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Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Get a winning read

By Steve Rosenbloom
ESPN Poker Club

It was somewhere in the middle of the marathon that is known as the 2005 World Series of Poker that I noticed a guy sitting at a table wearing a ballcap that read "Kill Phil.''

I made a note of it, wrote about it in my blog for the ESPN Poker Club Web site, and assumed it was just some guy who had gotten in the way of a chair kicked by Phil Hellmuth and was trying to mobilize a militia.

Or maybe it was some kind of gimmick drummed up by Hellmuth himself, what with his nuclear ego.

But no. I found out later that the guy in the hat was Blair Rodman, an accomplished gambler for more than 20 years, which included a stint with Stanford Wong's famous blackjack team of the '80s and seven final tables in the last two years in WSOP, World Poker Tour and Ultimate Poker Challenge events.

The hat indeed was a marketing gimmick, Rodman explained, and it indeed involved Hellmuth, but the "Kill Phil'' cap was being used to promote a book of the same name that he had written with Lee Nelson, a doctor recognized as perhaps the top poker player in Australia and New Zealand from 2000 to 2005.

Yeah. OK. Whatever. Lots of people were putting out books, even me. But nice hat, anyway.

And then "Kill Phil'' came out. And the text is every bit as good as the title.

If you don't know what you're doing in tournament poker -- and judging by the e-mails I see, there are a lot of you out there -- you'd be wise to pick up a copy of "Kill Phil.''

Guess what? Pick it up even if you do know what you're doing.

"Kill Phil'' is not a poker strategy book, but rather a tournament strategy book. The authors note the difference, and the difference is key. The "Phil'' in the title refers to Hellmuth (the nine-time bracelet winner who's on the cover and writes the foreword), as well as ESPN Poker Club columnist Phil Gordon, Phil "The Unabomber'' Laak, and Phil Ivey. And every other top tournament pro. They're all "Phils,'' even if they aren't named Phil. They play better than you. You have to learn how to play against them. And this book provides a wonderful approach for exactly that.

One thing that the pros do better than you is put opponents on a hand. Another thing they do better than you is play after the flop. They combine these great advantages as a way of gaining information about your hand -- there are times when they don't care about their own -- and they outplay you down to the river. "Small ball,'' the authors call it.

The basic "Kill Phil'' philosophy eliminates those advantages by encouraging you to play "long ball'' and move all-in preflop with the best hands, mainly (and sometimes only) with aces and kings. This advice is built upon the idea that pros hate the all-in move. They don't want to put their tournament lives at risk, especially against some unknown, unless they're convinced they have the best of it in a big way, and sometimes not even then.

"It's like giving the rabbit the gun,'' Dutch poker star Marcel Luske says in a blurb on the back cover of the book.

The authors acknowledge that the basics of this philosophy have been discussed before, most notable in David Sklansky's "Tournament Poker For Advanced Players.'' But they take it further than just waiting for aces and then moving in.

The book walks you through beginner, intermediate and advanced levels of employing this strategy, widening moves along the way, as well as an approach for Internet play. The presumption is that you'll learn things by watching better players employ the "small ball'' approach as you patiently wait for your chances.

Even at the "Kill Phil" rookie level, you will need to calculate your cost per round (blinds and antes) and what the authors call your "chip-status index'' (multiplying the cost per round by 30, 10 or 4 to determine whether your stack is huge, big, medium or small). Your decisions spin off those numbers, depending on your position and your opponents' bets.

This strategy also groups hands in a severe way, as you might expect from a severe philosophy. Group 1 hands, for instance, are aces and kings. Period. End of story. Group 2 hands are Q-Q, A-K suited and A-K. It's worth noting that the authors rate suited connectors ahead of A-J, A-10 and K-Q in no-limit hold'em. Further, they point out that A-K offsuit is a 3-1 favorite over A-Q offsuit, but only 7-5 against 5-4 suited.

There is more. Much more. "Kill Phil'' offers a solid plan for newbies. But understand that using such a strategy requires a big, fat spine. Or a big, fat heart. You are going all-in. Many times. You might be called. Early. You might lose. You would be out. Busted. Buh-bye. Thanks for playing our game. There are no lovely parting gifts.

But, as top pro Amir Vahedi likes to say, in order to live, you must be willing to die.

Steve Rosenbloom's book "The Best Hand I Ever Played" is available at bookstores everywhere. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he is also author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. To leave Steve some feedback or ask him a question for his column, check out his mailbag.