Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Being Relentless At (and Away From) the Table

One advantage of a mindless day job is that I have much time to sit here and ponder about things. The important things. Like how much blasting across the alkali flats in a jet-powered, monkey-navigated hovercraft would be. Or, you know, poker.

If you were given exactly two words to use, to relate what you think the best poker advice is, distilled from all of your experience, what would they be? For a very long time my nearly automatic answer would have been "Be aggressive", likely followed closely by "Be disciplined". Lately, though, I'm leaning more towards "Be relentless", despite the fact that it takes a little explication.

Here's the thing. My dirty little secret. I'm not the best poker player in the world. I'm not even the best poker player in the room.

Some people are naturally good at certain things, including poker. They have an intuitive feel for strategy, can quickly grasp and calculate implied odds situations, and are ultra aggressive and competitive. I've got none of that. I'm stubborn when it comes to absorbing lessons, struggle calculating odds and assorted maths, and avoid confrontation whenever possible.

I am, though, pretty damn relentless. Especially when you present me with a +EV situation, and the tools to take advantage of it. I may not get there quickly, or with abundant flair, but I'll get there. And once I do, I'll keep quietly pounding away at what works, over and over and over.

Part of being relentless is being ruthless. Not so much in the obvious ways, as far as check-raising the dofus who keeps donk betting on the river with any two cards, but in more introspective ways. I dwell and gnash more on lemur plays I make when I ultimately win the hand than I do on making bad calls or bets when I ultimately lose the hand.

You lose just as much potential profit from making sub-optimal plays when winning as you do when making sub-optimal plays while losing. If anything, winning probably costs you more in the long run, as the natural tendency when losing is to put on the brakes fairly quickly and try to identify what's the source of the problem. Variance and fickle luck and skill can mask sub-optimal plays for a long, long time when you're flush and on a roll, despite the fact that they take a constant toll on your overall profitability.

Or, more simply, you should be most ruthless about examining and tearing your own game down when you're winning, not when you're losing. If you're a winning player, this means that you should pretty much constantly be examining and tearing your game down, always looking for even the smallest of leaks and eradicating them. You should constantly question how you played hands, if you missed a value bet on the river, if you should defend with Q8s in the SB when faced with a raise from the button. You should find useful forums and constantly read them, read every poker book you can get your hands on, and watch and play as much poker as possible.

If you're thinking that none of this sounds like fun, well, guess what, you're right. It isn't fun. If you're playing poker to have fun, you're sacrificing profits and ultimately hamstringing what you can potentially achieve.

Yes, I really mean that.

Lest I sound like a complete hardass, though, I am taking that statement to extremes. Obviously you can play poker, have fun, and make lots of money. And many, many people play poker to have fun, not to maximize their potential profits. So yes, indeed, like many pursuits, there's a boatload of reasons to counter what I just threw out there, as far as enjoyment, camaraderie, friendships that would otherwise never exist, and too many other awesome, good things to list.

What I am getting at, though, is the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the poker beast. Poker is a communal game, but maximizing your potential as a player is almost always a solitary, introspective endeavor. Books, forums, blogs, and emails (and old-fashioned conversations) are all tools that can help you, but they're fodder best crunched and analyzed alone, in comparison to your results from actual play.

Consistently playing poker well is hard work. It's not a hobby. It's not fun. It has no finish line, at which point you can kick up for feet and reap the rewards of your hard work. You have to make sacrifices. You have to treat it seriously and constantly tear yourself down and fix a very critical gaze upon your own reflection.

The vast majority of us only have a limited amount of time each day to devote to poker. Spend that time well. If you're serious about poker, be serious about poker. If you're not serious about poker, be honest with yourself. I'm not necessarily saying it's an either/or decision, as far as choosing to have fun or maximize your poker potential, but it's pretty close. Whichever you choose, at least be knowledgeable about the choice. 95% of the poker-related frustration that I read people blogging about isn't really about poker at all, but about a lack of focus, as far as what they want from poker and what they're willing to expend to achieve that.

Building and taking part in a community can be a double-edge sword. On the one hand, you have a constant support network, always within reach, at nearly any point in time. On the other hand, successful communities absorb an enormous amount of time and energy of individual members, by nature. Time is a pretty precious, finite commodity, especially if you're focused on achieving certain individual goals. Hoarders and spenders almost never end up in the same tax bracket.

In the end, it's all up to you. Which is really the point of all this rambling. If you're relentless enough, you can beat any level of poker. Anyone can. Honestly. But the price you pay is pretty steep, as it's not a matter of reading a few books, picking up enough tips and tricks, and then playing winning poker. It's a constant toil, always rolling that damn rock back up that damn hill, which is especially frustrating as, unlike ol' Sisyphus, you can choose to just walk away whenever you want.

If you want to guarantee yourself to be a long-term winner at poker, be relentless and ruthless. If you don't want that guarantee, don't. It's up to you.


WillWonka said...

so what are you trying to say? lol.

Sometimes, it finding those leaks that is the hard part... are you cold calling to much.. are you not value betting on river when you should.. are you defending your blinds correctly or conversely, are you stealing the blinds right.. are you playing those draws aggressively enough..
To me that is the hard part; finding the leaks that need fixin'.

When you are on a prolonged down streak, it seems as though you try to fix too many things that may or may not be broken. The leaks are there.. you just have to find them.

Thanks again for another great post!!!

Easycure said...

Tournament poker is fun.....that' what I do.

Maudie said...

"It's a constant toil, always rolling that damn rock back up that damn hill"

Well said, Scurv, nice post.

Bill Rini said...

Nice post. Excellent insight into what it takes to be a great player.

Joe Speaker said...

You talkin' to me? :)

This hits right at the heart of where I am right now, deciding where exactly poker fits. Hit a wall where it is decidedly NOT FUN to play online (live is another story) and whether the reward of maximizing my ability in the game is worth that grind.

A very important post. Thanks.

TripJax said...

Been meaning to drop by and tell you how great this post was. Good job man.