Professional No Limit Hold Em

Professional No-Limit Hold ‘em: Volume I
by Matt Flynn, Sunny Mehta, Ed Miller

Writing a book about poker strategy that will be both correct and useful to inexperienced players is a big challenge. Beginners need straight-forward, practical, concrete advice that they can apply at the table. But poker, and especially no limit hold ‘em, is a game of “sometimes”, “unless”, and “it depends”. In Professional No Limit Hold ‘Em, Matt Flynn, Sunny Mehta, and Ed Miller do an admirable job of breaking complex situations into discrete elements that beginners can digest and use. Although nuance is very occasionally lost, the authors generally manage to deal with the conditions and exceptions in comprehensive footnotes that are easily accessible without intruding on the deliberately simplified advice.

As was Flynn, Mehta, and Miller’s intent, their book addresses the elements of the game most likely to befuddle novice players: how to handle stacks of different sizes, how to weight pot odds versus implied odds, how to make the most with monster hands, and what to do with marginal hands in tricky spots. Their central lesson is to plan your hand. In other words, they advise players to think about what kind of flops they want to see, how big of a pot they will want to play on these flops, and what kind of turn and river spots they may face before deciding what to with their pre-flop starting hands.

This is common no limit hold ‘em advice, but Professional No Limit Hold ‘Em gives it much more content than the average strategy guide. Most of the book is dedicated to what it really means to plan a hand and how to go about doing so. Since the threat of an all-in bet looms over every hand of no limit hold ‘em, the authors work backwards from this possibility. They explain what it means to be committed to the pot and how to avoid putting your entire stack at risk when you don’t intend to do so. Again, ‘pot control’ is a much-bandied-about bit of jargon, but rarely is it explained as clearly or as practically as it is here: “Pot control means deciding early in a hand what size you want the final pot to be, and then choosing your actions to make it that size.”

To aid in hand planning, the authors introduce the concept of a commitment threshold, where one more big bet will (usually) commit your entire stack to the pot. Their rules make it easy to recognize when you are approaching this threshold and to decide whether and how you want to approach it. While it does an admirable job of helping players to navigate their own commitment decisions, this section would have benefited from some discussion of how recognizing an opponent’s commitment threshold can aid in bet sizing so as to encourage or discourage his further involvement in the pot.

With these baseline concepts out of the way, the book moves on to the REM- for Range, Equity, Maximize- Process, the “guiding process by which you gather information, calculate its consequences, and use it to make the best possible play.” There are better resources for learning how to put an opponent on a range of hands and how to calculate equity, and PNLHE thankfully does not dwell long on these subjects.

Instead, the bulk of the REM section, and indeed the bulk of the book, focus on how to “Maximize”, that is, how to make the best decision possible based on the information culled from the earlier steps. Topics covered include bluffing, value betting, and the especially thorny question of how to play various types of draws. The authors’ thoughts on these topics are none too deep, but for an introductory book, they are appropriate and come packaged in the form of concise guidelines, such as, “If your pot equity is relatively small…, usually avoid semibluff raising.”

In Section Four: Planning Your Hand Around Commitment, the authors return to the notion of commitment and how it ought to influence your play. Specifically, they introduce the concept of Stack-to-Pot Ratio, or SPR, a number the measures the size of the effective stacks relative to the final pre-flop pot. Armed with such a number, they argue, you can decide how strong of a hand you will need to flop to commit your entire stack to the pot against various opponents.

Working back from this consideration, they advise calculating a “Max SPR” for your specific hand and opponent that represents “the maximum multiples of the preflop pot that you can get all-in for postflop and have the best of it.” In other words, how big of a pot will this opponent be willing to play on this flop with a hand worse than mine? Then, with this question answered, you can establish a “Target SPR” that reflects how much money you want to have behind post-flop given your pre-flop cards and most likely opponent. Thus, big pairs likely to flop an overpair and broadway hands likely to flop top pair with a good kicker prefer smaller SPRs than small pairs that need to win big on the rare occasions that they flop a set.

This is where I really start to differ with the authors of PNLHE. They justify their emphasis on SPRs by arguing, “You plan hands to reduce expensive mistakes, and the biggest mistakes you can make are commitment errors. You plan hands to avoid tough commitment decisions, because they cause you to make those big commitment errors.” SPR is a tool designed to make post-flop play easier, and I concede that it may be helpful to smaller stakes players who can turn a profit merely by avoiding big mistakes of their own.

But it is presented as a crucial NLHE tool, not a crutch for simplifying the decisions of inexperienced players. Ultimately, a player’s goal should be not just to reduce expensive mistakes on his part but to induce such mistakes from his opponents. Towards this end, players need to consider not just how much money they can profitably put in with a certain holding but how the money goes in. In some situations, the authors’ advice to bet or raise as much as possible when you’ve decided to commit to the pot is sound. But in many other situations, such aggression will fold out bluffs and weaker hands that are only comfortable when doing the betting or raising themselves.

Worse, the measures recommended for hitting a target SPR pre-flop sometimes amount to turning one’s hand face-up to a strong opponent and scaring even weaker players away from big pots post-flop. In a particularly troubling example, PNLHE advises limping KK under-the-gun in a 7-handed $2/$5 NLHE game with a $500 stack and then re-raising from $20 to $50 after another limp and a raise. Even granting the generous assumption that the second limper will often call this raise, giving you an SPR of 3, I have trouble imagining those Kings being in very good shape if all of the money goes in on a Qh 7d 4h flop after this pre-flop action.

The authors claim that your hand will not be transparent since you’ll occasionally make a similar play with AK or AQ. Even against that range, a tiny limp-reraise planning to get all the money in whenever you flop an overpair against two opponents gives the first raiser the very profitable opportunity to call pre-flop with his entire range and fold everything worse than top pair, top kicker. And the situation only gets worse when there isn’t someone behind you limping and cold-calling a reraise for 10% of the effective stacks. Playing KK like this may enable you to hit what would otherwise be your target SPR, but having played KK like this, you need to adjust your target SPR way down.

On the other hand, many players, even many advanced ones, would likely benefit from putting more thought into likely post-flop scenarios when sizing their pre-flop raises and re-raises. As with most things in NLHE, it’s a balancing act. Flynn, Mehta, and Miller, however, tend to treat SPR as the most important element rather than as one factor to consider along with position, deception, and other important pre-flop considerations. In general, they do an excellent job of keeping their advice simple without making it misleading, but in addressing this particular concept, they err too far on the side of oversimplification.

Still, SPR can be a very valuable tool for helping players to plan their NLHE hands and make better decisions when their entire stacks are at risk. As these are the biggest and often most important decisions in the game, Flynn, Mehta, and Miller have certainly set their sights on the right target. What’s more, they find substantial new ground to cover, getting away from the starting hand charts and specific hand advice found in so many other NLHE texts. Armed with Professional No Limit Hold ‘Em, dedicated players will learn to think correctly about the game and to make the right decisions when the pressure is on and the stakes are at their highest.

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