Review: Professional No-Limit Hold ‘Em

2 Star, Book Reviews

October 27, 2007

Authors: Matt Flynn, Sunny Mehta, Ed Miller

Publisher: 2+2

Professional No-Limit Hold ‘Em was a widely anticipated book. The literature on NL holdem is very sparse, which is somewhat odd given that it is currently the most widely played form of casino poker. Over the last couple of years, 2+2 publishing has put a number of books and series in the pipeline to try to fill that gap. The first was Sklansky’s No Limit Holdem: Theory and Practice which I found interesting but problematic in many areas. Next up is the Flynn/Mehta “Professional” series starting with this book, and announced but as of yet unavailable are a series of Dan Harrington cash game books.

Sadly, this book really disappointed me on a number of levels. The first glaring issue is that it has a limited to non-existant target audience. PNLHE is not comprehensive enough to serve as a beginner’s guide, or to help players who are coming to NL play from some other game. In many places it makes the assumption that the reader has fairly strong NL skills, especially board reading. However, people who have played sufficiently to develop those skills may find very little of the rest of the book helpful.

Worse yet is that I found many of the ideas in the book to be borderline incorrect. And the errors seem to largely follow a single thread: the authors underestimate the effects of implied odds in medium to deepstack NL. For example, their suggestion for a system of evaluating hands and boards is called REM – for Range, Equity, Maximize. Note that it’s “equity” rather than “expectation”. Sadly the two concepts couldn’t be farther apart. It’s quite common in NL to have the best equity (ie. the highest chance of winning the hand) and still have the worst of it in terms of expectation because you will win just the pot when you win and lose a lot of your stack when you lose. As such equity is is a terrible substitute for expectation, and confusing the two strikes me as a very serious error.

The latter half of the book is devoted to an extended discussion of stack to pot ratios (or SPR as the call them) as a tool for planning hands to avoid difficult situations. They’re certainly correct that a big part of winning NL play is avoiding trouble. However, I disagree with their premise that most hands can avoid major trouble by having specific target stack to pot ratios after the flop. Their motivating example is that with a top pair/overpair type hands you can find yourself in a difficult situation if you bet out twice, get called, check the river, and your opponent moves all in. They note that with pot sized bets, this line can occur when the SPR is around 13. Thus they reccomend that you try to achieve a single digit SPR by manipulating the preflop action with hands likely to make top pair or an overpair. Now, this is all well and good, but they miss an obvious fact: the betting sequence where you bet the flop and get raised pot puts top pair/overpair hands to just as difficult a decision, and it’s worst when you have a SPR of about 4 – essentially the single digit SPR they suggested you shoot for to avoid the previous problem.

The fact which Flynn and Mehta seem to be blind to is that no matter what SPR ratio you shoot for with a relatively weak hand like top pair (assuming there’s any meaningful chips left at all) their is some betting line that will put you to a difficult decision. That’s simply the nature of NL. It can’t be avoided if you insist on playing for top pair. The real solution, at least for medium to deepstack games, is to adjust your starting hand selection to put more emphasis on making the nut, semi-bluffing, and outright bluff,  and less on making top pair. In other words, they failed to sufficiently take the effects of implied odds into consideration. Again. Are you seeing a pattern here?

This concept of manipulating the preflop pot to achieve specific pot sizes is also remarkably dangerous. In fact it’s very similar to the mistake Sklansky made in his preflop strategy in No Limit Holdem: Theory and practice. Specifically, it essentially tells your opponent what you’ve got in the hole. An example will illustrate how this works

Suppose a player playing the PNLHE style pushes the pot to a single digit SPR out of position preflop, you call behind, the board comes low, and he checks. What do you know about his hand?  Incredibly, you now know with 100% certainty that he has not so much as a single pair. If he were paired in the hole he would now have an overpair and have bet the flop, and he wouldn’t have pushed the SPR to that value unless he had a big pocket pair or big unpaired cards. Hence he has the big unpaired cards 100% of the time, and the pot is yours for the taking – all you have to do is move in on the bluff in total safety.

Notice how different this is from playing against a raiser who adopts my suggested preflop strategy. First of all, that guy likely won’t open intentionally out of position or ever jack the pot up that big preflop in a deepstack game. But if he gets caught out of position by a late position caller and the flop comes low, he could hold any of the possible sets, any reasonably close two pair, and any straight or flush draw on the board. When he checks, you have no clue whatsoever whether you’re facing a monster, a medium made hand, a draw, or air. As a result it’s easy to play the flop well against the guy adopting PNLHE’s strategy but very difficult against mine. Over time, that adds up.

Now, there’s one aspect of this book that saved it from being relegated to the real trash heap with the 1 star books: it has a series of good play examples at the very end. These examples are done much in the style of the Harrington on Holdem examples, and they’re at least an order of magnitude better than the rest of the book or at the very least I agree with essentially every line they recommend even if the reasoning is somewhat corrupted by the above issues. If the whole book has been full of good examples like these it would probably be worth your time.

As it is, you’re better off waiting for the Harrington cash game books. Two stars is generous here.

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