Poker Book Club #2: Jaime Staples on The Mathematics of Poker

Jaime Staples
Posted on: March 19, 2024 11:35 PDT

The 2024 Poker Book Club continues and Jaime will bring you his thoughts on each book here, but it’s never too late to join the club yourself.

Each book will have its own thread on Discord, where you can read and discuss with others. You can read as much or as little as you want - it’s the taking part that counts - and the community is growing all the time. Get involved here. The next book is The Truth Detective by Alex O'Brien.

Book #2: The Mathematics of Poker - Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman

The Poker Book Club continued in February taking on a seminal work in the game - a tough one, the legendary The Mathematics of Poker by Bill Chen (pictured above) and Jerrod Ankenman.

And it was… a failure. None of us finished the book, however we learned a lot along the way.

I think this experience can be considered an inspectual read for those of us that attempted it. That’s one of the four types of reading that is outlined by Mortimer J. Adler in his classic How to Read a Book. We got the lay of the land for this book and know where to go when we dive back in, we know what will be required of us

So, what was our problem? I think it’s twofold:

1. The schedule of setting out to complete this book in one month was far too fast. Even allocating an hour a day, it’s not enough time to really grasp what you need to unless you have a mathematics background. The next time I give it a go, it will be at a pace of one chapter per week! This makes it much more doable to fully grasp and practice each section.

2. The subject matter is difficult, and builds off of itself. So, if you do not fully understand one chapter, you will start tripping up even more later on. The book will even reference some past formulas from other chapters periodically. So, you need to know your stuff well! Check out this sample image of one typical half page:

Making optimal poker decisions

What’s the book about? Well, it’s obviously about mathematics. The main structure of TheMathematics of Poker is looking at toy games to learn things about the structure of different poker-like games, trying to understand some of the engine that drives optimal poker decisions.

For example, let's say we have a range of hands made up of 50% nuts and 50% bluffs. Our opponent has only hands that can beat bluffs, aka bluffcatchers. Our toy game is on the river. We can decide to bet or check closing the action. We have 100 chips left and our opponent has 100 chips left with 100 chips left in the middle. What is the optimal strategy?

This is the sort of thing we spend time learning how to do in the book. Determine our optimal bet size and bluff-to-value ratio in these simplified scenarios. It’s not something we can do on pen and paper while we play, but through understanding how to come to an optimal conclusion at home, we will strengthen our operating understanding of the game and perhaps do some things better than the other people we are playing against.

Who is this book for?

Do I recommend this book? If you are a poker professional or lifer, yeah. It’s challenging and is a bit of a kick in the face to try to read because if you are anything like me, you have a hodgepodge of mathematics mixed with pragmatic rules of thumb and experience, all jumbled together to create a general skillset. So, it’s embarrassing to get stuck on some of this pure mathematics, but I think it’s worth it to learn. I am committed to it myself. It’s what we do! We should probably know!

If you are a beginner to the game, don't try this one unless you are a mathematics person naturally.

And everyone in between, it’s a maybe read. Probably start with some of the other mathematics texts we are taking on this year like Applications of No Limit Hold'em by MatthewJanda, or GTO Poker Simplified by Dara O’Kearney and BarryCarter. I think that will be a better way to get the lay of the land.

I want to offer a big thanks to Jerrod Ankenman, one of the authors, who actually hung out in the Discord during this group read. He was always there to help answer questions whenever they came up. That’s super cool of him, thank you! And if anyone wants to join me on my second much slower attempt through this book, let me know.

Next up, The Truth Detective by Alex O'Brien.