Improve your Poker by Bob Ciaffone
Reviewed by Jason Kirk  

Unless they've come across his columns in Card Player magazine, players new to poker probably don't know who Bob Ciaffone is. His name is not one that you read in the TV Guide listings for the next WPT tournament on the Travel Channel, but he is an accomplished professional poker player with over 50 years of poker under his belt. He's seen about everything one could see playing poker, from Nepalese pot-limit Omaha home games to exclusive casinos in London and Malta. Luckily for students of the game, he seems to enjoy sharing his wisdom as much as he enjoys the game itself - he's been writing a column on poker since 1986, and has other volumes out on the big-bet games, Omaha, and middle-limit hold'em. Improve Your Poker doesn't have as narrow a focus as his other books, but it may be the most valuable volume of them all.

The book is designed very simply, from the cover (a pair of red kings on a white background) to the easy-to-read typeface and clean layout. It's very unassuming inside as well, being entirely composed of short essays anywhere from 2 to 5 pages long which focus on particular poker topics. These are organized by topic, starting with the general and moving on to the more specific. It's no mistake that the book is laid out like this - if followed in order, this book could be used as a general survey textbook for becoming a complete poker player. Because it's made up of short articles, though, it can still be read in short bursts for those who have to get their reading in where they can.

The general topics covered include general poker concepts, gambling skills, reading opponents, and deception and bluffing. While this might sound like a kindergarten course in poker, it's also what a lot of players need. As happens in other competitive skill-based games, some people play poker well enough to get by even though their fundamental skills are flawed. Reading through Ciaffone's explanations and explorations of these general topics is a joy - all of his advice presented in an easy-to-read, conversational manner, giving you the feeling that he's a friend just pointing out things that hadn't occurred to you yet. That's very different than some other poker books that read like religious manuals handing down holy knowledge that is greater than you. It's easy to see why Ciaffone's nickname is "Coach."

So far as specific games go, Hold'em, Omaha, Stud, and high-low split games are all covered to some degree in Improve Your Poker. The Omaha section is a mere 6 pages long, but it's some of the most enlightening writing on the game that I've read. Hold'em is covered in the greatest detail, and the sections on playing in the blind and on the different kinds of loose games are some of the best in the book. Stud and high-low split are given two articles apiece, both of which include enough practical advice that anyone familiar but not versed in these games can gain some insight into playing the game better.

Big-bet games are covered in fair detail, with equal time given to both hold'em and Omaha. The advice on playing A-K is especially useful, as many players play Big Slick in no-limit the way they would in a limit game. The increased importance of position in the big bet games is also given plenty of space on the page. Tournaments are covered very generally in this section too, and it's all very practical advice, especially for anyone preparing to play in a big live tournament.

The book ends with four essays chronicling Ciaffone's performance in the 1987 WSOP Main Event, when he finished in 3rd place. One passage in particular tells you just how long he's been at this game when he describes Dan Harrington and Howard Lederer, two of the most respected veteran players playing today, as "experienced amateurs." Ciaffone is a seasoned veteran player who writes well and gives clear, sound advice. Any player at any level could do much worse than adding Improve Your Poker to their library.

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