Interview: Author of ‘Expert Heads Up No Limit Hold’em’

There aren’t too many books dedicated to heads-up no-limit hold’em poker on the market. Heads-up specialist Will Tipton seeks to add his voice to the world of poker literature, with a recently published book called “Expert Heads Up No Limit Hold’em.”

Tipton made a name for himself playing as “Sargon38” at Full Tilt Poker. He’s won over $130,000 playing heads-up sit-and-go’s (not including) — a look at his SharkScope graph shows a steady progression upwards. After experiencing online success, Tipton decided to write a book to share what he has learned about poker and what he thinks players can learn from him.

You can find an excerpt from Tipton’s book here, and you can order the book via Amazon here.

Tipton recently did an interview with just as his book hit the market:

PTP: Can you tell me a little about when and how you got into playing poker?.

WT: Sure so I started out playing real money online poker in December 06 or January 07. I dabbled a little bit, but my main game was heads-up sit and go’s from the start. And that was lucky because I still think it’s the best format for new poker players learning the game and building their bankrolls. You learn a ton, since in heads up you have to play lots of hands and marginal spots, but it’s not too overwhelming for the beginner since there’s only one opponent’s tendencies to keep track of and try to figure out. Also those games start out at very low stakes, so you can get a lot of hands in for little investment, and the level of competition is quite poor. So if you do it right, you can get away without much of a poker learning curve tax. I started out with $60 and never had to redeposit or anything.

So, I was fascinated with the game from the beginning. I read everything I could find on it, played a ton, and for years, I was always thinking about different spots whenever I had a spare moment of mental downtime. I pretty much just ground my way up through the stakes. I never really had any particularly notable MTT scores or anything. To be honest I moved up pretty slowly, compared to a lot of people. I was usually playing like 300 buyins deep or something even with regular cashouts which is way deeper than most people would recommend. It was good since I was almost always one of the best regulars at my stake, had a high winrate, and rarely had to deal with significant variance which is very plus life EV. That said, I kind of regret it now since I think it limited my overall profits. I’d definitely move up faster if I had it all to do over again.

PTP: Do you still play much, or is mostly a hobby for you now?

WT: I live in the US, so my lifestyle was severely affected by Black Friday. A few months afterwards, I felt safe enough to put a little money on the Merge network, but there’s still nowhere near the action at decent stakes as there was in the major sites pre-Black Friday. So I mostly just play when I feel like it these days, nothing near the kind of volume I used to. That said, I’m still fascinated by the game, and I still do a lot of theory work on the side for fun. I’m graduating with my Ph.D. next year (knock on wood), and I’m currently looking for a job, but I think I’ll be well-positioned to get back into the games pretty quickly if the U.S. sees some favorable poker legislation.

PTP: And tell me about your decision to write a book…I learned in the preface you wrote the whole thing before you had a publisher?

WT: Sure, well, I’d never written a book before, so I didn’t really know anything about how it was supposed to be done. Also it’s something I decided to do more for personal accomplishment type reasons than anything else. I started writing in 2010, before Black Friday, when I was making a pretty good hourly, so I had no illusions that writing a book would be anywhere near as profitable as just playing. So it was very much a part-time project, and I just wanted to take my time with it and make sure it was done right before worrying about anything like publishing. I didn’t want to be locked in to any particular time frame, both because I had a lot of other stuff going on, but also because this book involved a lot of original research, thought, and calculations, and that’s not the kind of thing you can guarantee to finish in a specific period of time.

So, the idea and opportunity to write a book actually arose from earlier project of mine. When it comes to a game theoretic approach to poker, the sorts of toy games such as those solved in places like The Mathematics of Poker are one thing, but to study more realistic situations which include all the complexities of the real game, you have to use a computer. It turns out that even solving the whole game of heads-up no-limit isn’t really a very hard problem conceptually, it’s just a really, really big problem, so to even get started you have to use computers in practice. And if anyone out there isn’t quite sure what I mean by “solving” poker, then I’d encourage them to check out the first chapter of my book which is available for free on D&B Poker’s website.

But anyway, I’m a computer scientist by training, so I spent quite a bit of time developing software to set up and solve large poker games. And in using it, I learned a ton about the intricacies of various spots, but I also gained a much more solid understanding of the big ideas of applied game theory — things like, how balance should be thought about, how the idea arises, and how balance-related considerations should actually influence our decision-making at the tables. There’s a ton of misconceptions and misunderstandings out there in the community about that sort of thing. Reading theoretical discussions in places like online poker forums, I rarely see people get it right, even a lot of really big names. So, basically, I thought I could change that. I’d spent some time teaching private students, and I thought I could present these ideas in a way that would be intuitive and useful to a lot of poker players.

By the way, it’s not really true to say that the book was finished before I found a publisher. I mean, it was nominally complete, and most of the big ideas were there, but since then, my editor and I put a ton of work into making it as accessible and valuable as possible.

PTP: There’s not a whole lot of poker literature dedicated to heads-up play…did you feel there was a void to be filled in that respect?

WT: Right so I wrote about heads-up no-limit because that’s my game, that’s all I’ve really played, and that’s what I’ve spent a ton of time thinking about. It’s lucky for me that there isn’t too much else published on that topic, and there’s even less that includes certain modern developments. And my book does present a lot of those things. It includes a ton of practical tips and discussions of how to play specific spots that people will be able to implement in their games immediately.

However, that said, the void that I really saw and set out to fill was in the application of game theory to poker. I don’t think there’s anything else out there that would convince the average poker player that game theory is actually a really useful thing for making money. Part of the problem is that a lot of the info out there is wrong, as I’ve said, but the stuff that’s right is often hard to understand and a lot less useful than it could be.

I mean I think the obvious comparison to make is to The Mathematics of Poker by Chen and Ankenman. Don’t get me wrong, MoP is a great book. I’ve learned a ton from it, and I still refer to it occasionally which is not something I can really say about any other poker book. But I think it has some major shortcomings from the point of view of the average poker player looking to learn things that will help him make more money. Most of the situations they discuss are both complicated enough that they’re tedious to work out on paper but still simple enough that it’s rarely clear if or how their results apply to real games. And they don’t spend too much time even trying to draw conclusions about real games. In my book, I tend to just throw hard problems at the computer, which lets me attack much larger, more realistic situations, while focusing on understanding and developing intuition about correct play from the results, rather than doing algebra.

Given that this is a book on an approach to poker in general and discusses a lot of big topics like balance, exploitation, bet sizing, and board texture from that point of view, I think players will be able to get a lot of value from it even if they don’t play much heads-up.

PTP: From the excerpt I read, you take a pretty different approach to strategy than most poker books. Can you tell me a little about how you developed the book and your gameplay?

Sure, so to follow up on what I was just saying, I want to emphasize that this isn’t a math book. It’s just that I’ve found that a game theoretic approach is the best way to understand the game on a very deep level, and I think that understanding leads to profit.

I like to think of it like this. Ten years ago or so, almost all poker books started out with a couple chapters on pot odds, implied odds, and whatnot. They weren’t books about odds, they weren’t math books, those were just the tools they needed to first develop in order to be able to explain their decision-making thought processes. But now, the poker community and the games have come a long way, and cutting edge strategies are best talked and thought about in the language of game theory. So I develop those ideas, but the focus of the book is on seeing how those tools can be used to play as profitably as possible in practice.

PTP: Other than reading your book, do you have any advice to poker players who are trying to improve their games?

WT: I think the best practical advice to people who are thinking about moving up in levels, is to just try one-tabling, and thinking hard about every single decision. Try to spend some time, like six or eight seconds on every decision. It may not sound like a long time, but it’s actually a much slower pace than most online play. I think that many players that are used to multitabling, at least initially, will think that it’s boring, but the fact is there is way more to think about in every poker situation than you could ever consider in real time at the table, even if you single-table. If you get bored one-tabling, and you take some time to make your decision, if you find that you don’t think you have enough to think about in that time, then you’re probably not thinking enough.


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