Maybe Christian Soto’s right. Light em on fire:

Poker books put players in a box. Once the player is in this box, it is really hard to break them out. Poker is a fluid game. Game flow dynamics, history, awareness, and frequency considerations are all but a handful of aspects that go into the decision matrix while playing a hand. You’ll also need heart. Unfortunately, I haven’t found one of these aspects, yet alone all of them, to be the cornerstone of any published book.

When players approach me for help in their game, I find they have hard set poker mantras. These requirements include answering, “If I raise, what worse will call?” or “Am I betting as a bluff or for value?” These black-and-white rules are OK, but in a game with so much grey, these rules do nothing but weigh down the player. -– “Burn Your Poker Books,” Christian Soto, Red Chip Poker

I know of one nose-bleed cash player who spent his early years never studying. Likewise, my pal Nick has met winning players as high as 20/40 who seemingly ditched the book drill. (Fairytale disclaimer: I suspect book-shunning sharks devote exhaustive hours dissecting strategy).

For years I’ve consumed endless, irresistible poker content (at times compulsively). My game has grown tremendously. Yet of late learning’s become a joyless drain. Tiring mind chatter when I play. Endless bits of poker wisdom vying for my attention—as if 1,000 starving British orphans wanted “more.” So I’ve slowed down. Found three pros I love and trust. Narrowed my content scope in a flurry of intellectual self-preservation.

I went further. To avoid the pain of sub-optimal play I benched myself. Let’s call it “mindful pausing.” My game has leaks. I’ve been rushing. Pressuring my learning curve. Ignoring the back end of my trusted inch worm (Tendler). Absorbing too much too fast.

I hate resting. But the break’s been revelatory. I’m also talking through the pause with a pro. I feared putting the game down. But the quiet rewards me, my focus strangely, unexpectedly, reborn. I see my game differently. Its keen, and not-keen, parts. Less (play) is temporarily more.

I envy Stu Ungar and Phil Ivey for weird reasons. They started young. Stu honed his breathtaking feral people sense in the social chaos of a mob-infused Lower East Side. And his brain was particular. He presented as a prodigy, analyzing his mother’s gin game as young as eight. As a teenager, Ivey snuck into casinos grinding endless necessary hours, his astute poker brain giving birth to itself. (Without dispute we need an honest apprenticeship…thousands of hours to even begin.)

Their genius was more than feel. And freer. I contemplate Stu and Phil’s path. I crave the guts to walk a higher wire in this moment and hone my feel skill (not the only, but one of poker’s slam-dunk elements). As a girl in the game I already have a respectable portion of bankable instinct. Stalking more of it feels right. As Ivey famously said: “There are times when you can do all of the math you want and your decision still comes down to intangibles and a feeling about your opponent or the situation you’re facing.” He’s talking about trust.

Playing as high as 5/10, my pal Luka routinely crushes (also a chess brainiac). Five years in the game, he’s a brilliant, unschooled, exploitative player working Tri-State casinos and New York underground spots. He skips books though he often streams elite players’ hand chats. His instincts are stupidly good. He reads villains and monitors frequencies well. Game selects ruthlessly. Trots out considerable aggression. Could Luka beat elite players? Unlikely. But he’ll never play them so who cares? (He also works full time. Not surviving on the game.)

Luka’s win rate reflects some of Soto’s street-smart holy grail:

I would not have [new players] implement a tight strategy, including using open-raising charts per position. In fact, I would unleash the beast. I would tell my prodigy to play every hand he or she perceives as playable. Afterwards, they are free to do whatever it is they deem necessary to win the hand.

This approach in learning will force the new player into tricky spots. They’ll have to learn to dig themselves out. The easy spots will play themselves. More importantly, they won’t be boxed into some set strategy put forth by an author. Anything goes, and that’s exactly the mindset they will need to succeed in this ruthless game. There is something to be said for simply going after it. Once you get all the mechanics down, and theory is sound, you’ll need to get in there and battle. Take on the best, and figure out what works. Never stop questioning your lines.

Am I burning the poker book I wrote? Hardly. But for the moment I’ve stopped reading content, except for two books on theory and Tendler’s unparalleled text on the mental game. I want to spend time dominating myself with instinct. Clip the intellectual shackles. Claim the felt with racier priorities—30% book crap. 70% heart and soul. Dig myself out of tricky spots. Get in there and battle.

I honor this inflection point. This growth spurt. Something. I love experimenting. Let’s see.

  • persuadeo

    The answer likely lies in how poker players approach poker books: irrationally. In every other facet of their life, a person treats 99% of books as some form of Reference, rather than the Answer. However, in poker, the majority of players constantly are in search of the Answer. Hence they are obsessed with whatever is latest, highest reviewed, apparently pertinent to their stakes, written by someone with universally accepted authority or approved by the same. When they are inevitably disappointed at the repeated lack of a total answer, their passion for seeking the Answer wanes – along with their passion for reading poker and strategic literature. The same phenomenon occurs with poker videos, where after a suitable exposure, one’s passion for watching them fades, or even, to extrapolate further, one’s passion for any one poker authority figure.