Poker Advice: How Much Is Too Much?

Dan Harrington

This is the age of advice, and poker is no exception. The number of books on the game reaches well into the hundreds.

Every poker magazine, newspaper, tabloid, Web site has an advice column, sometimes more than one (here on PokerListings we have quite a few).

There are summer schools for students of the game, there are poker boot camps, poker instructional cruises; there are videos and tapes and DVDs. There are chat rooms, poker clubs, discussion groups where regulars argue the game and the latest insights into it.

There are pros who are on call for advice (at sometimes astronomical rates); private coaches who can be hired for one-on-one lessons. Sheesh, it's a wonder anyone is left who isn't an expert. I mean, really, if there aren't any fish left, there isn't going to be any game.

So, of course, it's time for me to do my heretic thing (and hope I don't get sacked for it). This Web site is one of the best in the world for providing solid sensible advice to poker players.

Unlike others, it scales its advice from the basics for novices, to counsel for mid-level punters and discussion of the finer points for the highly skilled. It features reviews books and DVDs, and dispenses poker-related advice.

One Half of the Table of Doom
Is there anyone left who isn't an expert?

However, there are times in the life of a poker player where advice can be counterproductive because it conflicts with the patterns of play you've developed and had success with.

Here's something that often goes unsaid but that is as true as any other poker cliché: There is no single "proper" way to play the game. There is no magic bullet, no "best" approach, no single strategic angle that works better than all others.

Some play with reckless abandon. They are aggressive to a fault, bluff often, push hands to the limit and revel in any opportunity to intimidate an opponent. Many of these players are wildly successful; some are not. It depends.

There are others who fall into the classic "rock" category. They play mainly premium holdings. They are almost religiously committed to positional considerations. They bluff rarely and are known for making huge laydowns. Many of these players are wildly successful; some are not. It depends.

When you read poker books written by successful professionals there is a common element in them. They advise you to play like they do.

Oh, they don't come right out and say it, but the themes are there. The proffered point of view is going to be, virtually has to be, the one that they feel most comfortable with, the one that has proven successful for them. So, that's what they suggest you do too.

Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Virtually all the advice they give is good and solid.

Read Gus Hansen's book on tournament play and you feel yourself being pulled toward becoming more aggressive than you probably are - although, interestingly, Hansen's style turns out to be more than a tad less maniacal than his reputation.

Read Dan Harrington and you find yourself being drawn into the "Action Dan" mode - tight and rockish, but as it turns out, more than a tad less rockish than his reputation.

Barry Greenstein
Read Barry Greenstein and all you want to do is become a rock with a twist.

Read Barry Greenstein and all you want to do is become a "rock with a twist," which is how I think of his game.

I can't wait for Phil Ivey to write a book so we can all become the best player on the planet - whatever that is.

But here's the problem. Suppose your style, developed over the years, is that of a mentally twisted lunatic whose big plus is putting others on tilt. It's not going to be of much help if you try to become a Harrington clone.

Don't believe me? Try this: You've got a 200BB stack and limped from the SB with 8 4 into a six-way pot. The flop is A 8 4.

You bet out two-thirds of the pot, get two callers and then the button, a guy with a mound of chips whom you've never seen before, pumps it with a pot-sized raise.

If you're playing your usual pump it style, you don't need to ponder this one, just shove. But, alas, you just finished Harrington on Cash Games (both volumes!).

You think and think and decide that he can't possibly make this move without having a better two pair or a set. So you fold, as does everyone else. He shows A-J, smiles and rakes in the pot.

Did you make a mistake? Yes and no. From the point of view of the "real" you, yes you did.

It's not an easy situation because he could have you beat, and there are the other two callers, but given the situation it's not likely that any of them are going to call an all-in reraise.

From Harrington's perspective, the laydown was (probably) right. Harrington's analysis is predicated on treating other players like they know what they're doing, and if the raiser has analyzed the situation properly, he shouldn't make this big a raise without having one of those hands.

But that isn't the point I'm trying to make here. The point is that if your style of play is closer to Hansen's and if you've been at least reasonably successful with it, letting Harrington's approach leach into your psyche may not be helpful.

Gus Hansen
Borrowing Gus's aggression and layering it on top of your own game just won't work.

Similarly, if you've had reasonable achievements with a Harrington-like focus, then trying to shift over to a more aggressive and devil-may-care approach could be just as damaging.

I am not recommending that you shouldn't read or study other styles. I am saying that you need to develop your own game, your own style.

If Hansen can help you find a more aggressive slice of yourself that you can bring into your game, good. If Harrington can teach you to think more deeply about the hands your opponents could be playing, good.

But "borrowing" Hansen's aggressiveness or Greenstein's quirkiness or Harrington's thoughtfulness won't work if you just layer it on top. Each new element needs to be gently and thoroughly integrated into your existing game.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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