Saturday, December 23, 2006

Harrington on Hold'em Volume III

I've only written one book review so far for this blog, but it seems like good fodder for some future posts. The thing is, I haven't actually read any poker books in the past two months; I've been reading some other non-fiction things recently and I find it hard to keep track of the ideas if I'm reading too many books at once. The most recent poker book I've read is Harrington on Holdem Volume III: The Workbook. Being the third book in a series and more just a series of problems than an actual book, this isn't the ideal book to start with, but it's still moderately fresh in my mind, so I'm going to start with it anyway.

Like the first two volumes of HoH, I found Volume III to be rather disappointing but still quite valuable. The book quizzes us on 50 tricky tournament hands, many of them plucked from actual hands played by Ivey, Negreanu, Hellmuth, Hansen, and others. We are put in the position of one player, and at each decision point we are given multiple choices. After the hand, Harrington provides discussion of his thoughts on each decision, and gives you a score depending on your answers.

Even without any of Harrington's discussion, I think this book would be worth the read. You could probably find these hands online without going to the trouble of getting the book, but Harrington does a nice job of selecting interesting hands, and it's convenient to have them set up in the format of a quiz. Sure, you don't really need a poker pro like Harrington to format hands like this for you, but in any case, I found it enlightening to compare my own decisions with those actually made by top players.

Harrington's discussion and scoring system, however, are often frustrating. This book (and indeed, the three volume set of books) had enormous potential. Harrington is a very cerebral player, which makes his style ideal for teaching. Many of the top pros seem to use skills that "can't be taught," or at least would probably be very difficult to teach. Harrington emphasizes a lot more explicit analysis of pot odds and hand reading. In my opinion, this is an excellent approach, and his books are at their best when he delves most deeply into these strategies. More often than not, however, Harrington's discussions fail to take advantage of the deep analytic abilities he possesses and occassionally displays. Instead, we get comments such as "you probably have the best hand, so you should call," advice which can easily be shown not to be universally sound. Indulge me in the following counter-example to this justification for calling:

Suppose I have TT and raise preflop. An opponent rereaises me all-in and I determine he has the following types of hands at these rates:

AA-JJ, 45% of the time (I am losing and will win only about 18% of the time)
TT-22, 5% of the time (I'm ahead and will about 81% of the time)
Two overcards like AJ or KQ, 45% of the time (I'm ahead and will win 57% of the time)
Bluff or one overcard 5% of the time (I'm ahead and will win about 73% of the time)

In this situation, I have the best hand 55% of the time, but I will win only 39.3% of the time. Even though I usually have the better hand (55% of the time), if my opponent's raise was twice the size of the pot or more, I do not have pot odds to call (and the volatility of calling would make calling that much worse). Nonetheless, Harrington is willing to put the idea "you have the best hand, so you should call" into his book. When Harrington passes such simplistic advice off as analysis, I feel rather cheated. I realize that not every situation justifies a detailed equity analysis, but that doesn't excuse him from trying to justify his opinions with clearly faulty logic. The danger here is that his readers will read "we probably have the best hand, so we should call" and think that this faulty logic applies universally. It doesn't, Harrington surely knows it doesn't, but he doesn't seem to care enough about his readers to avoid claiming that it does. As I recall, Harrington's three books abound with faulty justifications like this. My advice: if you read these books and Harrington makes a general strategy claim, don't believe it unless he justifies it.

The other thing that frustrated me was Harrington's scoring system. Each answer of a multiple choice is given a certain number of points. This is fine and good. The problem is that no effort is put into making the scores correlate with the quality of the decision. Often, in the discussion, he will express some difficulty in deciding between, say, choices A and B, not even considering C because it is clearly bad. Then he concludes that A is best, assigns that answer 4 points, but awards zero points to both B and C. I find myself thinking, "Come on now, Dan, you know choices B and C do not display equal levels of decision making. In your discussion you strongly considered B, while C is clearly a terrible choice! Surely they should not be awarded the same number of points! Why not give answer B 2 or 3 points?" Then in another hand, he will award 1 or 2 points for an alternate answer, but it is quite arbitrary when he decides to do this. The end result is that the point system and the ambitious "Categorizing Your Errors" section are rendered useless. I think these could have been effective features if Harrington had put more effort into the scoring system.

HoH3: The Workbook provides worthwhile opportunities to practice and analyze your play. Just don't take Harrington's pithy analysis too seriously, and don't bother using the book's scoring system to score your choices.

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