There are few better ways to develop poker skills than to drill through tricky spots away from the table with a poker strategy workbook. James ‘SplitSuit’ Sweeney has authored several such workbooks, and he joins us on this week’s podcast to give a behind-the-scenes look at how they come together, as well as tips for getting the most out of them. You’ll find strategy workbooks to be invaluable in gaining experience and intuition, as well as a comparatively cheap way to make mistakes before you deal with the spots you study off-table in real life with real stacks.
Zac: James “SplitSuit” Sweeney, welcome back to the podcast once again. It’s always great to have you here because you drop so much value for our listeners, and I understand today we’re going to talk about workbooks.
James: Yeah, thank you, of course, for having me back. We’re going to have a lot of fun today, talk a little bit about kinda what the workbooks are. I know we talked about them on the podcast before, but then talk a lot about kinda what you should be getting from the workbooks and, heck, even if you don’t ever end up picking up a workbook or looking at one, kinda how you can use these tidbits and thoughts in order to amplify your own studying and get more out of the time you put in off-table.
Because at the end of the day, that’s a lot of what we talk about here. It’s a lot of what I talk about in general, is just study hard, study efficiently, but also study effectively.
And that’s a lot of what the workbooks are really built for, is to help you do that in a very organized way, and yeah, we’re just going to chit-chat about that today.
Zac: So, when you started putting out these workbooks, and you’ve authored and co-authored a number of them and have more on the way, I was surprised to learn that there really aren’t a lot of workbooks out there. And it seems like workbook is an essential format to work on poker concepts where exercising and developing intuition is key. Is the reason for that because they’re really hard to put together? I mean, can you give us a little example of how you put these things together in the first place, and why there are so few of them?
James: So, that’s a really good question, and I don’t know why there are so few of them, but I do have a simple guess. And that is that when someone hears the word “workbook,” they think, okay, this is going to be a guided book with a lot of questions and then a lot of answers. And the issue of poker is that there are very few black-and-white answers. Right? There are black-and-white answers in math, right? There’s an objective right answer and an objective wrong answer, and if you look at math workbooks, there have been a couple of them, even Doug Ho did one of them, and those are much easier because they’re classic workbooks. Right?
Questions and answers, everything in the same book. However, when it comes to the workbooks that I wanted to do, and even a lot of the workbooks that could be done, say, workbooks on running through different lines and saying, you know, is this line best, what lines would be better … Once you get into anything that doesn’t have a clear, objective right and wrong answer, it becomes much more challenging, and building an answer key becomes almost impossible.
Like, I get questions all the time, like, “Hey, I just bought this, but there’s no answer key. What the heck do I do?” Or, “Hey, is there an answer key with this? If not, why?” And, the simple fact of the matter is, is that my workbooks are primarily there … they’re guided exercises to run you through, help you work on your hand reading skills, help you start building some of your technical knowledge, and a lot of that stuff, we could objectively prove how many combos are in a range here or how many combos of x, y, or z there are on this flop, but if I don’t know what range you assign pre-flop, how the heck could I help you on the flop?
If I don’t know what you assigned on the pre-flop flop and turn, how could I help you on river ranges? So, in these situations in these workbooks, there really just are no objective black-and-white answer keys, and I know that frustrates a lot of people, but let’s be honest, at the end of the day, poker is not, like, the most objective thing. There’s a lot of subjective stuff in this game. There’s a lot of assumptions.
If you and I look at the same exact hand but make two different assumptions, even if they’re just slightly different, all of a sudden, the objective answer, the objective line that we think is best can differ immensely. So, it just goes to show you a lot of things in this game just aren’t going to have those clear-cut black-and-white answers, and I know for some people, that’s going to be very obnoxious, especially when you are doing a guided workbook, but it just is what it is.
It’s more to say, hey, here’s the stuff you need to be exploring. Here’s how to do it in the right way. Here’s how to start developing a mental checklist of questions, and then when you are in real time, you can pull from that, and that’s where you start building your intuition.
So, kind of a long-winded answer to say, you know, poker workbooks are very important, but they’re really just another way of saying, hey, these are things you need to be studying. Here, it’s all laid out for you. Don’t expect an answer key because there simply isn’t one and it’s impossible to make one for something this subjective, but here’s what you are getting into and here’s why it’s useful.
Zac: And one of the things I love about the workbooks is, you know, I just played a few hours in a session at a casino nearby, and I encountered some really interesting spots to analyze, but they were few and far between. Most poker is pretty straightforward and standard, and I guess this almost is like putting in extra volume, but also with a coach by your side. I mean, why aren’t more people doing these workbooks because it seems like this is a way to put in volume with strategic guidance. It seems like a no-brainer.
James: And I appreciate that, and I agree with you. I don’t know why more people aren’t doing it. Again, I don’t mind if people aren’t doing the workbooks. For me, it has nothing to do with, hey, go do a workbook. It has to do with, hey, go do the study. Go do the exploration. Don’t complain when you find yourself in a lot of quote-unquote uncomfortable situations in real time simply because you are unstudied, simply because you didn’t put in the off-table work.
Now, no matter how much off-table work you do, you are still going to find yourself in tough spots. You are still going to find yourself confused in real time, and you are still going to have to take those hands back off-table, explore them, analyze them, and say, okay, is there a better line. Which line should I have taken? In the future, how can I make better decisions when these kind of spots arise, and are these spots that are really going to affect my win rate very much, or are they so incredibly uncommonly rare that they’re just not that important at the end of the day?
So, again, it has nothing to do with the workbook itself. It’s more a question of why aren’t people doing this kind of work? And I think the honest answer is that it’s difficult. It’s time-consuming. And going back to the answer key problem, there are no answers. Right? You can bring it up in a forum, and you are going to get a bunch of different answers and a bunch of different responses and a bunch of different people who have different experiences and different assumptions and give you a different line because they’re coming from their own assumptions.
So, there’s no, like, clear-cut, hey, this is it. Unless, of course, you have all of your assumptions in line, and you can say, hey, here’s the exact situation. Here are all of my assumptions. Based upon all of that, with these constraints, what would you do here? Right? And a good player would be able to take all of those constraints in that line and say, hey, this is going to be the best line. Here are some other ones that may be appropriate, but here’s ultimately going to be the best one. And it’s just difficult. And when you don’t know what you don’t know, workbooks and studying are going to be more complicated, and it’s just going to be kind of a frustrating experience.
But, in this game, you have to work through being frustrated. You have to work through not having clear answers. You are going to have to work through making some assumptions that may or may not be correct. And the better you get at that, the more comfortable you get at that, not only does that help you at the table, but it helps you in real life. There’s a lot of times in real life where you don’t have perfect information.
So, are you just going to sit there on the sideline and do nothing, or are you going to make some assumptions, pull some triggers, and then readjust as you need to? So, I don’t know. There’s a lot of things from this that you can expand and take beyond the felt, and I don’t know. Me, personally, I love that kind of stuff. I think that stuff’s just super, super important and super helpful and helps you visualize life as a game that becomes, I don’t know, more fun when you actually work on it and improve a bunch of different skillsets.
Zac: No doubt. That’s how I think about poker, too, and what makes me love the game and love life even more. And, you know, like you said, I guess you answered in a roundabout way why there’s so few of these workbooks out there. They really are difficult to put together. Now, I know a lot of our listeners are very interested in what happens behind the scenes. I know you wrote a book at one point while you were live-streaming, so can you give us a little peek into your actual process into how you picked these hands? Are they ones that you imagined or played? Or, how do you actually put these workbooks together?
James: So, for all of the workbooks, and I have three of them … I have one for live players. I have one for 6-max online players, and I have one for tournament players. For all of them, I worked with somebody, a single person, who would help me get all the hands together, that they felt were interesting spots, that they felt had some educational value, and I always picked someone who plays those games day-in and day-out or at least very, very regularly.
So, essentially, they’re their hands or they’re hands that are related enough to them. And then from there, I said, okay, now I’m going to take these hand histories and I’m going to say, is this exactly a hand that’s interesting enough as is or would a slight tweak or modification make it more interesting or more useful. Right? So, we could explore some really, really fringe spot that comes up almost never, or maybe if we tweak the flop ever so slightly this way, it becomes a bit more of a common situation that’s going to be more helpful.
And that’s what I wanted to do in this workbook. I didn’t just want to explore the really, really fringe stuff, the stuff that’s not going to impact your win rate very much because it simply doesn’t come up very often. I wanted to explore the situations that you face day-in and day-out. These situations that are very common. Right? In the live workbook, there’s a lot more multi-way pots. In the tournament workbook, there’s more pre-flop spots. In the 6-max one, there’s more three-bet and four-bet pots. It’s just situations that I think are important. They’re indicative of spots that impact your win rate heavily, and in some situations, maybe the hand that was actually originally presented to me, I said, “Okay, I’m going to tweak this ever so slightly even on a turn or a river card, or on a bet size, on a player type, to make it more interesting. Right? Maybe this spot isn’t very interesting against a nit, but it’s super interesting against a super aggressive lag.” Okay, awesome. Then let’s make the change to make it more useful and more globally applicable.
So, for me, it’s, start with the hand histories, make any tweaks that need to be changed to make the hand more educational and more useful, and then from there, it’s just essentially mashing through the graphics part of it, mashing through the layout part of it, and then in all of the workbooks, I try to come up with kind of these questions, these guiding questions that can help you start developing a mental checklist of, “Hey, these are the things I’m gonna ask myself,” so that in real time I can make a decision more … I’m sorry, not more better. I can make a stronger decision and go from there. So, there might be questions like, “Okay, what do I think the cusp of his range is here? What do I think villain would do at top pair here? What do I think, do I think he would check raise bottom set here?”
And then from there, you have some actual starting points and you can start actually coming up with a range in your head. If you don’t have any starting questions, where are you going to come from? Right? You are just kind of guessing or you are ignoring hand reading all together, that’s all stuff that I want to avoid. So it’s really to layout kinda this mental framework, this mental checklist to give you some starting point when you are in real time and of course the more you practice that off-table, the more usable it is in real time.
Zac: So it really sounds like the workbook itself is part of sort of a balanced breakfast of various studying material that you need. You don’t do that exclusively, you want to also be analyzing your own hand histories, and talking to other people on the forum. But, I wonder are there ways to do this without having the workbook because this seems very analogous to some of the other ways we commonly study poker.
James: Of course. And largely, you could again, totally skip the workbook all together and say “Ya know what? I’m going to study hands that I’ve played in this workbook style and I’m just gonna do it without the workbook.” That’s totally fine. All I really care about is that you are actually doing the study part because if you study it in a guided way then you are going to get something from it. You are going to learn something. Either something about yourself and your own ranges, something about your opponents and their ranges, something that you can use to exploit people, a situation where an over bet makes a lot more sense even though you’ve explored an over bet spot before.
So, again, I’ve done YouTube videos where I go through the work book step by step. So you can already see exactly what the workbook looks like. Exactly what the overall frame and format looks like and you can take that for your own study and say “Ya know what? I’m just gonna explore my own hands this exact way.” That’s totally fine. All I care about is that you are doing the work and learning from it because that’s where you are going to grow as a player. You are not going to grow as a player by just playing a couple sessions a week and then going home and doing nothing more in between sessions, you are just not. You are going to stagnate even if you are really really strong now. You will get surpassed if you don’t constantly put in the work. And it’s not that you have to put in 50 hours a week of study. Even if you just analyzed 2 or 3 hands a week like this in a really in depth way, you are going to get so much more from that than doing absolutely nothing. I guarantee it.
Zac: Absolutely, and one of the things that I picked up on your previous answer, which is really interesting, is this idea that poker is a game of probability and certain spots are going to come up more than others and you should be front-loading the ones that come up more than others and that cannot always be intuitive because we tend to do analysis of the hands that we lose or we experience a mistake and we try and analyze that. But would you advocate that really, a better way of going about it would be not just looking at the mistakes you make but looking at the most common spots that are going to come up again and again and having a definite off-table plan and intuition built around dealing with those spots?
James: 100%. If you see a common situation come up multiple times per session, whether or not you win the hand, it doesn’t matter, those common spots are the ones that you should be studying the most because they’re going to come up the most often and inherently they’re going to impact your win rate the most. And even just slight tweaks in terms of optimizing your strategy in them is going to be massively beneficial.
So, when you are thinking about “Okay, which hands do I want to analyze? Do I want to analyze this one weird hand that happened against the river check raise on a very specific texture or do I want to study this spot where I double barrelled and I’m not sure if should have?” Right? The double barrel situation probably comes up a ton more often and as such it’s almost guaranteed going to impact your win rate more often. And even if you checked that situation instead of double barrelled, explore both. Say, “Okay, what’s the value of checking here? What’s the value of double barrelling here? Okay, what if I had a slightly different hand how does that impact it? Does, all of a sudden that mean that I have a huge frequency issue in my game? Does that mean my opponent has a different frequency issue in their game?
So, whenever you are doing the exploration, don’t stop at just how did the hand play out based upon the way that I played it. But also think about your opponent’s range. Think about what if you had a different hand? Think about if the bet size was slightly different? What if the turn card was slightly different? You can take a single hand history and turn it into two or three hundred hand histories that are very very helpful just by tweaking slight variables. It’s not difficult, especially if you change player types, pre-flop effective stack sizes, flop texture slightly, turn texture slightly. You can get into a ton of different variables very very quickly and all of a sudden you have a very rounded study of a spot that comes up quite often and now you are super well prepared for all these situations that come up in real time that reflect, or are similar, or are parallel, to the original spots that you were studying.
Zac: And that sets up my next question perfectly, which is I know that a lot of people who don’t study hands, who don’t do hand histories, and really they’re kind of our target for this podcast more than anyone else. We wanna get you into doing that and a lot of these people are afraid to that because of two reasons. 1. They don’t feel like they know enough strategically to talk to other people. Well, the workbook solves that. But 2. They have a real problem looking at hands in a vacuum without having all of those variables in place. Now you offer some guiding variables, like this player’s a lag or whatever but in no hand in a workbook are you ever going to have every single variable that will be at the table.
But that shouldn’t prevent you from analyzing hands. Right? You can analyze hands in some sort of vacuum.
James: It shouldn’t but it does. Right? You get so many people that are like, “Well, I don’t wanna talk about this hand or any situation unless I have 100% of the information available. I want to know what the weather is outside. I wanna know what this dude ate for breakfast, I want to know exactly what his eyeballs did when the turn key came off. Again, you have to get uncomfortable with imperfect information. Life is imperfect information. Poker is largely imperfect information. You are not going to have perfect info so claiming that you need to wait until you have perfect info. One, is just completely goofy and Two, you are just making excuses to keep yourself from doing the work that you know you need to do.
So, I think a lot of people will make that excuse because it’s cheap and it’s easy and it keeps them feeling comfortable for not jumping in the conversation, not doing the study and the work, and just saying, “Ya know what? It’s unknown so I don’t need to know it.”
Well, that’s true, it is unknown but you do need to know it and you do need to get better at making some assumptions, you do need to get better at the technical parts of the game, and it is gonna benefit you. Is it gonna be uncomfortable? You betcha. But again, you need to start developing comfort in that discomfort rather than constantly hiding from it and saying, “I only need perfect information otherwise I’m not gonna play this game.” You are hurting yourself when you take that kind of strategy.
So, I really hope people, if they are currently making that excuse whether it’s in some situations or in a lot of situations, just to stop. Ya know? Challenge yourself. You are gonna learn so much more from challenging yourself even without an answer key to prove the answer to. Just by doing the process of trying to work on hand reading, by trying to build your technical process, by thinking about, “Okay, what is my opponent thinking, what would he do with King-Queen here? What would he do with King-Ten here? Are there differences between those two things?”
Even if you don’t have a perfect answer, just by stretching your brain and forcing yourself to ask yourself some questions that maybe you are uncomfortable with will one, get you in the process of having some actual questions to ask yourself when you are playing it real time, which is super helpful. Gives you a starting point. But then two, you are gonna start developing an answer that maybe isn’t perfect but it’s gonna get you in a ballpark and being in a ballpark is far better than being in a zip code and far better than being a state. And that’s kinda the way that I just overall look at it.
Zac: So, I hope we’ve inspired our listeners to check out workbooks or at least start working on hand histories themselves, looking for common spots and analyzing them with a variety of variables.
So, I guess my next question is what are the workbooks that we’re actually talking about? I wanna let listeners know real quick what you’ve written, what’s in the works, what’s out there?
James: Before we get into that, can we talk a little bit … I have a couple of things I wanna talk about about what you should be looking for while doing hands. Can we talk about that first?
Zac: You are the boss
James: Alright. So, whether you are doing a workbook or whether you are doing your own study hands, as long as you are doing something that’s going step by step, inflection point by inflection point, street by street, and saying, “How can I get something more out of this?” These are the little things that I want you to start getting familiar with.
When you are doing the workbook, largely we’re talking about ranges so hand reading overall. Thinking about those ranges in terms of percentage form or percentage of previous range. So, essentially if someone has 15% of hands pre-flop and they’re gonna continue with all of them on the flop then they have 100% of their previous range. If they’re only gonna continue with half of them then 50% of the previous range, that sort of stuff. And then also number of combos.
So, the whole point is to work people through the hand reading process and actually building ranges street by street and forcing them to not skip anything and be like, “well, I’m just gonna skip over the flop hand reading and just jump right to the river.” Like, that’s not the way it works. You have to go street by street so working on the process is important. And then also building up the technical know-how.
So, when you are doing research whether it’s a workbook, whether it’s your own study, whether you are just looking at hands on the forum and saying, “Okay, like I’m going to try and study this a little bit,” start thinking about the pre-flop range width. Right? How many hands they actually have in their pre-flop range, what that range actually looks like, and then use that as kind of a baseline. Right? You should know what 15% of hands looks like. If you don’t, go look it up. It’s not too difficult. Just plug that into Flopzilla or Equilab, whatever you use and see what 15% of hands looks like. If you think that someone is calling 15%, that’s gonna look different than if someone raises 15%. Right? If someone’s raising, they’re probably going to have things like Aces, Kings, and Ace-King. If someone’s just flatting and you think they’d three bet those hands well, if there still flatting 15 then you just build whatever is left over into other range of hands so maybe Ace-Jacks and Ace-10s start to fit the bill.
And then from there, it’s really helpful to have that in your back pocket because when you are in real time and you are tying to say, “okay, I think this is what this dude’s calling with here,” and you see that that dude’s only playing with one hand a orbit but you think that he’s calling pre-flop 50% of the time, you already have an automatic check like, “no no no, that doesn’t make sense, I think he’s really only playing like 10% of hands, I can’t say that here he is 50% of hands.” Right?
So, it gives you that like automatic gauge of like, “no no no, something’s going wrong here, I’m doing something incorrectly.” And these are super helpful for people’s three bets, people’s flat’s, people’s opens, it doesn’t matter. It’s really helpful to start with the pre-flop range width.
And then from there, just expanding into other things. Combos. How many combos were in that overall 15% range? You should know that kind of stuff. And same thing when you are talking post-flop. Understanding how many combos or strong hands there are. What’s the density of strong hands vs. weak hands? If you’ve never explored that kind of stuff, it’s super helpful. That’s the basis for you understanding should you double and triple barrel these spots a lot of the time? Right? Should you be calling down and bluff catching a large chunk of the time? If you’ve never worked through this kin of stuff before then you are just guessing and most people that just guess in this game are left to play on absolute hand strength.
So, they continue if they have top pair or plus because they consider that hand strength strong enough but ultimately they don’t have any other better guide. Whereas, if you have this kind of knowledge in your back pocket, you do have a better guide and then you can actually make some decisions of “what should I do with this marginal pair?” Rather than just, “Well, it’s not a top pair so I guess I fold,” because that’s just a very crappy thought process.
And then the other stuff, ya know, internalized checklist, we talked about that before. Some of the questions you can start asking yourself to say, “what do I think he realistically has? What do I think he’s realistically gonna do with this hand or that hand?” And then the other major thing is start exploring the hand a bunch of different ways. Ya know, don’t just explore your hand the way that it played out. Also say, “Okay, what if my opponent had done this or that? What if the size was slightly different? What if the turn card were slightly different? What if instead of him checking the turn, what if he had fired the turn again? What if he had lead into me on the river instead of him just checking again?”
Ask yourself those kind of hands because it’s gonna prepare you to play a wider array of similar spots rather than just always exploring the singular hand. If you are already in there, if you already have Flopzilla open, if you already have the hand open, why not just take a couple of minutes and explore some of their stuff? Right? Rather than just exploring one, maybe explore 5 or 6 and the more you do that and the more you rip your poker brain apart, trust me the more and more beneficial it’s gonna be for real time play. The better you are gonna be able to make decisions and assumptions and it’s gonna be super helpful at the end of the day.
Zac: So, we’re talking about workbooks but we’re also really giving a behind the scenes look at the way professional poker players or at least people who take the game very seriously work at the game and study it and not just play it. They work at the game. And if you want to work at this game and grab one of these workbooks, can you just run quickly through what’s on the Red Chip poker roster for workbooks?
James: Yeah, so we have essentially four workbooks on the red chip roster. Like I mentioned earlier, we have Doug’s Math Workbook. Super helpful if you are still trying to work on things like part odds and I believe there’s combo counting and equity and all that kind of stuff. Really good for just kind of working through a bunch of these things. Again, having the objective answer key and then working on that part of your game.
All my are going to be on the hand reading side of things. So, we have the one for live players, that’s going to be the turquoise book. We have one fore 6-max players, and that’s gonna be online focused so there are HUD stats and all that kinda stuff. That’s the reddish, tangerine-ish book. And the new one is the blue book and that is for MTT players and it focuses on final tables so there are going to be things like ISM calculations, all the stuff you would need for final table situations that are gonna impact your win rates.So there are some push fold spots but then there’s also gonna be lots of situations that go post-flop because those are of course the ones that hand reading becomes super super important.
So, we’ve got a little bit of everything. No Matter what you play, there’s a workbook for ya, and if people want or need other workbooks, I can also consider making them but for the time being, I think those are the core 3 and you can find all those at RedChipPoker.com/work.
Zac: Cool. And we will link them all in the show notes as well. So, I imagine you have to get off of this podcast and go write another workbook.
James: No workbooks right now. Right now we’re finishing up the 1% and we’re very very close. We have a bunch of them prepped out for the pro membership that will be coming out monthly for the next little while, actually quite a long while. Very much looking forward to kinda showing that. And that’s one of those things that when used in tandem with the workbook, you can say, “okay, does my current line or strategy reflect poker’s 1% and actually use the 70% model correctly? And if not, am I doing that in an exploitative way or am I doing that in a way that leaves me open to exploitation?” But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there and we’ll talk more about the 1% later on.
Zac: Yeah, we’ll actually talk about it in a few more weeks. We’ve got an episode all about The 70% Model coming up with you.
Zac: So, until then, thanks for being on the podcast once again and I’ll see you next time!
James: Excellent! Take care! Thanks, Zac!