Review: Poker Essays

3 Star, Book Reviews

August 19, 2007

Author: Mason Malmuth

Publisher: 2+2

Poker essays is a book that I like very much in concept. Mason’s introduction is to my mind spot on: the most important thing a serious player should do is think about the game. Poker Essays consists of a series of short to medium length essays by Malmuth that encourage the reader to do just that, namely think about areas of the game they may not have considered. These essays cover a broad range of topics and are connected in only the loosest fashion, so the reader is free to read in chunks or out of order.

The majority of Malmuth’s essays are of very high quality. I particularly like the fact that they give a large window into this thoughts about the game. What he’s trying to accomplish with this book is very much like what I’m trying to accomplish with CardSharp – namely to provide a near-realtime running commentary of my thoughts on poker. Indeed, some of the topics are even the same – his “Finding the Best Game” closely mirrors The Best Game In Town.

That said, I have some problems with Malmuth’s essays. In particular, I’m concerned about their accuracy. Since Poker Essays was published in 1991, events have occurred that directly put many of Mason’s ideas to the test. For example, essays such as “Computer games – Why Are They So Bad?” now look silly in the presence of the University of Alberta bots that are giving stiff competition to top notch pros in duplicate poker. While the bots are still inferior to real people, there’s no question they’ve improved to the point where they’re superior to the vast majority of players. This is directly contrary to Malmuth’s assertion that programming a computer poker player is simply too difficult.

Another example, which has been debated heavily on the internet, is whether NL games are more prone to dying out than limit games. I think Malmuth’s essay was, on the first order, correct. It is indeed easier to clean out a weak opponent at NL than it is at limit. And this does have an effect of shrinking the games. However, Malmuth’s essay was wrong in a larger sense – he missed the fact that the primary effect on what games run is not how quickly the fish go broke, but what people want to play. The poker boom has clearly shown which effect is primary, as the rooms are now loaded with NL games.

There are certainly other examples, but hopefully I’ve made my point. Perhaps 75% of what Mason writes is accurate (or at least plausible enough that I can’t spot any problems) but the rest has been proven incorrect. I make a policy of reducing a book’s rating more for incorrect information than I increase it for correct information because of the damage that misinformation can do. As such, i would normally give it a 2 star rating. However, as I very much like his premise and some of the essays are quite good, I’ll be generous.

Rating: 3 stars

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