Book Review: NLHE Theory and Practice

No Limit Hold ‘Em: Theory and Practice
by David Sklansky and Ed Miller

I first read David Sklansky and Ed Miller’s No Limit Hold ‘Em: Theory and Practice over a year ago, when I was just starting to play cash games seriously. I recall thinking that it was good but not great and then reconciling it to my bookshelf as I spent the next year figuring the game out for myself. What a mistake.

Upon re-reading it, I find that so many things I “learned” in the last year were there all along. No Limit Hold Em: Theory and Practice (NLHE:TAP), though heavier on the former than the latter, is an essential text for any serious player. It certianly couldn’t hurt beginners to read it, but getting the most from this book requires a combination of experience and multiple re-readings. It is a dense manual, often devoting no more than a few pages to crucial and complex information and not always presenting topics in logical progression, but damn near everything you need to become a strong player is in there.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, as the book contains a lot more theory than practice. However, this imbalance plays to the authors’ strengths and makes sense for a game as complex as no limit hold ‘em (NLHE). Rather than waste space on vain attempts to explain the many variations and exceptions that can arise, NLHE:TAP tells you “what factors you should consider when you make your decisions [and] how excellent players think about the game.”

The book begins with a discussion of key skills such as pot control, adjusting to different stack sizes, “winning the battle of mistakes”, hand reading, and manipulating your opponents. Not to quibble with the importance of any of these, but diving right into a discussion of particular skills is not the best way to begin a largely theoretical book.

From a theoretical perspective, NLHE is a game of implied odds. It is about threatening your opponents’ entire stacks while protecting your own. Though Sklansky and Miller emphasize this point repeatedly, they would have done well to introduce it early as a theoretical frame for the rest of their advice.

As for practical advice, NLHE:TAP’s central contribution is the best discussion of bet sizing in print, aptly summarized as “Big bets and big pots are for big hands.” The rest of the book expands out from this principle, explaining just how big is big, how that changes relative to flop texture and stack sizes, how to balance this strategy with properly sized bluffs, and when and why it might be appropriate to slowplay a big hand.

One of the great things about NLHE:TAP is that the authors approach the game theoretically and with an open mind. Even moves much maligned among many players, such as open limping, min-raising, overbetting, and buying in short receive serious strategic consideration. Personally, I came away from these chapters convinced that such plays are under-exploited even by very good players and thus offer profitable opportunities to anyone who masters them.

Though the above sections have more in common with optimal strategy, a substantial portion of the text focuses on exploitive strategy, that is, how to adapt a relatively unexploitable game in order to take maximum advantage of a weaker opponent. Sklansky and Miller call this “swapping mistakes”, giving up small amounts of equity to induce larger errors from opponents later on a future street or hand. They also consider other means of manipulating opponents and how generally to adapt your play to particularly tight or loose games. And though many examples implicitly assume a full ring game, most of the book is theoretical enough to be very applicable to short-handed and even heads up play.

At times, the authors take the idea of avoiding big mistakes too far, advocating the easy play rather than the best play. For instance, after raising Q9s pre-flop and getting an A95 rainbow flop, they contend that, “You likely have the best hand, but you also could easily be beaten. Since you don’t have much of a draw if behind, your goal should be to clarify whether your hand is best or not as early as possible…. Since you won’t call a check-raise, you should bet an amount that discourages a bluff.”

From out of position, I might like this line. With position, however, it will be easier to take your mid pair to showdown, and against most opponents, a good player should not be so fearful of skillful bluffing. Depending on the opponent, I would generally prefer to check planning to call most turn bets or to bet and call a check-raise planning to fold unimproved to a second barrel on the turn. The risk of occasionally facing a tough decision is not enough to justify a bet that will never fold out better hands nor be called by worse ones.

These are complex concepts that would require study under any circumstances. However, their presentation in NLHE:TAP doesn’t always help matters. In many cases, particularly the “Concepts and Weapons” section that concludes the book, complicated ideas are introduced in no particular order and often with minimal explanation. The latter is not necessarily a problem, as nothing essential to understanding is lacking. There is merely a minimum of hand holding, which ideally leaves room for more ideas to be introduced.

In some cases, though, particular concepts receive explanation and page space well out of proportion to their importance. One glaring example is the Sklansky-Chubokov hand rating system, which ranks hands based on how shallow stacks need to be to make open shoving them from the small blind profitable. These rankings are of very limited utility, especially relative to other ways in which hands can be ranked. Yet the charts themselves constitute a 12-page appendix, and their explanation garners more than a few pages from the main text. This is unfortunate given the number of more important and esoteric concepts that Sklansky and Miller treat in as little as half a page.

No Limit Hold ‘Em: Theory and Practice is a dense text, sometimes with good cause, sometimes needlessly so. A beginner won’t be able to read this book, sit down at the table, and win. But it is an indispensable tool for helping experienced players analyze their play, examine their game for leaks, and improve their decision-making ability.

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