Book Review: Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time

My Two Minute Recommendation: Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time scores a 9/10. Three top players discuss nearly 200 real hands and address dozens of common mistakes that even experienced no-limit hold ’em tournament players make. Read Harrington on Hold ‘Em first for a theoretical foundation, but read this book next to see the ideas in action.

I am one of those cash game players who likes to deride tournament specialists as uncreative “tourney donks” whose poker skill is limited to an encyclopedic knowledge of pre-flop shoving ranges. I half-expected that that would be my reaction to Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time by Jon “Pearljammer” Turner, Eric “Rizen” Lynch, and Jon “Apestyles” Van Fleet.

I must say that I was pleasantly surprised.

These guys are among the best in the world at beating online tournaments full of weak players. There’s a temptation to look down my nose and say they don’t understand concepts like 3rd-level thinking or balancing, but honestly those just aren’t particularly important skills in these events. I wouldn’t stake these guys in a high rollers’ event or hire them to teach me cash game poker, but they beat the snot out of large-field poker tournaments, and in this book they teach you how to do the same in remarkably clear fashion.

This isn’t a beginner’s book, and it won’t do much for anyone with the postflop skills to beat 100NL, but for the tens of thousands of players in between, Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time is an invaluable resource. I would say that it’s required reading as soon as you finish the Harrington on Hold ‘Em series, and even if you consider yourself an advanced tournament player, do yourself a favor and read this book just in case. It addresses so many of the mistakes that I most commonly see among intermediate tournament players that you’re very likely to learn a thing or two.

Chief among these mistakes is an inability to read hands and make disciplined folds. Although these players’ hand-reading skills are not uniformly fantastic, they provide a very solid introduction to the concept, and they are particularly adept at interpreting betting lines commonly employed by weak players. Granted beating weak players is easy, but there’s a difference between beating them and maximizing your advantage against them. This book is full of examples that clearly and concisely illustrate the reasoning behind some seemingly tough folds and surprising bluffs.

In fact, examples are all that there are. Although the authors discuss many important concepts in the context of the hand examples, the book is organized around 194 real hands. Most are discussed only by the author who played them, but 20 feature input from all 3 authors. This is a very effective format that provides insight into a variety of perspectives and styles and that mirrors that poker training videos of which all three authors are experienced producers.

This isn’t the best format for introducing big concepts like pre-flop ranges, continuation betting, and M, but Harrington has already done an excellent job of that. Even moreso than Harrington’s own workbook, the third volume in his tournament series, this book illustrates the practical application of these concepts in real game situations. As such, it makes an ideal follow-up to the Harrington on Hold ‘Em series.

I can see the appeal of using actual hands, but personally I believe it is better to fudge details or even fabricate hands entirely to suit pedagogical objectives. For instance, there were multiple situations where I expected the Hero to face a very difficult decision when he bets with one pair and gets raised. Then a third player cold shoves, and rather than discuss the far closer question of whether to call a single player’s all-in bet, the authors explain a relatively trivial fold given how strong the third player’s range must be. I believe they would have done their readers a service by ignoring what actually happened in the hand in the interest of considering a more difficult problem.

There are plenty of things that the authors don’t get right, but for the most part these are things that shouldn’t matter very much to their target audience. Particularly in Turner’s section, we hear a lot more about bet size relative to his stack rather than about equity and hand ranges. The authors worry too much about protecting their hands and not enough about deception or balancing their ranges. Then again, the vast majority of tournament players aren’t much for hand-reading to begin with, which makes these minor failings.

There are a few more serious errors where the reader would do well to seek further advice beyond what is found in these pages. The use of “standard” as an explanation for a bet is a huge pet peeve of mine, and these authors are terrible about it. Their bet sizing and their reasons for betting the flop are the best examples of this.

Even when they correctly identify how their opponents will play various hands in their ranges, the authors often chooses less than ideal bet sizes, particularly when value betting. Though they correctly identify a wide range of factors that ought to influence bet sizing, they almost always settle on about half the pot, often failing to build large pots or get paid off to the fullest when he has very strong hands. There are exceptions, but by and large I would not advocate following this book’s bet sizing recommendations, particularly not for pre-flop situations, where having a standard raise size is just silly and lazy.

Likewise with continuation betting. At times the authors go into great detail about which hands will call and which will fold, but other times they summarize the entire issue simply by saying, “I make a standard continuation bet”. Robotic thinking is one of the great plagues of the tournament grinder, and while Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time does a lot to combat it in many other ways, the frequency with which these guys assume that they are obligated to the bet flop if they raise pre-flop is troubling.

These complaints aside, Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time really is a great book and an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to improve their performance in no-limit hold ’em tournaments. Lynch, Turner, and Van Fleet are three very smart poker players who consistently put up impressive results year after year. They understand where their readers are coming from and where they are trying to get, and they show the way with clear, intuitive, and convincing explanations. Read Harrington on Hold ‘Em first, but read this second.

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