Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Poker Table Selection

Poker Tip O' the Day
I'm not sure who to give the original credit for this tip to (as I've seen it mentioned on different blogs), but if you find yourself being too results-oriented (i.e. constantly checking the balance in your account on the poker site you're playing at, or telling yourself you'll quit playing when you're +10BB), try playing blind for a few sessions. Simply cover up the graphics that display the chips/money you have at a table with a sticky Post-It note. Except for a few rare occasions, that number is essentially meaningless and shouldn't affect your play and mindset as much as it often does. If you can't block it out, the next best thing is to cover it up.

Table Selection, Thou Art King

So you want to play some poker. You fire up the online poker site of your choice, click to your favorite limit, find an empty seat, click it, grab some chips, and start firing. Right?

Well, yeah. That is right. There's nothing wrong with that at all. But, like many things, there are various degrees of "right". And our goal in poker is to maximize how "right" we are, in each and every situation, as our overall profit comes from accumulating lots of tiny, individual correct decisions into a big shiny overall profit.

Table selection is very important. If you're going to profit from playing poker, it necessarily comes at the expense of other people sitting at the table with you. That's the nature of the beast. But all tables are definitely not created equally.

Before you take a seat, sit and watch the action for an orbit. Yes, I know, that's frustrating as hell. You want to play, damnit, not sit and watch. Who cares what the action is, you claim, as most of these players will rotate in and out, they're all fishes anyway, I don't need to sit here and...

Yes, you do. Wouldn't you rather have that maniac that raises nearly any two cards pre-flop immediately to your right? Would you rather avoid him altogether? Wouldn't you rather know that the betting is capped three times out of four pre-flop? Or that three or four players chased gutshot straights down to the river, cold calling the guy raising with TPTK all the way?

Here's another way of looking at it. If you can even imagine seeing action at the table in one orbit that might cause you to second-guess your decision to sit down, then you must sit and watch at least one orbit of action. The last thing you want is to start a session with any misgivings whatsoever. If nothing can phase you and you can switch gears with the best of them, come maniacs or ultra-tight rock gardens, then by all means, sit down and get some chips as quickly as possible. But if certain game conditions make you nervous, you owe it to yourself to sit tight and check out the table first.

Will you always pick that up based on viewing one orbit of action? Of course not. Should you wait patiently for an hour, scanning tables, trying to find the perfect table? Of course not. The last thing I'm advocating is paralysis by analysis. You want to be playing as soon as possible, as that's where your profit comes from, not by sitting. What I am advocating, though, is doing everything to sit down with a rock-solid confidence that you're maximizing your advantage, at each and every step. Sit down knowing that you're in control, that you're driving, that you're doing every thing possible to put yourself in the most comfortable, profitable situation possible.

Table selection isn't over, though, once you sit down. You're faced with the dilemma of table selection every second that you're playing, as you're always free to get up and find a new table. Assuming you're playing one table, at every moment you're faced with the unspoken, implied question: is this the best place for me to be exposing my money to risk in the hopes of creating a profit? Or, more simply: am I better than these fools, or should I be playing with some other fools?

The answer to that, obviously, is a pretty subjective one. Depending on your own style, your bankroll, the stakes you're playing, you'll have a different answer. Throw in the fact that most online tables rotate players in and out frequently. My perfect table is far different from yours, or hers, or his. The important thing to remember, though, is that the table will change and that you'll have to change with it. And sometimes the easiest way of doing that is to simply get up and find a new table.

I'm a big fan of changing tables whenever I find extraneous elements affecting me. For me, a perfect table is one where I never notice that some idiot has sucked out on me three times in a row, or that I always lose coin flips to that dumbass with the pink shirt. Once you start noting things like that you start playing differently. Yes, obviously, in many cases you should play differently based on what you've observed from other players. That's a given. But when the things you can't control or reliably take advantage of start sticking in your craw, it's time to find new grazing land.

If you're playing lower limits (1/2 and below), I'd also caution against falling into the trap of relying on the presence of maniacs and horrible players to classify a table as "juicy". I'll admit, this is debatable, but it's my personal belief that you really don't want to be sitting at a 10 max table with three or four really bad players, especially ones prone to raising. Yes, indeed, there are large amounts of dead money being shoved into the pot. It's prime for the taking. But it's not a given that the skillful players at the table (i.e. you) will be the ones to take it. Both Sklansky and Miller touch on this (and probably others as well), but the presence of too many fishies creates a "schooling" effect that actually makes their individual piscine play (chasing gutshot straights and flush draws or two outers without the proper odds) the correct play, when two or three of them simultaneously engage in it. Their cumulative "bad" plays build the pot to the point where, magically, each "bad" play becomes "good". While that doesn't mean you can't profit from such games, it means you have to shift gears dramatically, to the point where you're likely better off simply finding another game.

PokerTracker and other databases of player statistics also add a whole new twist on table selection. Should you track, tag, and identify players, and seek them out at whatever table they're sitting at? Of course you should, if you can do it quickly and easily. This is more important at higher limits which typically have a smaller number of regular players, but can apply to all limits. The more you know about a player's tendencies, the greater your advantage. The only way to capitalize from that knowledge is by sitting at the table with them. The obvious caveat, though, is that there's a break-even point where the energy expended to track and play with certain players overcomes any advantage you get. All that time you spend chasing players around from table to table could be spent actually playing. Just keep in mind all the time spent on tracking, tagging, and locating, and be sure it's not counter-productive to your EV in the long run.

There are also larger table selection issues, such as what time of day you play. Various theories abound about when the "best" time of day to play is, but it's hard to argue that conditions on online sites don't change. For most of us, we jump on and play when we have time to, whenever that is. But if your schedule is more flexible, experiment with playing at different times. Maybe early in the morning is more profitable for you, taking advantage of people finishing up a long losing night, trying desperately to recoup their losses. Maybe late on weekend nights is better, taking advantage of the drinking and gambooling crowd. Just keep in mind that part of table selection is the time of day/week that you play, as the composition of players on the site as a whole is affected by larger considerations at various times.

Long story short, every winning (and losing) session starts at the same place: selecting a table. Even if it makes absolutely no difference, 95% of the time, where you sit down, over your poker playing career that 5% will loom large. Take all the little advantages you can get, even if it's something as relatively mundane as the seat you sit down in. Remember, the whole point of table selection is to engage the enemy on your terms, fully confident. With a virtually unlimited number of tables out there, there's always a great table for you, with a warm seat waiting.

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