Book Review: Elements of Poker

There are probably better poker books out there, but I have never enjoyed reading one as much as I enjoyed Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker. It’s a delightful read, alternately light and weighty, funny and stern, but a lot of my enjoyment came from the realization that I was getting better at poker from reading it. I was thinking about things I had never considered before, and I was thinking about things I had considered before in a new light.

Elements of Poker is like no other poker book on the market. For the most part, it isn’t about pot odds or percentages or hand ranges or bluffing or raising or any of that other stuff that other books tell you how to do. Technically, it does include a pre-flop starting hand chart for hold ’em, but- well, you’ll see. Elements of Poker is about how to play poker, literally how you should be while you are playing. It’s about where and how you should sit, what and how you should think, when and how you should act, how and to whom you should speak, and even how and why you should breath.

Angelo begins by explaining that you have three poker games: “Your A game is when you play your best and feel your best…. Your B-game is everything between your A-game and your C-game…. Your C-game is when you play poorly according to you.” By his reckoning, most poker books tell you how to improve your A-game. That’s all well and good, but as he makes clear, poker is a stressful, psychologically and physically brutal game. No one can play his A-game all the time. Most of Elements of Poker, and all of the best parts, is about how to lop off your C-game and spend more time playing your best. Whereas fiddling with the margins of your A-game may improve your win rate by .5 BB/hour or so, getting out of your C-game is usually worth much more. Often, it’s the difference between winning and losing.

For Angelo, profit stems from reciprocity. That is, it flows from all of the things that you do better than your opponents. If you get Aces on the button and raise, you haven’t won anything yet, because anyone can raise with a pair of Aces. But if you fold those same Aces to a check-raise on the turn, in a spot where your opponent would have lost his stack, then you have turned a (theoretical) profit.

But it’s not just about how you play your hands. Every decision you make is an opportunity to decide better than your opponents will. You can eat better, choose your seat better, pay more attention at the table, and quit better than they would. Quitting is big in Angelo’s world. Players more prone to tilt than myself will probably find his advice on this point especially valuable. Personally, I struggle to find time to play as much as I should, so I’m more interested in ways to recover from the C-game mentality or even to improve my C-game rather than ways to quit. Still, it’s a good section and a powerful idea.

The underlying theme here is self-control. The reader certainly gets the sense that this book is the product of a long, perhaps ongoing struggle between Angelo and his tilt. He’s been a professional poker player for a long time, and what he reveals in Elements of Poker are the paths that he has taken to acquire greater control over his thoughts and greater discipline in his actions. What worked for him may not work for everyone, but it at least makes for instructive examples:

Don’t set expectations: “When you feel disappointment or relief, you have painted the Ace with your desires and fears- you attached.”

Avoid entitlement: “You are not entitled to play bad just because they are playing bad. You are not entitled to tilt on the grounds that anyone would tilt with the terrible luck you’ve had…. If you have time and money, you are entitled to a seat at the table. That is all.”

Don’t think in terms of streaks: “All of my good streaks and all of my bad streaks… have had one thing in common. They did not exist in your mind. They only existed in my mind.”

Ignore the chat box when playing online: “Let’s say you wanted to make it more likely that you will make misclick mistakes. And that you wanted to increase the probability that you will be distracted from the game and miss something important. And let’s say you wanted to disclose information to your opponents about yourself that will help them play better against you. How might you achieve all these goals with one action? Chat.”

Keep your reads flexible: “If you have an inflexible image in your mind of an opponent, then whenever he changes, your evaluation of him will be wrong.”

Breathe. Damn near an entire chapter is devoted to this one.

When he’s at his best, Angelo seems to tell you things that you already know, except that he states them so simply, clearly, and powerfully that you attain a new and deeper sense of their importance. Pay attention. Play your position. Find games you can beat. Everyone knows this stuff, yet everyone gets it wrong all the time.

At its worst, Angelo’s writing devolves into gross oversimplification or mystical mumbo-jumbo. When you know you want to get all in on the next street, bet 1/3 of the effective stacks on this street. No matter what. Guy with a $1000 open raises to $40 and you’ve got Aces? Make it $300. That’s an actual example from the book.

A lot of the more traditional poker advice tends to veer off track like that. Most of the Tournaments chapter, for instance, is an argument for the importance of survival backed up by numbers the author seems to fabricate out of thin air. I do sympathize with his reasoning for giving up tournaments, though: “the pain equation is way out of whack.” Busting out of a $100 tournament can feel as bad, or worse, than losing ten times that in a cash game.

Angelo’s discussions of ethics may prove controversial as well. We’re not talking about marking cards or multi-accounting here, but rather some genuine gray areas related to whether you should point out a dealer error in a pot that doesn’t involve you or when and how you should reveal your hand at showdown. He admits that what he advises can result in your revealing more information than is necessary about your hand and maybe even open yourself up to angel-shooting. Ultimately, though, he offers a compelling, almost Nietzschean justification: “In the grander scheme, you could say that the reason your opponents say, ‘I missed’ is because they are weak, and the reason you say don’t say ‘I missed’ is because you are strong, which means you are competing for money when you are strong and your opponents are weak. How fair is that?”

And that brings us back to reciprocality. Every time you make a better decision than your opponents, even when you’re deciding about something seemingly tangential like what to eat or how much to sleep, you profit as surely as you do when you make a heroic call or amazing fold. The former a lot easier to address, though, and there’s generally a lot more room for improvement there. So while the other poker books will tell you how to make even better decisions on a few key points (betting, folding, calling, raising, checking) that you probably understand pretty well already, Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker will help you recognize and take advantage of the many other opportunities for profit that exist all around you.

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