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.

The economics of poker: current events

Two small poker notes: First, I've been asked about the recent Borgata tournament that was cancelled because they found fake chips in it. This incident is interesting to me largely because I've long believed that we're in for a rash of cheating incidents as our collective memory of cheating and knowledge of poker security fades. Wherever there is money there are people trying to steal it. Many players (and staff) don't know how to protect the game, and I think we're collectively out of equilibrium. In five years I think we'll see a little more security diligence and I think we'll be better off for it. Keep in mind, of course, that this happened at one of the best-staffed poker rooms in the world.

What to do with the 27 remaining players at the Borgata is a difficult question--it depends heavily, I think, on what we learn about the extent of the cheating. The more disruptive the fake chips were to the tournament, the less sensitive the eventual resolution should be to the current chip counts.

What to do more generally is to be more diligent about chip sets and chip security in general. The World Series of Poker does not keep the ratio of the starting stack to the buy-in constant--in the Little One for One Drop, for example, you get 4,000 chips for your $1,000 (plus rake). I also remember the final tables of shootouts beginning with equal stacks much larger than the average stacks the players had won the previous day. While this sort of security worry is somewhat mitigated in this context--you can count the chips at the end of the day, and there are only a few suspects if any have gone missing--it is very dangerous in general to put millions of devalued chips in play at the WSOP.

Second, Lee Jones has recently written that tournament poker players ought to dress better, and that we stand to make big money in sponsorships and added money if we do. Lee is an awesome and insightful guy, and I imagine that there would indeed be more money in poker tournaments if final tables looked snazzier.

I disagree, though, that players would see much of that money. It is a fundamental economic lesson that such influxes of money are not divided equally but captured by those most able to capture it. Here, even though there would be money coming in to poker, it's the tournament hosts who would be able to capture it. Way back in the day--2003 or so--I remember Howard Lederer predicting that there would be lots of added money in poker tournaments because the game was booming. Eventually, players realized some nice gains: we saw satellites with some overlay and we had some nice inducements to wear poker site patches. The vast majority of the money that came into tournament poker from sponsors, however, was captured by tournament hosts. This should not have surprised the economically literate.

One possible equilibrium here is for tournament hosts to offer modest inducements for players to commit to dressing well if they make a final table, for sponsorship money to increase a bit, and for the hosts (and perhaps a few famous players) to pocket the vast majority of that sponsorship money. The more likely equilibrium is for the status quo to persist. Lee might be right that this would be good for poker, but I disagree that players stand to gain much.