For the last few years, MIT has been offering courses in poker theory and now, for the first time, they’ve released a full set of lectures for free online. Unfortunately, having skimmed a few of the videos, it doesn’t seem to me that the course content is likely to make anyone a winning player in the modern poker world.
The course has been taught by different people over the years, but the semester which has been put online has an instructor by the name of Kevin Desmond. He says that he used to be an online grinder prior to Black Friday, but of course, living in the U.S., that’s not an option for him anymore. He doesn’t have any results in Hendon Mob either, although looking at his Twitter feed, he is at least still playing some live events, if only satellites to WSOP Circuit events.
As you might expect from someone who used to play a lot more than he does now, Desmond’s information seems rather out of date; in the first lecture, he expresses profound admiration for Dan Harrington and straightforward tight-aggressive poker. Harrington is a legend, of course, and his book Harrington on Hold’em is rightfully regarded as a classic; however, poker is a game of fashions, and times have changed dramatically. Straightforward TAG poker as advocated by Harrington – and Desmond – is ideally suited to exploiting the loose-passive players who were at one time common, but those calling stations are a dying breed.
Early in the first lecture, Desmond describes the four basic styles of poker, broken down along the usual tight-loose and passive-aggressive axes, but tells his class that TAG poker is the winning style, reluctantly admits that LAG can also be a winning style sometimes, and then states that a player can never win by being loose-passive, no matter what.
The reality is that the only surefire losing strategy is to be overly tight and passive, while the other three have roughly a rock-paper-scissors relationship: generally speaking, loose-aggressive play beats tight-aggressive, tight-aggressive beats loose-passive, and loose-passive beats loose-aggressive. There was a time when the population of a typical poker table consisted only of TAGs and calling stations, particularly in the early days of online play, where Desmond apparently gained his experience. In that environment, it’s certainly true that the TAGs are winning players and the calling stations are losers, but times have changed; as the fashion in poker has moved more and more towards aggressive play, calling down with marginal holdings has become an increasingly important part of contemporary strategy.
Now, it’s true that you have to walk before you can run, and the course does seem to be pitched at the complete poker novice. That being the case, there are probably worse ways to go about teaching poker than beginning with straightforward TAG play – it’s called ABC poker for a reason, after all. Still, it’s misleading in my opinion to tell the class – and now, online viewers – that simply learning the fundamentals of straightforward tight-aggressive play is enough to make someone even a slight winning player in 2015.
The most interesting lecture is the final one, “Decision Making,” which is a guest lecture by a legitimate tournament professional, Matt Hawrilenko, who won a WSOP bracelet back in 2009. Ironically, Hawrilenko goes to the opposite extreme from Desmond, advocating for a game-theoretically optimal approach to poker, walking the class through several “toy games” and working his way up to Kuhn Poker. His recommendation is against attempting to read opponents at all, describing that as “trying to do magic,” and advocating for taking a balanced approach at all times. His lecture is actually really interesting and useful for a more experienced audience, but while the GTO approach is good for avoiding being exploited by top-level players, it also isn’t ideal against a typical tournament table with a mixture of player styles and skill levels.
That’s not to say that the lectures are devoid of useful information; Desmond hits all the usual bases, explaining concepts like pot odds and equity calculations, ICM, preflop ranges and so forth. These are all things that have been better explained elsewhere, however. I think it’s great that MIT has a course in poker theory, and that they’re putting lectures for this and many other courses online. Despite the prestige of the MIT name, however, I don’t think I would recommend this series of lectures to a newcomer to the game. Understanding TAG poker may be an essential first step to becoming a winning player, but presenting it as a winning strategy in and of itself is something we should have stopped doing a decade ago.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.