In order to review Philip Newall’s book The Intelligent Poker Player in an accurate and practical way, I must reveal that I am very far from being a great limit poker player. (I could extrapolate to no-limit poker, but let me humble myself a little bit at a time.) I want to be honest about the weaknesses in my game so that players who are decent but not great at limit poker (people like myself) might see the value of this book.
When it comes to limit poker strategy, I am a bit of a dinosaur. That feels strange to say because I am only 34, and when I played for a living for a few years, I was in my mid-twenties. But when compared to the very sharp minds who have devoted much time to analyzing the game in the recent years, it is not hard for me to admit I am pretty far behind.
This is because my fundamental strategy for limit (and for no-limit) has always been exploitative in nature. What this means is, my decisions are based around figuring out the patterns of other players and coming up with strategies that work well against their patterns. I aim to exploit the bad or obvious play of others.
This is all well and good when you’re playing at most of the limit games I have typically aimed at playing in; live mid-limit games up to $30-60. These are soft games, and there are many fundamental errors being made, so a smart basic style mixed in with good exploitative play will make you a significant winner.
But when you are facing good, sharp limit players, as in most online games and in higher live limit games, exploitative play doesn’t go very far, because your opponents are not making very many mistakes that an exploitative style will be able to take advantage of. If your opponent is playing a very good, well-balanced game, his play approaches what is called game-theory optimal (GTO) play.
Game-theory optimal play means having a strategy that is, by definition, unexploitable. It’s a strategy that, if you played it, no one would be able to play a strategy that could beat you. GTO strategy for poker is not defined or solved. Other, simpler games, like backgammon, are solved, but poker is much more complex. (Edit: this is not true, as I found out soon after.) The GTO strategy for poker can only be approached.
Because limit poker is a much simpler game than no-limit, the GTO strategy for limit is much more “solved” than it is for no-limit. And it is especially more solved for short-handed and heads-up limit play. This is why the author chooses to concentrate on short-handed and heads-up limit, because it is a much more easy subject for discussing the “science” of poker than is no-limit. It’s the same reason David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker uses limit poker to illustrate fundamental poker concepts. (The other reason is that limit hold’em is Newall’s main game.)
I should point out that GTO strategy means that you are never changing a strategy based on game flow or another player’s actions. GTO play means you have a set strategy and you are sticking to it, regardless of what happened in the last hand or how a player plays. I don’t know why that concept was so hard for me to understand, but it may be just a symptom of how much my own game was set on exploiting other people’s strategies.
One of the first things The Intelligent Poker Player does well is describe the definitions of exploitative and GTO strategies, and how these concepts relate and overlap. For instance, the author points out that some players may assume (being rather old-school) that exploitative play is all that is needed to take advantage of opponent’s mistakes. But let’s say you have two very good opponents playing heads-up limit hold’em. If they are both very good at noticing any exploitable patterns in the other’s play (exploitable patterns is another way of saying unbalanced play), then both of their strategies will approach a game-theory-optimal (unexploitable) strategy.
Of course, exploitative play is great for taking advantage of weaker opponents, but the more experienced your opponents are, the more well-versed you should be in “unexploitable” strategies—strategies that are so well-balanced that not even a “perfect” opponent would be able to find weaknesses to exploit. Well, that is the goal, anyway.
The other great point Newall makes is that if you are a primarily exploitative player (like myself), you run the risk of “tilting at windmills” when playing good competition. In other words, because you are so used to trying to take advantage of others’ mistakes, you run the risk of thinking there are mistakes present when there may not be. This can cause your strategy to be thrown off-course and be worse than it would have been if you hadn’t been paying any attention to your opponent’s playing style. I can speak from experience that this happens to me when I play good players. (I also think my honesty with myself about the weaknesses in my game has saved me a lot of money, because I have known other players who find the idea that their opponents are more skilled a hard one to accept.)
I wanted to spend a little bit of time talking about these somewhat basic points, because I think it will do a service for someone who is, like me, not far advanced into the hard science of poker and who wants to improve. I think understanding some of this background will help make up your mind about whether you want to buy this book, or whether you’re yet at the stage to fully appreciate this book, because it can be a bit dense. I myself had to read it twice before feeling like I’d absorbed a lot of its lessons fully, and I still think I could stand with another read or two.
The book’s main thrust is that poker, when played at a high level, should be about hiding information and being extremely well-balanced. That basic idea may not be surprising if you’re fairly experienced at poker, but Newall breaks the concept down so you can think about it in a high-level way. What does it mean to construct a well-balanced strategy? What are the things we should be thinking about?
There are two main strategies for hiding information at poker: to play many hands in the same way, or to play the same hand multiple ways. For instance, you might decide that you will raise under-the-gun in a 6-handed game with a very specific range of cards, and you will always stick to that strategy. Or, on the BB, you will always call a raise from the button with a very specific range of cards. These are both examples of hiding information by playing many types of hands in the same way.
The other alternative would be to play the same hand multiple ways. For instance, you would raise 90% of the time UTG with AA, and call the other 10%.
Most everyone agrees the first strategy of playing many hands the same way is the superior route to constructing a well-balanced strategy, and Newall explains why this is so.
Newall goes into detail about how you might construct ranges of hands for different situations so that your play will be well-balanced. Most of these examples are given in heads-up limit situations for simplicity. For instance, if you only raise the river with very good hands, your opponent will be able to safely fold many hands, so it is necessary to construct a range of hands that you will bluff-raise with. Obviously you will be doing this with the weakest of your hands (which is why they are bluffs). But Newall goes into the things to think about when deciding what specific range to do that with.
Also, in this specific bluff-raising the river example, he says you should be doing that with the slightly better portion of your weakest range (like, for example, a low pair that is very unlikely to be ahead); in that way, you can still construct a small range of bluff-raising hands, but still occasionally win when your opponent decides (for whatever reason) to call with an even weaker hand. The book is full of these kinds of logical, interesting points which, even if they are not entirely original ideas, they are great to see explained in such clear ways and all in one place.
In another example, Newall discusses constructing a good strategy for deciding what ranges to check back the flop with. Betting every flop afer raising pre-flop, one could argue, is an exploitable strategy, so what hands should we be checking back the flop with? This is one of those areas that have obvious applications to no-limit.
The most awesome thing about this book, though, is the analyses of heads-up limit hold’em hands played by two world-class bots (Sonia and Polaris) and Matt “Hoss_TBF” Hawrilenko, a world-class limit player. Newall gives very interesting and sophisticated analyses of specific hands, and what the underlying strategy probably was behind the choices made.
If you’re not familiar with the area of GTO play and how advanced some of these bot programs have gotten (as I was not), this will be eye-opening and very interesting. I feel just reading a few of these hand analyses made me a more sophisticated player. Even if you don’t completely absorb all the ideas from these hand analyses (of which there are many), you will come away with an important lesson; if this stuff doesn’t make sense to you, you are probably a fish in many short-handed and heads-up limit games. Oh, and you probably shouldn’t be playing these new heads-up limit machines they’ve now got in casinos, because these bot programs are real good.
Newall also goes into applications of his ideas to other games, including Omaha, Triple-Draw, and No-limit Hold’em.
The final few chapters of the book are on other topics, including: bankroll management, taking shots, investing, the future of poker-playing as a profession, psychological biases, overconfidence, cognitive dissonance, and more. These are very logical, analytical essays on the concerns of being a professional poker player and on whether or not it will be wise to become one in the first place. These “other topics”, as they are categorized, are well worth the price of admission on their own.
The Intelligent Poker Player is very well-written. Surprisingly well-written, considering that the subject matter could be very dry, dense, and/or mathematical. Also surprising considering the author’s age; he’s only 23 now, and so he must have been even younger when he wrote this. That may be considered “old” in the poker world these days, but from a writing point-of-view it is still very young, and it surprises me that Newall was able to express his ideas so concisely and from a high-level perspective. That is a very hard thing to do and a very unappreciated ability, in my opinion. But Newall is a very smart dude, there’s no question there.
In summary, Newall’s book is a very good book on poker theory in general, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about improving. I think limit players will enjoy it the most, just because the examples and concepts will be most easily applied to limit, but anyone who is serious about increasing their understanding of poker theory should enjoy it. That being said, if you’re relatively unskilled in thinking easily in ranges (like myself), the book will be challenging but very rewarding if you devote yourself to understanding it (which may admittedly take a couple reads.) It is a book you should have in your library.