Tuesday, March 15, 2005

If I Only Knew Then What I Know Now

First things first, a poker guru I ain't. Let's just get that out of the way. Yeah, I've played a lot of hands, yeah I'm a pretty good poker player, yeah, yeah, yeah. I make money playing poker. I read books. I think about poker far too often. All that said, I'm probably only about 60% of the way up ol' Mt. Poker. I'm only just starting to regularly sit 10/20 and 15/30 games, and even those make me slightly soil my monkey diaper at times. So yeah, still very much learning, still climbing.

It's been interesting lately as I've been helping assorted people get started with playing poker online, trying to distill assorted things I've learned into Grand Poker Truths, as far as giving them a simple, basic foundation for not immediately losing their ass. I think that's a pretty good startng goal, as so much of success at poker is sheer stubbornness, sticking with it and sticking with it and sticking with it until you accumulate enough practical knowledge and experience to start winning.

The interesting part is that as part of that process I've been paying more attention to my own game, as it's far too easy to pop off and recycle general poker wisdom that really isn't reflected in your own results. It's one thing to say that it's a good idea to play medium suited/one gap connectors in a multiway pot but quite another to do it profitably yourself. The process is doubly interesting when you have a handy poker blog to read back through, wincing and grimacing at things you boldly proclaimed that you now completely and utterly disagree with.

So, in no particular order, here are a few things I have recently realized the true importane/unimportance of, in the I Wish I Knew Then category.

  • Assume The Position, Baby

    It really is all about position. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about limit, no-limit, pot limit, Omaha, Razz, whatever. While I don't think I exactly ignored the fact that position was important, I didn't place it any higher on the list than assorted other poker truisms. Yeah, cool, it's good to act last, but it's still all about the flop, and I can still crush you like a bug with my AJo from UTG if I get a good flop.

    That's half right (maybe one-quarter right), but it's ignoring a really important concept, one that becomes increasingly important as you move up in limits. More often than not, the flop largely misses everyone, in a typical game with 2-3 people seeing the flop. If you have position in those hands, you'll win more than your fair share of them. If you win more than your fair share of those hands, you'll win money in the long run. It's just that easy.

    Yes, indeed, hands like AA, KK, and AKs will always be your biggest money-winners. From any position. That's easy to see in your PokerTracker stats. What's not easy to see, though, are all the times you pick up the antes and bets from limpers with A4o on the button when you bet on the flop and everyone folds. It's not hard to win the hands when you overwhelmingly have the best of it. It's also not enough to simply wait for and win with those hands. To be a long-term winner, you have to win a certain amount of hands when you have no cards. To do that, you have to be in correct position. There's no getting around it.

    If you're going to focus on one thing, focus on your position at the table. Sometimes even more so than the cards in front of you, depending on the natur eof the other players at the table. Blasphemy, I know, but it's true. When the poker gurus talk about the value of position in whatever book you're reading, pay attention. They're right.

    Don't let it discourage you, as far as limiting the hands you can play. Look at the flip side of it, as it means you get to freewheel more on/near the button, opening your starting hand selection and playing more aggressively.

  • Know Thy Odds

    I'm sorry, no. That's bullshit. You don't have an "intuitive" feel for odds. I told myself that very thing, too, on many occasions. Yes, over time you'll develop a generally accurate read on situations that are grossly lopsided in one or the other direction, when you're correct thinking "Gee, there's an assload of chips in the pot already, it must be okay to call one more bet with my gutshot straight draw". But by and large it's a mistake to claim any sort of intuitive mastery of odds, as more often than not you're deluding yourself.

    Where you bleed money, though, is on the marginal decisions, where you don't quite have the correct pot/implied odds to call, or where you fold when you you barely, marginally should call. The reason this hurts you is that marginal decisions like that occur frequently, each and every session, so while the wrong decision may only cost you .08 each time you make it, it adds up quickly over time, as you're constantly faced with the same decision. Sklansky has a good example of this phenomenon, where he points out that always folding a royal flush isn't that horrible a play, due to the fact that you so rarely hold a royal flush that it's essentially not costing you any money to fold it, over the life of your poker career.

    Don't skip those sections in assorted books where they get all mathy and start talking about pot and implied odds. Just learn it. Don't be stubborn and fight the battle. Look at it like a savings account with compunded interest. Yes, it's a little work to save up and learn it, yes it makes playing poker "harder", making calculations at the table, but it'll make/save you an enormous amount of money over you poker career. And the sooner you bite the bullet the better.

  • Table, Schmable

    This one may generate some flak, but more and more I think table selection is overrated, especially at lower limits. Yes, with GameTime+, PokerTracker, and other tools you can definitely cherry-pick situations that are more optimal than others. But table makeup changes so rapidly in online poker, with players coming and going, that a "juicy" table suddenly becomes un-juicy.

    The real, underlying point is that you're eventually going to need to be able to adjust and compensate for what's going on at the table. The aforementioned tools help with giving you an initial read, but what you do with that information moving forward is where the real battle and struggle for chips lies. It's not enough to just find and sit at a good table. It's not even half the battle.

    I'm not saying it's a bad thing to spend a lot of time scoping out what you feel are prime tables, just that you can take the notion too far. If you put too much emphasis on the value of it you'll constantly be looking for a better table, jumping up when the current table conditions deteriorate, doing things other than concentrating on playing your best game. You've got enough things to worry about, especially when you're starting out, without worrying if you sat down at the right table, if that one over there might be better, etc.

  • Bring Enough Bullets

    This is a hard one, especially when you're building a bankroll. But you can't play with scared money. It just doesn't work. While it's possible to run $50 into a $10,000 roll in 3 months, the much more likely outcome is that you play for awhile then bust. Then rebuy for $50 more. Then play for a little bit longer. Then bust. Over and over and over.

    Online poker isn't going anywhere. You're going to need years and many thousands of hands before you really start making money, anyway. If you don't have enough of a bankroll to play the way you know you should be playing, save until you have the necessary roll. Spend that time studying, playing freerolls, learning. Wait until you can deposit enough to give yourself a decent chance of success. Don't hamstring yourself by constantly nursing tiny bankrolls. All you're doing is conditioning yourself to play scared, which'll bite you in the ass later on even if you do run your roll up.

    Playing poker seriously is an investment in yourself. If you're going to do it, do it right. Give yourself the best shot to succeed, instead of trying for months and months to bootstrap $50 into a decent roll. If you don't have the faith to invest $500 in yourself, well, where are you going to find the faith to succeed?

    Yes, I know, that sounds harsh. Yes, I know, sometimes you have other bills, other much more important things to take care of instead of putting money into an online poker site. I'm not belittling or ignoring that at all. I'm just saying that it's better sometimes to focus on the parts of your game that don't involve actually playing at the table.

  • Results-Oriented Isn't a Four Letter Word

    Set goals for yourself. Tangible goals. Dollar figure goals. That's why you're playing poker, if you get down to brass tacks. Don't shy away from it or act coy.

    People will say over and over that you shouldn't be results-oriented, that it'll drive you crazy if you are, especially as you see your AA get cracked over and over and over by 74o. They'll extend the argument and say that you shouldn't focus on the results from one individual session, or a week's worth of sessions, or even a month, as it's the big picture you should keep a steady eye on, knowing that your solid play over time will cause more chips to congregate on your side of the table.

    I cry bullshit on that. The warm fuzzy feeling that you're playing solid poker, despite the mounting losses, is worth exactly jack and squat. Poker is a game of winners and losers, and the difference between the two is gaudily visible, impossible to miss. If you play better than the other people at the table, you win. If you don't, you lose. Winners make money. Losers lose money.

    Be results-oriented. Track exactly how much you've won or lost and set specific goals. No matter how you try to pitch it, success in poker is determined by how much money you win. Accept that. Accept the fact that you're going to lose money while you're learning and developing your chops. It's an investment. Not all investments immediately skyrocket and triple in value. Get used to that fact.

    Set realistic goals for yourself. Try to halve what you're losing each month, if you're losing money. Or shoot for 25% more profit than the previous month. Don't just pat yourself on the back and say you're playing good poker and to hang in there. Don't just grin at how well things are going and keep flinging chips. Always have a destination in mind and a way to track progress towards it. If you don't you just stall out, feeling alternately driven and adrift.

    Does setting tangible goals cure variance? Of course not. No amount of setting goals or trying harder will. You'll have some months where your losses will deepen and your goals will like freaking ridiculous in hindsight, no matter how solidly you play or how much you study. The point is that if you're always setting specific, results-oriented goals you're always questioning, always pushing, always keeping your eye on the only visible barometer you have.

    I say this from direct experience, as I spent far too long not holding myself accountable, telling myself I was playing well, to keep on eye on the larger prize, that the cards would eventually turn, etc. When I started making real progress was when I got much more serious about analyzing the state of things, setting real goals, tracking my play to a pretty fine level of detail.

  • Have Fun

  • No, really. If you aren't having fun anymore, you're playing too much poker. It won't always be fun, granted, as that's the nature of the beast, but one of the worst things you can do is to keep grinding and playing when you're not having fun. One of my biggest regrets is all the time I spent playing when I wasn't in the right state of mind to enjoy it, for whatever reason.

    Turn off the computer. Read a book. Go outside and throw rocks at squirrels. If you truly enjoy playing poker, the itch will return. If it doesn't, well, that's not the end of the world either, as you'll likely save yourself the constant love/hate relationship that many people have with poker.


    Pauly said...

    Great tips.

    Human Head said...

    effing great post.

    Unknown said...

    Excellent post.

    But the squirrels at my house have a bone to pick with you.

    SirFWALGMan said...

    "Gee, there's an assload of chips in the pot already, it must be okay to call one more bet with my gutshot straight draw"

    Laughing my Ass Off! Please do not ready todays post! You will rip me a new one.

    Joe Speaker said...


    I'll come back to read this one whenever I--and my game--need a good talking to.