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Poker Theory is Back in Style

When I first began exploring the nuances of poker in the late 1990’s the conversations were thought-provoking. There were different schools of thought, and theories were being tested constantly. As interesting as these theoretical discussions were they still did very little to the overall “in-game” strategies winning players used –basically in the year 2001 it was Tight/Aggressive or bust—with most of the theoretical work being done on opponents. One example of this was the now long-settled debate between Andy Morton and Mike Caro who were the progenitors of the “should you raise pre-flop” debate which led to talk of “schooling” and eventually to what became known as “Morton’s Theorem”.

As poker became more and more popular in the early and mid-2000’s the level of theoretical talk actually went down, while the strategic talk skyrocketed. With so many fish, and so much money to be made, there just wasn’t enough free-time, and the idea of having philosophical arguments about the game got pushed to the backburner. Strict X’s and O’s suddenly trumped theoretical talk on the forums, and the game of poker became closer to a math class than to a lecture in the philosophical studies department. You could see this shift on the poker forums, as well as in the poker books that were published.

Before the poker boom there weren’t all that many books to begin with, and many of them didn’t detail strategies (and most of the ones that did were focused on Limit Holdem and were just the same book written by a different author: starting hand chart, semi-bluffs, pot odds, etc), instead many of the books written before the boom were somewhere between poker theory and philosophy.

This changed during the poker boom, with the vast majority of poker books being “primers”, otherwise known as strategy guides. Authors would throw together the latest strategies in a palatable way, and bingo, you had yourself a poker book. Like theoretical discussions, these authors were interested in bating the game, not in understanding it on a deeper level – So it should come as no surprise that of the 200 or so poker books I have owned over the years the only ones I have kept were written pre-2003 and as you’ll soon see, post-2011ish –As far as “poker boom” books I felt were worth holding on to, they are Small Stakes Holdem, Mathematics of Poker, Ace on the River, The Tournament Poker Formula volume 1 and 2, and Kill Phil/Kill Everyone.

That being said, theory seems to have come back into fashion since the poker world experienced Black Friday –actually the trend seems to have started changing a bit before this. Perhaps the idle minds of out of work poker players sparked the resurgence in theoretical talk, but in the past couple of years poker books have once again started to be thought-provoking and interesting.

Between 2003 and 2010 if you asked me to recommend a poker book my answer (with some exceptions) would have been that it really doesn’t matter; they all pretty much say the same thing. Now there simply are too many books I would recommend to players. Poker authors are no longer some recent WSOP champion or the latest player on a hot streak, now we are seeing true students of the game putting their thoughts down on paper.

As a writer, and sometimes reviewer of poker books, I couldn’t be happier. In fact I have actually taken to soliciting certain authors for books I find interesting (something I truly hate doing and avoided for a very long time, and thankfully I get many sent to me already) because the quality is much higher now. It’s a good time to be a student of the game.

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