Book Review: Harrington on Cash Games Volume I

My One Minute Recommendation:
Harrington on Cash Games Volume One scores a 5/10. Players who are new to NLHE cash games will find it initially helpful, especially if they are interested in full ring play. Those who are already moderately successful at cash games will find little of use, especially if they are trying to improve at short-handed online games.

Overview

The original Harrington on Hold ‘Em revolutionized tournament poker, introducing tens of thousands of amateur players to what were then advanced moves and concepts: the continuation bet, the squeeze play, and M, the now-famous ratio of a player’s stack to the blinds and antes. This legacy created unrivaled anticipation for the Harrington on Cash Games (HOC) series, the first two volumes of which were released simultaneously last week.

So are they worth the hype? As with so many questions in no-limit hold ’em (NLHE), the answer is, “It depends.” Players who are new to NLHE cash games will have the most to gain, especially if they are interested in full ring play. Those who are already moderately successful at cash games will find few springboards to improvement, especially if they are interested in short-handed online games.

The books are wisely geared towards fans of tournament books who want to venture into no-limit cash games. Harrington writes primarily about full ring (i.e. 9- or 10-handed) games, and though his examples sometimes suggest otherwise, his advice is most applicable in smaller stakes, passive live games. Again, this makes sense given the implicitly intended audience, but it ought to have been made more clear.

Reading HOC Volume 1 should certainly make cash game novices safer and more confident at the tables. Harrington’s advice steers them clear of common and expensive pitfalls, particularly the perils of playing out of position and overvaluing one-pair hands. Armed with this advice, new players will be able to protect their bankrolls and avoid hemorrhaging money while they learn from the best teacher of all: experience.

This is a double-edged sword, however. Because so much of the advice in HOC Volume I borders on the formulaic and overly cautious, it carries the very real danger of delaying, if not stunting, the growth of advanced no-limit hold ’em skills. Reading an opponent’s hand and manipulating his range, which even 2+2’s David Sklansky has acknowledged as the most important and profitable NLHE skills, are not only lacking from but positively devalued by HOC Volume I.

The result is a manual that, though very good for turning a new player into a reasonably good player, may actually delay that same player’s transition to becoming very good or great. More experienced, higher stakes players, particularly those accustomed to more aggressive short-handed online games, will find little of use, at least in the first volume of the series.

Concepts and Theory

Harrington gets a lot of tricky bits of poker theory right, explaining them concisely but clearly and convincingly. He suggests some analogies and thought experiments that should be very helpful to players who lack a clear understanding of metagame, implied odds, equity, and the way stack sizes affect proper play. Reading these sections of HOC Volume I before starting a session could easily double or triple the educational value of the experience accumulated during that session.

Unfortunately, it will be necessary for the player to supply the experience himself, because Harrington’s practical advice and examples, though numerous, are often misleading and sometimes painfully bad. In his Introduction, for instance, the author analyzes a hand from High Stakes Poker where the players brutally bungle nearly every key decision point. They even violate Harrington’s oft-repeated warnings against overvaluing one pair, not giving opponents enough credit in multi-way pots, and bloating the pot from out of position. Despite all of this, the author concludes that, “This was a great hand, with a lot of excellent decisions by the three main players.”

Part of the problem stems from the fact that Harrington seems confused about the central objectives of the NLHE cash game player and how they differ from those of the tournament player. In the Introduction, he nonsensically asserts that, “in tournament poker, your time horizon is very limited. You need to seize every opportunity as it presents itself or risk getting blinded away. Cash games don’t have that same kind of pressure. They’re much more a game of patience. You don’t need to swing at balls that just graze the strike zone; you can wait for the fat ones that you can blast out of the park.”

To the extent that there’s any truth to this claim, it is owing to the deeper stacks generally found in cash game play, not to any kind of time limitation. A tournament player can gladly felt an overpair in many situations simply because the money already in the pot is so large relative to the money remaining in his stack, not because he won’t have time to find a better opportunity. A cash game player with a similar stack would have no reason to pass on this opportunity, and a deep-stacked tournament player would need to be more cautious with all of his chips that have not yet been wagered.

In the very next section, Harrington offers a much more helpful summary of the key principles at work in NLHE cash games, which he calls “The Strength Principle” (bet strong hands, check middling ones, fold or bluff weak ones), “The Aggression Principle” (betting and raising is generally better than checking and calling), “The Betting Principle” (most good bets will either force better hands to fold, weaker hands to call, or drawing hands to pay too high a price), and “The Deception Principle” (“Never do anything all of the time.”) This is a pretty good introduction to deep-stacked NLHE play, and only the fourth principle is a bit incomplete. After all, many good players manage to be very deceptive while always playing a certain hand the same way simply because they also play very different hands in an identical fashion.

Though Harrington does an admirable job with these “Basic Concepts”, his explorations of these key concepts is ultimately shallow and rudimentary. This is part of what makes it good for beginners, but it is also the reason why more advanced players will have little to gain from this volume. Implied odds, for instance, are absolutely critical to NLHE and ripe for in-depth analysis, but HOC Volume I never gets beyond the elementary definition of ‘how much you stand to win if you hit your hand.’

But implied odds are about more than winning additional bets. They are about equity that can be accumulated on later streets, whether from value betting, bluffing, or all around out-playing an opponent because of a certain card that flopped, turned, or rivered Yet Harrington has little to say about how factors like position and bluff outs can influence the calculation of pot odds.

The second major part of the book focuses on “The Elements of No-Limit Hold ‘Em Cash”, topics like hand selection, pot commitment, and hand reading. Once again, Harrington explains these quite well and occasionally even rises to the level of insightful. A few of his gems may enlighten even some relatively knowledeable readers, as when he rather succintly states that, “By playing a mix of hands, you’re actually reducing your opponent’s implied odds on his speculative hands” or when he says, “you need to be sure that any betting action by you is capable of multiple interpretations by an observant opponent.”

The Tight-Aggressive Strategy

The bulk of the book outlines what Harrington names his “Tight-Aggressive Strategy”. Harrington’s emphasis on practical advice was a much-appreciated hallmark of his tournament series, but there is a reason why the better cash game books of late have focused on theory and principles. Even played full ring, deep-stack NLHE allows for a huge amount of flexibility in the play of any given hand. Nebulous factors such as history, table image, and meta-game can swing a call into a fold or a fold into a raise, but they are notoriously difficult to encapsulate in a playbook.

Harrington is on the right track by introducing a coherent strategy that demonstrates a possible mix of hand ranges in the situations he examines. However, readers rarely get more than a glimpse of the reasoning behind the particular frequencies and combinations he recommends. The author himself admits the haphazard nature of his strategy when he resorts to justifying a certain mix of checks and bets because it “feels about right.” Granted this is not going to be an exact science, but without a much more thorough explanation of how various plays and hands complement each other, the reader gets a recipe rather than a learning tool.

When Harrington does share his reasoning, it’s often disappointing. The fundamental problem is that he rarely argues in terms of equity. He prefers instead to talk about information, pot control, and “taking down the pot”, all of which ought to be subordinate to manipulating an opponent’s range so as to maximize your equity. Presumably hand-reading and equity analysis lie somewhere below the surface when the author indicates that a bet “smells like a bluff” or that it is “too soon to give up”, but he never reveals the warrants for his extra-sensory perceptions.

This flawed reasoning is evident when the author says things like, “A pot-sized bet is large enough to accomplish anything that a bigger bet could accomplish.” Although an overbet may provide as much information as a pot-sized bet and charge draws a good price, the one thing it does not accomplish as well ought to be obvious: putting more money into the pot when you have the best hand! Similarly, there is no intrinsic need to take a moderate but likely best hand to showdown. A bet that exposes you to a raise is not a liability if only hands that have you crushed will make that raise.

Harrington’s reasoning also tends to rely on assumptions about his opponents that will ring false to most players. They are people who fold AQ to a single raise on dry Ace-high flops and let the first person to bet at a paired board take it down, no matter how implausible his line.

As for the strategy itself, it isn’t bad. Pre-flop, Harrington makes some good points about how and why to diversify your ranges. His central premise, that NLHE is about seeing a lot of cheap flops, can’t be true for everyone at the table, but it’s true enough if you’re one of the best. This section also debunks some common myths about pot odds and what hands should be played out of position for a discount.

The section on flop play in heads up pots is the longest in the book, and undeservedly so. Flop play has at least as much to do with how the board texture fits your opponent’s pre-flop range as it does with your own hand, yet Harrington’s analysis always proceeds from the latter. And despite its length, this section barely scratches the surface of possible flop situations. It’s an admirable attempt, but offering practical advice for every situation is simply impossible. Explanation of the decision-making process, which is so much more important, is the inevitable casualty.

This isn’t to say that there is no explanation of the decision-making process- quite the contrary. But as explained above, a lot of important stuff is left out. Covering those details would have been much more useful than a engaging in a precise and minute analysis of a few select flop situations from every angle.

The section on flop play in multi-way pots is both shorter and better. Rather than analyzing examples ad nauseum, Harrington concentrates on the big picture. He repeatedly hammers home his central thesis that play generally should and will be more straight-forward. For this reason, position is especially valuable. And despite what Harrington says, your bets should often be smaller, since the mere act of betting will command more respect.

Conclusion

Harrington reserves turn and river play for Volume II, which severely limits the stand-alone value of this book. Tournament converts will need the most help on these streets, and the fact that these sections complete the Tight-Aggressive strategy, HOC Volume I does not contain a fully playable strategy, even though the outlining of such occupies the bulk of the book.

Ultimately, the author’s preference for practical advice over theoretical discussion makes Harrington on Cash Volume I something of a crutch for beginning players, with all of the good and bad that that implies. It will surely plug some common leaks and keep them out of trouble, which means that smaller stakes games will probably start to get a bit tougher. Because the material on winning NLHE thought processes is so sporadic and flawed, however, this book may actually stunt a reader’s growth at some point and will certainly be of little use to experienced players seeking to improve or to short-handed players of any stripe. They might do well to read it anyway, however, simply to be up on the latest formulaic play likely to invade the NLHE scene.

Harrington on Cash Game – Volume II

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