Review of Winning Low Limit Hold'em

by Andy Latto

Lee Jones' Winning Low-Limit Hold'em is an excellent book. In 190 pages, it takes you from the basic rules of Hold'em through a lot of sound basic strategy. If you start as an absolute beginner, read and understand the whole book, and follow its advice, you should at least be able to hold your own, and probably turn a profit, in a typical $3-$6 or $6-$12 game.

The most important question a review of a poker book needs to answer is "does the book give good advice?" Any book which gives mostly bad advice should be avoided, and almost any book which gives good advice will pay for itself within a few sessions of play, even at 3-6. There are two things that make it difficult for me to review Lee's new book from this standpoint. One is that Lee is probably a better hold'em player than I am; if I see advice that runs counter to the way I tend to play, I'm more likely to think "That's interesting; I just learned something" than to think "This is bad advice". The other reason I find it difficult to judge the advice in the book is that much of it is geared specifically to the low-limit games currently found in the cardrooms of California, and I've never played poker in California. While I have played in loose, passive, hold'em games, the other type of game the book talks about, the loose aggressive, game, where it is commonly capped before the flop, is one I have never been fortunate enough to encounter in Las Vegas or at Foxwoods. So when the book bases its advice on statements like "A re-raise from mid-position (particularly in a loose-aggressive game) all but guarantees the betting will be capped". I can't judge the quality of advice from experience, because this just isn't true in the games in which I play.

But as far as I can tell, the advice given in this book (with a couple of exceptions I'll note below) is very good. The advice on starting hands, by position, is tight, fairly close to the advice you can find in what is still the best book ever written on limit hold'em, Hold'em for Advanced Players, by Sklansky and Malmuth). The advice on play after the flop is slightly different. There is less emphasis on bluffing and semi-bluffing, and more on betting for value, which is appropriate for playing in a weaker game, where your opponents will often call when they shouldn't. There is also less emphasis on reading hands, In particular, since the players are weak, and you can't ever put a weak player on a hand with any certainty, Lee correctly very rarely advises laying down a quality hand. In situations where Sklansky & Malmuth advises betting, and then folding if raised, Lee more often advises "backing off", and checking and calling to the river. Again, since weak players often bluff too much, this advice seems good.

The book is clearly and entertainingly written, and does a particularly good job of explaining why you should follow each piece of advice it gives, rather than just presenting it in a cookbook "do this and you'll win" fashion. This is crucial in a game as complex as hold'em: every rule has its exceptions, and if you don't know the reason for following a rule, you won't know when it's right to break it. A series of excellent quizzes close each chapter, and provide a good way for the reader to see if he has grasped the material, and provides an easy way to review the book quickly.

There are a few places where I have minor quibbles with some of the strategic advice in the book. I think that the advice on starting hands places a bit too much emphasis on position. A big part of the reason you can afford to play looser in late position is the possibility of ending up with last position, and then stealing, either on the flop or the turn, if nobody hits the flop. In a passive game, with lots of calling stations, this advantage is lessened, so I believe that the optimal standards for playable hands vary less by position than in a strong game. And there were a few suggestions on post-flop play that I thought were doubtful. But pieces of advice that I disagreed with were few and far between.

The one really dangerous piece of advice comes right at the end of the section of the book on pre-flop play. In a final paragraph, headed "another viewpoint", he says

"Since everybody is playing so loosely, you can get away with playing so loosely, you can get away with playing only a little tighter than they do."

I think this is bad advice, and dangerous bad advice for beginners. It's true that if everyone is playing too loose, the player who is playing not quite as loose as the others will have positive expectation (though possibly not enough to beat the rake). But the issue isn't whether the strategy has positive expectation. The issue is finding the strategy that maximizes your expectation, and playing just a bit looser than your opponents ain't it. To take an extreme example, suppose your opponents play literally every single hand. If you play every hand that is suited, and every hand containing connectors or paint, you will do better than your opponents, if you play as well as they do after the flop. But when you call with J3 off, even though all your opponents would call if they had worse hands, enough of your opponents will in fact have better hands that you're making a negative expectation play, and even against opponents who call every hand, you're going to lose money making this call.

The reason I say this advice is dangerous is that it's hard, especially for the beginner, to judge just how loose your opponents are playing. It's more exciting to play more hands, and it's easy, following this rule, to convince yourself that you're playing slightly tighter than the other players, when actually, you're playing slightly tighter than the loosest of the other players, and you're all giving your money to the few tighter players at the table. (After all, it's easy not to notice these players; they're hardly in any hands). I would strongly suggest that new players ignore the "another viewpoint" advice, and follow the excellent, much tighter advice on starting hands contained in the previous 25 pages. This paragraph tells the new player that it's OK not to be disciplined, and this is dangerous and costly advice.

In general, however, the advice in this book is extremely good, and quite comprehensive. Unlike many other books, which tell you what to do in the first round of betting, and think that some mumbling about aggressive play suffices to tell you how to play the later rounds. Lee's book has 70 pages on specific advice on how to play in various specific situations on the flop, turn, and river, and this is the strongest part of the book. The advice is comprehensive and it's good.

Of course, there are some situations where no simple advice can solve all the reader's problems; I turned eagerly to the section on check-raising, a powerful tool that I've always felt I've underutilized, through fear of giving a free card. Lee tells me that check-raising is very important in a loose game, and that it's very important not to give a free card, without giving me much more of a clue as to when each of these considerations is more important. But if 70 pages could give me a formula as to what to do after the flop in all situations, Hold'em wouldn't be that interesting a game, would it? But there are a huge number of important and commonly occuring situations where there is a clearly correct play, and Lee does a great job of helping the reader understand these situations and make the right play.

One place where I found this book to be weak was in its discussion of non-standard games. For example, the brief discussion of spread limit games fails to mention the key point that correct play is much tighter in a spread-limit 1-4-8-8 game (with one $2 blind) then in a structured 4-8 game (with a $2 and a $4 blind). The section on jackpot games advises playing exactly as if the jackpot were not there; it should at least mention that Aces full can always be played as the nuts, and a draw to Aces full can be played as a draw to the nuts, since if this hand loses, the loss is dwarfed by the jackpot win. The discussion of short stack strategy dismisses this possibility by (incorrectly) characterizing the advantage of the short stack as being "that way they can get all in and not have to make decisions," and replying "Poker is all about decisions. If you don't want to make decisions, don't play poker". Poker is about making money, not about making decisions. If there's a strategy that makes me more money on average, but gives me fewer decisions to make, I want to know about it. It's not that there aren't good arguments for always keeping enough money on the table (there are such arguments, especially in a loose game with a proportionately high rake); it's that, unlike most places in the book, Lee doesn't give an accurate description of why his strategy is correct, so the reader can't detect the exceptional situations where a different strategy is appropriate. Finally, at least on the East Coast, even the low-limit games tighten up occasionally; a short section on tight games and how to play when it's heads-up on the flop, would have been welcome for the reader who is relying exclusively on Lee's book, rather than on Lee's book and Sklansky and Malmuth, for advice.

Most of this review has dwelt on the weak points of the book, because they're more interesting to write about, but I want to emphasize that they are the exception, rather than the rule. The book is clearly written, gives a lot of very good advice, and is quite complete.

So this is an excellent book, but who should buy it? If Hold'em for Advanced Players, by Sklansky and Malmuth didn't exist, this review would be an absolute rave something like

"This is the best book on Hold'em ever written, and no serious (or even semi-serious) hold'em player can afford to be without it; buy it immediately!"

But there's enough overlap between the excellent advice in Lee's book and the excellent advice in Sklansky and Malmuth that it isn't clear whether most hold'em players will profit by the existence of this book. Those who have already read Sklansky and Malmuth won't find a lot that's new here; those who haven't, should.

The introduction gives three categories of players for whom the book is recommended:

"Read this book if:

.You have played some poker, but have never played hold'em and you'd like to give it a try...

.You've been playing hold'em for a month, or a year, or ten years, and you just can't beat it...

.You're holding your own in low-limit hold'em games....Nevertheless, you think that you might be missing an extra bet or two every session."

For people in the second and third categories, I would wholeheartedly recommend Lee's book. If you're only going to read one book on hold'em, read Sklanskly and Malmuth. But if you want to read a second book on hold'em, a book oriented towards a looser game, which spells out how your play should change in a game where 6 to 8 players see the flop, rather than 2 or 3, Lee's book is very useful. There are lots of differences in correct play when there are 12 bets, rather than 2 or 3 in the pot at the flop. I've figured lots of these out by playing, but it cost me a lot more than the price of the book to learn these lessons the hard way. Maybe everything in this book is implicit in the two pages in Sklansky and Malmuth on "Playing in loose games", but I certainly found it to be valuable to see it all explained and spelled out in detail. As a moderately experienced player, who has read all the other standard poker books, I found it to be quite useful.

But is this really the book for you, if, as Lee claims "You have played some poker, but have never played hold'em and you'd like to give it a try."? I'm not so sure. This isn't a book that the new player can glance through, and expect to grasp. If hold'em is new to you, this book is pretty dense, and requires careful reading. Nor should you read the first half of this book and then make your first trip to the cardroom; some vital information for the beginner (Things like the importance of discipline, and basic cardroom mechanics like protecting one's hand), aren't mentioned until quite late in the book. Certainly a new player, who is willing to make a careful study of a 190 page book before he heads for the cardroom, can profit greatly from this book. But I'm not at all sure that such a player wouldn't profit still more by readying Sklansky and Malmuth. But if you're a hold'em player of any level of experience, who feels that Sklansky and Malmuth haven't told him everything he wants to know about the game, and you want to buy a second book on Hold'em, this is the book to buy.

Andy Latto -

ConJelCo Home Page