Book Review: Harrington on Cash Games, Volume II

Harrington on Cash Games:
How to Win at No-Limit Hold ‘Em Money Games Volume II

by Dan Harrington
My One Minute Recommendation:
Harrington on Cash Games Volume II covers turn and river play as well as playing loose and aggressive, dealing with others who play that way, bankroll management, and other topics. Harrington explains complex poker theory well, but when it comes to putting it into practice, his advice is hit-or-miss. His recommendations for playing the turn are solid enough, but he badly misunderstands river play, and his advice for beating loose-aggressive players and weak games is a little lacking. Small-stakes players and those new to cash games will get a lot from this book, especially if they know what to ignore, but more experienced players will find many of the advanced topics misguided and unhelpful.

Harrington on Cash Games Volume II (HOC2) is subtitled “How to Win at No-Limit Hold ‘em Money Games” but it might well have been subtitled “Cash Game Poker For Second-Level Thinkers” instead. Harrington’s advice is useful up to a point, but he rarely gets past his own hand and his opponent’s possible hands to think about what his opponent believes he has, let alone what she thinks she has represented to him.

As in Volume I, Harrington gets a lot of poker theory right, often finding helpful and insightful ways to explain complex ideas, but generally fails in his attempts to illustrate how these concepts should be put into practice. This is particularly unfortunate because so much of the Harrington on Cash Games series focuses on practical application (for turn and river play and a loose aggressive strategy, in this volume) over the theoretical explanation that is really the author’s strong suit.

Tight-Aggressive Turn Play

HOC2 picks up right where the first volume left off, detailing how Harrington’s tight-aggressive (TAG) strategy works on the turn. The second volume is much superior to the first, but because they are so mutually dependent in this way, it would be difficult to purchase and read only the better book.

The section on turn play is one of the highlights of the book. Abandoning the tedious minutiae of dozens of examples, Harrington wisely focuses on the broader principles of turn play. He clearly and comprehensively lays out the reasons why you would want to bet or check the turn and concludes with some very valuable and important advice: “If you have shown consistent strength throughout the hand, and on the turn your opponent either bets into you or raises your bet, top pair is very unlikely to be good.”

The sample problems that follow are also stronger than previous problem sets have been, in no small part because Harrington delves deeply into the thought process behind each play. He puts his opponent on a range of hands, considers his equity, speculates about likely river action, and usually arrives at a good play.

Tight-Aggressive River Play

After a strong section on turn play, Harrington quickly loses his momentum. He’s right that the river is the most important street in deep-stacked no-limit hold ‘em (NLHE) for a variety of reasons, but his advice on how to play it is some of the weakest in the book. His suggestions for playing the nuts and other strong hands are solid, but he exposes one of the central flaws in his strategy when he argues that, “When you have some value in your hand, you’d like to see the showdown as cheaply as possible.” In fact, the ability to turn such a hand into a bluff or to get away from it under the right conditions is key to playing the river well. Yet the author goes so far as to say that “Bluffing with middling-strength value hands like middle pair is a waste because those hands might actually win the pot in a showdown.”

When it comes to catching bluffs, Harrington’s theory is lacking as well. He is correct that you must sometimes, for game theoretical purposes, call big bets when you can only beat a bluff. Otherwise, savvy opponents can bluff you mercilessly on the river. Harrington doesn’t seem to understand what this really means, though. He claims that you can “review the hand and see if your opponent’s betting fits the hand he’s representing. If there’s a good fit, let the hand go. Save your calls for the hands where there are obvious betting discrepancies between the betting history and the hand that’s being represented.”

This is a perfect example of Harrington’s failure to get past second level thinking. An opponent who realizes that you are very unlikely to have a hand stronger than one pair can easily bluff with a betting pattern that is perfectly consistent a strong hand. The point of game theory in this spot is that you have to call some percentage of the time when you can only beat a bluff, even though nothing about your opponent’s line suggests a bluff. Only calling when there is some inconsistency in an opponent’s story is not sufficient to counteract this bluffing strategy. In fact, savvy opponents are more likely to value bet when they know they have represented a weak hand and to bluff when they have shown strength consistently.

Harrington’s other strategy for stopping a bluff, the blocking bet, is nearly as ineffective. In most cases, a blocking bet has to have some chance of getting called by a worse hand to have value. Otherwise, it simply folds out worse hands (or worse, entices them to bluff) and gets called or raised by better. The author claims that a small blocking bet is difficult to bluff raise because it looks like a “suck bet” with a big hand, but he correctly argues that you should very rarely make such small bets with big hands on the river. Thus, in Harrington’s tight-aggressive strategy, a blocking bet will look exactly like what it is: a hand that doesn’t want to get raised.

When it comes to bluffs of his own, Harrington is similarly weak. He claims it is obvious that you shouldn’t bluff a calling station, but plenty of situations exist where a calling station gets to the river with a hand that won’t call a big bet. I’ve written an entire article on this point.

His advice to “Bluff players who’ve shown weakness somewhere along the way,” once again falls into the trap of low-level thinking. Smarter opponents are more likely to call on the river when they know they’ve shown weakness. They may even show weakness for the purpose of inducing a bluff.

Most importantly, Harrington never mentions that a river bluff still needs to be based on an analysis of an opponent’s range and the hands he is likely to fold. It isn’t enough to bluff because you can’t win any other way. You need to know which hands you expect your opponent to fold, what percentage of his range they comprise, and how much you’ll need to bet to take him off of those holdings.

Tells and Observations

This section brings the book back to poker theory, where it is strongest. The author does a nice job of dispelling certain misconceptions about is and is not worth noticing about one’s opponents. He rightly downplays the importance of physical tells and suggests instead that you focus on concealing your own tells and place opponents on a spectrum from loose to tight, passive to aggressive, and straightforward to tricky.

Playing the Loose-Aggressive Style

Despite his tongue-in-cheek nickname of “Action Dan”, the famously tight Harrington has a good grasp on what makes loose-aggressive (LAG) play successful. He clearly and concisely explains how LAG play loses value by entering pots with weak hands but regains that value through deception, frustrating opponents, and generally taking them out of their comfort zone.

It’s generally good that he avoids the minutiae that bogs down his explanation of his TAG style, but if anything he provides too little information about how exactly to play as a LAG. The text includes a nice little summary of some plays that LAGs can make but offers little advice on when to attempt them. Harrington also has too little to say about how to maintain a LAG style when smart players start playing back at you. His response, that, “There is no ‘correct’ answer to the problem; it’s endemic to the loose-aggressive style,” while not exactly wrong, is a bit of a cop out. There are things that LAG players do to deal with opponents who play back them, and Harrington would have done well to learn about and discuss some of them.

Harrington’s strategy for countering LAG play is not without its strengths, but it has some glaring weaknesses as well. He correctly points out that you must raise and re-raise a LAG more often than you would a TAG, but doesn’t provide much insight into when or with which hands. When he does talk about changing hand values, he misses an important point: although it’s true that broadway hands medium pairs have better equity against a LAG’s pre-flop hand range, they are not necessarily easier to play post-flop. An aggressive player forces you to hit the flop, and Harrington underestimates the value of suited connectors that can hit the flop strongly enough to play back at the nettlesome LAG.

Most surprisingly, Harrington insists that he would prefer to sit to the right rather than the left of a LAG player. His assumption is that the LAG is the “fulcrum” of the table and action tends to revolve around him: other players check strong hands waiting for him to bet, they re-raise him light, etc. Harrington assumes that since the LAG will predictably bet or raise anyway, there’s little informational value to be had from sitting on his left and it’s better to see how other players respond to his action.

There’s something to this at a full ring table, where pots are more likely to go multi-way, but it really only works against a LAG who is not particularly good. A player who understands his own image will often frustrate you by checking when you were hoping he would bet and re-raising you when you really wanted to see the next card for cheap. The simple fact that he is loose means you’ll play more pots with him than you otherwise would, and for that reason alone you should want to have position on him.

Beating Weak Games

When I saw this section heading, I thought to myself, “Isn’t that what this whole book is about?” But now we’re talking about really weak games: $1/$2 live tables and internet games where bets are made with decimal points. Harrington’s advice to play solid, straightforward poker and bet more hands for value is correct, and he explains the reasoning behind it well. If anything, he’s a little too conservative. Against weak players, you should welcome the chance to take cheap flops in position with very speculative hands, not for deception purposes, but simply for implied odds.

The advice in this section is so simple and straight-forward that the author probably devotes too much space to it. Then again, the majority of his readership probably plays in these games, so he probably has his reasons.

Bankroll Management and Other Topics

The obligatory hodge-podge chapter reminds us that this is a Two Plus Two publication. Harrington briefly discusses non-strategy topics such as bankroll management, avoiding tilt, and paying taxes, but doesn’t devote enough space to these topics to say much of substance. Anyone who actually needs an answer to one of these questions is unlikely to find this book very satisfying.

An Interview With Bobby Hoff

I’m generally skeptical of these “let’s talk to a venerate old pro and pretend that whatever he says is brilliant”-style interviews, but Hoff actually comes across very well here. He still plays high stakes games live and online and seems to have a good feel for the current poker climate, which a lot of the old-school guys lack. He certainly plays a different style than many contemporary professionals, but for the most part it makes sense and he has good answers to some tough questions. He seems to understand both the math and the psychology of very deep stacked live no limit hold ‘em very well, and I found the interview entertaining and educational.

Conclusion

Harrington on Cash Games Volume II is a much more diverse book than its predecessor, which focused almost exclusively on tight-aggressive play. The second volume, which covers turn and river play as well as playing loose and aggressive, dealing with others who play that way, bankroll management, and other topics, is more of a mixed bag. The author continues to explain complex poker theory well, but when it comes to putting it into practice, his advice is hit-or-miss. His recommendations for playing the turn are solid enough, but he badly misunderstands river play, and his advice for beating loose-aggressive players and beating weak games is a little lacking. Small-stakes players and those new to cash games will get a lot from this book, especially if they know what to ignore, but more experienced players will find the more advanced topics are often misguided and unhelpful.

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