December 23, 2010

Is Phil Illogical, Or Merely Philological?—
A Review of Don't Listen to Phil Hellmuth

This appeal presents the question of whether, during a refereeship, a senior judgment lienholder may redeem property from a junior judgment creditor who purchased the debtor's property at an execution sale. To answer this question we must wade into the murky waters of our state's statutory redemption provisions, which our supreme court long ago described as “philological monstrosities, illustrating how successfully ideas may be obscured by language.” Goode v. Cummings, 35 Iowa 67, 69 (1872).  More than a century later, the court aptly observed, “The passage of time has not made the provisions any clearer.”  Blue v. Oehlert, 331 N.W.2d 112, 113 (Iowa 1983).

Estate of Lyon v. Heemstra, File No. 0-800 / 10-0390 (Iowa Ct. App. Dec. 22, 2010).*

A new poker strategy book hit the market earlier this month, with the provocative title, Don't Listen to Phil Hellmuth.  The authors of the book are Dusty "Leatherass" Schmidt and Paul "Giantbuddha" Hoppe, two well-established and well-respected online poker players with some solid prior poker writing to their credit.  The book is currently available online in an E-Book (.pdf) format, with a print version due for release and shipping in early January.  The book is rather pricey ($49.99 for either version, or $59.99 for both versions), so before you shell out the price of a nice steak at CarneVino, it's probably worth taking a look under the hood.

The basic premise of the book is that there are quite a number of poker strategy tips that have been widely disseminated in the poker community and are generally accepted as correct by many poker players.  The authors, however, contend that many of these strategies are misleading or mistaken, at least in the "modern" version of the game:

These anointed ones [Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, et al] made their bones at a period in poker that was much like golf in 1910, when you could win the U. S. Open shooting 20 over par while drunk on the back nine.  Even so, poker books, DVDs and announcing gigs followed for these guys, all proffering instruction that might not have been that good in the first place and hasn't really changed in seven years.  Today they are offering commentary on a game that has moved on without them.

Listening to their advice today, we feel like we're hearing Lee Iacocca profess that his 1988 K-cars remain superior to modern-day models with front-wheel drive and computerassisted design.  Germs of advice that were either misguided to begin with, or were OK in small doses but not large ones, have metastasized into bloated edicts that never deserved to be sacred.  Like perfume, a little bit of this advice was fine, but too much of it is odorous.

—"Don't Listen to Phil Hellmuth", Introduction, pp. X-XI (2010).

The book is divided into 50 short chapters (example here), each of which analyses a particular poker strategy aphorism (all related, unsurprisingly, to Hold 'Em).  The chapter topics are taken from common poker advice delivered by poker pros, poker TV personalities, and poker writers, including many common chestnuts such as:
  • Punish the Limpers!
  • Calling Is Weak
  • Raise to Find Out Where You Stand
  • Your Bluff Should Tell a Story
  • "The Key to No Limit Hold 'Em Is to Put a Man to a Decision for All His Chips"
The authors spend five to ten pages discussing each point, adding nuance and qualifiers to make the advice more relevant and useful in modern poker, while debunking the application of the concept as a "one-size fits all" rule to be rigidly followed in most or all situations. The discussion is clearly aimed at a player who has sufficient experience with the game to be thinking about strategy concepts such as when to check-raise.  Readers are presumed to have knowledge of basic poker lingo (e.g., "UTG / BB / SB", "15bb / 15 blinds", "effective stacks", "float").  However, the writing style is polished and direct, making for smooth reading and a logical, easy to follow presentation of the point being analyzed.  Each chapter also uses one or more examples of representative hands to illustrate the point being discussed; an additional 25 poker hands are included at the end of the book in a separate section to reinforce the concepts discussed earlier in the book.  The authors even work in some dry humor from time to time, including this gem from a discussion of suited connectors:

Oddly enough, your best chance of getting paid is to flop a hint of a draw, call as a float, then catch runner-runner to make a straight or flush.  Just like in the porn industry, you need to backdoor it if you really want to get paid.

—"Don't Listen to Phil Hellmuth", Ch. 13, p. 58 (2010).

Now I suppose one could quibble a bit with the underlying premise of the book that Phil Hellmuth, et al., are giving out terrible poker advice.  After all, I doubt most of the people credited with popularizing each piece of advice intended it to be taken as a hard and fast rule.  For example, do the authors really believe that Phil Hellmuth believes that players with top pair should always "raise to find out where you are"?  But in many ways, regardless of the intent of the poker stars giving the advice under discussion, the authors are correct that many poker players do often take these aphorisms literally, misunderstanding the underlying concept, and instead misusing the advice to the detriment of their bankrolls.  So the conceit of attacking the advice given by poker pros is a handy vehicle for delivering some sophisticated "it depends" analysis of common poker concepts.

This book is not for beginners, who will find themselves in over their heads with much of the sophisticated discussion.  Likewise, accomplished professional or semi-pro players may find little new in the material.  But for the serious recreational player, there is a significant amount of thought-provoking analysis that will be valuable food for thought in examining one's style of play, enabling players to identify leaks and add refinement to standard poker plays.  Think of this book as the 2+2 poker strategy forums, with an English degree and without the catty junior high taunting.

For me, this book is a more modern version of Sklansky and Miller's No Limit Hold 'Em: Theory and Practice.  Both books offer detailed analysis of various points of poker play, divided by concept.  Prior to a poker session, I often take out Sklansky's book and read two or three concepts, and try to focus on those points during my session.  Don't Listen to Phil Hellmuth will be equally useful in providing me this kind of "poker tip of the day" material, but with a more up to date analysis which takes into account how modern players think about the game.

Don't Listen to Phil Hellmuth is a solid, modern addition to the poker strategy literature. For the cost of a continuation bet or two, this book is a good investment for most serious recreational players to make to improve their game, an investment which should pay dividends in spades.


* The Estate of Lyon decision is the latest chapter in a long-running Iowa legal drama.  Back in 2003, Heemstra and Lyon were two central Iowa farmers who developed a feud over cattle grazing on a piece of property.  One day, the feud turned deadly, and Heemstra murdered Lyon and threw his body into a dry well.  Heemstra was convicted of murder, which was later overturned on appeal; he was convicted of manslaughter after retrial.  This appeal decision arose out of one of the civil cases brought by Lyon's estate for wrongful death damages.  In shorthand for the non-lawyer types, Lyon's estate and widow claimed that Heemstra and his wife had fraudulently transferred assets into various family trusts in an attempt to avoid paying damages (roughly $5.7 million plus interest).  In this particular appeal, the court was looking at whether Heemstra's trust could redeem property seized by Lyon's estate to satisfy the judgment.  The veritable maze of judgments, liens, executions, levies, transfers, sales, and attendant legal pleadings would give a law school professor a week of lecture material.

Also, in an interesting twist, the author of the opinion is Judge Richard Doyle, for whom I clerked back in the early 90s while he was an attorney in private practice.  Judge Doyle is an incredibly smart man with a sparkling wit, who is the epitome of a great judge.  I pity him the headache he had to have suffered trying to untangle the web of transactions while simultaneously interpreting and applying some arcane statutes.


  1. tl;dr yet. Pop 'em on the river. Also: First!

  2. Pfft. You know I feel like, by living in greater Boston, that I'm constantly out of position with respect to the drinking habits of my fellow Americans. But, long story short (too late!) pour me either one!

  3. "Prior to a poker session, I often take out Sklansky's book and read two or three concepts, and try to focus on those points during my session."

    This explains so much! When I've played with you, it has been right after you have reviewed chapter 3 ("Playing the 3-6 Offsuit for Fun and Profit"), chapter 8 ("Drawing Dead: How to Get Your Money In"), chapter 12 ("Misreading Opponents--Anybody Can Do It"), and chapter 19 ("Advanced Spewing").

  4. @ Rakewell:

    Regrettably, last night I read your book on "Playing Deuce-Four for Mega-Profits" before a session at the Meadows. Fortunately, I also read Sklansky's chapter on "Folding to Old Ladies Who Make Monster Raises". Let's just say a flop of A-4-2 rainbow looks great for the Deuce-Four, until you get check-raised by a set of Fours.

  5. 5 4's in that deck?

  6. @ Anon (12/23/2010):

    The number of the counting shall be four. Five is right out.

    (I had 4-2, older lady had 4-4, board was A-4-2 ... we can bring in the Count from Sesame Street for the rest, if need be.)

  7. You set him up, he tripped up, misreading it as trip fours instead of a set of fours.



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