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Poker alert: a review of Ed Miller’s “Poker’s 1%” (and other related thoughts)

If this blog had a topic, this post would be off somewhere else. I could try to justify it by pointing out that Pagan Sex is, after all, a book with poker players in it. “Pagan sex” is also a phrase I used to totally own on Google (especially in quotes), and–just to be clear–I’m mostly linking to my page for it right now to see if it can get a bit more scrumptious algorithmic love on a server farm somewhere. I love that title. Don’t hate me, unless you really want to.

So. Moving on. Yesterday I read Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players On Top by Ed Miller. I played poker with the author a couple of times a few years ago, but to the best of my recollection we only had one conversation away from the table (after a ridiculous situation one night at Caesar’s Palace where a guy bluffed all-in at me and the whole previously-full table got up to leave before I got around to calling his bet…this guy was from Sweden, and I kinda wonder just how much he enjoyed his visit to Vegas after that…maybe not anybody’s finest hour there). Neither of us mentioned our names, and in fact I didn’t recognize Ed till I saw his picture much later.

IOW I have no financial or personal interest here. But I’ve read all of Ed’s books and articles. Plus lots of others. So, if you’re into that sort of thing, let me give this strong opinion: Ed Miller is the best poker author out there today.

It’s tempting to qualify that. There are topics he hasn’t covered in a lot of depth. Sometimes he oversimplifies in a way that annoys me. Fairly often I think his recommendations are a bit impractical as written–but the thing is, I’ve tried to figure out better ways to convey his points (sometimes being a writer kinda sucks that way), and I generally haven’t succeeded. Ed simply makes sense. He is an original thinker who can communicate his ideas. He hasn’t written the One True Guide to Complete Poker yet, but he’s come up with a few chapters.

Here’s a caveat: it’s barely worth reading the books he co-wrote with others. To my mind their logical flaws are so great that, though I suppose they’re better than nothing at all (why would you play poker to win and read nothing?), they strike me as likely to derail future thought about the game if you happen to get hooked by them. Once upon a time I used to read that sort of thing even if it was suboptimal just to help me categorize players I met at the tables–if I could figure out what had influenced them, I’d have better insight into how they played.

So, about once upon a time. Ed says poker is a math problem. Twenty-plus years ago I used to sit around with an old 286 and a spreadsheet program (not a recommendation, by the way). A friend and I did a lot of modeling of poker situations, basically looking to understand the game and (ideally) find counterintuitive winning strategies we could employ–ideally, also, while looking like idiots as we did it. Plus we’d sit around in the Horseshoe coffee shop in Vegas (before it became just “Binion’s,” which it didn’t do until the Binions had left) and scribble math on napkins and placemats all night long. Fun stuff!

Back then we played limit poker in Vegas. No-limit just didn’t exist aside from occasional tournaments, and even then it was usually…er…limited?…to the final table–the standard wisdom at the time was that suckers lost their money too quickly in no-limit, which adversely affected the casino’s rake, so casinos wouldn’t “spread” the game. Before coming to Vegas, I’d played mostly pot-limit in private games, and a group of us were working pretty hard to figure things out. Essentially, this is what Ed is recommending in his book: study. Away from the table. I used to talk about pattern recognition, and Ed talks about a trained intuition, but it amounts to the same thing.

I was a kid. An introvert. The next-youngest serious player I knew had twelve years on me. So I really got into the study thing–in fact I still do that, all the time. It’s how I learned to write software too. Somewhere along the way I quit being such an introvert (which I think was likely due to a combination of poker games and a related aggressive approach to salary/hourly-rate negotiations…that’s another story), but I clearly remember being that kid.

Here’s the thing. There are lots of people out there who would like to improve their poker games. Ed tells them how to go about it. Then he tells them it’s going to be a lot of work, for months or years. Well, he’s right.

This particular book is somewhat skewed toward introverts, and also toward people who don’t already know a lot of math. It ignores most of what I (for one) actually think about during a poker game. But the thing is? I can only think about that stuff usefully because I’ve done a lot of homework along the way. And besides that? He’s suggested a couple of new wrinkles I hadn’t considered. Always useful, that. More than worth the money. Buying this one should not be a close decision.

In “live” (meaning “not online”) games, there are other approaches to improving your poker game. Some of them may even have more immediate benefit for you, depending on your tendencies and aptitudes. But at some point, you really do have to start doing your homework (and, worse luck? not just the sort Ed recommends). If you want to improve.

Great book. I’m looking forward to whatever he writes next.

Have fun out there!

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