How to read There’s more to literacy than books

How to read

There’s more to literacy than books

Reading was one of Paul Harris’ core pleasures. Evenings at Comely Bank, his home on Chicago’s South Side, he would read aloud from the novels of Charles Dickens, and his speeches and writings are peppered with quotations from poets Robert Burns, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell, as well as allusions to New England transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau — fitting for a man who grew up in Vermont and loved the outdoors.

Today, in the spirit of its founder, Rotary fosters literacy, paired with education, as one of its six areas of focus. With an estimated 14 percent of the world’s adult population functionally illiterate, Rotarians work to open schools, promote proven teaching methods, and establish mentoring programs to help people improve their reading skills.

Since reading is the gateway to literacy, this issue of The Rotarian offers a tutorial on how to read. We asked Chicago writer Graham Meyer to track down experts who would share their knowledge about reading as it relates to cuisine, the Bard, and the sport of kings. But there are types of literacy that transcend the printed page; acknowledging that, our specialists also explore “nonbook” realms, including astronomy, medicine, and soothsaying.

Additionally, a champion poker player, who’s also — no bluff — an acclaimed novelist, poet, and writing professor, helps prepare you for your next Texas hold ’em tournament. And senior editor Geoffrey Johnson suggests several formidable tomes worth the weight. As Thoreau wrote, “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

Paging Paul Harris.

How to read big books

In size, rhetoric, and theme, a big book is weighty. Yet, paradoxically, the language, the ideas, even the heft of a big book can unburden readers willing to immerse themselves in a fully imagined world captured between two covers. Here’s how it’s done.

The first step is obvious: Pick a book you will like. Don’t feel obliged to choose a canonical work — though many esteemed books of great length are also vastly entertaining. Sticking to novels, here are some suggestions: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens or The Bonfire of the Vanities by his modern-day counterpart, Tom Wolfe. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the great domestic novel; Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale features a fantastic love story and a flying horse.

Perhaps it’s time to rediscover a neglected classic — the U.S.A.trilogy by John Dos Passos — or polish off an underread gem, such as Leon Forrest’s Divine Days. Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) identified William Gaddis’ 956-page novel, The Recognitions, as “the most difficult book I ever read voluntarily in its entirety.” But bear in mind Franzen’s final verdict: “I loved it.”

War and Peace, the paragon of a big book, clocks in at about 1,200 pages (depending on the edition). You’re not meant to devour the whole thing at one sitting. Fortunately, Tolstoy divided his book into five “volumes” comprising 17 sections — and from there he broke it into even smaller, more palatable portions, 361 to be precise. Now, rather than blanching at the prospect of consuming, or being consumed by, an indigestible tome, your appetite is whetted by an alluring spread of delicacies to savor at your leisure. The formidable has become reader-friendly.

Reading demands your full attention, so find a quiet, comfortable, well-lighted place. It may be an easy chair in a spare bedroom, a backyard hammock, a bower in a nearby park. Most of all, remember that this is supposed to be fun. If you don’t like a book, you can always put it down. But find the right book and ultimately you will find yourself reluctant to step away from this new world and all the people in it.

As for me, Don DeLillo’s Underworld has sat unread on my shelves for 20 years. I’m starting it this weekend.

How to read Shakespeare

Forsooth, in the plays of Shakespeare, the witty speakers’ silvered lips can trip the mind as mired it winds its way to sense. That is, the Bard is hard.

Or so people psych themselves into thinking, says Claire McEachern, a Shakespeare scholar at UCLA. A few pointers, she says, and a little confidence, and you’re ready to sally forth like Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt.

Listen to it 

Yes, Shakespeare’s histories, comedies, and tragedies are literature and poetry, but fundamentally, they’re plays, written with the intent that actors would speak the lines to an audience. Follow along in the text with a filmed version or an audiobook. “You hear the voices, the tone, the actors’ choices — it does help to animate it,” McEachern says. Once you get the hang of it, try reading the play aloud by yourself or with others. The sound’s the thing wherein to catch a line’s true meaning.

Slow down 

Citing Robert Frost’s description of poetry as “language under pressure,” McEachern points to the constraints of the length of the line and the meter — the Bard’s inimitable iambic pentameter. Shakespeare tinkers with that pressurized language, reordering parts of sentences in ways that seem odd to us, but they were odd back in his day, too.

Trust your instincts 

“You do understand more than you think you might,” McEachern says. Shakespeare’s characters hint, beat around the bush, or speak cryptically or elliptically when there’s a dramatic reason for it. “If you’re confused, it might be because you didn’t sleep enough, but it might be because the text is throwing up a dust cloud,” she says. “You might not be meant to immediately get what you’re not getting.”

A corollary: Pay attention when your ears prick up, McEachern says. “If you think there’s a dirty joke in there, there probably is.”

How to read a menu

Despite the appearance of equality inherent in a list, not all items carry the same weight. The first and last items loom larger in our short-term memories, and therefore in our impressions of the whole. On menus, parsing the gestalt of the restaurant from the dynamics of the dishes listed in the several categories can point you toward those likeliest to taste remarkable.

First, check whether there’s a discernible ordering to the starters, entrées, or any other category (or maybe your server will tell you). Do they run from cheapest to most expensive? Do they go from lightest to heaviest? Is it a hodgepodge? When the first and last in the list don’t have other sore-thumb reasons for those positions, highlight those as good bets.

Next scan the whole category for patterns and avoid the outliers. Are vegetables equal partners in meat dishes? If not, you might want to avoid the vegetarian entrée. How many unfamiliar ingredients are there? A few suggest the chef is dropping signposts — here, take my hand and try this. A whole exotic supermarket suggests a different culinary world — now it’s best to avoid the familiar. Are there six dishes with blistered chile peppers and a panoply of salsas, followed by a straightforward steak? Don’t get that steak.

A menu includes dishes not only because the chef thinks the food tastes good, but also because of market pressures. The perfunctory vegetable dish for the noncarnivores, the basic steak for the unadventurous, the high-margin pasta — all are archetypes of dishes that lack a bottom crust of creative enthusiasm. Obviously, good vegetarian dishes, steaks, and pastas exist out there, but you have to read the signals provided. Any chef worth her salt wants diners to try her best stuff.

How to read lips

It’s a myth that someone can read lips like reading a book. In fact, the process is at best a limited art. “A lot of lip reading is guesswork,” admits Rachel Kolb, a Ph.D. student in English literature at Emory University in Atlanta who studies the social construction of deafness. Deaf since birth, Kolb explains that the information gathered from studying a person’s lips often isn’t sufficient to tease out the message without the help of context or clarifying questions.

While watching a speaker’s mouth, Kolb says, a lip reader fixes on consonants and collects details about vowel formation, such as jaw angle, cheek stretching, and whether the lips are rounded. The lip reader patches the message together, starting with the bits she has more confidence in, all only semiconsciously.

Because spoken language developed to be heard, not seen, even the visually clearest elements of speech have some ambiguity. P and B sounds, for example, are visibly articulated on the lips rather than inside the mouth or throat, but they differ in whether the vocal cords are engaged, a detail that’s only audible. Vowels shade adjacent consonants. Unfamiliar accents change the appearance of familiar words. “You constantly go back in your mind to adjust and re-evaluate what that word or phrase could have been, based on what seems to have come after,” Kolb says.

Many speakers working to be understood have an instinct, honed over misunderstandings with nonnative speakers, to exaggerate their articulation and pare sentences down to their barest elements. In the case of talking to a lip reader, both strategies exacerbate the situation. Exaggerated articulation disguises the normal positions of the mouth, and shorter sentences reduce redundancy and therefore the number of toeholds to puzzling out the message.

“Puzzling” pegs the process of lip reading more closely than “reading.” It rarely has reading’s transparency, Kolb says. It’s always work.

How to read tarot cards

“It’s a little like chess,” says Marcus Katz, co-director of the Tarosophy Tarot Association. “You can learn the rules in an hour, but it takes a lifetime to master the combinations.”

In Katz’s most bare-bones method of reading, which he calls the three-minute method after the time it takes to teach, either the reader or the subject selects one of the 78 cards in the deck and examines the picture as if it were an illustration in a storybook. The subject identifies a challenge the picture might allude to, a resource the story’s characters might employ, and a lesson they might learn. The reading, then, fills in the sentence “In this situation you have the challenge of [X], you meet it with the resources of [Y], and learn the lesson of [Z].”

From that kernel, readings can expand according to the experience and knowledge of the reader. A three-card reading can use three cards to find the challenge, resource, and lesson. A nine-card reading can link three three-card readings, constructing a challenge-resource-lesson sentence for each of the past, the present, and the future. A reader might add a three-card set showing a warned-against path of action, an advised path, and a middle path.

Katz says the next step for a burgeoning reader is to build up the language of symbols. Just as symbolic shorthands date back to the creation of literature — for example, apples representing temptation — tarot cards have symbologic correspondences with numbers, colors, zodiac signs, and other Dan Brownian concepts. Differently themed decks can play off readers’ knowledge bases, such as fairy tales, Greek mythology, or the writings of Carl Jung.

Dedicated students of tarot can continue to learn nuances for a lifetime. Most readers know early if that’s in the cards.

How to read the riot act

Reading someone the riot act denotes a harsh reprimand for bad behavior, stemming etymologically from an actual Riot Act passed by the British government in 1715, read to disperse mobs by threatening long jail sentences.

In its contemporary usage, the suggestion of severity points in the wrong direction for effective admonishment. “Only in extreme cases is that ever effective,” says Mary Ann Mercer, a psychologist and the co-author, with her husband, Michael, of Spontaneous Optimism: Proven Strategies for Health, Prosperity & Happiness. Kinder approaches, she says, better achieve the riot act’s goal of changing unwanted behavior.

In their book, the Mercers lay out the CAP method for diplomatically telling somebody about a transgression.

  • Comment on the person’s actions. Give a specific report, but do not attribute missteps to a personality flaw, which tends to make people defensive.
  • Ask the person for possible solutions. How can you handle this better next time?
  • Praise him for reasonable solutions.

When rules are broken or trust violated, speaking up is appropriate, Mercer says, but extremism usually isn’t. When you read the riot act, make it more like the nonviolent resistance act.

How to read a racing form

Like any hyperabbreviated form — such as its kin the stock ticker, chess notation, or baseball’s sabermetric stats — the Daily Racing Form assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of its readers. “It can be daunting at first, all those numbers and letters,” says Ron Nicoletti, the track handicapper at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida. Fortunately, the welter of information also includes some ready-made synthesis — if you know where to look. Each horse’s basic information clusters in the top left of its listing. Near its name in large print appear the names of its owners and parents, and shortened descriptions of the color of the horse and the jockey’s silks.

Below that lie the first two lines Nicoletti highlights as important to planning a wager: the jockey (a last name and initial or initials in all caps) and the trainer (after “Tr:”). The parentheticals after both show their recent statistics. The first number shows the number of starts in races during that particular meet, followed by the number of first-, second-, and third-place finishes. The decimal at the end shows a winning percentage. Anything over 10 percent is noteworthy.

Another line on the trainer appears at the bottom, showing relevant experience. The parentheticals again show the number of starts and winning percentage, here followed by the return on a $2 bet on such races in the trainer’s history.

The lines that begin with dates and stretch all the way across the form show performances in races. The data preceding the large space give information about the race such as location and split times for the winner; the data after it show how that individual horse performed, including a series of numbers with superscripts showing what place it was in at intervals during the race and how far behind (or ahead) it was, in lengths. The boldface number right after the gap is the Beyer speed figure, which evaluates how a horse performed in a race by gauging its running time against other factors such as the condition of the track. The higher the number, the faster the horse.

The kabbalistic part comes in shading horses higher and lower based on the competition in the race, the advantages and disadvantages of conditions, and all parties’ experience. “It’s like a crossword puzzle or a math problem,” Nicoletti says, uncoincidentally comparing it to two other pursuits sometimes called arcane.

How to read an EKG

An electrocardiogram, shortened to EKG or ECG, records the electrical activity of the heart. A little bump, a spike with a beep, and another little bump set a pattern familiar in the background of innumerable dramatic TV moments. The scribbled pattern consists of several constituent segments, each of which tells a doctor about a part of the heartbeat as electrical impulses travel around the heart’s four chambers — two atria and two ventricles.

The first unit in the pattern is the rounded bump before the large spike. That bump, the P-wave, shows the depolarization of the atria, when the electrical signal sent by the body’s natural pacemaker causes the atria to contract. Irregularities come when a P-wave has an extra lump, crests higher, or, in the case of atrial fibrillation, is absent altogether. “That’s a common diagnosis,” says Tamanna Singh, a sports cardiologist with the Cleveland Clinic.

The spike can consist of up to three waves, collectively called the QRS complex. A Q-wave dips down on the graph, below the baseline, showing the arrival of the electrical impulse at the septum separating the ventricles. The tall upward spike, the R-wave, shows the depolarization of the bulk of the ventricles. The downward S-wave shows the depolarization of the bottom part of the ventricles.

The T-wave, the final smooth bump in the cycle, shows the repolarization of the ventricles — their return to the electrical state at the start of the heartbeat.

Doctors also glean information from the spacing of the waves and from the frequency and regularity of the beats.

Unlike the stereotype of entertainment botching expert information, Singh says those EKGs on TV come fairly close to reality. “They’re pretty accurate when they’re showing normal rhythms,” she says. “And they pretty much get the flatlines right.”

How to read the writing on the wall

How do you read the handwriting on the wall? It helps to be a divinely touched prophet, or so the Bible tells us.

The original handwriting on the wall, the source of the expression about a message of imminent doom, comes from chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel. King Belshazzar, throwing a huge banquet, calls for the goblets pillaged from the temple in Jerusalem. A hand mysteriously appears and writes on the wall, scaring the daylights out of the king. No one can interpret the writing except Daniel, who explains to Belshazzar that it foretells the end of his reign. Belshazzar is killed that night.

Carol A. Newsom, a professor of the Old Testament at Emory University’s school of theology, says the cleverness of Daniel’s interpretation arises from taking the interpretive road less traveled. The only three words in the message — mene, tekel, parsin — are ordinary Aramaic words referring to weights, as would be used for money, “like it says a dollar, 50 cents, and two bits, or something like that,” she says.

But Daniel reads all three as verbs, a punning interpretation. “Puns were considered really significant in the ancient world,” Newsom says. “Hidden meanings were where the truth was likely to arise.” Daniel glosses mene as “enumerate,” tekel as “weigh,” and parsin as “divide”: The days of your kingdom have been enumerated, you are weighed and found wanting, and your kingdom will be divided.

Newsom says there’s speculation that the handwriting on the wall might have literally appeared on walls as graffiti, the joke being that Belshazzar paled in comparison to his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar just as a tekel is smaller than a mene. Ancient graffiti, in this theory, moved from the bathroom wall to an Old Testament story, an amalgamation of the sacred and the profane.

BASIC POKER HANDS

Royal flush: Highest-ranking straight flush
Straight flush: 5 cards in rank order, same suit
Four of a kind: 4 same rank
Full house: 3 same rank + 2 same rank
Flush: 5 cards same suit
Straight: 5 cards in rank order
Three of a kind: 3 same rank
Two pair: 2 same rank, twice
Pair: 2 same rank
High card: Highest-ranking card, no hand

POKER LINGO

Bluff catcher: A mediocre hand, likely to beat only the hand of a bluffer
Board pairing: Two cards of the same rank appear on the board
Buy-in: Amount required to play in or enter a tournament
Call: To match an opponent’s bet
Continue with his draw: To call a bet on the flop or turn, hoping to complete a straight or flush
Made hand: A hand that is already a pair or higher
Money bubble: The dividing line between those who win prize money in a tournament and those who don’t
Nuts: The best possible hand
Quads: Four of a kind
Queen-high: A hand with no pair, straight, or flush and with a queen as its highest card; also, ace-high, jack-high, etc.
Rail: The sidelines of a poker game; the spectators there are called railbirds
Raise: To at least double the bet your opponent has made
Second-best kicker: When two players make the same pair, their next-highest card determines who wins the pot
Spike: When a card appears unexpectedly, as a long shot, on the board, making a losing hand into a winner
Straight or flush draw: Having four cards for a straight or flush, either of which needs a fifth card to be complete
Suck, or suck out: To get very lucky, especially when a large pot is at stake
Table captain: A player trying to intimidate opponents into folding to his or her bets or raises
Tilt: To play badly because you’re upset about something that has happened during the game

How to read a raise

By James McManus

Whether perusing a poem or a poker hand, it pays to be literate

Among the books titled How to Read a Poem, Tania Runyan’s follows the advice offered by former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins in his slyly facetious poem “Introduction to Poetry.”

. . . I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Runyan’s book is more flirty invitation than strict, fussy primer. She suggests that readers have fun with the samples she provides, written by such diverse poets as Keats, Yeats, Sara Teasdale, George Eliot, Henrietta Cordelia Ray, and Marci Rae Johnson. “Join me,” she writes, “as I walk through several poems’ rooms, flip some light switches to see better how to live my wild life, and tell about it.”

Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry encourages readers to rely more on emotion as a road map. Readers and poets and editors share poems they love, allowing the verses themselves to function as guides for how to read them. But Hirsch also reminds us that the best poems always have “something about them that evades the understanding.”

Reading, however, isn’t just for lovers of literature. Poker players need to read their opponents’ eyes, faces, and tendencies to figure out what a raise might mean in a variety of tense situations. And Rotarians who play in $50 charity events, friendly home games, even World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournaments with four- and five-figure buy-ins should learn to read primers and people with maximal, albeit forever imperfect, comprehension.

The version of poker I play is called Texas hold ’em. These days it’s the most popular version of the game — they use it in Las Vegas to decide the WSOP champion — but if you’re only familiar with five-card draw or seven-card stud, you may find some of what follows baffling. And so a few words of explanation (and as you’re reading, consult the glossary of poker lingo on page 47 if you encounter a term you don’t understand).

In hold ’em, each player receives two face-down “hole” cards (which only they look at). Three cards shared by all players (called the “flop”) are then dealt simultaneously face-up in the center of the table, followed by a fourth shared card (the “turn”) and then a fifth (the “river,” or “fifth street”), both face down. Players combine their two hole cards with the five cards shared by all players — the “board” — to make the best five-card hand. Two rotating antes (called “blinds”) initiate four “streets” of betting: before the flop, after the flop, after the turn, then after the river. In no-limit hold ’em, players may bet any percentage of their chips on any street. To bet them all is to “go all-in.”

Now let’s get down to business.

Since Herbert Yardley’s The Education of a Poker Player introduced the age of honest poker in 1957 (after it had been accurately called the Cheating Game for more than a century), hundreds of poker advice books have been written and studied. Because absorbing the best information in the most up-to-date books can be so lucrative, paperbacks by Dan Harrington and Jonathan Little come with $40 price tags. Books aimed at nosebleed-stakes pros, such as The Blue Book by Reid Young and Let There Be Range! by Cole South and Tri Nguyen, have sold for thousands of dollars.

Studying Little or Harrington while accumulating experience at the table, you will discover dozens, even hundreds, of factors to consider when responding to a raise in a tournament. Is it the third hour of Day 1, or are you closing in on the money bubble? Are there nine players at every table, or have you reached the final table against, say, three opponents? The value of any two hole cards rises considerably when you have only three hands to beat. But maybe your hand is so weak you should fold it, even if your opponent — who is often referred to as Villain in primers and coaching videos — is bluffing. That is, you don’t even have a bluff catcher, a slightly better-than-average hand, such as queen-10 of the same suit or worse.

I infamously misread a bet at a televised limit hold ’em final table with precisely that hand. I had no straight, no flush; I didn’t even hold a measly pair, just queen-high. With a board of 7-3-4-7-5, and facing the river bet of Ellix Powers — a player notorious for his antics at the table — I was tilted from a verbal exchange Powers and I were having over his obnoxious behavior: taunting opponents, walking around behind them during hands, among other things. He could easily have been holding an ace, a king, a pair, or a six (which would have given him a straight); about the only hand I could beat was jack-high. But I stupidly made the tilt-call with queen-high, and Powers showed me a king.

Seeing my cards and realizing he had won the hand, Powers sprang from the table, crowing and shaking his head as the cameras followed him down the escalator and out of Binion’s Horseshoe, cackling (mistakenly) about my calling his bet “with jack-high.” ESPN called our exchange the No. 2 Moment of the 2004 World Series of Poker. (For the record, I finished fourth in the limit hold ’em event and Powers seventh.)

Another factor to consider when responding to a raise is who has position on whom. Since the “button” that indicates the dealer moves clockwise around the table, having it in front of you provides the advantage of acting last. You’ve had a chance to see what all the Villains have done. Strong players are therefore able to play weaker cards in late position. A hand you would fold preflop in early position is often raise-worthy from the button. Villain’s button raise might therefore be read as a positional raise with weak cards.

Ask yourself: How often has Villain been raising? The more he’s doing it, the less credit you should give him for having much of a hand.

A couple of years ago, at an event in Milwaukee, I played a huge pot with Blake Bohn, an aggressive pro who’s a member of the Minnesota Poker Hall of Fame. He had been raising or reraising preflop with 80 percent of his hands, then betting every street, all this while drinking tumblers of Grey Goose Cherry Noir and jawing with two other tablemates. The $1,100 it cost to buy in to the tournament meant nothing to him, and he would be damned if he was going to let anyone challenge his position as table captain.

I finally called one of his raises with king-queen, and the two of us saw a flop of Q-4-8. When I bet about half the pot, Bohn immediately shoved forward his entire stack of chips. I had him covered but not by very much, so if I called and lost, I would be crippled. Against most players I would probably have folded in this spot, with only one pair and the second-best kicker. Against Bohn, though, my hand seemed decent enough, if barely, to call with. I did, and I was right. Bohn turned over queen-jack; he would lose all his chips unless a jack appeared on the board.

Quoting poker reporter Chad Holloway: “Bohn had a kicker problem, but it got resolved when a jack spiked on the turn.”

Bohn bellowed, “Booyah!” as I viciously cursed the Royal Hibernian poker gods. My dead-on read and gutsy call blew up in my face. No wonder Bohn wins so much money, I whined to myself, if he keeps sucking out in big pots. I got halfway out of my chair, slinging my backpack onto one shoulder, preparing for the tedious 90-minute drive home, minus $1,100, as Bohn whooped it up.

But there was still one more card to be revealed. Holloway again: “Unfortunately for [Bohn], his lead was short-lived, as a king spiked on the river to give McManus a bigger two pair.” The story appeared under the headline: “A Positively Electric Fifth Street Sends … Blake Bohn to the Rail.”

The 170,000-chip pot put me among the leaders, a position I squandered the next day; I finished 44th out of 596, good for $2,595. The sweet adrenaline surge of that huge suck and resuck had long since drained from my bloodstream. The point, though, is that Bohn betrayed no facial tell before putting me to the test. What clinched my decision to call him so thin — that is, with such a mediocre hand — was his pattern of raising so often.

Tells are almost never as obvious as the Oreo gimmick in Rounders, an otherwise terrific movie about illegal poker games in New York. John Malkovich plays Teddy KGB, the Russian boss of an underground club. He’s a super-tough player himself, good enough to bust the movie’s hero, played by Matt Damon, forcing him to drive a delivery truck for a while to rebuild his bankroll. When the two finally clash in a make-or-break showdown, KGB’s habit of eating Oreos has a new wrinkle: He separates the chocolate halves but doesn’t eat them when he’s bluffing, only when he’s got a big hand — about as plausible a tell as a neon BLUFFING/NOT BLUFFING sign across the forehead of Old West lawman and gambler Wild Bill Hickok.

Actual tells tend to be subtler: facial tics or chip-handling tendencies noticeable only after spending hours reviewing high-def video of a player just before he bluffs or bets with a genuine hand — opportunities seldom afforded outside Super High Roller Bowls or WSOP Main Events. So unless you know Villain really well, it’s hard to base big-money decisions on twitches and blushes and whatnot.

Solid players are more likely to semibluff than they are to run naked bluffs, holding only air. A semibluff is a bet or raise without a made hand, but with one that might easily improve to the nuts, such as a straight or flush draw, sometimes both. If you already have a strong hand yourself — three eights, for example — your best option is often to reraise all-in, charging Villain the highest possible price to continue with his draw. If he (or she; there are plenty of top-tier women players these days) knows what he’s doing, he will consider your tendencies but will tend to call or fold depending mainly on the ratio between your raise and the rest of the pot, compared with the odds of completing his straight or flush without the board pairing, in which case you would have a full house or quads. He’ll rely, in other words, more on math than psychology.

All this might seem inordinately complicated, but the more you play and study, the more automatic such reads and calculations will become. In the meantime, read primers and faithfully work through their sample problem hands. Hire a coach or subscribe to an online coaching site. (Run It Once and Advanced Jonathan Little Poker are two of the best.) Don’t beat those Villains with a hose — at least not literally. Just keep close track of how often they raise, call, or fold. Debate with your poker buddies the best move in various ticklish situations. Reread the primers that seem to work best for you. There’s no telling what you might learn. And yet …

To paraphrase Edward Hirsch, the toughest poker Villains will always have something about them that evades understanding, something not likely to be revealed by whether or not they’ve swallowed the Oreo.

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