Updated on 09/18/2011 12:54AM

Ace poker theorist under fire from name big-game players


There's been a highly publicized divide within the game of baseball over the past decade or so. It pits the old-school, traditional-minded people within the game who believe in intangibles and intuition against the new-school executives who believe the quality of a player or team can be objectively measured by statistics. The debate was crystallized in Michael Lewis's best-seller "Moneyball," and it is still playing out today.

Baseball isn't the only game in which such a divide exists. The discussion in poker can be just as polarized, just as nasty. On one hand, you have the likes of Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, and Daniel Negreanu. The newer mentality is exemplified best by David Sklansky.

Sklansky is the world's most respected poker theorist and the author of 10 books, including his landmark, "The Theory of Poker." He advocates a well-reasoned, math-based approach to all poker topics, from calculating pot odds to reading your opponent. Sklansky's work - which I happen to think is brilliant - is controversial because he is essentially an outsider coming into the poker world and offering an expert opinion.

"When I first wrote poker books, I did have 3 percent as much experience as the professionals of the day. And I came up with a lot of ideas," he said. "I'm an expert thinker who can apply his thinking to various fields. It turned out that the one I picked to start with was poker. I'm good at analyzing things. But I've run into a lot of resistance because of the implied insult towards people I'm saying might be wrong."

There's no denying that Sklansky has been very successful as a poker player. He's had success in tournaments, cash games, and in televised tournaments against some of the biggest names in poker. His critics will tell you that he has a lot of nerve proclaiming himself to be the foremost authority on poker when he chooses to stay away from the biggest cash games. But to Sklansky, that's just not the right play.

"First of all, I do play high, " he said. "The big games are usually not worth playing because at best, when you walk into Bobby's room at the Bellagio, you usually see six players, one of whom maybe is a very talented amateur who would be able to make a living in smaller games who figures to lose maybe $5,000 an hour, which will be distributed among the other players who figure to make $1,000 an hour on average, with a standard deviation of maybe $100,000. When you're playing in smaller games, your standard deviation might be 10 times your hourly rate, and in the big games your standard deviation would be more like 100 times your hourly rate, which would mean you could play thousands of hours and still be behind. So to me, it's pretty silly. The reason I don't do it is because it's the incorrect play. Period."

Negreanu, a successful player in the game Sklansky describes above, takes serious issue with that.

"I would say that [Sklansky] doesn't have the passion or the heart," he said. "If you want to be the best at something, you have to challenge the best. There are two types of poker players: those that thrive to be the best and those who are happy to make a living. Sklansky definitely falls in that [second] category. What I do find offensive is the idea that it's the 'wrong play.' Because first of all, he has no experience playing in that game. He doesn't know how it is. For him to estimate how much of an edge one player might have over another in that game is pure guesswork. He doesn't understand how people get motivated and how they live their life, and to say that it's the 'wrong play' is insane.

"Sklansky has a difficult time convincing the rest of the poker world that he's an authority on the game. One of the reasons that he has a difficult time amongst the top players is the Doyle Brunsons and the Chip Reeses think that he couldn't beat them in a million years. They think, how can he be the authority when he never shows his face in this game?

"Sklansky's crutch is to say that it's the 'wrong play' to play so high. And that's a great excuse. But Doyle Brunson's approach is that the best player is the guy who brings home the most skins or some quote like that. Some country saying."

As in baseball, I feel caught in the middle of the debate between the old and the new. I have learned so much from reading David Sklansky's work that my gut feeling is to defend him. But I also want to side with Negreanu, and I really respect the idea that the best players feel a need to prove themselves at the highest levels.

In the end, there's no need to take sides. It all depends on what type of player you are and how good you are capable of becoming. For a guy like me, I'm going to learn a lot about poker from theory, because I'm a writer who doesn't have the talent or desire to play professionally. But as you rise up the ladder, I think the theory only takes you so far, and at some point is supplanted by whatever X-factor it is that guys like Negreanu, Reese, and Brunson have.

Just as a winning ballclub like the 2004 Red Sox was built by embracing a combination of the old ideas and the new ones, I think you can build a better poker game by first learning the theory and then letting instinct take over.

Peter Thomas Fornatale is co-author of "Six Secrets of Successful Bettors" (DRF Press). His new DRF Press book "Winning Secrets of Poker: Interviews with the Game's Best Players," is .