David Sklansky at the 2017 World Series of Poker

How David Sklansky Pioneered Modern Poker Strategy

David Sklansky is the father of mathematical poker theory.

His 1987 book, The Theory of Poker, is considered to be one of best poker books of all time. Sklansky is truly a pioneer in the realm of applying mathematical principals to poker strategy. At the time of its release The Theory of Poker was unlike any publication that had come before it.

Sklansky has authored or co-authored 13 books on poker, and more than 30 years after its release, The Theory of Poker is still relevant and essential reading for the poker player. Now 71 years old, Sklansky still plays the game, makes World Series of Poker appearances and even streams on Twitch from time to time.

Let’s take a look at Sklansky’s contributions to poker, as well as his career results. We’ll end this article with some highlights from Sklansky’s epic appearance on Joey Ingram’s Poker Life Podcast:

The Theory of Poker

The game-theory optimal poker strategies of today are based on complex mathematical principals, but when Sklansky started playing poker in the 1970s, a math-based approach to poker was unheard of.

Sklansky released the first version of The Theory of Poker in 1978 under a different title, and after a couple of revisions convinced his publisher to release the final version of the book in 1987, with the more appropriate title:

The Theory of Poker, by David Sklansky

In an appearance on Joey Ingram’s Poker Life podcast (which we’ll take a look at later in this article), Sklansky explains the process of putting together The Theory of Poker, in a much different era of the game.

“It was far ahead of its time, but only because the people who were playing poker at the time were so uneducated,” Sklansky tells Ingram. ”They came from the pool hall, and even the criminal backgrounds. Poker used to have a stigma to it. So the people who would be playing, let’s say bridge, or backgammon or chess, stayed away from poker for the most part.”

“Poker had never been analyzed the way that those games had been analyzed. Part of the reason was that they said poker is a lot of psychology, and bluffing, and looking into the other guy’s eyes, and figuring out what he has. They didn’t realize how much you could gain by learning the fundamentals, and understanding it in a more theoretical way.”

The Theory of Poker introduced concepts like expected value, semi-bluffing, optimum bluffing frequency, implied odds and reverse implied odds. These concepts are all essential elements of modern poker strategy, but Sklansky was decades ahead of his time in applying these fundamentals to the game in the 1970s and 80s.

Sklansky has gone on to publish 13 books on different poker variants, including titles like Sklansky on Razz, How to Make $100,000 a Year Gambling for a Living, Tournament Poker for Advanced Players, and Seven Card Stud for Advanced Players.

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David Sklanksy’s approach to poker strategy is centered on a concept that he coins as the Fundamental Theorem of Poker, which states:

Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose.

In The Theory of Poker, Sklansky gives the following example of the Fundamental Theorem of Poker in effect:

“Suppose your hand is not as good as your opponent’s when you bet,” Sklansky writes. “Your opponent calls your bet, and you lose. But in fact you have not lost, you have gained! Why? Because obviously your opponent’s correct play, if he knew what you had, would be to raise. Therefore, you have gained when he doesn’t raise, and if he folds, you have gained a tremendous amount.”

Sklansky introduced the concept of theoretical win to the poker world with his Sklansky Bucks model, which calculates expected value based on hand equity. Sklansky Bucks are a part of the overreaching concept of the Fundamental Theorem of Poker.

Let’s take a look at a sample hand using the Sklansky Bucks model. In this hand we go all-in preflop for $100 with:

Ace of diamonds King of diamonds

Our opponent calls, also putting $100 in the pot with:

Ace of spades Queen of Clubs

In practice, the only three outcomes for this hand are that we win the entire $200 pot, our opponent wins the $200 pot, or we chop and each retain out original $100 bet. We’re a 75.5 percent favorite to win this hand, and even if our opponent gets lucky and we lose this pot, our play was correct.

The Sklansky Bucks model rewards us for making the right play and calculates our theoretical win based on equity. So in this example, we multiply the $200 in the pot by our 75.5 percent chance of winning, and we win $151 Sklansky bucks. We subtract our original $100 bet to get our theoretical win (or expected value) of this play to be a net gain of $51.

David Sklansky was a visionary with concepts like this, and one of the first poker authors to focus on not taking a results-oriented approach to poker.

David Sklansky’s Poker Career

David Sklansky attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business for one year. He worked as an actuary for a short time before embarking on his eventual career path as a full-time gambler and author.

He’s a three-time WSOP bracelet winner, picking up his first two bracelets at the 1982 WSOP. The first came in an $800 Mixed Doubles Seven Card Stud event with Dani Kelly, with the second victory coming in a $1,000 Draw High Event.

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Sklansky won another bracelet in a $1,000 Limit Omaha event at the 1983 WSOP. While No Limit Hold’em has become the most widely played poker variant in the world over the past 20 years, Sklansky has always excelled in games like Stud, Omaha and other lesser-played poker variants.

His career tournament earnings stand at more than $1.4 million, and Sklansky still regularly plays events at the WSOP, and even appears in Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio for mixed games from time to time.

Sklansky’s biggest career cash came at the 2006 $10k WPT Championship, where he finished third for a $419,040 payday.

Poker Life Podcast with Joey Ingram

The legendary Sklansky has been a guest on Joey Ingram’s Poker Life Podcast on multiple occasions. Let’s take a look at his second appearance on the show.

His interaction with Ingram is fascinating and entertaining, as the pioneer of poker math talks shop with one of the best young poker players of the modern era. Ingram is one of the biggest proponents of GTO strategy, and his respect for Sklansky is clear throughout this interview.

This hour-plus episode is definitely must-see poker content in its entirety, but let’s pick it up at the 14:25 mark, with Ingram and Sklansky discussing the origin of the term “fun player” to describe a recreational poker player:

Highlights from this episode include Sklansky theorizing that Seven Card Stud and Limit Omaha are better games for recreational players’ chances of winning than No Limit Hold’em.

Sklansky and Ingram discuss what could be done to make other poker variants as popular as No Limit Hold’em. Ingram, one of the world’s most prolific Pot Limit Omaha players, is forced to admit that he’s never played Limit Omaha, and an interesting discussion about the differences between Limit and No Limit/Pot Limit betting structure ensues.

David Sklansky’s appearance on the Poker Life Podcast offers a glimpse into what is still one of the most brilliant minds in poker. Sklansky’s mathematical approach to poker still influences the game 40 years after its inceptions, and his books, videos and interviews are essential content to consume for the modern poker player.

Note: Want to upgrade your poker skills? Get free preflop charts and start playing like a pro before the flop.

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About the Author
Geoffrey Fisk

Geoffrey Fisk

Freelance writer and poker player based in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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