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Poker for Dummies
with Richard D. Harroch
Contents and More Information
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 298 pages
Date: April 10, 2000
Publisher: IDG Books
ISBN: 0764552325

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Variable Logic

One of the mistakes made by beginning players lies in their quest for a strategy applicable in some formulaic fashion during a poker game. In their search for rules, for a methodology, for a strategic model to apply in all situations, many new players ignore one of poker's core characteristics that's missing in so many other gambling games: while strategic lines of reasoning seldom change, tactical methods are subject to situational adjustments.

I realize this sounds terribly abstract, so here are a few concrete examples. Betting when one has the best of it is a strategic line of reasoning that the vast majority of good players believe in and adhere to. And every credible authority will tell you that selective and aggressive play is a key to winning poker. It's when you get down to deciding when, and under what circumstances to be selective and aggressive that tactical admonitions can collide.

At it's core, selective play suggests that one ought to have a set of standards governing which hands are playable and which ought to be thrown away. But beginning players -- as well as more experienced players who, for one reason or another, begin to take the game seriously -- all too frequently look for an immutable set of standards to guide them in deciding which hands to play and which ought to be released. While rules can be applied and the boundary lines between playable and unplayable hands can sometimes be crystal clear, they are often gray and fuzzy. After all, anyone -- even if he or she is playing for the first time -- can quickly learn to always play aces but never to play seven-deuce. That's not an issue. But whether to play a hand like K-10, A-9, or Q-J, or whether to raise, call, or even fold with a pair of sevens, are often questions without clear answers, even to the best of players.

Although each of my two books on hold'em contains a chart depicting playable hands from early, middle, and late position, and despite the fact that most poker theorists, practitioners, and writers have all offered advice on this topic, tactics often have to be adjusted for a variety of reasons. These reasons include position, how many players have already entered the pot when it's your turn to act, whether the game is passive and characterized by lots of calling but little raising or whether it's aggressive, with frequent raises by players whose hands don't really justify that kind of action. The size of one's bankroll, and willingness to assume a much high variance in return for a relatively small increase in winnings, all enter into this equation, as do such factors as your current image at the table, and the relative difference in your playing skill compared to the skill level of your opponents. Remember, we're just talking cash game limit poker here, and relatively full ones at that. If the game is short-handed, or you're in a tournament, or playing big-bet poker -- half-pot, pot-limit, or no-limit -- there are a raft of other factors that should be considered too.

That's why the answer to so many questions is "…it depends." The choice of tactic can vary dramatically from one player to another, even as the overall strategic objectives remain unchanged. I know at least one outstanding poker player and theorist who eschews starting standards as unnecessary baggage that beginners tend to tote around with them. He's not advising indiscriminate play, mind you, he's suggesting that players learn to analyze situations and make decisions based on facts and circumstances rather than by recalling rote responses to given situations.

Nevertheless, our objective is probably the same. Where we disagree lies not so much in what ought to be learned, but in how best to learn it. I believe that starting standards -- to be used as guides rather than fixed and immutable rules -- makes it easier to learn how to deal with the majority of situations. Starting standards can be a useful tool while one learns to recognize those situations in which an alternative to the book play is correct.

I believe there is a sufficiency of technique that needs to be learned in poker before a player can comfortably and confidently deviate from the book play. Just as a painter must master brush technique and a musician needs to practice scales before improvisation and creativity allows them to bend the rules they have been taught, so does a grounding in generally accepted poker theory make it easier for a newcomer to quickly come up to speed. Only when familiar patterns begin to repeat themselves can one comfortably make adjustments for skewed and anomalous situations. That's the art of poker, and the reason so much of strategy -- or to be more precise, tactical decisions -- comes down to an "…it depends" kind of answer.

The vast array of influencing factors make it impossible to construct a set of charts dealing with every possible contingency -- never mind the difficulties in dealing with each possible contingency in combination with every other possible influence -- and come up with a tactical solution representing the "best play" for each possible situation one might encounter in a poker game.

Where that leaves you, dear reader, is right here -- with a map and a compass that are at best a bit murky and unclear -- and a reliance on what you may have gleaned from study and experience, along with a willingness to assess your actions accurately, with neither ego nor rose colored glasses to skew your view. There are guidelines available for you too. You can adhere to them slavishly, though in the long run you'll be better off learning to interpolate and deviate from book play whenever a particular set of circumstances presents that kind of opportunity to you.

That's all you'll receive at the starting line. The rest is up to you. Although experts are frequently at odds regarding the correct play in given situations, that's no reason to shun their suggestions. Listen instead, and synthesize all the different views you can find. Decide which hold water and look for common threads running through those. Once you have a handle on commonality -- after all, most experts differ only on a tactical, not a strategic level -- you can integrate these ideas into your play and deviate from what heretofore was probably a tactical skill set based on rote or whimsy. Once you cross that Rubicon, you're on your way to playing quite well indeed.

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