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Poker: A Review of Easy Game 3rd Edition and an Interview with Author Andrew "BalugaWhale" Seidman
Many no-limit holdem books explain in great detail how to address a multitude of situations. This can be quite useful, but it's sometimes difficult to see the forest for the trees. Some readers learn more efficiently from a simple exposition of principles. This is where Andrew “BalugaWhale” Seidman's Easy Game 3rd Edition excels. Easy Game is only 136 pages, and just a third of the book addresses the basics. But I still recommend it to small-stakes players.
The 2009 edition of Easy Game came in two parts whose cost was $1,000. The new edition contains almost everything in the original, refines and improves that material and adds 13 new chapters. It sells for $55 to $80, depending on the format and where you buy it. It's available in paper and electronic versions, including Kindle and PDF.
A Game of Incomplete Information
Consistent with its title, Easy Game aims to teach you to play in a way that makes decisions easy. That means thinking about your situation and how it will develop throughout a hand. The author states clearly that learning—not winning—is what it's all about. That's okay because in the end, if you're learning, you should eventually be winning.
Poker is a game of incomplete information. The player who wins a hand is often the one that has obtained the most information. Your struggle to win at this game is at heart a quest to gain information and use it to exploit your opponents' mistakes. Different types of players make different mistakes, so you must know your opponents.
Easy Game starts by discussing reasons to bet. (Hint: not for protection.) The original version identified three reasons, but the author has reduced that to two: for value and to make a better hand fold. What is value? It's your equity in the hand; what percentage of the time will your hand emerge a winner?
How much should you bet? Think about what hands you want to call your bet and what hands you want to fold. Think about the value of your hand. Think.
Seidman invents some terms such as the nuts-to-air ratio (NAR), which helps the hero (that's you) decide when to call down with weak holdings. You can look at your own NAR to decide if you should continue firing with air. It depends on your image and whether that makes your bets credible. He uses a lot of advanced terms such as stack-to-pot ratio (SPR), and he discusses hand ranges without busting out the combinatorial analyses you find in some books. If you're not familiar with these terms, you may need to look elsewhere to get up to speed.
How do table dynamics affect play? There are simple rules that depend on the type of opponent you face, but there may be several player types, all in various positions relative to you, making each table unique. Seidman argues that pre-flop raise sizes should depend on table dynamics rather than just your position.
The book's conclusion sums up what you should be doing in just a few words: poker is about questioning everything. Keep asking questions and finding answers, and you can find success.
Seidman has a lot of opinions. He makes arguments for all of them. Think about what he says. Argue against them if you like. That will make you a thinker, and the thinkers are the people who win at poker. You will have to do a lot of thinking when you read—and reread—this book.
I would be surprised if you didn't get your money's worth out of this fine book. It costs a bit more than average, but even at tiny stakes, if you win an extra buy-in from time to time, you will quickly recover your investment.
The basic material provides ample fodder for the thinking beginner. The advanced material takes the thoughts to another level, and explains how to play against opponents who won't fold every time an ace pops up on the turn.
Many new chapters appear in the advanced section, concerning topics such as bet sizing, polarized ranges and things I've never even heard of, despite being around the poker world for quite some time, such as street projection.
The book concludes with the hand examples that are noticeably absent until that point. This chapter, “Putting It All Together”, illustrates how the author applied all the concepts in the book to actual play. These hands were played at $10/20 and $25/50, so it would be safe to say these strategies aren't to be used at small stakes. But if you understand why you should make these moves, you will be a deeper thinker, and thinking helps you win at any stakes.
Andrew Seidman started playing micro-stakes no-limit holdem in 2006 and quickly worked his way up to high-stakes games. He has been an instructor on DeucesCracked since its inception in 2007. He took an extended break from poker to travel after a vicious downswing, and is now active again in online poker. He is an active poker coach as well.
I (Jim Dorsch) sent Andrew a few questions, which he was kind of enough to answer in short order.
JD: How did you come to be a high-stakes poker player? I mean, you didn't set out to do this, did you? And how did you learn to play poker?
AS: I started playing poker in low-stakes casual games with friends from high school and I was terrible. I got crushed. This was frustrating because I was pretty sure I was smart enough to beat them. I didn't understand how to improve. Then, I saw an article featuring Jason Strasser and Vanessa Selbst as young professionals who learned on the Two Plus Two forums (sponsored by Two Plus Two Publishing). So, I joined the forums, and slowly moved up until I was playing high stakes.
JD: What does Easy Game boil down to? You discuss simple concepts, but when a person plays, it suddenly becomes complicated because real play is never quite the same as any example in a book. How do you apply what's in the book?
AS: Application is always the hardest part of knowledge. I think the message of Easy Game is that there are only a few important factors to consider and many irrelevant factors that can cloud our judgment. For example, when you don't know the reasons for betting, you can sit and think about things like, "I want to protect my hand", "I want to win the pot" or "I don't want to lose the pot," which are totally irrelevant. These detract from our ability to make good choices. So, while it is certainly difficult to balance the factors when you're actually playing,Easy Game helps you know what you need to think about and what you don't.
JD: What separates the experts from the rest? Outside of money, that is … what do the top players have that the rest of us lack?
AS: The true top players have a natural ability to feel when their opponents are adjusting. Image is developed when there is enough interaction to create a relationship between two players; how they react to that relationship will tell a good player what to do. So, when good players play each other, it's a question of who reacts faster and more accurately. Almost everyone can learn to beat weak players with some pretty basic rules, but adjusting on the fly and having a good sense of your opponent's psychological and emotional position is very difficult.
JD: A heads-up display (HUD) is pretty standard for a lot of players, but you rarely use one, and you say in your book that “most statistics are extremely unimportant.” How so?
AS: HUDs are great for giving a general picture of a player but can be very misleading in specific situations.
For example, it's helpful to know who is bad-passive, bad-aggressive and good-aggressive (although you can usually figure that out by just paying attention). Where stats really help is letting us know the degree to which somebody is tight or loose; e.g., a bad-aggressive player playing 90 percent of hands is different than one playing 50 percent, a bad-passive player playing 35 percent is different than one playing 15 percent, and good-aggressive players can be anywhere from tight, nitty players to extremely loose ones. So, it's helpful to know how loose somebody really is, and stats provide that.
However, I often see players checking specific stats against their opponents without realizing the situational nature of poker. For example, I raise and a short-stacked fish calls, and then a loose, good-aggressive regular three-bets in the blinds. Now, if I looked at his stats, I might see a high three-bet percentage. However, in this case, he's almost certainly three-betting a value range due to the short-stacked fish. So, his stats say one thing, but the table dynamics say another. In general, table dynamics are far, far more reliable than stats.
JD: In a nutshell, how does a small-stakes player improve? What's a good mix among books, training sites, forums and playing?
AS: The best way for a small-stakes player to improve is to ask questions. Ask on forums, ask coaches, ask other players. "Standard" advice is often incorrect, and it's not hard to figure out if you're right or wrong (and why) if you just ask a lot of questions. Most players who get stuck at small stakes are too content with standard lines and don't force themselves to be creative enough to beat the other regulars at their limits. To me, most poker books haven't been very helpful; I always felt like I didn't understand them until I already understood them. This is one reason why I wrote Easy Game—I wanted to write a book that could actually develop the fundamental thought processes that you need to improve as a player.
JD: I can't tell you how often I call off for my stack, then afterwards think about what an incredibly stupid thing I just did. Perhaps I'm the only one, but assuming I'm not, how does a player stop making bad decisions?
AS: Everyone makes bad decisions. That's a given. I try to remind myself that the goal is to make fewer bad decisions than my opponents. Framing it as a competition helps me focus. Reviewing your session for trends is also helpful—maybe you just aren't finding the fold button in a consistent spot where you're beat every time. Seeing it spelled out on your screen can help reinforce what you need to do. When I first wrote the “Baluga Theorem" (easy to find with a Google search) it was because, after a year of break-even poker at small stakes, I realized that all it took was to fold to turn and river raises every time. Then, small stakes poker was pretty easy.
JD: Do you play other poker games besides no-limit holdem? Do you recommend that beginning and intermediate players learn other games?
AS: I started off playing limit holdem. I've played a small amount of pot-limit Omaha. The principles and rules of poker (the reasons for betting, bet-sizing theory, etc.) are applicable in any game of poker. So in this sense, if you know one game, you know them all, from a general theory point of view. The specifics can be tricky and require experience. In general, I'd say that it doesn't really matter which game you choose so long as you stick to it and focus on perfecting your thought processes. Certain games yield higher variance (limit holdem, for example) or require more memorization (stud) or offer more flexibility/creativity (PLO) but, at the end of the day, they're all different manifestations of the same thing.
JD: Andrew, thank you for your time.
How to Win at Small-Stakes Poker: Anyone can win small-stakes poker games. It just takes thought and discipline.