Book Review: Small Stakes No Limit Hold ‘Em

My Two-Minute Recommendation: Though probably a bit beyond the grasp of the greenest players, Small Stakes No-Limit Hold ‘Em is the book right now for most players serious about improving their games. Its thorough and accessible consideration of core topics will shore up your fundamentals and its more advanced material will prepare you for bigger games and tougher competition.

Professional No Limit Hold ‘Em, Volume 1 (PNLHE) is one of my all-time favorite poker books and the one that I recommend to anyone looking to get started to the game. I eagerly awaited the publication of Volume 2, which was rumored to deal with short-handed games and more advanced concepts, and mourned its loss when its authors parted ways with Two Plus Two Publishing.

Ed Miller, Sunny Mehta, and Matt Flynn ultimately self-published the book now known as Small Stakes No-Limit Hold ‘Em (SSNL), and it’s even better than I’d hoped. In short, it’s set the standard for what a poker book should be and is by far the most definitive no-limit hold ‘em (NLHE) strategy guide to date. The authors strike the right balance in making complicated material accessible to a relatively inexperienced audience without sacrificing depth or nuance. In particular, they do an excellent job of offering concrete advice for how to apply some potentially nebulous concepts.

While the majority of the content is geared towards making the reader a winner at online $1-$2 6-handed games, that doesn’t mean it’s a beginners-only book. It’s been some time since I was struggling at the $1-$2 level, but I still found some specific suggestions that I believe will improve my play not to mention a few passages that crystallized my thinking on certain theoretical issues. Plus, the final section of the book addresses several more advanced concepts that, when mastered, should put you well on your way to winning in mid-stakes games.

Comparison Shopping

I’ve had my review copy of Small Stakes No Limit Hold ‘Em for well over a month, so why am I just now publishing this? It simply took me that long to read the book. Miller et al bill theirs as the “full-length” e-book, and whereas I’ve been able to finish others in just a few hours, theirs required considerably longer.

Granted, the “divide price by number of pages” method is a poor measure of a book’s value. I’ve read several poker instruction e-books that, though short, contained enough good information to warrant their hefty price tags.

Small Stakes No Limit Hold ‘Em is like several of those books rolled into one and sold at a fraction of the price. At $99.95, it’s a serious investment compared to traditional paperbacks, but well worth the price. There’s not a paper book on the market that comes close to addressing no-limit hold ‘em, particularly in its short-handed format, with this level of comprehensiveness and sophistication. And while some high-end e-books may better address the cutting edge of NLHE theory, they are beyond the needs and budgets of most players.

From a security standpoint, SSNL is the least restrictive e-book I’ve read. I’m prompted for a password whenever I open the PDF, but once it’s open, there seems to be no limit to my ability to print or copy and paste the text.

Though SSNL is not a sequel to Miller et al’s first collaboration, fans of PNLHE will be glad to see that concepts like Stack-to-Pot Ratio have not fallen by the wayside. SSNL is a more advanced work, but the authors do explain when and how those older concepts apply. Those unfamiliar with the earlier book won’t really miss out on any content, but a few key concepts are explained in sidebars just in case.

Beating Online $1-$2 6-Max Games

SSNL is well-oriented towards the needs of relatively unsophisticated players. Throughout, the authors make copious use of examples that are well-tailored to illustrate both the basics of a concept and also to highlight some of its nuances and exceptions. This is all towards their stated goal of teaching both the fundamentally sound
“standard” play and the “brilliant” play that’s occasionally best and that often separates big winners from small winners and losers.

From the beginning, SSNL orients readers towards the proper poker mindset, insisting that they think in terms of equity- specifically showdown equity and “steal” equity- rather than number of pots won, amount of money won, or any of the other popular red herrings. I throw scare quotes around “steal” because I do think the term is a bit misleading, a matter which the authors only tangentially address. “Steal” seems to imply a bluff, where a player wins a pot with a hand that wasn’t best, when in fact folding out draws and other hands that have substantial equity in the pot is still very valuable when you have the best hand.

To be fair, stealing is central to the authors’ strategy. They begin by illustrating the importance of blind steals and small pots, pointing out that a few extra blind steals every hour can be all it takes to turn a loser into a winner. From here, they work backwards to discuss how often you can steal and therefore which hands you should raise depending on position and the players behind you, particularly those in the blinds.

This may seem mundane, but it’s a major, and in my opinion desirable, change in orientation from how most poker books address the very basic matter of which hands to play from which position. The standard approach starts at showdown value, essentially advising, “Take your best hands, play those from all positions, then you can play more hands for value when you have better position, and then also you should raise some weaker hands for deception and maybe even do a little stealing when you have the button.” In other words, the emphasis is on playing strong hands, with the definition of strong changing a bit as position improves.

Miller et al put the emphasis on stealing, encouraging you to attack the blinds as much as you can get away with, even it means a smaller raise size, and to tighten up as your position gets worse. The resulting starting hand chart may be the same, but this is a better way of approaching the game, especially for the 6-max player.

My only complaint here is that the discussion of starting hands and pre-flop raise sizing has very little to say about stack sizes. For a book targeted at 6-max online games, where 20BB short stackers are common and 200BB deep stack tables are growing in popularity, there is a serious omission.

In other ways, though, SSNL manages to address the specifics of online NLHE far better than any other book on the market while maintaining its relevance to brick & mortar games. The best example of this is the integration of statistics, available to any remotely serious online player from tools such as Poker Tracker and Hold ‘Em Manager, into virtually every hand example. This comes at no loss to the B&M player but adds significant value for those who have such data available to them.

SSNL does dedicate one section just to explaining what these statistics mean and how to use them to profile your opponents. This is a solid enough introduction but I found it disappointing only because the topic has so much potential. Aside from introducing a few new profiles of their own (e.g. the “Wet Noodle”), none of which is particularly eye-opening, it’s your basic, “This is what a nit looks like. This is how a calling station plays.” Such a discussion is probably just beyond the scope of this book, but the authors don’t even try to address some of the less self-evident statistics available.

Pre-flop stealing flows quite organically into a discussion of multi-barrel bluffs and value betting. On the whole, it’s a very helpful treatment that manages to offer a lot of specific advice about some of the most complicated and situational topics in NLHE. I know first-hand that it’s hard to address these topics in the abstract without a lot of hand-wringing and platitudes, but Miller et al do an admirable job.

Still, some important material is not covered. Presumably owing to the book’s general orientation towards aggression and stealing, most of the discussion assumes that the reader is the one doing the betting. It’s telling that there is a section on “Barreling” and a section on “Going for Value With Good Hands” but no material explicitly dedicated to bluff-catching, taking marginal hands to showdown, or playing back post-flop at the pre-flop aggressor.

As for value betting, the authors correctly identify excessive passivity on the river as a major leak for many players. They call betting the river the “single most important thing you can do,” and explain why and how to do improve. What they don’t do is explicitly debunk the common concerns and misconceptions that cause this leak in the first place. While it’s certainly helpful to lay out how one ought to think about river betting, it would likely be more effective to explain the math and logic behind a thin value bet that occasionally loses to a better hand or exposes itself to a bluff raise.

Similarly, while SSNL deals with 3-, 4-, and 5-betting dynamics better than any other book on the market, its treatment of the subject can’t be called definitive. On the one hand, there is a lot of math and concrete advice that will help the totally befuddled to orient themselves and stop getting exploited.

Sometimes, though, the math isn’t fully explained. It wasn’t clear to me anyway whether, for instance, a claim about the Expected Value of a 4-bet considered the possibility of a 5-bet bluff or of a flat call. In fact, the authors seem not to consider the possibility of a 4-bet getting called at all, as they claim that your cards are meaningless when you are 4-bet bluffing.

Beyond $1-$2

Though far from basic, most of the material in the book is geared towards getting readers to the point where they are winning at $1-$2 6-max online games. As the authors point out, such a skill level should be sufficient to beat most $5-$10 live games and, for those who learn to multi-table and put in hours, to yield a six-figure income.

Still, it does not always address the most complicated situations or most difficult opponents. The “7 East Steps to No Limit Hold ‘Em Success” section of the book is even more basic, though still quite valuable. The final section, “Beyond $1-$2”, does cover some more advanced material. It’s not as systematic as the rest of the book, but at more than 50 pages, it’s hardly an afterthought.

Topics covered here include a surprisingly nuanced discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of fixed bet sizes, some suggestions for overbetting and underbetting the pot, and an extensive treatment of balancing. As with earlier topics, the authors quite admirably explain the complicated and potentially nebulous topic of game theory in concrete, understandable terms. For the math nits, there are even footnotes that address minor exceptions or show the equations that yielded a particular result.

Conclusion

Though probably a bit beyond the grasp of the greenest players, Small Stakes No-Limit Hold ‘Em is book right now, and likely will remain so for some time, for most players serious about improving their games. Its thorough and accessible consideration of core topics will shore up your fundamentals and its more advanced material will prepare you for bigger games and tougher competition.

Beating $1-$2 6-max NLHE games online is no mean feat these days, but Miller, Mehta, and Flynn give you the tools you need to get there and beyond. Plus, they provide plenty of specific examples and concrete suggestions to help readers implement advanced strategies. I’ll be recommending this book to quite a few friends and students in the coming years.

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