Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What We Talk About When We Talk About Poker

What We Talk About When We Talk About PokerAbout ten days ago, a poster over on Two Plus Two decided to begin a new thread in the “Books and Publications” forums by quoting Mason Malmuth’s review of Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker. The review appears in the February 2009 issue of the online Two Plus Two Magazine.

I also recently reviewed Angelo’s book here on Hard-Boiled Poker, despite the book being published over a year ago. I only just got to it last December, and found it highly enjoyable and instructive. Call me a bandwagon guy, but I think it’s one of the best poker books I’ve read in a long while. Here’s my review, if you are interested.

Malmuth’s review of Elements of Poker is much less favorable than mine. He does credit Angelo for being “witty” (and, backhandedly, “cute”), and even calls “worthwhile” some of the strategy advice. Ultimately, though, Malmuth doesn’t see the book as having much value for beginning or intermediate players, and in the end concludes “this text is certainly not recommended, even as supplemental reading.”

The post sharing Malmuth’s review engendered a provocative discussion (I thought), with posters taking sides over the relative value of Elements of Poker, as well as (somewhat tentatively) debating the criteria by which Malmuth based his review. There also emerges what might be called a theoretical divide among the posters that roughly corresponds to the wildly differing positions represented by Malmuth and Angelo -- specifically with regard to each author’s approach to writing/publishing poker books.

Some posters were “disappointed” with Angelo’s book, finding it “overhyped and overrated,” ultimately echoing Malmuth in expressing their belief that reading the book yielded no practical benefits for most poker players. Others defended the book as being of immense help to poker players, especially those with some experience with the game and the many emotional/psychological ups & downs it produces.

One such poster, explaining why he liked Elements of Poker, says that in his view the book is not “a beginner’s guide to playing better poker,” as some appeared to have wanted to read. Rather, said the poster, he believes the book to be “a better player’s guide to being a better person, which will make you a better player as well.” Another poster less specifically praised Angelo’s book as being “much more real than anything published before” -- ostensibly pointing out how the author’s voice manages to connect with the reader more effectively than generally happens with most poker writing.

Still another poster made what I thought was an especially interesting distinction by saying “Tommy Angelo writes poker LITERATURE. Mason writes stiff, clumsily worded cookie-cutter advice.” I’m actually one of those who doesn’t necessarily think Malmuth’s style is “clumsily worded” -- in fact, while it isn’t always flawless, it is for the most part quite clear and precise.

But I think I get what the poster is saying. There is most certainly a more obvious “literary” sensibility present in Elements of Poker than one finds in most poker books (including those Malmuth has written or co-written). And some of us happen to think literary writing and/or modes of expression have something to offer us, too.

Eventually, both Angelo and Malmuth join in the discussion, with the author of Elements of Poker demonstrating humility and graciousness in response to the praises and criticisms directed toward his book, and the owner of Two Plus Two continuing to press his case to devalue the book. (There’s also a brief detour in there where Malmuth appears to be explaining how comedy works -- and, not surprisingly, implying that Angelo fails to be humorous, too.)

The conversation turned toward the subject of editing, and couple of days ago Angelo supplied a bit of background info regarding the editing process for Elements of Poker, prompting Malmuth to fire a tangential (and personal) shot at one of the book’s editors. What had been a provocative, enlightening discussion that pointed up a number of key theoretical issues regarding poker writing and its purposes rapidly derailed.

Malmuth shuts off another debateFinally a poster of the Malmuth camp summed up the thread to that point by saying “Mason did not like the EOP. Most of the posters liked the book. I am not sure that there is more to discuss.” Malmuth agreed, and locked the thread.

Actually, the thread itself, both in the course it took & the way it prematurely ended, well exemplifies what for me is the fundamental distinction between Malmuth and Angelo’s outlooks -- on poker, books, life, what have you.

The former seeks concrete, tangible, readily quantifiable answers to all of life’s problems, and, importantly, believes such answers can be found to all questions worth asking. As a result, the idea of “dialogue” or any sort of inquiry without a specific goal -- the achievement of which unmistakably signals its conclusion -- is to be roundly dismissed as an utter waste of time.

The latter also seeks answers, but additionally values that which is abstract, intangible, and not-so-readily quantifiable. The latter outlook also understands that there are, in fact, some questions worth asking for which there are no single, unambiguous answers. Thus, a premium is placed on the idea of “dialogue” or keeping the conversation going, since value is to be had in the exchange of ideas (even if such value is hard to compute). In fact, rather than wasting one’s time (or other resources), such inquiry is the best possible use of it.

As the poster “jlocdog” (one of those who likes Elements of Poker) put it, Angelo “has a knack for not putting closure on any concepts or ideas he talks about so as to keep you thinking about them and trying to expound on them within your own game/life.” Meanwhile, Malmuth most decidedly has a knack for closing off discussions whenever possible. This had been an interesting thread with a number of intelligent, serious posters contributing (not always so easy to find on 2+2). But as soon as an apparent impasse had been identified, Malmuth decided there was nothing more to discuss.

I guess another, more cynical way of describing the difference between the two thinkers would be to say that while Angelo teaches, Malmuth preaches. The teacher expects you to ask questions, to challenge assumptions, to think. The preacher expects you to sit quietly in the pew. And believe.

Not saying the preacher doesn’t have something to offer us. But you better understand that with this one you’re not expected to raise your hand and ask questions or talk back.

When he’s finished, however, you may shake his hand. On the way out.

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Blogger Shrike said...

Thought-provoking post (and 2+2 thread). As an EoP devotee, I find myself much preferring the company of the teacher to that of the preacher.


2/11/2009 1:36 PM  
Blogger Gnome said...

Great post. I plan to touch on this topic as well in an upcoming post.
Malmuth's attitude really angers me.

2/11/2009 4:40 PM  
Blogger joxum said...

Tommy Angelo discusses the front cover of his book in his latest post:

"...The various reds are like blood — flowing blood, and clotted blood. The middle, with the smooth loopy-shaped thingies, is like a tilt-prone poker player in mid-development, learning to smooth out the edges and find some tranquility."

I'm buying that book.


2/11/2009 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, kid, keep it up, really enjoying the blog.

It should be pointed out that Mason's reviews of 2+2 materials unfailingly seek out the positive, while his appraisals of non-2+2 consistently seek to devalue the product or the message it sends.

2/11/2009 5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I don't think Mason's reviews of non 2+2 books are always negative he always finds something to disagree with. As an example he gave the original Poker Tournament Formula a generally positive review, but included a few caveats.

To some degree that should be expected. What I find more obnoxious is his pattern of claiming anything of value in a non 2+2 product is saying something that he, Sklansky, or some other 2+2 author said years ago. Apparently everything that can or should be written about poker has already been done by 2+2.


2/12/2009 5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's pretty clear. If it didn't come from Mason, it's bad. And if Mason has a beef with someone, it clouds his judgment of what is "acceptable."

I've learned plenty from 2+2, but the funny thing is, aside from HEFAP or TOP, I've learned more from the other authors. At least they had the foresight to add different voices.

Personally, I'm awaiting Ed Miller's new book on NL holdem...should be interesting what Mason and company feel about that work.

2/13/2009 4:59 PM  
Blogger OhCaptain said...

I've very much enjoyed the book so far. I was reading that on the trip to Vegas for the winter gathering. I don't think it's really a good book for beginners but rather people who've been on a few tours, so to speak.

Much like shrike, I prefer the teacher to the preacher. Of course, we both like pinball arcades too.

2/18/2009 1:32 AM  
Blogger Mr Subliminal said...

Mason fluct up, again.

[X] Excellent post

[X] Excellent blog

2/22/2009 3:11 AM  
Blogger The Vegas Flea said...

I dismiss anything from 2+2.

5/05/2009 7:04 PM  

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