Book Review: Harrington on Online Cash Games

The Harrington on Hold ‘Em series introduced important but largely unknown concepts to a wide audience and fundamentally changed the way tournament poker was played. The Harrington on Cash Games series may have helped some people get started in no-limit hold ’em (NLHE) cash games, but it fell far short of the bar set by its predecessor. In particular, many online cash game players felt that the book didn’t speak to the aggressive, short-handed games in which they play.

When 2+2 Publishing announced Harrington on Online Cash Games (HOCG), a book meant to address specifically 6-handed online NLHE games, there was understandable skepticism. Harrington’s refusal to disclose the screenames under which he plays, and thus his results in online cash games, led some to question whether he was even qualified to write such a book.

Personally, I can understand the desire to see his results, but I believe that a good book is a good book. If his arguments, reasoning, and math are sound, then his results are not terribly important.

That said, it would be hard to come away from HOCG convinced that authors Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie are inexperienced at online play. Their book is an excellent introduction to the games, covering not only strategy but also important aspects of the online game such as site selection, rakeback, and using Heads-Up Display (HUD).

HOCG is the single best resource I’ve seen for anyone just starting out online or still learning to beat the microstakes games (i.e. stakes smaller than $.25/$.50). Though still good, the section on moving up to small stakes games ($.25/$.50 through $1/$2 blinds) is a lot less thorough and somewhat more hit-or-miss than the majority of the book, which is aimed at microstakes players. I’d recommend the book without qualification for anyone still aspiring to beat the microstakes. Others will need to approach the small stakes advice more critically, but there’s still a lot of good material to be found there.

The tricky thing about writing a book for beginners is getting the balance between accuracy and simplicity right. On the one hand, NLHE is a complex game where the right play almost always depends on a wide variety of factors and judgment calls. Providing rules or straightforward advice runs the risk of opening oneself up to objections, exceptions, and “what if’s”. There is even the danger of hindering the reader’s development later in his career when he finds himself hamstrung by over-reliance on these rules and “standard” plays.

On the other hand, the beginner by definition lacks the experience to make many of the more subtle adjustments and judgment calls. Providing him with too many exceptions and variables to consider is essentially providing him no guidance at all.

HOCG gets this balance just right, providing clear guidelines alongside advice for how to make the most important adaptations and adjustments. Harrington doesn’t overwhelm with exceptions, but he does discuss the most important ones, leaving room for independent thought right from the beginning.

The best example of this is the book’s guidelines for pre-flop hand selection. Rather than provide either a definitive list of playable hands from each position or a lengthy diatribe on the advantages and disadvantages of various hands, Harrington discusses two separate pre-flop strategies and explains the differences between them. This approach invites the reader to feel like a poker player using his judgment and making strategic decisions rather than a robot following a pre-programmed formula.

Of course some generalizations are unavoidable, and most of the spots where I’m tempted to furrow my brow and ask, “but what about…?” are minor points where it’s probably better not to complicate the matter. There are a few cases where an overly broad statement could eventually hinder a reader in tougher games. “Only bluff with hands that have no showdown value” and “Don’t bluff a calling station” come to mind. By and large, though, Harrington’s generalizations will do no harm and quite a bit of good in the course of a player’s development.

The authors open with a brief introduction to the most important theoretical concepts in NLHE: pot commitment, hand ranges, implied odds, that sort of thing. Despite being simple and concise, they often manage to be insightful as well, which is no mean feat. The sections on bet sizing and reasons for betting are particularly good, though I don’t see the need to distinguish a continuation bet from value bets, bluffs, and semi-bluffs.

HOCG stands out not only for the quality of its content but also for how thoroughly it addresses concepts specific to online play that most other resources neglect. This includes a substantive guide to note taking, discussions of site, table, and seat selection, and the most through introduction to setting up and using HUD statistics that I’ve seen anywhere, including in materials created by Hold ‘Em Manager and Poker Tracker themselves.

HUD statistics play a role in virtually every example in the book, which is a great way of demonstrating how to use them in real-time decision-making. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all those numbers on the screen, and many players end up focusing on either the cards or the statistics rather than synthesizing all available information. The way in which these statistics are integrated into the text and consistently included as a factor in all decisions serves both to highlight their importance and illustrate their proper use.

The consistently excellent material continues through the section on microstakes play, which is a nice introduction to the kinds of opponents one will encounter in these games and the strategies that will beat them. Harrington addresses the most common beginner’s mistakes in simple and convincing terms, and this section will help many readers get on their feet and winning quickly and with minimal losses. The hand examples that conclude this section are well-chosen to illustrate, synthesize, and expand on the preceding material.

Unfortunately, HOCG is not so consistently spot-on in its advice for small stakes players. Harrington’s advice about how the games will differ from the microstakes and the new skills that will be required is a good introduction, and there are valuable passages scattered throughout. In other places, however, he fails to address important factors and ends up offering some misleading advice.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the section dealing with 3-bets. A failure to address the aggressive 3-betting in online cash games was one of the most common criticisms of the original Harrington on Cash Games books. While HOCG devotes 15-20 pages to the concept, there are nevertheless some glaring omissions that render the resulting advice rather superficial.

Most troubling is the lack of consideration of how often an opponent will call a 3-bet. When contemplating a 3-bet, Harrington always considers the opponents Fold to 3-Bet percent but never the frequency with he calls vs. 4-bets when he doesn’t fold. This is a critical bit of information in determining whether to 3-bet a polarized or de-polarized range, but it’s discussed nowhere in HOCG.

The book is also light on discussion of sizing 3- and 4-bets, which is a fundamental concept deserving far more attention than it receives. Harrington’s proposed 4-bet sizing in particular is routinely far too large. The result is an example in which he advises 4-bet-folding JJ in position with a sizing that will be flat called by the average opponent approximately never.

This isn’t precisely bad advice; it’s just incomplete and sub-optimal. Following Harrington’s guidelines for 3- and 4-betting probably won’t lose you money, but it will result in taking far less advantage of profitable opportunities and opponent’s mistakes than you ideally would. This is unfortunate given the importance of this topic to the small stakes NLHE audience and how well HOCG demonstrates exploitive play based on HUD statistics with regard to so many other concepts.

One final factor worth mentioning is the book’s readability. There are a lot of little details that separate an entertaining and informative read from the mere regurgitation of information that is the average e-book written by a twenty-something online pro. These include characters like “Loose Lou” and “Johnny All-In”, who represent types of players found in online games, and even a few genuinely funny one-liners. These may seem like minor things, but taken together they make the book much easier and more enjoyable to read. It’s a welcome departure from the old 2+2 philosophy of “we’re here to give you poker advice- if you want a well-written book, buy a Hemingway novel”.

Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie’s Harrington on Online Cash Games is a must-read for anyone making his first foray into online NLHE cash games or struggling in the microstakes games. It’s the single best soup-to-nuts resource I’ve seen for getting started and is probably worth re-reading several times before moving on to any other books. It’s still a valuable resource for small stakes games, but it doesn’t address these games so thoroughly, and the reader will need to think critically about the material to determine what is and is not worth using. If for no other reason, HOCG is worth reading because it is soon to be one of the most widely read books among your opponents!

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