, and they build it big when they have the edge".

A valid point, but badly expressed. What about the hands where you have the edge, but are also vulnerable? So, our poor novice might say: "I have the edge here, so I should build the pot". "But wait, I am vulnerable, so I should keep it small!" Now, you and I may know what Sklansky and Miller mean, but, put bluntly, they have failed to express that point correctly.

They then immediately follow this with:

"Fundamentally, that's why they win."

A non-sequitur. It may be a factor in their winning, but Sklansky and Miller have elevated it to an all-important one. Good players win for many reasons. Being able to build big pots when it's right to do so and keep it small when it's right to do so is just one of them.

The next sentences make things worse.

"Everyone wins and loses pots. Good players win big pots and lose small ones. The difference is their profit".

A child would, I would I have thought, seen the misplaced implied assumption in this. You only have to look at the later stages of a tournament, where the blinds are large compared to the stacks, to see that the statement is not necessarily true. The implied assumption is that everyone wins and loses roughly the same amount of pots and the difference is that the good players wins bigger pots and loses smaller ones. Now, perhaps I'm inferring something wrong there, but if that is the case, it's still bad writing.

It would be worse for the novice, because this is what leads to the "waiting for a hand" phenomenon in so many of the weak-tight fests. Net result is (as in tournaments), the aggressive player wins about 15 hands stealing blinds (0.75PTBB won per hand), about 15 hands on the flop with a continuation bet (about 2.5PTBB won per hand), and then has to fold to a check-raise a couple of times (about 10PTBB lost per hand). So, this player is losing big pots and winning small ones -- the antithesis of the "good player" according to what Sklansky and Miller have written. And yet, this is a winning player. Once again, we might be able to glean what Sklansky and Miller mean, but they simply haven't written it.

Page 19: Sklanksy and Miller point out that you want to induce your opponent into making mistakes. They also say that "you should try to avoid situations where you are likely to make a mistake". and "don't allow yourself to fall into a difficult situation where you're likely to make a mistake".

These apparently non-controversial sentences use value-laden words "likely" and "difficult" to cover themselves, and I'd like to see Gary Carson's take on them.

The problem is, in no-limit poker, we deliberately and correctly put ourselves in positions where we might make a mistake all the time. The most extreme example is when you get Aces. The best way to avoid a difficult situation with Aces is to raise all-in preflop. But that does not maximise your expectation and Sklansky and Miller do not advocate that you do this. Therefore, by implication in certain circumstances they advocate making a play that might put you on a difficult decision. It's the failure to clarify this that strikes me as a weakness.

It's not as if they are pushed for space. In para three on page 18 there's a whole pararagraph on how in limit poker things are different and how the restriction on betting makes it hard to induce a mistake from your opponent (although they fail to mention the 'inappropriate fold'). This would have been cut by any competent editor. But I suspect that the 2+2 guys edit themselves.

The thing is, winning at poker is often about getting difficult decisions right more often than you get them wrong. Good players prefer short-handed because there are more, not fewer, marginal decisions. Their edge is getting those marginal decisions right more often than their opponents do. And where I think Sklansky and Miller confuse things (with, once again, poor writing rather than poor conceptualisation) is what a "difficult" decision actually is.

Although they spend much time on defining a 'mistake' as referred to by Sklansky's beloved Fundamental Theorem, they spend none on the definition of a difficult decision. And thus the novice might be led astray.

Here's a classic example of a supposed 'difficult' decision -- one recounted in FMM.

You get AK. You raise the pot and get called by one player behind. The flop comes Kxx two of a suit. You bet the pot and opponent calls. The turn is a brick. You bet the pot and opponent calls. The pot is now the size of your opponent's stack. The river brings three of a suit. So you check. Your opponent bets the pot. You now have a 'difficult' decision. What could be more self-evident?

Well, a lot of things. If you know that your opponent never bluffs the river, you don't have a difficult decision at all. You fold.

Similarly, if you know that your opponent will bet the pot in this situation no matter what he holds, then, once again, you don't have a difficult decision. You call. Sure, sometimes you will lose, but it isn't a difficult decision. Indeed, playing this way against laggy opponents is one of your best money-makers.

In fact, you only have a 'difficult' decision if either (a) you know nothing about your opponent or (b) you know that he is good enough to bluff roughly the right percentage of the time. And if your opponent is the latter, your mistake wasn't betting the pot on the turn, it was betting the pot on the flop.

So, most of the time, setting yourself up for a possible 'difficult' decision isn't a mistake at all.

FMM recommend getting round facing this hard decision by limping with the AK and then reraising a raise. Once again, I'd love to see Carson's take on this. And FMMM don't assign a percentage to the times that this line costs you money. It's the classic "make a small mistake now in the hope that opponent will make a large mistake later on".

Now, the point I'm trying to make here isn't that Sklansky and Miller are giving bad advice; it's that they are very bad at expressing the good parts of the advice and that it is too easy for inexperienced players to pick up the wrong part of that advice. In effect, Sklansky and Miller often put down the wrong parts of the good advice, emphasize the wrong parts of that which they do put down, and fail to delineate their implicit assumptions.

Of course, that's fine by me. Every time I see a big overbet on the river from people I know never bluff the river, I can see them reading the bit about how you only need to be called a much smaller percentage of the time to make the bigger bet correct. What Sklansky doesn't point out* (because chapter two is all on "Playing The Nuts on the River") is that, if you bet much smaller amounts with 'value' bets than you do with the nuts, your bet-sizing gives everything away.

*(or, if they do, they've tucked it somewhere where it's easy to miss)

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