PNB talks poker with player and author Will Tipton

Posted by Steve Ruddock on Dec 03, 2012 Posted in Interviews | No Comments »

I recently had the opportunity to read Expert Heads Up No limit Hold’ Em, by Will Tipton (you can find my review of the book here: and Will was kind enough to answer a few questions on his book and poker in general. Could you give the readers a little background on yourself and your life as a poker player?

Will Tipton: Sure, so I started out playing small home games with friends in college. At first I had no idea what was going on, but I borrowed a copy of Harrington on Hold’em and must have finished it in a day or two. At the time, it was a great introduction to the game. It did a good job showing how intelligent decision making could lead to success, and I was hooked.

I started out online in January ‘07 with a $60 deposit and never had to reload. From there, I played the game a lot and thought about it more. I moved up much more slowly than is usually recommended. There are trade-offs with such conservative bankroll management. I’d definitely wish I’d moved up a quicker to maximize my overall profits, but there’s also something to be said for keeping a high win-rate and low variance. I was a fulltime student with a heavy outside-of-poker workload, and it was nice to rarely have significant downswings that could distract me from that.

Computation has always been my default problem-solving method. In fact, when I first learned about online poker, my first instinct was to write a bot, and I made a significant progress on that project before I learned that it was a no-no and decided to just focus on improving my own play. Since then, I’ve developed a software package to solve large approximate HUNL games, and the things I’ve learned from it essentially made the book possible.

I also learned a ton from online poker forums when coming up. The level of play by the heads-up community as a whole has improved tremendously over the past couple of years, especially in the short-stacked regime since the hyper-turbo format became popular. However, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding of theoretical concepts — concepts which I found to be very useful in thinking and talking about cutting edge modern strategies. So for a few months I sort of thought about how I might organize and present the ideas, and then I started writing towards the end of 2010.

Shortly thereafter, Black Friday happened, and my poker career hasn’t really been the same since. I play a bit on one of the US-facing networks, but just when I feel like it — it definitely isn’t the grind it used to be. That said, I study the game more than I used to if anything, and I think I’ll be well-positioned to jump back into the games once we get some favorable legislation and good online cardrooms become available in the US.

PNB: What is it that drew you to Heads-Up NLHE?

WT: Well, historically I pretty much started out playing HUSNGs at the suggestion of my brother and then never stopped. That said, I think the format is a good fit for my strengths and interests. A lot of my

success in poker has come from my ability to find patterns in an opponent’s game, to think hard about what various information I get actually tells me about opponents’ strategies, to really figure out what

they’re doing in different spots and why, and then to come up with a good way to exploit it. I often find myself playing wildly different strategies versus different opponents and doing things that would be extremely spewy without solid reads. On the other hand, I don’t think I have a particularly good sense for playing “in a vacuum” that is, for making standard plays without adjusting. Thus, I’ve always felt that multi-tabling traditional formats would be a poor choice.

Also I’m not really big on folding, so a game where I can usually treat top-pair-no-kicker like the stone cold nuts works well for me.

PNB: Do you have experience with any other formats?

WT: Not at a high level, no. I started out focusing on heads-up play, and I’ve never really had a reason to switch. HU play is obviously the most fun, and recreational players seem to like the high-variance, quick-action nature of HUSNGs, so the action is probably better than in any format except for MTTs which have other significant drawbacks.

PNB: Early on in the book you make the point that Heads-Up games are a good place for players to get their feet wet in poker. This kind of goes against the conventional wisdom, and as a person who loves contrarian thinking I was hoping you could you elaborate on this a little bit?

WT: Really? I don’t know that I’ve heard that conventional wisdom — it seems like a no-brainer for me. I am mostly referring to HU S&G’s by the way, not HU cash. HUSNGs work great for the two things a beginning player (and, you know, everyone else) wants to do: learn how to play and build a bankroll.

It’s a good way to build a bankroll for a couple reasons. The games run online down to very low buy-ins, and on many sites, the rake is pretty reasonable, in contrast to some micro-stakes cash games. The level of play at the lowest buy-in levels is generally atrocious, and pretty much anyone actually trying to play well and educate himself about the game should become a winning player very quickly. Additionally, there is actually significantly less variance in HUSNGs than in many other formats which is good for impressionable new players.

There are also a few reasons why these games are a good spot to get an education. Players can put in a lot of hands for little money. They’re forced to play a lot of marginal spots. And they can focus on understanding the exploitable tendencies of a single opponent as opposed to those of a table full of opponents which can be overwhelming. In fact, there’s a tendency to not even bother trying to figure out each opponent’s game in traditional formats but to just categorize them as one of a few broad groups. Play heads-up, and you will see that every opponent is a snowflake…

Lastly, if a player does want to branch out, the skills learned in heads-up play generally transfer well to other games. HU players usually become especially skilled at identifying and exploiting opponents’ strategies. I think it was Aaron “aejones” Jones that said he couldn’t take his 6-max game to the highest level until after he started playing heads-up. In particular, a good understanding of HU play can make a huge contribution to your win-rate in MTTs since the biggest money is at the end of final table play where most MTT players have the least experience and in traditional cash games where it gives you the ability to start new tables.

PNB: One area of the book I touched upon in the review was the length of the “River Play” section. Is this simply an aspect of the decision tree’s exponential growth, or is a heavy emphasis on river play something that is specific to Heads-Up play?

WT: Interesting question. First of all, I’m not sure that the river will get more attention than other streets in the end. It’s just that it came first since I decided to cover the streets from the end of a hand back up to the beginning. I discuss the reasons for this a bit in the book, but basically, the way you make any decision in poker is to think about all your options, estimate the size of your average stack at the end of the hand if you take each action, and then go with the biggest. But many of your options on the turn will involve going to the river. So, to even start to make turn decisions, you have to know something about the value of having a hand in various river situations. Similarly, to talk about strategizing on the flop, you have to know the value of various holdings on various turns. So it makes sense to work from the end of a hand to the beginning. The heavy emphasis of this book on river play is kind of a coincidence — I wouldn’t say that river play is more important than the other streets in HU play, and the other streets will get plenty of discussion in Volume 2.

That said, I do think that the river is particularly interesting. I think most people play it the worst of all the streets and it’s also generally when the biggest bets go in, at least outside of very short-stacked situations, so it’s a great place to look for an edge. Basically, it’s really hard to just “get a feel” for opponents’ river play like it is their early street tendencies, since river situations come up rarely and can be drastically different depending on the board and early-street action. Also, early-street play is often a poor indicator of players’ river tendencies. Plenty of people will make copious moves to try to take away small pots but rarely put in the last bet unless they have it. Others rarely make moves, but when they do, they’re taking it all the way. There are big edges to be found on the river by training yourself to pay special attention to what your opponents are doing there.

PNB: What do you have in store for Volume 2 of Expert Heads Up No Limit Hold’ Em?

WT: The split into two books wasn’t planned from the beginning. I set out to write one, but it turned to be too much material to fit into one book. So, the second volume will pretty much pick up where the first one left off. After a quick refresher of the main lessons from Volume 1, I’ll discuss pseudo-optimal and exploitative play on the turn, flop, and pre-flop streets. I’ll make heavy use of all of the tools we developed in the first book and introduce some new ones for managing the complexity of multi-street situations. After that, I want to say a bit about the process of gathering and using of new information (i.e. making reads), which is obviously an important part of the game and also a strong part of my own game. And then, I think it will finish up with a chapter which essentially answers the question, “When does it make sense to pass up a +EV spot in order to wait for a better one versus a weak opponent?” We don’t have a publication date set, but I’ve made a good bit of progress on the second book already, and I’m really happy with how it’s coming along.

By the way, I’m also working on a video pack with which will essentially supplement Volume 1. I’ll elaborate on some river-specific topics such as: range merging and leveling on the river, play from the BB with one pot-sized bet left, and play in spots where significant amounts of players’ ranges are chopping. I’ll also have videos on more general topics such as reading your own hand and the right and wrong ways to use “non-auto-profit” calculations. That should be available relatively soon.

PNB: Any plans on turning the books into your doctoral thesis?

WT: Haha, I wish. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way I could convince my committee to go for that. I’m a computational materials engineer, so basically my work revolves around the use of computational methods based on quantum mechanics to design new materials for technological applications. Optimization problems and Monte Carlo methods are a big part of my research, so there’s actually been a lot more overlap than you might think between my academics and my work on poker theory. I don’t know, my professor’s a fairly easy-going guy. I guess it couldn’t hurt to ask, could it?



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