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David Sklansky's Hold'em Poker For Advanced Players

David Sklansky's Hold'em Poker For Advanced Players

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Overall Rating: 4.333

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Texas Hold' em is not an easy game to play well. To become an expert you need to be able to balance many concepts, some of which occasionally contradict each other.

In 1988, the first edition of this text appeared. Many ideas, which where only known to a small select group of players were now made available to anyone who was striving to achieve expert status, and the hold' em explosion had begun.

It is now a new century, and the authors have again moved the state of the art forward by adding over 100 pages of new material, including an extensive section on "loose" games, and an extensive section on "short-handed" games. Anyone who studies this text, is well disciplined, and gets the proper experience should become a significant winner. Some of the other ideas discussed in this 21st Century Edition include play on the first two cards, semi-bluffing, the free card, inducing bluffs, staying with a draw, playing when a pair flops, playing trash hands, desperation bets, playing in wild games, reading hands, psychology and much more.

Hold'em Poker For Advanced Players by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth is one of the best hold'em books I've read. The authors assume that the reader understands the basics behind general poker strategy and Texas Hold'em specifics. Before reading the book I read Sklansky's The Theory of Poker (also reviewed on this site) which is referenced many times throughout the book. The book is like a Bible for Texas Hold'em. I have gone back to it several times and used it as a reference. Even though complex concepts are explained in plain English, the book is not something that should be read too quickly the first time.

The book breaks starting hands into 8 different groups. The reader is told how each group of hands should be played in different situations. David Sklansky was the first to organize and group these starting holdem hands.

Early in the book Sklansky does a good job of telling the reader when to play certain hands before the flop. He makes a special point of giving specific instructions for playing AQ, "beware of AQ. Even in a loose game, this hand does not play well against an early-position raiser if many players remain to act behind you. (Of course, if the AQ is suited, you definitely would play the hand.)" [21]

The author makes the point that big hands should not be slow played before the flop. "If no one has yet called, almost always raise with AA, KK, QQ, AK, and AQ. Part of the reason to raise with these hands is that they lose value as the pot gets more multiway (especially if your oponents see the flop for one bet rather than two). " [22]


The theme that raising if often better than calling is made throughout the book. "One strategy that begins to come into play in the middle positions is that you should almost always raise rather than call when:

1. No one has yet entered the pot.
2. You have a playable hand (generally Group 1-6).
3. You think there is a reasonable chance (perhaps as small as 25 percent), that all players behind you (including the blinds) will fold.

However, if criterion one or three is not met you should usually just call except with your best hands, and actually fold some of the weaker hands (basically Group 6) that you would have otherwise raised with." [31]

Late position offers many advantages. "Another reason to raise is if you think it may 'buy you the button.' Being able to act last on succeeding betting rounds is a major advantage. Thus with marginal hands it may be worth raising if you think it will take that raise to get the button to fold." [33]


The blinds often make players throw good money away after bad. "Over their careers, many players lose quite a bit of money from the blind positions. This is because they frequently overestimate the value of their hand in comparison to the partial bet that they are required to make to continue playing. Even though you can play looser in some situations, you still must play fairly tight if the pot has been raised and the raiser is not in a steal position." [40]

When you are in the big blind it is important not to let the small blind steal your blind. "Generally, if you are in the big blind, everyone passes to the small blind, and he raises, you normally need to make sure that you call enough so that the player in the little blind does not show an automatic profit. (Remember, this will be the case if you fold as little as 30 percent of the time.) On the other hand, if you know that this player has high raising standards, you should fold your weaker hands." [47]

Througout the book, Sklansky and Malmuth make the point that it is often better to raise or to fold than to call. "We would also like to stress again that unless you are in the blind, you should not be calling many raises, particularly if the pot is short-handed. you should usually reraise or fold, with folding being much more prevelent. To do otherwise is the classic 'weak player' mistake, and it is the easiest way to tell if an opponent does not understand the game as well as he should." [49]

Memorizing the correct starting hands is not enough to make the game profitable. Playing correctly after the flop is essential. "Most of the profit in hold'em comes from knowing how to play after the first round." [52] Topics like semi-bluffing and free cards are discussed after the flop.

Semi-Bluffing and Bluffing

Using semi-bluffing has several advantages. "If your hand is worth a call or even almost worth a call if you check, then it is better to bet it if there is some chance you can win the pot right there." [57-58] It is important to understand this first advantage and realizing that pots can be won without having the best hand in a showdown. A second advantage to semi-bluffing is that it can confuse your opponents. "A secondary advantage to semi-bluffing is that when you do make your hand, your opponents often will misread it." [59] Finally, the semi-bluff is key because it makes you seem unpredictable. "A third advantage to semi-bluffing is that it keeps your opponents guessing. If you never bluff, you are simply giving away too much information. Players in this category are referred to as 'weak tight.' They are easy to make money against since you virtually always know exactly where they are, but they have a great deal of trouble figuring out what your hand is. Semi-bluffing is a good way to mix up your play so you can't be 'read' as easily." [59] Given all the above advantages in making the semi-bluff play, it is strange to see some players not using it.

The free card concept involves making bets or raises in early rounds so that players will check to you later on. In discussing the concept, Sklansky states how not to play poker. "Checking and calling is rarely a correct strategy in hold'em, yet this is precisely the way that many weak opponents will play." [63] Failing to bet early can not only keep the pot too small, it can lead to your downfall, "if you check and allow someone who would not have called your bet to outdraw you, then you have allowed a 'mathematical catastrophe' to happen." [63] This philosphy is consistent throughout the book where Sklansky and Malmuth show that it is often better to raise or bet than to call or check.

Stone cold bluffing on the river is differnt from semi-bluffing because with a stone cold bluff there are no more cards to help your hand improve. Bluffing on the river often boils down to pot odds, "if there is $50 in the pot and the bet is $10, you are getting 5-to-1 odds on your bluff. In this situation, if you think your opponent will fold more than one time in six, bluffing would be correct." [84] In calculating the odds that your opponent will fold it is important to factor in whether you have been the bettor or the caller up until the river. Also, it is crucial to know whether or not your opponent is advanced enough to know how to get away from hands.

I have had intersting flops where I flop an open ended straight draw but there are 2 cards of the same suit on the flop as well. It is interesting to decide how to play the hand because you could be betting into someone who has a flush draw. If the flush player gets his card and you get your straight card then you could be in big trouble if you don't recognize that your hand is beat. Sklansky reveals that it is ok to bet the straight draw on the flop because there will be six cards that can make your straight without helping the flush, "suppose you flop an open-end straight draw and two flush cards are also on board. Is it correct to bet? Some 'authorities' claim that this hand should be thrown away. They argue that you can make your hand and still lose the pot. However, they fail to understand that you can bet as a semi-bluff." [114]

Another interesting flop is when there is a pair on board. Ironically, Sklansky says this can be a good situation to bet when you are not holding one of these cards. "Although it's a little-known fact, it is often profitable to bluff when a pair flops, especially if the flop does not include a straight or flush draw." [123]

I have lost a lot of pots while holding pairs in the hole. When holding a pair you usually will not flop a set and from that point on you can be in trouble. Sklansky has some words on this topic. "Incorrectly playing pairs in the hole is a major error that causes many players to lose thier money. You must keep in mind that if you do not make trips when an overcard flops--particuliarly if the overcard is an ace -- you are in trouble. This is especially true in a multiway pot." He goes on to address specific hands. "If your pair is JJ, TT, or smaller, it is extremely important to bet into most flops, since there are many overcards that can beat you. However, if an overcard is present on the flop and you are check-raised, you ususally should give it up." [125] In no-limit tournaments players will sometimes move all-in before the flop when they are holding a pair. This is partially because a pair will be a slight to large favorite over any other 2 card combination in a showdown unless the other 2 cards are a higher pair.

Maniacs, Loose Play

Not everyone plays poker the same way. Sometimes a table will have one or more players who are reckless. Sklansky explains that if the other players get involved when you play against a maniac, then it might be best to be on the right of the maniac, so that you can act after these other players. If the other players let you go up against the maniac one on one then it might be better to be on the left of the maniac so you can isolate him. Sklansky explains what hands to add to your aresenal in this situation. "So let's assume that a maniac is in your game, he's raising almost every hand, and you are seated to his left. What hands do you play? The answer is that you should play those hands that can win showdowns without improving. This includes hands like A9 and KT, and you'll reraise with them providing that your reraise will almost always get you heads-up. If you do, you should see most of these hands to the end unless it 'comes down real bad'" [131-132] One not of caution is in tournaments where the same player can play like a maniac until comfortable with his chip stack where he may shift gears and tighten up considerably. It is important to recognize if a player is good enough to switch up his game within a single session.

Making the correct play on fourth street is important for many reasons, one of which is that the bets are bigger than those on the flop. "There are two important concepts that will aid you when playing on fourth street. The first of these is that you should tend to check hands with outs and to bet hands that, if already beaten, have no outs." [139] Sklansky uses an example of holding Ace of Clubs and Ace of Spades against a non-club, non-space three-suited board on fourth street. He says you can usually bet the Aces but fold them if re-raised. He goes on to explain another important aspect of fourth street. "The second important concept concerning fourth-street play is that you should be betting good hands on the flop, but then frequently check-raising with them on the turn. In fact, this should be routine strategy since you will be giving up on many hands on fourth street." [141] Sklansky goes on to clarify that this is important because it helps to balance out the semi-bluff flop bets that don't pan out.

Sklansky and Malmuth make sure to cover different situations throughout the book. He addresses how to handle bad players in a general way. "Here's just one example of what we are talking about that doesn't involve specific strategy. When you are against bad players it is probably detrimental to mull over your decisions. When you sit there and think, you encourage bad players to play better against you." [153] It is significant to note that the book was written for limit hold'em where players tend to make decisions in a timely manner. In no-limit tournaments decisions are often made slower and the above advice may not apply in the same fashion.

Sometimes games are too loose and passive. In other words too many players call the blinds to see the flop but there is hardly any pre-flop raising. Sklansky and Malmuth discuss how to handle this situation. "So how do you apply the previous concepts to a very good hold'em game? That is, in a loose, passive game where many people see the flop and then play poorly after that. you should:

1. Play more hands than you would if the players were better, especially if you can get in for a single bet.
2. Frequently keep it to a single bet before the flop more than most people think because you gain a lot when bad players make incorrect calls on the flop and beyond, as long as the pot is kept small." [159]

Suited hole cards while not a great advantage in heads-up play, can be a big advantage in multi-way pots. They can also be key in loose games. "If your hand is suited in these loose games it is a giant advantage. One of the nice things about raising with suited cards before the flop (especially the ace suited), is that when you flop a flush, or for that matter a four-flush, you welcome all the bottom pairs calling. They may be right to call, but it doesn't hurt you. They may be making money by calling on the flop because there are other people involved. But they are not taking money from you. They are making you money." [173] Sklansky goes on to explain that you are making the pot bigger and people now play hands that cannot win if you hit your flush (when holding the ace of the flush, you will have the nut flush if there is no straight-flush on board and no pair on board).

Often the correct play in loose games is counter-intuitive. "The right strategy to beat loose games is very different than what many people think. The idea is not to immediately punish someone because you happen to have an edge. It is often correct to wait till a later round where your edge might be bigger to make your move. On the other hand, you may discover that your advantage has disappeared and you will be happy that you did not put in those extra bets earlier. Bad players who play too many hands and go too far with their hands are ideal opponents." [180] Keep an eye out for players who start to get bored and impatient and then start falling into the pattern of playing too many hands and not getting away from them.


Most everything in the book is based on a 10 player limit game. There is a special section on playing short-handed. As one might expect, it doesn't always take premium hands to win when there are less players so adjustments need to be made and the correct strategy is to play looser than on a 10 player table. "To prove this point let's look at a heads-up game. Suppose just you and another player were playing and you don't adjust after noticing how he is playing. You play your fairly tight game and he has a strategy of always betting. He must beat you." [185] Stopping players from stealing blinds is not your responsibility alone on a 10 player table. However, if it is just you and one opponent head-up then you have to make adjustments such as taking the sole responsibility of protecting your blinds. When playing head-up in hold'em in the big blind, Sklansky explains that one should play more hands than in 10 player games, "Thus it appears that in a heads-up match in the big blind you need to call(or reraise) at least 40 percent of the time against an aggressive opponent. So what hands should you play?

Any pair, is 6 percent;
any ace, is about 15 percent;
any other two cards that are both nine or higher, is about 12 percent,
any other straight flush combination with no gaps or just one gap (except for 42s and 32s), is about 4 percent;
and any king little suited that's not already covered, is about 2 percent.

This comes to approximately 39 percent. That's basically what we are talking about. (You might add in a few more hands such as J8s,98 or 97.) (We do want to caution you about playing hands that contain a deuce or a trey. The trouble with these cards is that if you flop a pair and your hand is best at the moment, virtually any other card that comes can beat you. In addition, if you flop nothing and your opponent flops a pair, you frequently find yourself bluffing or calling with only three outs. This doesn't mean that you can't play a hand if it contains a deuce or a trey. But beware that it has some additional problems and these hands may not be as good as they appear.)" [187]

Sklansky goes on to explain that the betting should continue after the flop, "Assuming you reraised, be prepared to do a lot of betting on the flop. You should bet most every time except for your weakest hands, and perhaps your best hands. Good advice might be to check the weakest 20 percent and the best 20 percent of your hands. And, with your best 20 percent, you should usually check-raise on the flop. Here's an example. If you reraise with J of Hearts, T of Hearts and the flop is 9 of Hearts, 4 of Spades, 2 of Diamonds you go ahead and bet. Only check those hands that have almost no chance to win. Bet anything that has a chance." [190]

Sklansky gives an afterthought on short-handed games that sums things up nicely, "Most successful hold'em players learn to play in a style that can be characterized as tight and aggressive. This is sometimes referred to as solid poker. In fact, it is the way that we usually recomment to play, and in most games it is the way that we play. But short-handed poker is very different. The tight players don't stand a chance against the live ones who seem to bet and call with anything. Unless you are able to make the adjustments that we described, you will be another loser in the short-handed games, and will be forced to avoid some of the most lucrative situations in all of poker. The great advantage of short-handed hold'em, assuming you play it well, is that you get to play many more hands. Thus, if your decisions are better than your opponents, since you will be making many more of these decisions than normal, you can expect to produce a higher win rate in the short-handed games than you would in a regular ring game. This is particularly true if you are against one or more players who only understands how to play at a full table. Most of the best hold'em players will tell you that they would rather play short-handed. This is the reason why. They find it far more profitable and actually enjoy it more than at a full table." [209]


The end of the book has a comprehensive section on the psychology of poker. One should not always base decisions purely on mathematics because other players can recognize this and take advantage of your predictability. "At the expert level of hold'em, the 'skill' of trying to outwit your opponent sometimes can extend to so many levels tht your judgment may begin to fail. However, in ordinary play against good players, you should think at least up to the third level. First, think about what your opponent has. Second, think about what your opponent thinks you have. And third, think about what your opponent thinks you think he has. Only when you are playing against weak players, who might not bother to think about what you have and who almost certainly don't think about what you think they have, does it not necessarily pay to go through such thought processes. Against all others, this is crucial to successful play, since deception is a big part of the game." [232] In border line situation it can be valuable to note tells for other players. Caro's Book of Tells (also reviewed on this site) has some useful information on the science of tells.

This book has a tremendous amount of information to digest. It is a handy reference to keep around and I have gone back to it many, many times. It is assumes the reader already has a firm grip of the strategy behind Hold'em. FTR highly recommends Sklanky's Hold'em Poker for Advanced Players to develop your limit Texas Holdem game. We also highly recommend Miller's Small Stakes Hold'em for limit Holdem. These two books will cover it all and make you a great limit player.

Overall Rating: 4.333

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