Learning the game of poker can be a formidable task. There is so much to learn, and so many different ways to begin that long hard road to becoming a winning player. Whether it's best to study poker books before taking the plunge or jump right in and play real-money cash games is an ongoing debate.
Although studying first is a completely viable option, it's not the best option. You can study all you want, but if you're not familiar with what a flop is or have never won or lost a stack, it's going to be extremely difficult to absorb what it is you are reading about. Essentially, your knowledge will remain abstract.
Instead, the method that I suggest to players wanting to start out is to deposit $50 at your favorite books, you might have found yourself overwhelmed with information. When you are overwhelmed it's often difficult to study and actually retain information; that's why I don't recommend taking the study-first route.
As you now begin to study you can continue to play your small-stakes games, gradually becoming more and more comfortable with the concepts you are learning. Eventually things will start to come together and you'll understand what you are doing and why.
The road to becoming a winning player is a long and winding one. The learning curve is steep. It becomes even steeper if you start out with little poker knowledge and attempt to understand somewhat complicated poker books. This can lead you to getting frustrated with the game before you even start playing it.
Hence, if you can afford it, you should jump right in to some small-limit games to feel the game out before you sit down and study.
Of course just playing is no replacement for studying, as poker is a finicky, results-driven game. You can find yourself learning the wrong things and developing bad habits if you limit your poker exposure to just playing. View studying poker as an ongoing process throughout your poker career if you wish to become a winning player.
Poker is such a complex game that if you ever become complacent you're going to fall behind and find yourself losing money. Playing is never a replacement for studying but when starting out it's a good idea to splash around at the smaller stakes before hitting the books.