There is a big difference between what's typical human behavior and what is called for to play poker at a high level. There aren't a lot of people for whom maximizing their expectation in poker games comes naturally. Human beings are social animals who are used to trying to get along. Our instincts are to feed our basic and immediate needs. Playing winning poker, on the other hand, is about ruthlessly pushing our edges, waiting patiently for the right moment to strike, and taking full advantage of any weaknesses exhibited by our opponents. For all but the least skilled poker players, I believe one could argue that the primary difference between winning and losing is that the winners have the discipline to suppress their urges and make the plays that gain money, not those that feel good.
If a poker player wants to transition from a losing player to a winner the first two steps they need to take are: (1) admit that they're making bad decisions, and (2) understand why it is that they're not making the plays that winning players make. Poker Winners Are Different focuses on the issues involved in this second step in a no-nonsense, "tough love" style that has become almost a trademark for Schoonmaker. The book is an exhaustive catalogue of the things that poker players should know better than to do along with an explanation of the reasons we find it difficult to break out of our bad habits.
As far as I know, I have yet to meet the poker player who is not a victim of at least several of the faults that Schoonmaker describes. This includes people who are long-term winners and some who are stars of the poker world. Does anyone spend as much time away from the table studying the game as they should? How many people really probe for as much information as they possibly can, even if it takes them outside of their comfort zone? Is there anyone playing the game that couldn't benefit from being more accepting of the pots and sessions they lose? Performing these sorts of self-examinations is as important to the winning poker player as is studying strategy, and I believe that Poker Winners Are Different is the best single book I've read on improving a player's mental approach to the game.
Despite the fact that I really like this book and recommend it to any poker player who wants to improve his results, it's not perfect. One danger with books on psychology is that the author has first hand experience with only one brain. Consequently, it's always possible for an author to believe that his experience can be applied more generally than it really should. There are a couple of cases in this book where I believe that Schoonmaker over generalizes poker player behavior, a criticism I've had of his previous two books as well. I should point out, though, that there are fewer instances of this in the second half of Poker Winners Are Different than in the first half, and I can point to far fewer cases of this in Schoonmaker's current book than in his previous two.
Another potential failing is that despite the excellent job Schoonmaker does in identifying the blocks we put up that prevent us from playing our best poker, he commits far fewer pages toward telling the readers how they could overcome these issues. While there are some suggestions scattered among the 23 chapters that set up the problem, there is only one chapter and one appendix (Appendix C, which should not be considered to be optional reading) on addressing player shortcomings. That's not to say that this book isn't valuable. As they say, admitting that one has problems (and identifying precisely those problems) is the most important step in addressing them.
I believe that in many ways Poker Winners Are Different is the full realization of what Schoonmaker was trying to accomplish in his previous two books, Your Worst Poker Enemy and Your Best Poker Friend. It seems to me that having already written those two volumes, he came to understand the subject of those two books in a more profound way, one that he has now communicated to us. I don't mean to imply that the previous two books aren't any good or are now not worth reading. I think they still are, but in light of Schoonmaker's latest work, I would now view them as supplemental reading expanding on some of the ideas in Poker Winners Are Different.
In any case, I believe there can be no doubt that Poker Winners Are Different represents Schoonmaker's best work on poker psychology to date, and in my opinion, the overall best book on the subject. If poker players were to read this book and conclude that they didn't benefit from it, I think it would be far more likely that they're in denial about how they approach the game than that their approach to poker was so advanced that they couldn't benefit from its ideas. I strongly recommend that any poker player who wants to improve their results take a break from studying strategy long enough to read this book. I believe that if they approach this material honestly, they will be rewarded.
Daniel Negreanu, Dan Harrington, Chris Ferguson, T.J. Cloutier: these players have had astounding poker tournament success. Have you ever wondered what it is that separates the way in which these players approach the game from the rest of us? This has occurred to Warwick Dunnett, so he decided to ask these people, and several others, about the subject. Their responses are chronicled in Poker Wizards.
Besides the four poker celebrities listed above, Dunnett also speaks to Marcel Luske, Kathy Liebert, Mike Sexton, and Mel Judah, all highly successful players with something worthwhile to say on the topic of poker. After Dunnett chronicles the thoughts of these players, the book finishes with an interview with non-verbal communication expert, Marc Salem, along with some concluding thoughts by the author.
Through the questions Dunnett asks, the book focuses on the poker game that dominates the public consciousness, no-limit Texas hold 'em, especially on tournament play. This makes sense, as it's the game that garners the most attention these days, but it's kind of a shame to not ask players such as Ferguson, Sexton, and Judah about other games, such as 7-card stud and eight-or-better stud, especially since they've had considerable success playing them. However, since we've got only about 30 pages for each player, a restriction in the scope of each interview seems entirely reasonable.
The author is asking each player questions off of the same, or at least a very similar, script. Typically the topics include general tournament strategy, psychological issues, tells, money management, and how that particular player approaches certain specific starting hands. I have to say that I wasn't all that impressed with the depth of the questions. None of them were the sort that I would expect to evoke a truly profound answer in the subject. Moreover, by being asked the same questions, we wind up with a great deal of repetition from one professional player to the next. After all, how much variation would we expect in how they approach a hand such as AK offsuit pre-flop?
This doesn't mean that there isn't insight to be gained from this book, but I believe one has to look a little more carefully to find it. In my opinion the most interesting aspects to the book are where and how the various interview subject disagree with each other. This is often due to a contrast in styles. Harrington and Ferguson seem to take a highly analytical approach to poker, while Luske, Negreanu, and Cloutier seem to consider "playing the player" to be of paramount importance. Judah and Cloutier seem to favor a conservative approach, while Negreanu and Luske are willing to play more hands. These differences manifest themselves between players along numerous different axes.
Despite the differing styles, the majority of the time these successful players largely agree on how to approach poker situations, as one would expect. When it comes to the differences, the author seems to chalk that up to the ability to succeed playing poker with different styles. I have a different perspective. On occasion what some of the players say contradict each other, and occasionally one of the subjects will even say something that's largely inconsistent with what they've already said. I interpret this to mean that even among very successful poker players, there isn't a widespread agreement of what optimal poker play even looks like. Of course, as long as they're playing against opponents who play even worse than they do, these players can maintain a considerable edge.
Beginning players may find some of the strategic insights to be interesting, and intermediate or advanced players may find value in comparing and contrasting the styles of different players, so the book certainly has some value to a select audience. The interview with Marc Salem is interesting, and he provides a perspective that is at least somewhat different from those we get from other books on tells. However, there isn't a lot of deep insight here, and most of what we read that would be useful to beginners is repeated by multiple players rather than expanded by any one authority. I liked the book, but I didn't love it.
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