Book Review: Tournament Poker for Advanced Players

Though many books have been published on the subject since, David Sklansky’s Tournament Poker for Advanced Players (TPFAP) has been the definitive text on tournament poker theory since its publication. Two Plus Two Publishing seems to have had two goals in mind for the new material included in the just-released Expanded Edition: to cover more concepts specific to No Limit Hold ‘Em, which has become the dominant form of tournament poker, and to address the contemporary tournament scene where books such as the original TPFAP and the Harrington on Hold ‘Em series have greatly increased the competence of even the weaker tournament players.

Sklansky, a brilliant theorist and mathematician, is much stronger on the first point than on the second. The Expanded Edition of his book contains a lot of very practical, helpful math, and offers some innovative suggestions with regard to how to get additional fold equity when you want it and how to keep opponents in the pot when that’s where you want them. Sklansky’s specific situations and examples, however, remain out of touch with the knowledgeable and aggressive tournament games being played today.

When at its best, Sklansky’s mathematical precision elucidates important concepts that even many very successful players tend to get wrong. For instance, the author argues that, given the prize structure of many live tournaments these days, it may actually be correct to tighten up around the bubble in order to avoid elimination just outside of the money. He also addresses the popular “stop ‘n go” technique as well as I’ve seen it covered anywhere, making it clear that the play is desirable only when you have no fold equity pre-flop and that moving all-in post-flop will only (or at least primarily) cause your opponent to fold hands that he would not fold if he could see your cards.

Naturally, his mathematical prowess comes in handy for evaluating situations where one player is, or has the option of, moving all in. Several pages of charts spell out very clearly when to move all in against the blinds of different types of players and when to call all in moves from players of varying degrees of tightness.

But Sklansky is a stronger mathematician and theorist than he is strategist, and some of his more specific playing advice rings false, or at least out of touch with the modern playing environment. For instance, although he is correct about how much profit can be made simply by stealing blinds and picking on weaker players, it does not necessarily follow from this that, “To get into a major confrontation with another expert when you are at such a table is just wrong, unless of course you are almost sure you have the best hand.” That’s all well and good if the other expert is willing to share the table with you, but the more common dynamic is for the two stronger players to compete with each other over who will get to exploit the others. By refusing to butt heads, you will often find yourself robbed of the very stealing opportunities you are supposed to be preserving.

Sklansky also seems to analyze the play of particular hands in a vaccuum, which is sometimes but not always acceptable for tournament play. During the early stages, for instance, he advises against reraising an early position raiser with KK or making a big raise against a field of limpers with AA for fear of folding out worse hands and turning one’s own face up. If your opponents really are as tight/predictable as Sklansky assumes and you are likely to be at such a table for a while, however, the better strategy would probably be to play quite a few hands in such an aggressive fashion so that you can both accumulate more chips through aggression and get more action on your biggest hands.

The expanded edition does revisit one of the central premises of TPFAP: the claim that it is sometimes correct to pass up slightly profitable moves when a large portion of your chips are at stake. Surprisingly, though this premise has often been criticized, Sklansky restates it in stronger terms than ever in the Expanded Edition. Whereas he initially claimed that, “if you are one of the best players in the tournament, you should usually not risk significant money on very close decisions,” he now states that you should not take such risks unless “you are not that great a player.” The issue of whether and when to pass up edges in a tournament is far from a settled matter, and before broadening the class of players to whom this advice applies, Sklansky really ought to consider the objections raised by very strong players, often on Two Plus Two’s own tournament forum.

On the other hand, the author’s unapologetic refusal of ground to opposing viewpoints is part of his charm, and the Expanded Edition does introduce some delightful new “Sklanskyisms”. In the introduction to the new material, he warns that, “Some of what follows is slightly repetitious or possibly placed in a spot other than where it would not have been if I had tried to integrate this information with the material already written. Too bad.” Cash game players who enter tournaments without having read Sklansky’s book are “moronic” and “illiterate”.

The difference between cash game and tournament skills actually makes for one of the more interesting new topics covered by the Expanded Edition. Because cash game specialists are more likely to excel during the deep-stacked early stages, Sklansky advises them to play a lot of hands during this period. Tournaments specialists, on the other hand, could almost consider not “show[ing] up at all,” or at least playing very tight in order to avoid getting fleeced. The egotistical will likely dismiss this as just another Sklansky-ism, but the truth is that even some very strong tournament players would do well to heed this advice. Their edge during deep-stacked play is not nearly what some of them seem to think it is, especially not compared to their decision-making ability during the later stages of the tournament.

The book alternately bills itself as containing either “Almost 100 all-new pages” (according to the front cover) or “over 100 new pages” (according to the back cover). In a sense, both of these statement are true. There are technically over 100 new pages, but nearly 30% falls under Hand Quizzes and Question & Answer sections that, though helpful, are largely repetitive of the other 70%. Despite its shortcomings, the Expanded Edition probably does contain enough new information to warrant its $30 cover price even for those who already own TPFAP. After all, if Sklanksy’s advice helps you make a single decision better at a major live event, and these seem to be the tournaments implicitly assumed in many sections, it will pay for itself.

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