Review: Poker's 1% by Ed Miller

Some good poker books are ones I'm glad I've read; others are ones I think my opponents would benefit from reading. Those categories don't always overlap: I got better by working to understand the examples from Mathematics of Poker, but I don't spend much time worrying that my opponents will have read it. Meanwhile, the various Harrington books were probably valuable to other players, but only the first tournament book affected my game much. Ed Miller's Poker's 1% fits both categories. I think I'm already a better player for having read it, and working through the book's suggested training regimen will certainly help much more. Meanwhile, I can easily think of dozens of friends and opponents whom I think would benefit even more than I have.

With that said, this is one of the most unusual poker books I've ever read, and working with it will for most readers require a leap of faith. The book can be read as an extended argument for structuring your thinking about poker in a certain way. Ed's approach is roughly this:

(1) Identify a property of ideal poker strategies: namely, that they obey certain principles about bluffing frequencies and street-to-street folding (and not-folding) frequencies;

(2) Estimate these frequencies with a combination of Mathematics of Poker-style theory, informal argument, and good old-fashioned guesswork (that's where the leap of faith needs to come);

(3) Explain how one goes about instantiating this strategy and identifying exceptions to it;

(4) Give lots of examples of the strategy.

The result might be Ed's best book, and that's saying something. It is, I think, his most epistemically explicit: he is admirably clear about what is deduction, what is guesswork, and what is approximation. And the book would have been much worse otherwise. Though Ed has obviously done his theoretical homework, which equally obviously informs his frequency recommendations, not much is proven. It is to Ed's credit that he makes it clear that, however theoretically motivated his recommendations are, only some of them are given airtight arguments. That doesn't stop Poker's 1% from being a very good book, although Ed's most motivated readers will want to read it in tandem with Mathematics of Poker in order to solidify their theoretical understanding of such subjects as street-to-street folding frequencies.

Much excellent work in mathematics and philosophy (and indeed every other subject with which I'm familiar) begins with a fairly simple, easily justified claim and gets as much mileage out of that claim as possible. This book can be read in the same way. It's informative and fun to let Ed begin with something every student of the game already believes--once you're in the pot, you can't give up too often--and draw out consequence after consequence of that claim. You probably know that "fit or fold" is a bad way to play, but Ed will show you just how bad it is, and how to take a broader and more useful view of "fitting" a board. You probably know that elite players look "hyper-aggressive" and "sticky," and you'll get a better sense of why they play that way. You probably know that when the board hasn't been particularly helpful to either player, both players have to fight for it, but Ed will help you figure out how much to fight, and how hard.

The examples Ed gives deserve careful study. They are thoroughly explained, usefully surprising, and accompanied by nice graphics. If you read the book you might be tempted to skip them to get on to the next surprising bit of general advice. Resist that temptation.

Although Poker's 1% has plenty to say about how to continue in a hand, it focuses more on how often to continue in a hand. I found myself wanting more material on check-calling vs. double-barreling, raising vs. calling, and so on. A book can only contain so much, though, and what Ed says on these subjects is more than enough to give me a nice extra advantage against my usual $2-5 and $5-10 opponents.

I imagine some of my opponents will get much better by reading this book, but others might get worse. I think this book will be widely misread, mostly by people who skim it once, never do the requisite study the book recommends, and interpret Ed as advocating maniacal play. Others will, I think, feel out of control at the table, not knowing when to replace basic methods of hand-reading with "frequency-based" considerations. Others will have trouble dividing up their "continuing" ranges (as I mentioned in the paragraph above). Still others face the risk of playing more big pots than they're used to and giving off tells in them (due to nerves and situation-specific inexperience).

Though readers will risk being led astray, careful ones will benefit. I agree with Ed that this book contains a basic plan for reorienting oneself to the game and adopting patterns of thought like those of the best players. Time and careful study will bring me to a more refined view of just how good Ed's various approximations are, of whether Ed does enough to describe exceptions to his various rules, and so on. Even now, however, it's clear that Ed has produced a unique, exciting, and thoroughly readable book that will reward its most careful students tremendously (much more than the $50 on the sticker). It might be the anti-Ace on the River: Barry Greenstein claimed that his book would help any player move up one level, and I suspect that the readers of Poker's 1% will--depending on their aptitude and the care with which they read and study--improve either not at all or a whole lot.

Review: Getting Things Done

It's been a week since I implemented the system David Allen outlines in Getting Things Done. It's been the most productive week I can remember, and I don't think that's just placebo effect. A central thesis of the book is that one does well to focus on "next actions" in one's projects. Whatever you want to do, figure out what the exact next actionable step in that project is. Then create an organizational structure supporting lists of those next actions. Do it properly, and you don't get stuck on projects, you don't neglect anything important, your file systems and calendar contain only what they ought to, and you are ready to spring into productive action in any situation where you might find yourself ready to work.

It's a simple but powerful idea. Allen focuses on the way in which it keeps your brain from doing something it's pretty bad at (remembering and retrieving all your projects and the tasks necessary for each) and frees it to do what it's good at (addressing a given task once you know what it is). I agree that much of Allen's system's value derives from that, but I wonder how much of the system's value comes simply from forcing you to spend more time thinking about what can be done, now, to concretely advance your plans. There are kinds of working-in-circles and self-deception that simply can't happen if you're following Allen's advice.

From the book's cover I wasn't expecting a work of philosophy, and while it's certainly not as incisive or intellectually nourishing as Epictetus's Encheiridion, it is a contribution to what we might call "applied philosophy of mind." Allen's craft is getting people to use their brains more effectively, and he is a thoughtful observer of human psychology (so, from the chapter on the long process of going through all your stuff to figure out what all your projects are: "Keep in mind that some potential anxiousness is going to surface as you make your stuff more conscious to you than it's been. Create whatever supports you need."). More often than I expected, discussions of paperclips and how to subdivide lists included quite general insights into cognitive functioning.

This isn't a motivational book in that it's dense with statements that are supposed to motivate you; it's a motivational book in that it's about how to improve your life given the nature of human motivation and cognition. On this subject I find myself returning to the David Foster Wallace's late work, especially The Pale King, which is also a book about what human psychology is like and how to live as well as possible given what is true about psychology. In some sense it's a fictional (and, yes, more profound) complement to Allen's book--both are about distraction and being able to focus completely on what's in the moment. Interestingly, Wallace's late work is also largely about the value of transcending boredom and (literally) finding value in whatever task is at hand, no matter how routine. The heroes of The Pale King would heartily approve of long attention spent on one's paperclips.

There's room for a course to be taught on the philosophy of the mundane. There's plenty of material in the ancient Greeks, though Wallace benefits greatly from being able to tailor his work to contemporary culture. There would be room in such a course for some notes on Getting Things Done: a book which, despite (and because of) its long discussions of, e.g., filing cabinets, has much to say not only on how to harness your cognition but what your cognition is like in the first place.