Friday, December 26, 2008

Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker

Tommy Angelo's 'Elements of Poker' (2007)I know I just said I was primed to read some non-pokery stuff, but let me share a quick review of another poker book I recently finished -- Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker (2007).

Had been looking forward to reading this one for some time now. And I’ll go ahead and admit I knew I was going to like Elements of Poker even before I started it.

I’d become somewhat familiar with Angelo’s writing (and overall outlook) during the last few months via his blog and website. I’d also heard his interview over on the Two Plus Two Pokercast a while back (the 8/18/08 episode), which I recommend highly to anyone interested in listening to thoughtful discussion about poker and/or getting to know Angelo. On top of that, I’d had a few folks recommend his book to me whose opinions I trust, including Tim Peters who reviewed Elements of Poker for Card Player back in February. (Read his review here.)

There were at least a couple of specific reasons why I knew I’d like Angelo’s book even before I started it. For one, I have read a lot of strategy books this year, perhaps two dozen or more. And, as anyone who has picked up one knows, while strategy books can be interesting and useful, they can also be pretty damned tedious.

Angelo’s book is most definitely not a strategy book per se, although he does have a few moments here and there where he talks about certain situations in ways that resemble straightforward strategic advice. But that really isn’t Angelo’s primary concern. Rather, he focuses more directly on describing and analyzing how poker players think -- both at the table and away from the table -- and then gives us some ideas about applying that understanding in beneficial ways.

All of which means just a glance at the table of contents listing the 144 “elements” covered by the book encouraged me that I was in for something a little more engaging than what one usually finds in a typical poker book these days.

I could see that some of the listed “elements” clearly focused on psychological issues, such as “Emotions,” “Fears,” “Hard Tilt,” “Soft Tilt,” and “Finger Tilt” (the latter specific to online play). Others appeared to concern practical matters with which I knew I personally wanted some help, such as “Quitting,” “Winning, Losing, and Breaking Even,” “The Chat Box,” “Focus,” and “Awareness.” I also saw quite a few “elements” listed which were highly suggestive (and intriguing) even if I had no idea what they’d be about, e.g., “Gobsmacked,” “Low-Hanging Fruit,” “Kuzzycan,” “Mum Poker,” “Fastrolling,” “Fantasy Poker,” “The Path of Leak Resistance,” “A Process of Illumination,” and so forth.

The other reason why I knew I’d like Angelo’s book is because of what I’m going to have to refer to as a decidedly “existentialist” bent to the man’s thinking. This is something I’d picked up on from the earlier pieces by him I’d read as well as the Two Plus Two interview, and which (now that I have read it I can say) also characterizes Elements of Poker. Let me explain.

By referring to Angelo (or his ideas) as “existentialist,” I don’t mean to suggest anything about Angelo he himself doesn’t intend to advance in his writings and coaching. Rather, I am trying simply to point out that Angelo does what many existentialist thinkers and writers tend to do, that is, he makes meaning of himself and the world around him, then presents his interpretation in a way that does not insist itself upon his readers (with the kind of absurd self-righteousness that sometimes seems to guide other poker authors).

Rather, Angelo seems instinctively to understand that we all make our own meaning. And while he might be able to guide his readers (or the “clients” he coaches), ultimately we’re all on our own.

There are several passages in the book that relate to what I’m trying to say here about Angelo, but I’ll just refer to a couple. Both come from the first, long section of “Universal Elements” that Angelo says apply to all forms of poker -- cash games, tournaments, internet poker, and “table poker” (what Angelo calls live games).

Back cover of 'Elements of Poker'One passage concerns “Streaks” and their significance. Angelo thought enough of this one to print it on the back of the book, actually. The passage begins “All of my good streaks and all of my bad streaks of every length and depth have had one thing in common. They did not exist in your mind. They only existed in my mind.”

From there, Angelo explains how “there is no inherent existence to streaks.” In other words, they are invented in the player’s mind -- inevitably, really -- as a way of making meaning out of his or her poker playing, even if “the truth is there is only the hand you are playing.” (And, of course, when it comes to that hand you are playing, you are in charge of deciding what it means.)

Another passage that illustrates this “existentialist” way of thinking about poker comes in a section called “The Object of the Game.” There is one object to poker -- i.e., to collect the most cabbage -- which tends to dominate our thinking about the game. However, there are many, many other objects to poker, too, such as those having to do with playing well (which, as we all know, doesn’t always translate perfectly into netting us the greatest profit).

As a suggestion for reorienting one’s focus in constructive ways, Angelo here tells us to consider occasionally “making up your own object of the game.” For example, one might enter a session with the object to avoid calling raises out of the big blind. Or one might make the object to avoid table talk (or chat). Again, the suggestion here relates back to the (existentialist) idea that we make our own meaning. An incredibly powerful idea, actually. (See my posts from last spring on Sartre’s Gambler -- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 -- if yr innersted in more on this topic.)

There’s a lot else to recommend about Elements of Poker, including his sense of humor, his uncanny ability to identify and describe various poker-related concepts, and his playful approach to language. I could list several examples of each, but this short quote from the section titled “Fluctuation” succinctly demonstrates all three: “At the poker table, we can’t help but keep track of ‘how we’re doing.’ We assign special meaning to tiny segments of our fluctuation. If you fluctuate down and it gets you down, you’re fluct. That’s why it’s best not to give a fluc.”

Like I said, I was predisposed to like this book before I even began it. And it did not disappoint. Nor will it when I read it again (which I already know I will). And I tend to think most readers of this blog would probably like the book as well. So let me suggest if someone happened to give you a gift card over on Amazon, you might consider using it to pick up a copy of Elements of Poker. You can also just head over to Angelo’s website and buy a copy (personally inscribed) over there.

Up to you, though. Because I know of this (and every post), you will make what you will.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I worked a short stint as PP editor, I came across some old articles of Tommy's. I immediately contacted him and said, "Dude, you gotta start writing again." Thankfully, he did. Thanks for the review.

12/28/2008 9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in the middle of this book right now (for the second time as I purchased it back in July), and he has a way of putting issues down so...differently...he makes more sense about playing the game of poker than the other books do...

Not saying the other books have no value, it's that Angelo's work now should be added to the others as valuable.

12/29/2008 12:45 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Glad you gave that nudge, Amy. You probably noticed to whom Angelo dedicates the book ("to all the people who have told me that I should write a book"). Sounds like you weren't the only one!

I know what you mean, PB.

12/29/2008 8:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks or the review Shamus, I've been meaning to get Tommys book for a while now but as usual just never got around to ordering it. So thanks to your link I've ordered one direct from Tommy so that he can sign it for me.
Happy New Year to you buddy!!

1/05/2009 12:15 PM  

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