Read an Excerpt
Your Best Poker FriendIncrease Your Mental Edge
By ALAN N. SCHOONMAKER
LYLE STUART BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Alan N. Schoonmaker
All right reserved.
Without good information you are helpless. You need a lot of information to play poker well and to develop yourself as a player. Unfortunately, poker writers have said hardly anything about how to acquire information. They emphasize processing information, not acquiring it.
Most poker books contain only general suggestions about how to get information. They say to study the literature, be alert, count the pot, observe betting patterns, look for tells, and so on, but they rarely tell you how to do these things. Most writers seem to assume that you already know how to get information and that you just need help in understanding and using it.
This book considers how to acquire, process, and use information. You need good information about at least three subjects:
1. Poker theory
2. Other players
Learning Poker Theory
In Your Worst Poker Enemy, the chapter titled "How Should You Prepare Logically?" emphasized the importance of studying theory and suggested ways to find good advice. You should read it because many of the books and articles resulting from the poker explosion provide poor information.
Bad information can be worse than no information. To reduce this problem, use the "Recommended Readings" appendix and read some of the articles listed in the footnotes. Of course, I don't claim that the ones I recommend are the only ones worth reading. I have omitted dozens of good books and hundreds of good articles. Even if you prefer books that I have not recommended, make sure that they fit the criteria listed in "How Should You Prepare Logically?" Otherwise, you can waste a lot of time and money.
The recommended books are solid, and there is a brief comment about each one. I have also indicated whether a book is for beginning, intermediate, or advanced players. Read only the books that fit your level or a lower one. If you try to read too advanced ones, you will probably confuse yourself. Reading lower-level books is okay, because working on the basics is always worthwhile.
My books contain far more footnotes than nearly all other poker texts do. Footnotes help you to get much more information on any subject. Use them. If all you know is what I have told you, you don't know enough. I believe poker writers avoid footnotes for at least two reasons. First, they want to look practical, not academic. Second, they don't want you to realize that they have borrowed ideas from other writers. Some authors act as if something that has been widely known for decades was one of their brilliant insights, discoveries, or even secrets. This is another example of the egotism that plagues poker.
No matter how good the books and articles are, just reading them superficially will not have much impact on your understanding or ability to use poker theory. You should study them, discuss them with other people, try to apply their concepts, and continually seek feedback on how well you have done so. You need to learn actively, the subject of the next chapter.
Reading is not the only or the best way to learn theory. Several essays will show you how to use poker discussion groups, Internet forums, and coaches to improve your understanding and ability to apply theory.
Learning About Yourself and Other People
You cannot learn much about people, especially yourself, from books, articles, DVDs, and so forth. They can teach you the general principles, but you need help from other people. Unfortunately, powerful psychological forces within you and them reduce the flow and your understanding of this critically important information. These forces are as follows:
1. First impressions and stereotypes cause you to miss some signals and misinterpret others.
2. You may not take notes, even though many professions require note taking.
3. Defensiveness makes you ignore or misinterpret information that conflicts with your beliefs and biases.
4. Other people do not tell you the truth-especially about yourself-because they are afraid of offending you.
5. Forces 3 and 4 reinforce each other. If you get defensive, you resist hearing the truth and increase others' fear of offending you.
Because of all these forces, you, I, and everyone else, may never learn some critically important information.
Overview of Part One
The chapters in Part One will help you to get and process the information you need about all three subjects: theory, other people, and yourself.
Our first topic of discussion is learning efficiently. You have so much to learn and so little time that you should get the full value for the time you spend working on your game. You need to become an efficient learner because the poker literature is extremely weak instructionally. Poker authors generally concentrate on their ideas, not on how to teach them.
Our second topic is first impressions. They affect both the information you acquire and the way you process it. Once you label someone, you will become more receptive to information that fits that label, and you will tend to ignore, minimize, or misinterpret conflicting information.
Our third topic is taking notes. Although taking notes is essential, nearly all poker players don't take enough of them, and many players take none at all.
Our fourth topic is playing online. This activity offers some unique opportunities to work on your weaknesses. Take advantage of these opportunities to improve your game.
Our fifth topic is poker discussion groups. These groups are an outstanding source of information on nearly all poker subjects. I have learned more from the Wednesday Poker Discussion Group (WPDG) since its inception and its spin-offs than from any other source except my coaches. In fact, some of them are members of these groups.
Our sixth topic is getting helpful feedback. This is essential to developing any skill, and poker feedback is notoriously unreliable. You therefore need to get feedback from other sources such as Internet forums, discussion groups, coaches, and poker buddies. But you won't get much value from them unless you keep your mind open and make it easy for other people to help you.
Our final topic is getting a coach. The best source of feedback is a good coach. I'm absolutely convinced that every serious player should have one or more. A coach will also help you to understand and apply poker theory and read people. Some of the best coaching comes from poker buddies who meet regularly to help each other.
If you don't develop the habit of critically examining your play, you can't reach your potential. You will repeat the same old mistakes and never get the benefit of all the theory you have studied and all the advice you have received. Unfortunately, most poker players won't look hard enough at themselves.
Regardless of whether you hire someone, swap coaching with another person, or participate in forums and discussion groups, you must understand and adjust to the powerful psychological forces-within yourself and other people-that prevent you from getting critically important information.
So set aside the attitudes that have prevented you from learning the truth about poker, other people, and yourself. Read the good books. Visit the forums, ask questions, post hands, and ask for feedback. Join or start a poker discussion group. Hire a coach or agree to swap coaching with someone. Most important of all, recognize that you don't know enough about the game, other people, and especially yourself. Make learning a top priority, and do everything you can to get as much information as possible.
As a professor, I was often appalled at how badly my students understood materials they claimed to have studied. Poker authors feel the same way. We are delighted that so many books have been sold, but we wonder, "If people are reading our books, why do they play so badly?"
My books have analyzed many psychological factors that prevent you from playing as well as you should. Now let's focus on just one factor: you may not know how to learn efficiently. "Efficiency" is an input-output measure. How much benefit do you get for the time and money you invest? If you don't learn efficiently, you will waste both your time and your money. And, since your time is limited, you won't reach your potential.
Your inefficiency is probably not your fault. The school system often does a poor job of teaching students how to learn. When you were a student, you probably learned how to pass multiple-choice exams, but you may not have learned how to understand what a book really means and how to use that knowledge.
Many educators test students about the specific facts in a document, and many of the students get acceptable grades. But when educators ask "What were the author's purpose and organization?" and "How can you apply the author's principles?" many students are stumped because they never even thought about these subjects because they rarely appear on exams.
You don't have exams about poker, but you face more demanding tests every time you play. If you don't understand principles or can't apply them well, you lose money. To gain that understanding and ability to apply it, you have to learn actively:
A passive approach to books or lectures is much less efficient than an active one in which you ask and answer mental questions, challenge the author, and relate the material to your own experience.... Meaningful learning is much faster and more efficient than rote learning. If you understand what an author or lecturer is trying to do, and the way he is attempting to do it, you will learn much faster and retain much longer.
That quotation is from my book A Student's Survival Manual. The book states that because most college professors don't know how to teach, students have to become efficient learners, and it describes a simple system for developing their learning skills. You can learn active-learning principles from that book or from countless other sources. When I conducted a Yahoo! search for "active learning," there were more than two million hits. Most of the websites were for teachers, but they also contained material that can improve your learning ability. Here are a few worthwhile websites:
If you visit these websites, you may be shocked to read how badly you have been taught. Of course, a few subjects are taught actively: math, engineering, medicine, and law teachers usually make students solve problems. But the vast majority of teachers rely primarily on passive learning. They talk, and the students listen or pretend to do so.
Lectures are a waste of time, but they are the primary instructional method throughout the educational system. Because they grew up with them, many poker teachers rely heavily on lectures, and players pay good money to listen to them. They are all comfortable using a method that became obsolete five hundred years ago. I won't say any more now about lectures. If you'd like more information, read Appendix Two: Don't Waste Your Time in Lectures.
Most of your teachers knew almost nothing about learning. They concentrated on mastering their subjects, but knowledge of chemistry, psychology, or poker does not prepare someone to teach students how to understand and apply those subjects.
Most teachers-including poker experts-focus on what they will do, not on what the students will do, but they have it backward. Because the learning must take place in you, the important thing is what you do, not what the teacher does. Teachers can affect your learning only indirectly, by causing you to take the right actions.
Despite this principle-which is supported by thousands of research studies-most teachers devote virtually all of their preparation to what they will do: the words they will say, the examples they will give, the visual aids they will use, the references they will cite, the jokes they will tell, and so on.
If they looked at what students are doing, they would realize that they are sitting there passively, perhaps listening, perhaps not, which rarely produces much learning. Because most poker writers don't know how to teach, you have to become an active learner. Don't just sit there waiting for an epiphany; take an active role in your own development.
Learning Poker Theory and Strategy
It's not surprising that only a few poker writers understand and apply active-learning principles. Most of them just tell you their ideas, and they may give you an example or two to clarify them. They do not give you practice and feedback on applying their principles while playing, and you cannot develop skills without practice and feedback.
The poker literature is not as bad as it used to be. Recent books are much stronger instructionally than older ones. For example, the books of thirty or more years ago contained hardly any quizzes, but more recent books often contain them. Unfortunately, many readers don't work hard (or at all) on those quizzes, even though they may be the most important part of the book. If you can't answer the quiz questions correctly, you obviously don't know how to apply the book's principles. And, if you can't apply its principles, you have no reason to read the book.
Why don't people work hard on the quizzes? Because, after a lifetime of passive learning in classrooms, they don't know how to learn actively, and they may not want to test themselves. They may prefer to skim through the material, pretend that they have learned it, and then go back to playing cards. To learn how to play poker, select books that contain lots of quizzes and study until you get 100 percent on every one of them. A few months later, take them again to ensure that you still understand and can apply the principles. Take the next step by applying these principles to actual hands, then discussing them with other people.
Bob Ciaffone, Jim Brier, Matthew Hilger, Angel Largay, Dan Harrington, Bill Robertie, and several other writers use active-learning techniques. They do it by giving you many problems to solve, providing their answers, and explaining their decisions. In addition to helping you to apply their ideas, they teach you how good players think. I don't say that their theory is better than other authors'. My sole concern is how well they teach.
Because I am most familiar with Ciaffone and Brier, I will focus on their book Middle Limit Hold 'em Poker. They described the action in hundreds of hands and then asked: "What do you do?" They then answered that question and gave their reasoning.
They stimulated an extraordinary amount of discussion. In addition to lively face-to-face debates, there were thousands of posts on Internet forums and some of the arguments became quite heated: For example:
"They are absolutely right. The best way to play that hand is ..."
"No! No! No! They are utterly wrong. You should ..."
"You're both wrong! They were right about what you should do, but their reasoning was wrong because ..."
Just participating in these debates helped people to understand and apply Ciaffone and Brier's principles. These debates also had an unusual benefit. Occasionally, one of the authors would make an admission that hardly any poker authors have made: "We were wrong." He would describe their original position, repeat what critics had said, and say, "I can see now that the best way to ..." That is, by taking positions, explaining their reasoning, and listening carefully to critics, both the students and the teachers were actively learning.
Excerpted from Your Best Poker Friend by ALAN N. SCHOONMAKER Copyright © 2007 by Alan N. Schoonmaker. Excerpted by permission.
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