Review of Phil Hellmuth’s Play Poker Like the Pros

Love him or hate him, it’s clear Phil Hellmuth has a good understanding of poker. He’s mostly a tournament player, and I don’t know if he can beat the top ring games… but you’re not going to be playing in the top ring games, so no worries there. He can probably crush weak games, and those are the games you should be playing in.

Too bad that being a great poker player doesn’t make you a great poker teacher.

When I started writing this review, I was keeping in mind my early experiences with it, which were when I was just getting started in October 2004. (Unlike most, I wasn’t one of the many who was jumping on the hold’em bandwagon — in fact, hold’em wasn’t and still isn’t my favorite form of poker — it was just that it took until then until I could actually play poker for money. Gambling runs in my blood.) I had found it a nice, insightful little book, but over the next year I learned of its follies. Still, I thought it wasn’t that bad a book for a beginning player. But by the time I was starting to write the end of the review, I’ve come to accept the truth: this book is way below average in almost all respects. Poker for Dummies is a far better introductory text for the casual player, and this book doesn’t really suit any other purpose. It certainly won’t teach you how to play poker like the pros. Maybe it teaches you how to play poker like that annoying guy on your table who thinks he’s a pro, though…

First off, this book is only useful for complete beginners. Of course, you can be an expert at hold’em, but a complete beginner at, say, razz. You might think this book would help out in that area, and for the most part, you’d be wrong. For example, if you are already a good poker player and want to play razz in particular, the lowball section of Super/System would probably be a better choice… even though its razz subchapter is only a few pages long.

Let me tell you a bit about Phil’s approach. It’s something of a mixed bag. In some ways he’ll treat you like a dummy, for instance, he wants you to start off playing hold’em with only the top ten hands, which he orders from strongest to less strong as AA, KK, QQ, AK, AQ, JJ, TT, 99, 88, and 77. In other words, pair of sevens and above, plus AK and AQ. That’s not very many hands, and you’ll be an über rock. I also question the status of these as the top ten. For instance, Sklansky and Malmuth place AA as a Group 1 hand of course, but 77 as a Group 5 hand, ranked below hands such as AJ and KTs. I grant you that the group system is not suited to beginners, but it shows that calling 77 one of the “top ten hands” is certainly misleading. Hellmuth’s system may be a fine base on which to expand, and it can do OK in very low-limit games, but you can’t take it very seriously, even in those low-limit games. It is fine to play like this for a while in a small stakes game as a matter of discipline, which I have done on occasion, but you need to understand that’s all it is.

From there, he wants you to get into reading opponents. He goes on to describe the basic “animal types”: the mouse (tight/passive), the elephant (loose/passive), the jackal (loose/aggressive), the lion (tight/aggressive), and the eagle (top players). This is a decent treatise on the different kinds of players… but isn’t there some kind of inconsistency here? Phil is telling you to play only the top ten hands, but read your individual opponents! It’s good to learn to read opponents early on, but I question the value of teaching this to a complete beginner. Instead, what may be more useful is to teach him to observe the texture of the game as a whole. The poker student will want to play in loose, passive games, and it would be helpful for him to identify them and stay away from tight, aggressive games.

Limit hold’em
The hold’em sections are obviously what most people are going to read, so they’re the most critical sections of the book for most people. As I said before, he wants you to start off playing only pairs of sevens or higher, plus AK and AQ, and misleadingly calls these the “top ten hands”. He does expand on this later to include all pairs, suited aces, king-queen offsuit, and eventually even suited connectors, but never discusses hands like king-jack offsuit. King-jack is no monster, but if it gets folded around to you and you’re in late position, it’s certainly safe to raise with it. Hellmuth even ranks KQ offsuit below A2 suited. I rarely get to play suited aces these days, but then again I play middle-limit and shorthanded games, but KQ is generally a fairly strong hand in middle to late position. In a very loose game, it may not be so strong, but if a king flops without an ace, you’re probably not in a bad spot. He recommends a little too much raising with some of the weaker top ten hands. For instance, his advice would have you reraise with 77 even if a tight/aggressive player made it two bets. There are many cases where this is a bad idea no matter your opponents, and it would be better to either cold-call (if you think enough people will call) or fold (if not). The notion of position is also absent. Yes, it simplifies pre-flop play, but at what cost!

Hellmuth’s discussion of flop play also leaves some to be desired. For instance, if you flop a marginal hand, he suggests raising “to see where you are”. Often it is indeed correct to raise on a middle pair hand, but seeing where you are is just one reason and probably not the most important. If you have a lot of opponents on the flop, you probably don’t want to raise to see where you are with a marginal hand. You can already guess: if you have middle pair, you’re very probably trailing to top pair. If there are four or fewer players to the flop, I can see an argument for raising (and it will indeed often be correct), but the low-limit games he’s writing this section for will probably not be that tight. I think Phil is applying middle-limit and high-limit concepts to low-limit play a little too often.

Incidentally, there’s a little bit at the end where he talks about a guy who could fire up a game by capping every pot pre-flop. I think this is the only mildly entertaining bit in the book. Unfortunately, the tactic will probably backfire on you if you try it. It’s not that it isn’t a good idea… it’s that your opponents have to go through the trouble of noticing. That’s not very likely online, and in a small-stakes live game, your opponents will probably be bad enough without needing much further encouragement. If you still want to encourage them, though, read the writings of Mike Caro. If anybody can fire up a game, it’s him.

For a complete beginner, I would suggest “Hold’em Poker” by David Sklansky (but not “Hold’em Poker for Advanced Players”, which lives up to its title, or “Small Stakes Hold’em”, co-authored by Sklansky, which is still a more advanced text). I haven’t actually read it yet, since I was already advanced enough to not need it by the time I came across it, but I have enough faith in Sklansky’s writings that it will, at the very least, be better than this.

No-limit hold’em
The no-limit hold’em discussion chapter suffers from much the same problems. It also isn’t clear if it’s talking about cash games or tournaments, usually. There were also a few things that confused me when I was a newbie. For example, he recommends getting all your money in before the flop with AA and KK. What I didn’t realize when I read this book as somebody new to real-money poker was that this (usually) doesn’t mean put $50 into a $2 pot! He never discusses things like how much to bet in a given situation. The whole essence of no-limit poker, contrasted with limit, is being able to choose how much to bet! Certainly, if you need to explain the mechanics of the game, you need to discuss the basics of betting — not just how it’s done, but how much you should bet and why. A beginner’s text can’t hope to be comprehensive in that area, but it could at least have the standard recommendations of “raise 3 or 4 times the big blind before the flop” and “usually bet the size of the pot”.

For a beginner’s no-limit hold’em cash game text, I’d recommend “Mastering No-Limit Hold’em” by Russell Fox and Scott T. Harker. For a tournament text, I can’t give any recommendations yet, because the usual recommendations such as “Harrington on Hold’em” are a little too advanced for beginners, and I haven’t yet come across a good entry-level tournament text. There must be one, I just don’t know what it is yet. Whatever it is, it can’t be this chapter.

Other games
I’m not even going to bother reviewing the advice for the other games. Part of the reason is that I don’t understand the other games all that well. The second reason is that, with what I do know, I know the advice given tends to be as dubious as the advice given for hold’em. The third reason is this review is getting long enough, and the last reason is that I’m lazy and this review should have been handed in weeks ago. In any case, you’ll find nothing special, original, or even well-written.

Other chapters
After discussing individual games, we come across the chapter on internet poker. He blahblahs about his website and UltimateBet, then finally online poker “strategy”. The “strategy” is in quotation marks, because it comes down mostly to reading your opponents, and, in ten-handed games, playing the top ten hands. He goes so far as to say that if he could program a bot to play small-stakes poker online, he would program the top ten hands strategy. That would be silly. It probably would be slightly profitable, but it’s not optimal even for a bot. He then discusses five-handed strategy, where he finally recommends playing weaker offsuit hands like any two face cards. Beyond that, he isn’t too specific. He gives some heads-up theory as well, but it’s nothing too special. Yawn.

Then you get into the appendices, like a hank ranking chart, his “Champion of the Year” award, a useless list of prestigious poker tournaments, what it’s like to play in the WSOP, and a glossary which I’m not going to bother looking over since I already know that stuff anyway. Then we arrive at the best part… the end of the book!

Other problems
Phil doesn’t give very many example hands. The only way to really learn poker is by example. Theory is good, of course, but you won’t get it ingrained without examples. Well, it’s possible, but doing so is much more work than necessary. He does give a few example hands sometimes — but they’re from world-class games he participated in. This may be appropriate for a game like chess, where the right move isn’t dependent very much on your opponent. I think it’s not very appropriate for poker. They are not well-chosen examples that you might find in the works of David Sklansky or Bob Ciaffone. Even a small number of examples can be helpful if they are well-chosen, but these are almost incidental, apparently thrown in to flesh out the chapter. They are there to tell a story, not to instruct you. Poker stories can be entertaining and fun to read, and I plan to buy a copy of “Poker Wisdom of a Champion” by Doyle Brunson for that reason. But Phil is no Doyle Brunson or Amarillo Slim when it comes to storytelling. All the stories do is interrupt the flow — what little flow there is — of the book.

If you were to take the ratio of bad advice to good advice in this book, you wouldn’t be able to… because you cannot divide by zero. OK, I exaggerate, but the good advice is mired in a bog of mediocrity. This book makes neither a good textbook nor an entertaining read. It is not even anything in between. I once saw a message board thread somewhere where somebody asked about what might be a good brand of toilet paper, and the first response was a photo of this book’s cover. I think it fits.

Focus: 5/10
The book’s focus is a little too broad for what it is. It would need to be a bigger book to do a proper job.

Quality of advice: 3/10
Too muddled. There is good advice in here, but it’s waiting to break out from the mire.

Examples: 3/10
Nothing too interesting. They seem to be there more to tell a story than to illustrate a point.

Readability: 8/10
Pretty easy to read most of the time.

Appropriateness: 3/10
I’m not even sure what skill level this was originally meant to be targeted at. For beginners, he tries to teach a few concepts that are too advanced, specifically reading opponents. But intermediate players wouldn’t want to bother with most of what this book teaches.

Overall (not an average): 3/10
The low quality of advice plus the lack of good examples drags it down.

VERDICT: Just Say No.

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