Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.Khalil Gibran
Poker strategy is evolving today faster than it has at any point in the past. Poker books as an educational medium have long since been replaced by videos and software as the fastest and most efficient way to improve your game and move up the stakes. The reason for this is quite simple – if there was a strategy that was working very well in today’s games, it would likely have been identified, widely adopted, studied and effectively countered before the book was even sent to print. Things are moving fast online, and my belief is that this will only continue into the future. You might find a generic poker strategy book published in 2019 that will give you decent strategic recommendations to beat your home game or local casino small stakes game. But in order to reach the top of the game and win online, we’re going to have to go a bit deeper.
But do not despair! Luckily there are some things in this world that don’t change – fundamental, timeless principles that are every bit as true now as when they were written, and will stay that way for many years to come. With this guide I plan on introducing the six books that I feel will show the best long term return on time invested for an aspiring poker player.
1. Thinking, Fast and Slow
Without a doubt, this is the book I have recommended to the most people in my life, by a very clear margin. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are universally regarded as the fathers of modern behavioral economics – the study of human decision making. This is not your typical garbage economics book which assumes everyone to be a perfectly rational agent and dances around the fact they clearly aren’t. Instead it looks at how people really behave, with a surprisingly large focus on how people approach gambles of different kinds and in different contexts. If you want to understand why different kinds of people play poker like they do, this is the single best place to start. You’ll learn about all the logical fallacies people fall victim to every day, people’s appetite for risk under different circumstances, as well as why you sometimes find it hard to think straight when things aren’t going you way at the tables. I’ve read this book cover to cover something like 4 times, and honestly it would probably do me good to start again. It’s something of a hard read, it’s very information dense, but for that reason I always find something new or something I’d forgotten. I can’t really recommend this book highly enough – just go get it!
If you want to understand why different kinds of people play poker like they do, this is the single best place to start.
2. Expert Heads Up No Limit Holdem Vol 1
There are a lot of terms in poker that are thrown around a lot, but that many players (including some top pros) have trouble articulating precisely. For example – what exactly is a Nash Equilibrium and how does that apply to poker? What exactly do we mean when we say Expected Value (EV)? What is an equity distribution and would does it matter? Will Tipton’s 2012 book, tagline “Optimal and Exploitative Strategies” and covers these subjects and others in massive detail with a view to applying and integrating these concepts into real poker games and real poker strategies. Tipton is a technician and something of a visionary with regards to the application of computer programming to the more easily solved poker games (specifically shortstack Heads Up). He is also one of very few poker strategy book authors who genuinely was a top online player. This is an excellent book if you want to nail down the theoretical bedrock upon which all of modern poker strategy is built.
3. Fooled by Randomness
I’m a huge fan of everything written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This is the first of a series of 5 books, titled ‘Incerto’, which were published over a seventeen year period from 2001 – 2018. He has an informal, conversational writing style and can come across as pretty arrogant, meaning he’s not really to everyone’s tastes. But if you can see past that, Taleb has an unbelievably sophisticated knowledge of risk taking and uncertainty in the real world which he begins to impart to the reader in this book. Disdainful of economists, academics, journalists and talking heads Taleb uses examples from his professional life as a trader to highlight how the role of luck is massively overlooked in business, the financial markets and more generally in life. He believes that time is the greatest test there is for any system and that survival should be the number one goal by a huge distance. For that reason, your grandmother is very likely to be smarter than the latest hot property on Wall St. Taleb’s stoic philosophy will help you focus only on what you can control, not take the swings of practical risk taking too seriously, and have more respect for the numerous strokes of good fortune which got you where you are today.
..unbelievably sophisticated knowledge of risk taking and uncertainty in the real world ..
4. The Mathematics of Poker
Speaking of strokes of good fortune – I consider it one of many lucky moments in my early poker career to have purchased the Mathematics of Poker as my second poker book ever… After Phil Hellmuth’s ‘Play Like the Pros’ *facepalm*.
Looking at the table of contents, there’s actually a lot of similarities between this book and Will Tipton’s, described earlier. However The Mathematics of Poker takes a broader view of poker games, drawing examples from lots of non-hold’em games like Stud and Razz. It also has a section that was priceless for me – Part IV on Risk. This section discusses at length the Kelly Criterion as it relates to bankroll management, providing a usable formula to help determine when to move up. I remember quite vividly sitting down and crunching the numbers to figure out when I could move up from 0.25c to $1 sit and go’s. I was extremely lucky to have learned about bankroll management so thoroughly before I’d made any substantial deposits online. Not that I could’ve really afforded any back then 😀
While some of the content is a little heavy, particularly some of the derivations are pretty difficult to follow, each section ends with a nice little summary with practical tips of how to construct ranges in different spots. There’s also some super practical content on betsizing, and introduction to ICM and some stuff about super mega deep stack play which I remember being interesting.
5. The Mental Game of Poker
No list of timeless poker books would be complete without Jarod Tendler’s 2011 classic. Aimed at more serious players, Tendler uses his experience as a professional golfer and psychologist, plus his friendship with legendary American grinder leatherass to give the first proper analysis of the stresses and strains of playing poker professionally. When I first read this book I remember being stunned at how accurately the author described the various states of mind you find yourself in while playing poker with a less than perfect mental game. He then guides you through the series of practical steps you can take to manage your emotions while playing, with another section dedicated to off-table work aimed at reducing your propensity to feel and be influenced by strong emotions while playing.
For newer grinder’s who’ve learned how to win and want to increase their bottom line, this is the perfect book. Plus improvements you make in this area will inevitably rub off into other areas of your life in a positive way. For me personally I noticed large benefits, particularly in relationships and in sports, once I started systematically working on my poker mental game.
6. Applications of No-Limit Hold’em
While I don’t really recommend this book anymore, I have to give Matthew Janda a massive shoutout for helping me along the path.
I was a huge fan of Matt’s content on the old deucescracked (or was it cardrunners?) video instruction site, long before he had a book deal. His EV calculations focus was really strong in the days before decent software, and I’d say watching his content was the first time I ever properly understood the concept of range and range construction. He introduced practical ways of enumerating a range and ensuring it had reasonable proportions of value hands and bluffs on each street. It was a real landmark in understanding for me, so naturally I preordered his book before it came out in 2013.
However, his methods of analysis have not stood the test of time. I first realised that Janda’s methods were flawed when it was pointed out (by one Mr OTB_RedBaron) that Janda always assumes the EV of checking a hand, in any situation, to be 0. This is clearly not true as sometimes we can check and win. While this didn’t totally invalidate his methods or principles of range construction, once solvers came out it became clear that play should be far less polarised and far more equity driven, especially on earlier streets.
I’d say this book could still be useful to someone struggling with the concept of range and wanting to better understand the principles of constructing a well balanced range, especially in river spots. But the truth in 2019 is your reading hours would be better spent on any other book in this list.
That’s going to wrap it up for my review of the best poker books out there in 2019. Let me know if you enjoyed (or hated) this article by leaving a comment, if you’d like to do me a favour then do share the link wherever you please.
While you’re waiting for your new books to arrive, why not check out Episode 1 of the BitB Cash Podcast which came out a little while ago?
GL out there!