PZ 90: Sklansky Goes Bumhunting

sklansky on persuadeo.nl

Legendary poker theorist and writer David Sklansky joins us on the Zoo. We discuss Twoplustwo Publishing’s new book, Small Stakes Hold’em: Help Them Give You Their Money, an already controversial strategy work by David and his business partner Mason Malmuth.

Freshly published in January 2024, the new book focuses on adaptive play in the softest small-stakes games and against the absolutely worst players. “When I started to play these games,” David writes in the book’s introduction, “which are the large majority of poker games spread today, it was shocking at how badly many of the players played, and this included many opponents who were regulars in these games.

A book wasn’t far off from there, especially as Mason was already in the Vegas low-stakes scene and was seeing many of the same things; here’s his PZ interview. Early versions attracted attention on Twoplustwo thanks to some provocatively strange hands that were unsurprisingly misinterpreted; even Bart Hanson, king of live poker training, when correcting a forum statement about wide ranges, felt further compelled to drop some literalist outrage as well as scold Mason over a nitty drawing recommendation. On one hand, everything is fair game, and the examples were not perfectly representative, as David explains in our podcast. On the other, a little unfair given how many ideas Bart (and all of us) has cribbed from the old theorists – think of all those endless podcasts on set mining, implied odds, and effectively value betting that derive straight from Sklansky and Seidman. Ideas, especially in books, are best understood as questions to be discussed. Instead, we have social media, whose arc is short and bends toward conflict.

It definitely didn’t go past me that many of the experienced posters in the book’s forum thread didn’t seem to understand certain poker fundamental ideas. One recurrently loud poster kept challenging Sklansky on the expected value of a hand multiway, not understanding where EV comes from or how the game might differ from the “allowed” calls in a solver abstraction. Now what was interesting was that this player is a studied one, a student of the solves and the population data. He probably is quite the online threat. Yet when his conversation extended itself to why we open and to what size, he revealed only further misconceptions. The urge to assume prolific poker authors don’t have some slight idea about what they are doing is odd to say the least, and the ability of players to play in certain environments without knowing what is going on underneath is a fascinating surety.

These short interactions demonstrate an interesting leak in today’s poker education culture: we love the model and its outputs, while we are quickly losing track of the theory. The model is not theory; we improve theory from the model’s outputs, but the model is itself mute and is only possible because of theory. Consider how often smart players say to study the big picture, not every detail; what do you think that is really all about? Yet aspiring players immediately run home to check their lines against GTOW, the seductive application which has become as much of a soothing AI doll for regs as it is a strategic tool. Further, consider how often someone in your Discord starts a foolish statement with “in theory we should,” then goes on to refer to some obscure spot in a solve output. No, theory explains the data and is enhanced by the data; we can’t even get out of first gear when we talk so rashly and incorrectly about first things.

Small Stakes Hold’em: Help Them Give You Their Money is a book of theory and the attendant primitive math of proofs and samples and suggestions. It is often exploitative and so the examples can look ugly- yet how else would such a word and action perform? The elegant totality of GTO solutions is not replicated here. However, that doesn’t mean theory is not at work in every single spot. In fact, many of the hands are simply unmodeled spots that the reader is not used to seeing. At one point David gets impatient with me as I bridge the gap between his exploit and generally good play. When he the general speaks of GTO, he’s more focused on the big picture of what it is and what are its tell-tale effects; I’m the tired grinder and poker coach who needs to unite disparities into clear directives for myself and the platoon.

I find this book to be enjoyable, but you will need an open mind to have that experience. There is a great deal of poker irony in reading about doing some stuff exactly the way many of us learned to avoid; pot-builder anyone? Limp-fold sound good to you? I don’t want to do everything it says, even with bad players as the target, but in taking the ideas on, I get a better understanding of why. If you, on the other hand, are like the posters in the thread, if you need examples of absolutely replicable plays, as the posters or Bart want, you may not like it so much. There is a lot to read; its contradictions must be reconciled; its arithmetic must be tested.

Of course, there it is, another big picture: poker books are not out of fashion because you can’t learn from them, they are out of fashion because they are not content. Content has a play button. Content is the waking dream on tap. We are in the prime era of content because we are pinnacle consumers.

Books, on the other hand, perform more awkwardly than content. Books demand your full attention and worse, they unfairly demand that you wake up, all while their requisite quiet and solitude also put you to sleep. Books are difficult because they are storehouses of ideas, even storing wrong ideas that must still be dealt with. A book sits in front of you like a dusty ammunition box, one loaded with danger and pain to your mind. You let your books sit there, you let that ammo go unspent, because there are other buttons more safely pushed.

Just put on a poker vid or vlog, my dear shitreg, you deserve a nice, long break, don’t you? Yes, you’re just running bad, that’s it.

Our book today is merely a poker one, but the principle remains. We’re a silly industry and we think about silly things, but we’re still a part of a greater culture and its greater trends. I spent some of today in minor horror at the suggestions of our poker betters that they would simply back-channel solve the inconveniences of our annoying democratic processes; yet we openly wonder why we can’t have nice things in the greater society. In other words, even studying to beat the spots at your one-two game can be a stimulating if not enriching experience. The mind must work on something and should generally start where the stakes are small. Sklansky and Malmuth provide some guidance for doing exactly that, as usual.

Here’s the Poker Stories interview with David that I mention. Thanks for listening.

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