shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

Some suggested that it isn't a good idea to play in mixed games, arguing that Mixed games are to give each player a chance to play a game (s)he is good at. I want to play a game I am good and and not games other people are good at. Thereby increasing my EV. I think this argument is ultimately flawed, and I think most of the players in the Big Game would disagree. I am not completely sure what their arguments against it would be, but I have a few arguments against it that are likely more like to be applicable to the small-time, recreational-but-profitable player.

Fundamentally, I believe this argument that you get maximum EV only by playing your best game relies on two flawed assumptions: (a) the relative popularity and competition of specific forms of poker don't change over time, and (b) that poker games are so different that EV from one doesn't transfer to the other. Were (a) and (b) both true, one would usually be correct to select only games in which one is an expert. You'd usually reach maximum EV in such a case.

In thinking about (a), I immediately remembered a two or three page section of Jesse May's book, Shut Up and Deal. I read this pre-boom book many years ago, and it frankly is a lackluster tale of high stakes limit HE. But this one section really stood out, and it has probably influenced my desire to be good at all forms of poker as much as my history of beginning my poker career in mixed games did. (I am retelling it from memory as I don't have the book handy; forgive errors, but the gist is right.)

In a brief first person description, May describes the difference between him and the local casino's high stakes limit HE “specialist”. May points out that this fellow sits in his $50/$100 limit HE game and holds court. This fellow points out the nuances of every play, and has opponents who are just a notch or two below him on the skill pecking order. That specialist wins, most of the time, but fights to eek it out while he continues to watch his competition catch up.

The hero of the story, on the other hand, isn't afraid to go sit in the $20/$40 stud game. Sure, HE is his best game, and he's only a mediocre stud player. But, the difference between his mediocre skills and the abysmal skills of the opponents in that game makes sure he can win more than the other fellow ever could against that tough lineup in the $50/$100 HE game. Sure, they are both winning players, but who is winning more? Our hero, despite the lower stakes. Who is the better poker player? It's not even close — our hero.

Poker is not just about micro-edges. It's not just about whether or not you can bet the right amount on the river to get a value bet paid off by middle pair. Sure, you have to know how to do that to win in poker. But, that's just a small part of the picture. The macro-edges are where it matters, and the biggest macro-edge is game selection. Indeed, I'd argue that the key macro-edge is long term game selection ability.

What game the fish want to play changes over time. Do you want to be the best HE player against eight people who are only make one mistake every hour, or do you want to be an above average Stud/8 player against eight opponents who each make two mistakes every other hand? What's your best EV? The point is that if you plan to maximize your EV for your poker lifespan, you have to be able to play every single game well. You don't know — none of us do — what form of poker will sweep the world next. We've seen, maybe not in our lifetimes, but certainly in Doyle Brunson's and T.J. Cloutier's, NL HE go from being the most popular game in the world, to only played in tournaments, to the most popular game. That 30 year cycle can happen again, easily.

Think of the history of poker. At the moment, NL HE is by far the most popular game. Just four years ago, limit HE tables filled every poker room and NL HE was basically dead, except in tournaments on occasion. Go back a decade, and, especially on the east coast, Stud and Stud/8 were the games most commonly spread. Stretch back two or three decades, it was again NL HE. Two or three decades before that, it was mixed five card stud and seven card stud. Once you stretch back back to 1880, you find prominently five card draw with only a little bit of Stud. Pick any 60 year span, and you're going to find at least four different games that you'll need to be prepared to play.

Indeed, even since I started playing for serious stakes back in 2002, the poker world has changed in this regard. The books that I had to buy back then were Lee Jones followed by HEFAP. Limit HE was where the money was then. I've watched the world shift around me. Should I have never ventured and plopped down some cash — with negative EV, mind you — in that early River Street NL HE nuttiness to earn my chops in that game? If I hadn't, I surely would be walking around like the rest of the limit HE specialists desperate for a good game, fighting tight edges, and generally not finding the games as lucrative as they once were. Instead, I can make steady money with less variance because I play the much weaker competition floating around the NL HE games.

Meanwhile, the last few weeks I've been hitting that sweet O/8 game on Monday nights here in NYC — better EV than any NL HE game I could find in the same geographical area. In other words, the poker world shifts, and the money dumps happen in different places. You get the best EV when you are poised to catch it no matter where it falls.

This leads to the next point, and the refutation of (b) above. Poker skill is transferable. Read Theory of Poker. There are general principles that can be extrapolated from one game to the next. At times, you even don't see how a concept works in one game until you switch to another and see it applied there. What you learn in one game expands your mind and teaches you how to think differently about another game.

A simple example: How many HE-only players really understand the concept of a true freeroll and how dangerous it can be? This is a simple concept for the PLO, O/8 and Stud/8 player, but many HE players can't get it. But, I have, a few times folded a second-nut straight precisely because I knew that my opponent most likely held the same straight, but could very well have a freeroll against me. Sure enough, when I've seen the hands shown down due to other player's all-ins, I've seen people holding the same straight plus a gutshot or the same straight with a flush draw. This situation happens extremely rarely in HE, but if you have some PLO, O/8 or Stud/8 experience, you can learn how to detect it and avoid it.

A more complex example: I spent years playing limit HE, and got very used to the difficulty of the turn and the rising pot odds. Many people take flops and turns in limit HE, and they often hit strange two pair holdings and even sets. You often have to be prepared to fold top pair or an overpair when you've taken a turn in a big multiway pot and someone (min)-raises you and just can't be bluffing. Experienced limit HE players will recognize this situation immediately, but it's not a common one in NL/PL forms of poker.

However, I sat in NL HE games that play much like limit. Not at first, of course, because you're making a pot-sized bet. But, against extremely loose players, it doesn't matter that you are making pot-sized bets, or even larger. You get call, call, call all the way down the line. Now, when someone min-raises, you are getting these amazing pot odds, and the player who grew up on NL HE only is going to sit and think: How in the world does someone fold being offered 5-to-1?. But, the truth is, you're drawing dead or near dead (3 outs or less). So, you let it go. It is only because of my limit HE experience that I can recognize these situations and let go of hands in these spots.

Poker is about adapting to changing conditions, not only on the micro-level that we all think about daily, but also on the macro-level over a period of years. If you don't expand your poker mind, and become a bit of a Renaissance player, that EV in your “best game” can easily disappear.

The best players in the world are mixed games players. I meet a lot of poker players who are much worse than me and a lot who are much better than me. Generally, the ones who are much better play more than just one game, even if it's just two. Almost every very strong player out there has spent some time playing lots of different games. Even the amazing limit HE specialists I know like [livejournal.com profile] roryk who have resisted going to NL HE are usually branching out into other forms of limit poker at the very least.

I have many times offered up my home game as a learning game. I want to keep that feel to it. Everyone there is in constant search of good EV, they wouldn't be good poker players otherwise. Yes, it's probably not the best game to maximize your EV over the six hour period in question. However, I assure you that playing mixed games at reasonable but not high stakes against reasonably good players will be a windfall for your long term EV. And, that's what poker is about, isn't it, focusing on long term EV rather than short term results?

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

[livejournal.com profile] roryk asked me in a comment if I had any ideas on how to get better at limit O/8. I am quite flattered he asked me. I don't really know as much as I'd like to about the game. However, roryk isn't the first to ask, as I play in a home game with group of people trying to learn some mixed games. So, I guess I'll give my best shot at helping people learn limit O/8. I should note that while O/8 is probably tied with limit HE as my fourth best game (behind NL HE, PLO and triple draw lowball), I'm not an expert by any means, and I have absolutely no idea how to beat a game full of strong, experienced players. The money I've made both in limit HE and limit O/8 have been purely from basic knowledge and good game selection.

So, without further ado, I dive into a brief tutorial for the new limit O/8 player, geared toward someone who already knows something about some other form of poker. )

shipitfish: (partly-cloudy-patriot)

In his highly acclaimed comedy performance, Dress to Kill, Eddie Izzard points out that the Church of England has no fundamentalists, because they simply aren't that far into the religious aspects of life. He argues that the most radical of questions a C of E fundamentalist would ever come up with would be Tea and Cake, or Death, and Izzard comically points out how easy of a question Cake, or Death? would be to answer, should one of these C of E fundamentalists ever approach you.

I got a question today from a poker fundamentalist on an old blog entry. My first thought was of Izzard's comedic Cake or Death sketch. Someone sitting in a hotel, asked me, Do you suck [at poker], or lie [about your winnings]?.

So, should I take suck or lie? Izzard's point, of course, about these fundamentalists is that single-minded thinking, where the options are narrowed to two ludicrous paths, are exactly where single-minded religious focus falls into the absurd. I think this fellow has done the same.

Of course, there are many players out there, even playing at my stakes, making a hell of a lot more than I am (at least in the short term). Poker games are really juicy right now, and lots of new players have done well early, through a combination of luck and some basic skill. I believe that over time, the luck is going to even out for those players who are beating these games for more than the statically expected.

Regardless, I take every poker criticism, however ludicrous it seems on the surface, very seriously. I therefore don't want to dismiss the possibility that I suck or lie; someone has made the case, so I will attempt to figure out if he's right. Checking whether I am lying is pretty easy; I simply am not. I don't plan to prove that to Mr. Hotel with scanned images of my bank records. My readers will just have to assume that for sake of argument that I am not lying and my results are as I say they are. Why would I draw the IRS' attention by ranting about how I pay my taxes on poker winnings if I wasn't paying them in full?

So, let's dig deeper into those results to see if I suck. I generally can eek out about .7 big bets per hour (or per 100 hands) in limit (I'm frankly not that great of a limit player), and I can pull down 5-7 big binds per hour (or per 100 hands) in NL games. In the really soft games, I find that I can reach that 7 big blind level pretty frequently, and when the games are a bit tougher, I struggle to stay at the 5 level.

I have looked at years of results — online databases of hands and session records from live play — and I don't think I'm that far from the theoretical expected maximums. I do figure I could get myself to a 1.5 big bet winner in the limit games with serious work, but until NL and PL structures actually start to completely fizzle out, I'm going to hold off into putting serious work into my limit game. I probably do suck more than I should at limit, but that's been a known problem in my game for quite some time and don't think I'm likely to improve it. I had two choices: work on my limit game, or focus on NL/PL, and I've chosen the latter. I argue this isn't “sucking”, it's picking a specific area of focus and holding off improving another area that isn't all that popular at the moment, anyway. In other words, I've made a game selection decision that I'd be better off improving my NL and PL game for the moment.

Another idea I had to investigate the possible source of the comment was, instead of looking at my average results based on that session data, that I would take the numbers backwards instead. In other words, let's investigate if making around $10,000 a year fits with a reasonable amount of EV, given how often I play. Ok, so for sake of simplicity, let's figure I made exactly $10,000 and I played only $1/$2 NL and made that average of six big blinds per hour. That means that I would have played 833.33 hours in a year, or about 16 hours each week. On average, this is exactly how much I am playing. Some weeks I don't have time to play at all on the weekdays. Those days, I play about 8 hours a day each of Saturday and Sunday. On weeks when I've put in a few hours during the weekday evenings, I usually put in less on the weekends. Anyway, I have to note that I was truly amazed that the numbers, which I hadn't looked at in this “top down” way ever before, actually matched perfectly to the EV numbers I calculated using other data sets. It's not mere mathematical symmetry, because my banking records which I use to generate my tax data and that $10k number are completely separate records from the session data I used to generate the average win rate numbers.

Of course, if we do the numbers from a limit perspective (I did play some limit in 2004 and 2005), it comes out to about 18 hours a week of half $5/$10, half $10/$20 (i.e., the theoretical limit of $7.50/$15). Again, the numbers match my actual playing frequency.

Anyway, this troller has given me two options (suck or lie?), neither of which makes much sense given the data. Sure, I'm not the best player I could be. I suppose there must be players out there who have reached a pinnacle of 3 big bets per hour in limit and 12 big blinds per hour in NL. However, I may be well on my way, because my results show a steady climb (when I first started NL, I was lucky to stay even over time and I was certainly net loser in the early River Street days). Of course, my game needs work (everyone's really does), but wouldn't the first step in such work involve being honest about one's results? And if you are honest about your results, how can you suck? To really suck at poker, you have to be someone who is unwilling to be honest with yourself about your game.

I think that newcomers to poker are far too optimistic about what is possible with regard to wins. I know a lot of young kids who have had amazing runs, and they have moved up in stakes quickly. I heard about one young boy who has put together a $30,000 bankroll in the matter of just about a year (having started at $1/$2 NL), and he frequently sits in $100/$200 NL games with his whole bankroll on the table. Sure, he's winning now and may win for a while, but the odds say that a crash and burn is coming unless he gets realistic.

Meanwhile, I have friends asking me why I'm still usually playing $1/$2 NL after all these years and only occasionally taking shots at bigger games. It's true that I keep very conservative bankroll requirements (having gone broke twice, once for having inadequate bankroll and once for raiding it for other expenses). I simply don't believe I have a reasonable bankroll for bigger games. Meanwhile, I've chosen this year to take some profit from poker, so my bankroll, for most of this year, has been at static size; my winnings each month leave it steadily for other expenses.

I'm a winning player who constantly tries to get better, and that's enough for me for the moment. Maybe I'm not improving as fast as others, nor making as much as people who are playing above their bankroll, but that's ok with me. I'm pretty sure I'd have to quit my hectic job if I wanted to focus even more on poker. So, my message to my hotel-posting friend is: money isn't as important as you think it is; making the correct decisions and playing well and within your bankroll is. The money will come as a side effect over time. For my part, I'm happy to wait, as long as I play my best game every time and learn something every time I play. Occasionally, I feel a twinge of worry that the games will dry up before I have a chance to cash in at higher limits, but I really believe I'd have to go to full-time professional now to do that, and I don't want to quit my job and take that life-risk at the moment. If I miss the best part of the boom, I'll miss it. I'm thinking long term here.

I'll end with this link to an excellent Barry Tanenbaum article that I (ironically) just read before going to bed last night. His point is that there is much luck in poker that is hidden, and you could be experiencing a lot of that kind of luck and not even realize it. I think so many players, probably Mr. Hotel included, have generally good basic poker skills but also have, on top of that, gotten really lucky in this way over the last year or two. It's not that they can't overcome it and get better; it's just that their hidden luck might lead them believe that amazing results are normal. In fact, I know from experience that those amazing results are simply a cushion that will later help you survive the times when your hidden luck suddenly transforms into someone else's overt luck — every time they are in a pot with you. Don't be a fundamentalist about it; Don't assume that your better-EV-than-thou faith in The Great Sklansky and your excellent recent results actually measure how good you are. We all suck a little bit and we all are God's proverbial gift to poker a little bit. Sure, read Sklansky religiously and be proud of your results, but remember that poker isn't as simple as Cake, or Death.

Chips at the Ready

Wednesday, 16 August 2006 10:43
shipitfish: (l-club-stack-2006-02)

I read something in another blog that I had been meaning to mention here as a bit of advice for newer players. It's a simple tidbit of live play help that I've actually never seen mentioned elsewhere. I was therefore excited to see it mentioned in Steve's Poker Notes, an online journal of a semi-pro player in Texas. (LJ users will want this syndicated feed.)

One of the toughest parts about playing live if you are new — either because you are a new player altogether, or because your previous experience has been online — is tracking the pot size. I began with limit HE, which is a nice starter course. For limit games, you only need to count how many small bets are in the pot, then divide in half after the flop action, then start counting big bets from there. You are also always just adding one to a number already in your head, so pot-counting can become an automatic background task of your brain with practice.

NL games are more difficult, because you usually need to keep track in dollar amounts, or at least number of chips (if, generally, people have the same color of chips). To aid in counting, about six months ago, I started getting into a defined habit right after the preflop action ends. As the action closes on the preflop round, I pull aside from my stack the amount that is in the pot. Steve recently posted that he does the same thing.

This movement has a number of advantages. First, you have a reference for the pot size as the flop action starts, in case you lose count. Second, if you feel that making a quick bet is the image and feeling you want to get across, you can quickly make both full pot-sized and half-pot (by cutting the stack in half) bets without any counting.

My River Street colleagues probably remember me as one of “those” players who took forever to act. The truth that I never told anyone but [livejournal.com profile] nick_marden at the time was that I spent half that time putting the action back together and figuring out how much was in the pot. I have a good memory for action in a poker game, and can often reconstruct the pot size at any moment, but it wastes time and distracts from thinking about what is actually going on. It's better to have a reference handy so you don't need to recount.

I have found this little organizational trick to work best on the flop. Recently, at the Wynn, I experimented with doing it on the turn and river in very deep stacked games. I found there was a certain amount of fumbling required to get the (usually now large) pot size set aside before the turn came out, all while trying to watch my opponents reaction to the turn card. So, I gave up continuing that experiment for a while. Since then, I've been thinking that maybe pulling two times the pot size aside preflop might be an aid in speeding along this process and make it possible to have a similar “reference stack” for the turn as well. (Note: in shorter stacked (100 big blind buy-in) games, it's unlikely there will be enough chips behind as the turn comes for the exact amounts to matter past that point. Typically in such games, everyone only has a pot size bet left if there has been significant action on the flop.)

Another edge this process gives you is that you never actually have to glance at your chips during the flop betting round. Not even to count your own bet, raise or call. This allows you to watch your opponents instead, and makes sure you don't have the classic Caro “chip glancing” tell when you hit the flop. You just train yourself: I have no reason to look at my chips during the flop round, so I won't no matter what.

Finally, if you are a nervous chip handler — meaning, you always want to play with chips — this gives you a working stack to play with that actually has some meaning. Oh, do note that if you do have that chip riffling nervous habit, be sure you don't stop or riffle more vigorously based on what's going on in the hand. I used to have a tell whereby I fumbled more with chip riffling if I was worried my opponent was about to do what I didn't want him to do (which allowed someone to fake a call, see I reacted poorly, and then go ahead make the call). Now I don't play with chips at all once I've acted on a particular betting round for this reason.

Anyway, it was good to see, with Steve's post, that this method of counting the pot from your stack isn't just a silly personal habit. Looks like it might be a useful piece of advice to new players.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

Back in March, I mentioned that I was hoping to write up various cognitive biases and how they relate to poker. I'd first like to cover the trait ascription bias, because I think it drives at the heart of one of the first things poker books teach us.

All introductory poker books tell us to profile players at our table. Generally, there are four categories: tight-weak, tight-aggressive, loose-passive, and loose-aggressive. We are often encouraged to make these assessments quickly.

However, the trait ascription bias indicates that people are more complicated than that. For new players, these four categories are a way to begin to learn how to classify the play of others. But, if you are finding, as you advance, that you still have only six words you use to describe someone's play, you have fallen into the trait ascription bias.

The answer, of course, is right there in the “other half” of the bias' definition. If you monitor your own play carefully, you'll see that you have probably fallen into every single one of those categories from time to time. Of course, your natural tendency is in one specific place. (Schoonmaker's Psychology of Poker helps you fill out nice charts to understand yours and others natural tendencies.) But, you have the ability to move around in tendencies based on your mood, the game conditions, or even how much sleep you've had.

Other people are like this, too. Greg (of River Street) once told me that he doesn't like to take notes on players online, but rather focus on “session reads” to see where the players are at the given moment. There is some serious value in this, because it helps Greg avoid the trait ascription bias by not stereotyping players.

I have done reasonably well avoiding it, but in a different way. My online notes usually say things like this: I've seen this player do X in situation Y. In other words, I keep track of what I've seen, but don't ascribe to it any particular classification. You begin to understand tendencies when you observe similar behavior over long periods of time, but at each given moment, you have to assume that it is not necessarily a predictor of future behavior until it is observable as a pattern.

Another piece of this trait attribution puzzle is that people learn. I mentioned a while back that I recently played W.D. heads up. I played my usual hyper-aggressive heads-up style against him which failed to work. He's learned a lot of poker since the last time we sat down. I fell into the trait ascription bias by assuming that his skill had stayed static, when of course it hadn't. It had been months since we played heads-up, and I had actually been a witness to his improvement, as we talk about poker almost daily! Trait attribution bias can be quite strong if it can cause someone to hold the bias in a situation that they have personally witnessed change.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

Like most people of reasonable intelligence who have a disdain for the corporate world, I spent far too much time in the academic world. I have an utterly useless Master's degree in Computer Science, that I pursued only because corporate technology jobs were sucking my will to live and I couldn't think of anything else to do. During my time in graduate school, I also spent a year teaching high school. I got out of the whole experience alive, without spending years of my life writing a PhD dissertation that only five people would ever read. I sometimes consider it a narrow escape.

There are, however, certain principles of academic work that create useful lifelong habits. Frankly, the academic “skill” of pouring over mounds of seemingly useless information, condensing it into something vaguely applicable, and then going out and trying to make something of it has served me well in life, and in poker, especially. There are certain ways in which a rigorous pursuit poker success is like the academic lifestyle.

The most obvious graduate school principle that applies to poker is the need for constant yet independent study. There is rarely heavy structure in graduate programs, and so it is in poker. You can hire a coach (adviser), you can talk about hands with friends online and offline (study groups), but you are more or less on your own to learn.

But, the most interesting aspect of my years as teacher and student that have helped my poker game relates to development of “level 2” play. For those who aren't familiar with the term (or are more familiar with different phrasing), I'll digress a bit to define these so-called levels of play:

Level 1:
Knowing what hand you have (and its relative strength in given situations).
Level 2:
Knowing what hand your opponent has.
Level 3:
Knowing what hand your opponent thinks you have.
Level 4:
Knowing what hand your opponent thinks you think that he has.

Popular theories state that your best edge comes when you are thinking one level deeper than your opponent. (Personally, I think anything past level-3 is pure game theory, and it isn't worth psyching yourself out with it — if your opponent is that tough, just make the play that a rigorous game theoretical analysis suggests instead.)

I admit that I spent probably a year or two skating between levels 1 and 2. Not that I wasn't capable of deep thought, and even hitting the magical level-4 on occasion against players I knew well. However, your poker results come not from your maximal capability, but the skills you can sustain constantly for the duration of many sessions. For a long time, I spent most of my time on level-1, and my results showed it.

These days, I'm on level-2 consistently. (And, with good game selection, I rarely encounter opponents who spend most of their session on level-2, thus limiting my need for level-3.) I got there by slowly building level-1 thinking into my hypothalamus, so that it never becomes conscious enough to cloud my active mind, which remains focused on level-2. My goal, of course, is to make that level-2 thinking as solid and ingrained as my level-1 thinking has become. Lately, I've thought about how my academic experiences aid in this process.

The connection wasn't obvious at first. I put it together when listening closely to whiny rants of “good players”, complaining that games with too many “donkeys” aren't beatable because these “donkeys” play too illogically. I can't possibly put them on that hand, these “good players” lament. I always thought such statements were ludicrous: if a player has less skill in this game of skill, you should beat him in the long run, right? Of course! It's not that level-2 thinking doesn't work here, it's that you have to work (ironically) a bit harder at it.

When I'm playing against weak, level-1-struggling opponents, it's much like being a graduate student in a room full of undergraduates, or, in the most extreme cases, like standing in front of my high school students as a young Computer Science teacher. Do you remember, by the way, that excellent TA you had your freshman year, who made everything so clear? How about the terrible one who was useless in the problem sessions because everything he said was over your head? And in high school: remember that teacher that droned on Ben-Stein-style, and the one who dynamically engaged the students?

What often separates good TA's from bad ones, and good teachers from bad ones is their ability to have some level-2 thinking about their students. The best teachers reach back to the time in their lives when they didn't understand the material. Every teacher was once a student, it's just that most of them have forgotten what it was like. Wisdom and knowledge have replaced that confusion, that flawed logic, and that unclear reasoning. However, the best teachers that can revisit that spot in their past, and walk the student through the jumble into clarity.

When you are up against clueless “donks”, who are still struggling to understand when to raise or fold holding top pair, you have to get down to their level. They don't think the way you think; you've progressed beyond their level-1 thinking and have ingrained good, strong level-1 thought into your routine. But, for you to properly use your level-2 edge against them, you have to trace their flawed thought patterns. Like the teacher guiding students through murky, complicated new material, you have to set aside your own deep knowledge of the game and think like they think.

If nothing else, it will keep your game fresh. Sure, there are only so many “right ways” for you to play a flopped set on a two-tone board. You probably know and have tried them all and know the trade-offs. But, that guy across the table from you hasn't. He may still think min-raising is the right play. He might think slow-playing is correct. He might even be so confused, and not even realize the strength of his hand at all, and just call on every street!

It's your job to think like he does, not try to to graft your logic onto his play. Don't rhetorically ask What was he thinking!?! in pure disgust; instead, ask yourself that question seriously. It's your job as a good player to have a reasonable response. Indeed, if you're playing your best game, you should be able to give a dissertation on his muddled sophistry.


Hmm, maybe my narrow escape from obscure academic knowledge wasn't as clean as I thought. I'll ponder that the next time I'm writing the 20-page psychology thesis in my mind's eye entitled: Tonight's Big Fish: How he Overplays Top Pair but Only on Boards With Straight Draws.

shipitfish: (clueless-donkey by phantompanther)

It was suggested to me not long ago (offline) that the primary reason I post hand details of bad plays where I point out donkey plays is that somehow I can't handled the losses and/or variance. The implication seems to be that someone who says boy, what a donkey play I made must be deeply upset over that loss because the money means too much to them.

Of course, the money means less to rich people, particularly those who play at only lower stakes that are basically financially meaningless and cost less than a nice dinner out. I try to carefully balance the value of money. In poker, you can never focus in the value of the money during the game — down that path leads to tight-weak play. But, you also can't think of it as valueless entertainment dollars either, because in those cases, you can easily excuse your inability to play correctly with the fact that the money “just doesn't matter”.

You also have to be ready, willing, and able to admit that you're a bad player, even if being such only lasted one session or one hand. You've got to be ready to call yourself a “donkey” once in a while. As Thomas Keller wrote the first time the term “donkey” appeared in Card Player magazine:

Donkey is generally perceived as a friendly word, and few people I have run across have taken great offense at being called a donkey — whether it be for making a bad play or accidentally posting right in front of the big blind. Even I have been called a donkey at times for things I have done at the poker table, and I usually have gotten a good chuckle out of it. Lots of professionals will even refer to themselves as donkeys when they make a mistake, saying such things as, “I played that hand like a donkey”, or sometimes they just let out a good heehaw (the sound a donkey makes).

Playfully calling yourself out for a stupid action doesn't necessarily have anything to do with fear of variance or otherwise being unable to handle the losses. I agree that one should avoid playing for stakes where the losses would be too much to handle. However, there is no reason that being honest with oneself about one's game relates to playing above one's head.

I play for stakes where I can take a loss that is meaningful. While I believe somewhat in the relative nature of wealth — I know that the man with a million dollars has trouble proper valuing $100 — I try to keep in mind that even $20 is enough for anyone to be well fed for a day, and therefore it has absolute value that no one's relative wealth can ever obscure. But, since I'm playing for meaningful stakes, it also means I can win amounts each year that are meaningful as well. It's amazing to me to have a hobby that, unlike so many others that just cost (sometimes waste) money, can turn a profit. By keeping a bankroll appropriate to the stakes that I play, if I'm a winning player over the long term, I can survive whatever variance comes my way.

But, I'm careful to keep this concept — bankroll variance and serious losses — separate from my analysis of the game and mistakes in it. Sometimes people will describe a hand where they faced a draw out, and then believe that such a loss is equivalent to one where a terrible play was made that cost them just as much. Money lost as a “donkey” and money lost when playing correctly are deeply different things.

It was tough for me early in my poker career to start picking apart this distinction. One of the reasons it took me so long to figure out that I was abusing semi-bluffing was that I won so often doing it. It's hard to realize how much of a donkey you were when you walk out a winner because you got called every time you were semi-bluffing and happened to get lucky a few times in a row. This principle has an impact the other way, too. If you lose, you have to figure out whether it was your fault or merely bad luck.

One of the key truths of poker is that every player makes mistakes. It's already pretty hard for all but the best players in the world not to do so. Games like poker, where you need lots of conflicting technical information at your fingertips while simultaneously making educated guesses about your opponents' private information, can easily cause you to make awful plays. We all make plenty of them when we play poker. As Phil Ivey said on a recent Learn Poker From the Pros broadcasts: I make mistakes every time I sit down to play poker. If Ivey's sometimes a donk, how can anyone say it's wrong to admit to yourself that you might have been a donk, too?

My game got substantially better when I took “default ownership” for hands. By this, I mean I started assuming that I'd done something wrong, and forced myself to prove that what I'd done was correct. Occasionally, the proof becomes a justification for bad play. However, most of the time, if you force yourself to disprove the hypothesis that you're an (albeit temporary) donkey, you have a much better chance of being honest about your game and improving.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

[ This is the third part in a continuing series called So, You Want To Start Playing Poker?. The series is designed to help new players learn some basics about starting poker from the ground up.]

In a post about what game structure to select, I recommended two possible games: limit HE and NL HE. In this article, I discuss what books and materials are best to read for beginning the former.

Compared to NL HE, limit HE is much more of a technical game. Your understanding of the mathematical odds, starting hand selection, and technical details of play will determine much of your success at the lowest limits of HE. You'll need lots of practice to understand the concepts involved, but much of the hard information you'll need is available in books.


Jones Is Your Best First Choice

The book that opens most players' eyes to poker “book learning” is Lee Jones' Winning Low Limit Hold 'Em. It's the book I used when I taught the poker course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I read it many times myself when starting limit. The cover literally fell off of my copy of Lee Jones' first edition. While his second edition covers some things about NL HE, it is basically only for online “Sit and Go” tournaments.

Lee Jones does a very good job helping you understand starting hand selection and the very basics of preflop odds, pot odds and implied odds (and their limited use in limit HE). However, I believe his starting hand selection suggestions are far too loose. If you follow his starting hand recommendations exactly, you'll find yourself in a number of complicated situations. Granted, you'll have position (acting last — a central component of HE poker) when these situations come up. But, there is really no reason for a new player to make marginal choices. Avoid the goofier hands he suggests for late position.

The other downside to Jones' book, one that I didn't discover until much later, is that the material is carefully tuned for play in the extremely loose limit HE games of California. California poker is somewhat unique, because many people in the games are playing poker not because of a direct interest in the game, but because it's the only available legalized “gambling” there. Many individuals who would be playing other games (say, craps) are playing poker instead. This leads to many a poker hand played out more like a craps roll. Jones' advice is designed for those types of games — as if you are playing the house against people taking 8 the hard way.

Those caveats aside, Lee Jones' book is probably the most important book on limit HE on the market. I mention these downsides only to make sure you don't treat it as a poker bible, the way many of us did when we started with limit HE. It's a great book and you'll learn a lot. However, try to move quickly to getting enough knowledge and experience to see the places where Jones is giving bad advice for those games you play and learn to adjust it to suit your needs.


Krieger May Be Overrated

Many people recommend Lou Krieger's Hold'Em Excellence series of books for beginners. I'm less enthusiastic about them than most. I like Lou and think he writes well, but I think his books fail to give enough step-by-step advice (i.e., “when you have situation X, usually you should do Y”). New players really need this type of advice as they get started. Lou focuses more on general concepts for beginning to win. Of course, they are good concepts, but I think you'll pick them up just as easily in other books that also include step-by-step advice.

Lou is also the co-author of Poker for Dummies. Despite the inappropriate titles (I don't think someone who lacks knowledge and seeks it is ever a dummy), I'm actually a fan of some of the dummy books. Their editors are usually good at designing books to give good quick introductions. I read Poker for Dummies early in my poker learning process. I was less impressed with it than other dummy books, primarily because it tried to cover all forms of poker in one volume, which is really difficult for new players. Poker is just one of these areas where you have to start a bit specialized. Trying to generalize too early will only make it difficult for you to begin booking wins early; this may decimate your confidence. Poker is somewhat unique in that you can get benefit from specializing early, but try not to stay one for too long.


Maybe Burton To Start?

I can't help but mention the book that got me started with limit HE. I was going on a Foxwoods vacation with my in-laws, and had just discovered that casino poker actually existed (more on that sometime when I write a history of how I got into poker). I literally ran (they were about to close) the night before to the book store, after googling around about.com for more information. I found a book written by about.com's casino author, Bill Burton.

Reviews of his book, Get the Edge at Low-Limit Texas Hold'em say that he teaches a “tight-weak” strategy. However, if you want an overnight crash course so you won't be a total fish at extremely low limits, this may be the right book. It's written very simplistically with basic ideas and simple-minded tactics. I found it got me up to speed so I could hold my own without burning through too much bankroll as a total HE newbie, playing the $2/$4 limit HE games at Foxwoods. Tight-weak doesn't do too bad in these games, because no one there makes any bluffs, and raises in multi-way pots nearly always mean the nuts or close to it. Burton basically recommends simple statistical play, gaining most of your edge from starting hand selection and folding unless you flop top-pair, strong kicker or better. This approach actually does work in the loosest, highest rake, lowest limit games at the casino. (Remember, BTW, that the rake is really heavy at the lowest limits and you can sometimes be a favorite to a game but an underdog to the rake.)


Be Selective With Books, Just Like With Starting Hands

There are so many poker books on the market now you could break your first bankroll just buying the books. Try to get books you aren't sure about from the library first (if you can — few libraries carry a strong poker book selection), or borrow from a friend (those in NYC are welcome to contact me if they'd like to borrow some). Read through them first to see if they are worth owning and rereading. Nearly every poker book (even Hellmuth's stinker of a book, Play Poker Like the Pros, which I borrowed from Boston Public Library) that I've seen is worth a quick read, but few are worth owning. Poker books are expensive under the theory that you can “win the cost of the book in one session of applying its principles”. But, I'm not a fan of this theory. Some poker books are more or less a scam by pros to find some extra easy money; Hellmuth's is the best example. Make sure you pick the good ones that many other players recommend.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

[ This is the second part in a continuing series about starting playing poker from the ground up.]

There are two sets of choices to make when picking which poker game to learn first. The first choice is whether or not you'll start with limit poker or “big bet” poker. The second choice is which specific game to learn first.

Before I give further advice on this choice, I should note that those of you that might be invited to a game at the home of a friend might be facing an existing structure. Due to televised popularity, many home games are the two games I will recommend in this article — either purely limit texas hold'em (usually spoken as “limit hold'em” and abbreviated in writing as “limit HE”) or no-limit HE (abbreviated in writing as “NL HE”). However, there are still many home games in the USA that are “dealer's choice” of some sort.

Personally, I started with dealer's choice poker myself, and I found it a useful introduction to poker. However, I was playing for extremely low stakes. I would certainly warn against starting too soon with mixed games (more or less, another name for dealer's choice) for stakes that are enough to hurt.

A few years ago, I used to tell people outright to start with limit HE. I felt then that a number of factors demanded that one start there. First of all, it's the easiest way to limit one's losses. Mistakes aren't that expensive. Low-limit HE (up until about $5/$10) is also a straight-forward game that you can beat with some basic discipline, knowledge of the odds, and patience.

It's honestly tough to recommend that one only play limit HE at first given the current state of poker, unless you happen to live near a public poker room (in CA, CT, or NJ) that has constant juicy limit HE games. NL HE has taken over the poker world by storm. On the Internet, many sites have much juicier NL HE action than limit HE. Indeed, on many sites, limit HE games are so filled with multi-tabling sharks that it's very tough for an newbie to avoid losing.

However, the problem in starting with NL HE is two-fold. First, mistakes are extremely costly, and the bankroll requirements for a new player can be large. You can mitigate this some by playing extremely tight, which tends to work ok at big casinos and online — where player turnover at the tables usually keeps you from being pegged as “tight-weak” and getting run over. However, in the home game world, it's tough to play extremely tight and get enough action on your good hands, unless you opponents are truly horrible players. OTOH, you should probably take the losses and still start a bit “tight weak“, as the variance (the amount your bankroll fluctuates up and down from session to session) will be substantially less than any other approach. This worked pretty well for me when I started NL HE; I got run over some, but didn't lose too much.

The second problem with NL HE as a game for newbies is that still, even to this day in the middle of the NL HE boom, there are very few books at the lowest introductory level designed for NL HE cash games. Sure, there are at least a dozen starter books for new players who want to try tournament NL HE. Some of those books “pretend” to be about cash games but are really written by tournament experts who aren't the sharp cash game players they once were. There are precious few books designed for new NL HE cash game players. There are a few gems out there, but I know from my own learning that they were far over my head until I had at least a few thousands hands of NL HE experience behind me.

I have been unsuccessful in my arguments to keep people away from NL HE as a starter game. The interest and draw seems too great. So, I inevitably live with the fact that new players will be drawn in and they'll have to fly blind for a while.

In next week's post, I'll be nonetheless suggesting starting books for both limit HE and NL HE.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

A while back I posted about abusive use of the semibluff. As I mentioned, using it too often simply makes your opponents realize that when you raise on a draw-centric board, you usually have the draw and not a strong made hand.

The semibluff is however a powerful poker weapon when used with restraint. One place where it can be very useful is live game situations where players have many tells and varied stack sizes and you have a tight table image.

What follows is an example from a hand I played last summer at the old R Club here in NYC. It was interesting situation, since, as was often the case at the R Club, there were people who had very different stack sizes. The players in question for this particular hand were Mike and Pappy.

By this point in the summer, I had logged about 40 hours of play with Mike and had a very good read on his game. He was absolutely incapable of folding any flush draw, and any top pair with an overcard kicker. He usually put in good sized raises with top pair on the flop (i.e., he knew it needed to be protected), but often raised a bit too much, and couldn't fold to a reraise. (By way of example, I once got an entire $400 stack from him on the flop, in a limped pot with the flop T43, where he held QT and I had 44. He just kept reraising!) With draws, Mike played a classic loose-passive style willing to call huge bets to see the next card and try to get there. The one type of draw, however, that he really loved and played aggressively was “a pair and a flush draw”, with which he'd often back with his whole stack on the flop.

I knew Pappy less; I'd only logged about 5 hours of play with him. However, I'd listened carefully to chit-chat about him, and that chat was extensive. Pappy was primarily a tight-aggressive player, although he occasionally was known to put a lot of pressure (i.e., hyperaggressive) preflop and on the flop. He wouldn't commit his whole stack with one pair, and he was even capable of folding two pair when deep enough. He assumed other people played as he did, and he always played his sets cagey. If you made a cagey play, he'd put you on a set and throw away two pair. The joke about him was that he often raised with two random cards, flopped two pair, and then would lay it down to a raise on the turn.

Now, to make a successful semibluff, I needed all this information as the hand progressed. The hand started with Pappy raising from early position to $10, a standard preflop raise in this $1/$2 NL HE game. Usually, a $10 raise here yielded four callers. I was the first to call from middle position with Ac 8c, and Mike called behind me on the button. The blinds folded and we saw the flop three-handed with $33 in the pot. Mike had about $180 behind; I and Pappy each had around $300.

The flop came Tc 3c 7h. Pappy bet out strongly for $25. I knew he wouldn't bet here without a pair, but he didn't seem to have an overpair. I figured he probably had AT, but, as he sometimes raised with random cards, he might have T7. I felt my best bet, with Mike still to act behind me, was to call. I didn't have direct odds to draw, but I felt that I should stay and had some minimal implied odds. (Pappy would still bet once more if the flush card came, for example, and Mike would pay off with a variety of hands should he see the turn.) I felt that I might be able to make a move on the turn if I ended up heads-up with Pappy. However, semibluffing on the flop was a bad idea, because Pappy might reraise with two pair here and I'd have to put in the third raise as a semibluff to get him off it. (Usually, Pappy made his “big laydowns” on the turn.)

Mike called instantly behind me, and I was approaching certainty that he had a mere flush draw, obviously weaker than mine. He didn't usually play straight draws on two-tone boards, and since he didn't raise, I didn't think he had a pair at all. His call swelled the pot to $108.

The turn came 2d. I felt this was a good card for me. It didn't change much about the hand, and when Pappy bet out $50, I felt that he was getting concerned with two callers. Pappy assumed that others played like he did, and with two callers, he probably was worried that only one had the flush draw while the other might be beating him. I saw the $50 as a defensive bet. I knew Pappy could lay down two pair sometimes, and would certainly lay down just one pair, even if I had under-read him and he'd started with KK or something like that.

I decided to “put myself” on a set of threes for Pappy's sake. I figured that he wouldn't be suspicious of the “just call” on the flop, because that's how he'd play a set of threes. Pappy would think, that since Mike acted after me, that on the flop I thought that Mike would fold. And, since I knew Pappy didn't have a draw, calling with my “set” would be — in Pappy's view — a safe play. The pot was $158, and I had just enough for about a pot-sized raise. Since I knew that Mike had a flush draw and no pair on the flop, I figured it was unlikely Mike had me beat at the moment. If I raised here, Mike would certainly commit the rest of his $145 stack on a flush draw; he always called with flush draws if he had less than $200 in front of him.

So, I saw this great opportunity. Pappy would get terrified, even with two pair, that someone who had a stack as big as his had bet all-in, and that someone else called. He wouldn't commit his whole stack on an all-in overcall with two pair or less. I moved all-in with my best “set face”. Mike instantly called. Pappy sighed loudly, shook his head, and tossed his hand to the muck.

His eyes got huge when I turned over my hand. I looked at Mike and said: I'm drawing better than you, I think. He tabled Jc 6c. He had more outs than he might expect — thanks to Pappy's fold the three jacks and three sixes were good. Sadly, the river came 6s. I was sad to see the money shipped the wrong way, but I was very happy with the play! I had gotten the best hand to fold, and gotten a call by a hand with only six outs with one card to come!

Someone whose attention had waned momentarily right after I'd gone all in looked down as the chips shipped to Mike and said: a pair of sixes won that huge hand!?! and Pappy looked ready to fall out of his chair. I had protected the pot for Mike, of course, but it was well worth it to semibluff, get called by the player I was beating, and have the best of it with one card to come!

Plus, if I had to pick between Pappy and Mike getting the chips, I'd pick Mike since he was such a weaker player. If I'm going to protect a pot for someone, I want it to be for the weakest player at the table, and Mike was surely in the running for that at the old R Club.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

I have been asked a number of times by friends and acquaintances about poker. It is USAmericans' favorite game, and was so even before the boom. Post-boom, it's ok now for even the intellectual elite, who would otherwise frown on “gambling”, to like and enjoy poker.

I am somewhat used to the “Oh, so you're a doctor, I wanted to ask you...” syndrome of being a good poker player. As someone who also knows about computers, I have often been the person whom friends and acquaintances come to and ask their computer questions. Since I have barely ever used Microsoft products, I'm usually no help there — to their surprise. However, in poker, I'm well versed and knowledgeable in the ways that they need me to be, since I started from the very bottom games that interest new players.

When I started teaching my friend Dan how to play, [livejournal.com profile] roryk told me:

It seems fun and innocent and cool to be teaching someone, until one of the people you get into playing cards completely destroys their life with it. 90% of the people are suckers in the games, and more likely than not if you get someone playing, they are going to be a sucker. [...] So just save yourself some hassle and tell them not to get involved and that it is a brutal, frustrating game.

I gave that advice serious consideration, but in the end, rejected it (Sorry [livejournal.com profile] roryk). I have never had anyone come to me to ask about poker whom I judged to be susceptible to losing themselves in addiction. I have a good sense for this, but even if I do screw up and get someone involved who can't handle it, I am certainly not going to blame myself. Should everyone who ever served an alcoholic their first drink blame themselves? Of course not, it isn't their fault; it's a mix of bad genetics, bad environment, and a lack of self-control on the part of the alcoholic.

I model poker as an example of the typical USAmerican male hobby. Upper-middle class men spend a lot of money on their hobbies. Think of golf, for example. I know men who must dump a grand or two each and every year into their golf habits. They'll never make a dime of that back, of course. It's our culture; the “pursuit of happiness” appears right there in a one of our founding documents. Golf makes some men happy, so they dump all their so-called “disposable income” into it.

[livejournal.com profile] roryk is right, of course, many experts estimate that 90% of regular poker players are long-term losers. I've never seen hard data, nor a even rigorously computed estimation of that number, but it's still probably correct. But being one of the 90% is far from having a problem. If the player doesn't have a gambling problem, there isn't any inherent additional harm in giving poker a go and dropping a few grand a year in poker instead of golf. Indeed, poker losses can surely be mitigated by careful study to no more than any other hobby someone might undertake. And, the new player might even end up a winner for the year. I think it's a fun hobby and a great way to study the psychology of others, regardless of financial outcome.

The first thing I always tell people who have interest in poker, is that they will be losers forever unless they plan a rigorous, diligent, involved and constant learning process that will take up a large portion of their free time. As a new player, you must realize that to become a strong player, it takes study and lots and lots of active practice (not the passive practice of playing without an eye to game improvement). It takes discipline, concentration and nerves of steel. But, it's also rewarding, just as it is always rewarding to engage in competitive hard work with direct financial reward.

Having heard the caveats, you may still want to give poker a go. You have some “disposable income” and want to take your shot. Then, I suggest you set a budget for the hobby and be disciplined about it. It can be disheartening to realized you don't have the time to put in to learn how to beat the games, but any hobby one might engage in can turn out that way, despite substantial financial investments. It's important that you make an up-front budgeting decision on how much you're willing to spend on the hobby and stick to it. I am sure that every day, a USAmerican man realizes he's never going to be that good of a golfer but that he'll keep playing anyway because he enjoys it, but he surely does so on a budget.

Anyway, the upshot is that I have no qualms about helping people learn poker, with the caveats set forth. So, then the next question always comes: How do I get started and what type of game should I play? What should I read? Where should I go to start playing?.

I've answered these questions many times over during the past few years. I've decided, after [livejournal.com profile] tmckearney asked a few questions and I started putting down the usual answers, that I'll instead do a series in this journal, geared to help complete poker newbies get started. Each Sunday night, until I run out of things to say, I'll make a post helping new players navigate their way through the world of poker.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

Every time I talk about NL cash games, I find myself, at one point or another, insisting how bad it is to play short-stacked in a cash game. In a tourney, of course, you'd prefer not to play short-stacked, but shouldn't quit just because you are. However, I firmly believe that you are usually better off quitting a cash game than playing in it with a short-stack. In the following rather long article, I hope that I have made that case. )

shipitfish: (Default)

In the previous installments, I discussed the classic AK plays, and how they fail to be optimal play in modern NL HE cash games. In this final installment, I explore some common thinking about AK. I believe certain misunderstood recommendations have led people to play AK incorrectly in cash games.

This article is rather long, so I've not placed it all on the front page. )
shipitfish: (Default)

In the last segment of this series, I discussed the classic advice on playing AK in NL HE. Classic, Brunson-style AK play can work in some games -- usually tight or tight-weak games, or games where people have very typical, unimaginative preflop (and, to some extent, flop) play.

I play in a few online games that fit this bill, but in most of the live cash games, the game conditions don't match those that make the "classic" plays optimal. I play against very loose players, and you probably do, too. I wouldn't call their preflop play "imaginative"; however, most of them are capable of waking up with any two cards on the flop, often regardless of how much went into the pot preflop. This is particularly true if the there was multiway action for a small or medium-sized raise preflop.

I believe that AK plays best heads up with position against a single, tight opponent whom you have forced to commit about 5% of his stack preflop. When you make one pair, you want to bet your hand for value and get called when your opponent has a weaker kicker. You also want him to able to fold a hand to bluff on the flop should you both miss. For the latter, it's much better if he doesn't have too much of his stack committed preflop, and it helps too if he's tight enough to fold (for example) middle pair on the flop when heads-up.

I propose that situation as the best conditions for AK; not surprisingly, I consider the opposite situation as the worst for AK. AK is a very tough hand when you are out of position in a large, raised multiway pot, perhaps against a broad mixture of short and big stacks. It is also a terrible hand when heads up against an opponent who has committed a large portion of his stack (I'll talk more about this specific situation in the third installment). Too often, in the current NL HE cash game climate, one or all of these bad factors come to work against you.

For example, in the clubs here in NYC, the NL HE games typically have between a $200-$300 buy-in with $1/$2 blinds. However, the typical preflop raise is about $15. Most of the loose players can't be gotten off "crazy two pair hands" (the name I use for strange hands like J6 that cannot possibly make the best hand without flopping two pair) for less that $15 preflop. Typically, a raise of $15 in early or middle position will elicit four or five callers on a typical night. They are usually calling with small or medium pairs and suited connectors and one-gaps, and a few 20-point (i.e., two paint card) hands. (As a side note, on "tight" nights in these games, you can raise a $2 blind to $15 from early or middle position and get "only two" callers! :)

So let's think through one of these scenarios together. Suppose we hold AK in early position and open-raise to $15 -- if it's any less, the whole table is going to call. That's about 5% of our stack already (assuming we have just bought in). Around the table we see a couple of people nursing $60-$80 stacks, a few nice stacks ($500-$800), and some very loose players who have gambled their way up to very large stacks ($1,000 or more). The rest of the stacks are usually about the size of the buy-in. At $15-to-go, we watch calls come from one nice stack, one or two buy-in-sized stacks, and then a short stack comes in hoping to see a flop and get lucky.

We're seeing a flop out of position for 5% of our stack against four or opponents. How should we play the flop? If we flop an A or K, we'll need to play it as the best hand, but we might be way behind someone in this complicated field. If the flop brings a flush draw, we'll be forced to bet something approaching the pot size, which is around $60 or $70. In that case, we'll have committed over 30% our stack to this hand. If our flop bet gets called, it'll be by a stack that has us covered or nearly even, and we'll be looking at some tough reads on the turn. If a short stack makes a play on the flop, we'll be forced to call and hope he's drawing. All this situations can be survived, and are "classically tough" poker situations. Such situations are interesting, and spark illuminating debate on the 2+2 fora. However, these tough NL decision moments are simply not the way to make money in a loose NL HE game. There are much better spots in these games.

Consider just such a better spot: I limped for $2 recently with a $500 stack with A8s in mid/late position in a multiway NL pot, and was treated to two-tone flop of 8-8-4. As I usually do with flopped trips, I bet half the pot (reasons I believe this play to be correct are left for another article), and got check-raised for twice the pot by a $400 stack holding what was obviously a weak 8. I moved in, knowing he'd call me drawing to three outs (he had 86o), and I took his $400 stack. This situation more or less played itself; my only decision point was whether or not he calls if I move in (this player was inexperienced enough that he would never fold flopped open trips for any amount). Compare this situation to our AK situation described above, and consider how they match up in terms of EV, difficultly in play, and certainty of being a favorite if your whole stack goes in the pot.

In loose NL HE games, situations where hands like A8s can win a huge pot as a substantial favorite come up so much more than situations where an AK can win a big pot as a favorite. Loose NL players call off large parts of their stack too often when they are second-best with few outs. We can set up such situations much easier with hands that play well cheaply multiway.

Quite simply, the classic advice on AK is often nowhere near optimal play in loose NL HE games. We can find situations where the classic play need not be modified much, if at all, (such as those tight bonus-chasing online games). But, when we have AK in the typical game these days, we have to know our opponents very well and take great care when pushing a lot of chips forward on a hand that can usually, at best, make one big pair with a good kicker. Playing well enough to allow such a one pair holding survive a multiway pot with highly variant stack sizes isn't where the big EV is in the modern, loose NL HE game.

I don't necessarily want to dissuade you from raising with big unpaired cards, there is good EV anywhere someone is willing to call you with a hand that is an underdog. However, always ask yourself these questions preflop: "Am I raising to build a big pot, or to push this to heads-up/three-handed? And, how likely am I to achieve my goal given all the current game conditions?" If you can't get yourself heads-up against a tight opponent (preferably with position) with your raise, then maybe you should just limp with that AK and see if you can win a small pot if the flop comes favorable. Remember that loose players make those raises cold preflop in hopes of winning a big pot; they are much less likely to "gamble" on the flop when it was only limped around preflop.

In the next installment, we'll consider further how the general thinking evolved that leads most to consider AK in the way that we do. I've already mentioned Brunson, which is a big part of that puzzle, but there are other factors in modern poker that inspire people to misplay AK in the ways these articles discuss.

(While you are waiting for my next and final article on the subject, be sure to also read this recent Card Player article that has some interesting things to say about AK. I don't agree that much Abrams' argument that "people know not to play weak kickers", because I still see plenty of A-rag showdowns, and preflop reraises stupidly with AQ all the time. However, I do agree with some of his points, and it is true that people are unlikely to commit their whole stack with a weak ace until they hit the kicker.)

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

Ask a group of NL HE players to list their favorite starting hands. You'll hear AA, KK, QQ, and, after those, the group will almost surely begin to argue whether JJ or AK is the fourth best hand. If they do pick JJ as the fourth, they'll surely make AK the fifth. Some will prefer AKs over QQ.

But, as poker players always do, they'll also bemoan their terrible fate with the hand being discussed. You might even hear an annoying sexist joke (of which I'll repeat only the punch line) common in the poker world this season: AK "looks good but never wins". I think that's an exaggeration, to be sure, but some at the table agree wholeheartedly. Yet, I haven't seen this quip actually inspire changes in how AK is typically played by those NL HE players. Maybe in this series of posts about misplaying AK, I can suggest some changes if you're someone who feels this way about AK.

Before we begin to consider new ways to play AK in NL HE, we should first consider the historical reasons why AK is considered a strong starting hand in NL HE. In the earliest reference book of poker, Super System, Brunson states "I'd rather have A-K than either a pair of aces or a pair of kings. [...] You'll win more money when you make a hand with it [and] you'll lose less money when you miss [your] hand".

Brunson has a good point, but I've alluded before to my opinions on how Brunson's classic strategies apply somewhat narrowly to modern NL HE. His strategies do apply in many games, and his notes about AK are correct in the right game. So, to effectively use Brunson's advice, and to effectively win money with AK, we have to consider what games are most similar to those that Brunson was writing about.

Brunson's advice applies best to tight games. "Running over people", the classic power poker play loved by the pros, requires that your opponents play meekly and give up easily when raised. In those situations, AK is indeed a strong holding. If we are very aggressive pre-flop with AK heads-up against a tight opponent, one of three things happen: (a) the opponent folds because he holds a meager hand that can't take a big raise and/or reraise, or (b) the opponent holds a big pair and reraises (in which case we can make a correct fold), or (c) the opponent calls, defining her hand to likely be a pair lower than KK or two big cards (perhaps something we dominate).

Every one of these outcomes is beautiful for us. In (a), our opponent gives up and we win a reasonable preflop pot without a putting much of our stack at risk. In (b), we get near-perfect information early in the hand, avoiding a confrontation that could cost much of our stack. In (c), best of all, we see a flop with around a 1-to-2.5 chance of flopping top-pair, top-kicker, in a situation where we know that our opponent likely flopped nothing, a weaker pair, or a set. Reading our opponent, should we see a flop, thus becomes somewhat easy and we can't easily make a mistake. If our opponent does have a hand like KQ, or AQ and cannot fold one pair easily, we have great implied odds as we enter the flop.

We must carefully note, however, the key contingency that we placed on these wonderful outcomes: our opponents had to be tight players capable of folding, and somewhat predictable in their starting hand selection in raised pots. Against such an opponent, it's hard to go wrong with AK! No wonder Doyle loves it so much.

But, Doyle plays daily against other pros, who are tight and can make lay-downs. AK just doesn't work so well in the loose, crazy NL HE cash games that most of us play in. We should play AK just as Doyle suggests in tight games, but be much more careful in the loose NL HE games that are too common.

So, we've established that the classic advice on AK is not inaccurate. We can find situations where the classic play need not be modified much, if at all. Next, we'll have to consider why there is this sudden feeling in the poker world that AK is a horrible hand. In the next installment in this series, I'll give some details on why Brunson-style AK tactics often fail in loose lower buy-in NL HE games, and propose some different AK tactics for those games. Eventually, I'll discuss how (likely correct) modern tournament strategy seems to hold undue influence over cash game AK play. That influence is further exacerbating the negative results cash game players find with AK.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

I remember the excitement that I felt when I turned to that page in my copy of Sklansky's thin introductory volume on limit HE. The chapter was entitled "Semibluff". "What's that", I thought, "sounds interesting and technical". A semibluff, I learned, was a bet made with what is likely to be the worst hand, but has the potential of becoming the best hand if certain cards fall on later streets of play. I had probably done this before before I became a student of the game, but having a technical term for it intrigued me.

All poker players, when first starting out, are in love with the idea of bluffing. The concept that you can win without actually holding the best hand is what sets poker apart from other games -- so much so that the idea of a "bluff" is a deep analogy used throughout the cultures of the industrialized West.

Hopes are dashed, though, when we learn that at the low limit games we all started with, that bluffing just isn't all that profitable. Those games are what I often call "best hand poker" -- games that go to showdown almost every hand and require that you play the best hand profitably to win. I learned this in my early college home games; there were few people I could bluff. I would wait all night for my one, single opportunity to be heads-up with my good friend and fellow poker philosopher, Mike, or with my tight-aggressive cousin, Dan. There were the only two guys I could bluff off a hand. I used to keep two dollars back apart from stack (most pots in our game were about $2 each), that I could use to make a big pot-sized bet on sixth street and push them off that big pair when I had a four-straight or four-flush showing. Drawing to bluff-outs -- boy, that was fun, even if I didn't know that was the term for it at the time.

When I started playing $2/$4 at Foxwoods, I learned quickly that bluffing was a waste of those good yellow chips. Was I really going to make someone fold for one or two $2 fox-faced chip? Usually, I'd have to make a field of five people fold for that one measly chip. It wasn't going to happen. I eradicated all bluffs from my game.

But, the semibluff! I could bluff, and still make the best hand anyway. Like anyone with a shiny new hammer, I saw every poker situation as a nail. Do I have outs if called? Yes? Well, then I bet. It's a semibluff! I get to bet a lot. Isn't this great! Well, it was great, when I got lucky and my outs came. But they rarely folded to my semibluffs. Chagrin overwhelmed me; my new toy was busted.

Then, I started playing NL HE. Here, I could semibluff big! People don't usually call big pot-sized raises on the flop, especially when that bet is all-in. My semibluffs started working. I won huge pots with suited connectors on two-tone flops. I started playing any connecting cards hoping to flop a straight draw so I could get all my chips in.

The hey-day of my semibluffs was short-lived. I was, in fact, insulted the day that [livejournal.com profile] nick_marden said "you are always pulling the same tired semibluffs". But, I took his comment to heart, more than he likely realized at the time. I looked at my play, and discovered that I had huge swings at Greg's game (the only place I was playing NL HE at the time). I was getting called on most of my semi-bluffs, and I was only profitable when I got lucky and hit those outs. I had little or no fold equity.

That's the danger of abusing the semibluff. Too often, especially in loose games, you get called by a better hand and you need to catch to win. When you do catch, your tendency is to think the play was correct when all you did was manufacturer pot odds that weren't there when you started throwing chips in with the worst of it.

Half of the word "semibluff" is "bluff"! When you make the bet, you rarely have the best hand, and you opponent must fold somewhere around half the time (depending on the situation and your number of outs, of course) for the play to be a long-term winner. Eventually, I had to make the word "semibluff" one I never actually thought about. I couldn't consider the root word itself ("bluff"), because I had become willing to think of bets with the worst hand, where my opponents were unlikely to fold, as would-be "semibluffs". Heck, I was even willing to consider bets with two outs or less as "semibluffs", even though I knew almost for sure I'd get at least one caller. That's not semibluffing; that's betting with the worst of it and hoping to get lucky!

So I quit semibluffing, and my game got better. Recently, though, I've ventured into the realm of semibluffing again. This time, though, I actually make sure I have a strong amount of fold equity against the best hand when I make the bet. I've found that, for me, the only way to safely semibluff is to ask myself, before making the bet, "What are the likely hands my opponent holds, and how many of those will he fold if I bet?" I don't make the semibluff unless he folds around 70% or more of his possible holdings.

In the next few posts I make, I'll post at least three specific hand discussions from recent NL HE games where I have attempted to truly semibluff, and talk about why I think the semibluff was a good or bad move.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

Like every poker player, I've spent my share of time frustrated with bad beats. The definition of "bad beat", of course, varies from player to player. I've heard many people say crazy things like having AQ in HE and ending up against AK as a "bad beat", because "how was I supposed to know I was dominated?". That's not what a bad beat really is, of course. When I use the term "bad beat" at all, which I really don't use much anymore, I'd usually say that someone has to have seven outs or less in HE for it to really be that "bad" of a beat.

But, I just don't think of them as "bad beats" anymore. Given that one has to lose in poker -- and you can't play any game with an element of chance and not lose some of the time -- I'd rather it be in a so-called "bad beat" situation than any other.

There are basically two scenarios where you lose a non-trivial amount of money in poker: either you make a serious mistake, or someone else does but gets lucky anyway. The former can take two forms: (a) you think you have the best hand and/or you think your opponent is too weak to call, and you turn out to be mistaken, or (b) your opponent is deceptive enough to convince you to put money in when you have the worst of it. This is not how I want things to go. I don't want to be outplayed, and I don't want to be tricked into giving money to players who are better than me.

Given the two options -- giving money to strong players or weak players -- it's much better to give money to players who make mistakes. If someone takes your money and they are better than you, you have little chance to win it back. Only pure luck will get you money from a stronger player. If you opponent is a bad player, you can realistically visualize that he is merely holding your chips for a while, until you get him in another situation where the odds are against him but he fails to get lucky.

If you've accepted that you can't win every pot you play, it's easy to see a path of gaining a peace with "bad beats" if you frame the situation in that way. That's the first step, and it's one that I have at long-last achieved. I love games where the bad beats fly and I ship chips around to weak players. The tough spot I still see is when the fellow takes a big piece of your stack, and then gets up to leave. Yeah, I admit that "hit and run" is one part of the "bad beat" phenomenon that still can get past my new frustration-proof wall. But, I'm starting to overcome that part, too. The way I'm doing it is a viewing it as the advertising budget of my bankroll.

That's a strange choice of words, especially since most people think of "advertising budgets" in poker as "money for bluffs that get called". I'm not much for that, because I think it's usually wasted; I want all my bluffs to succeed. In most games, people pay off enough that you don't need to be caught bluffing -- not even once -- to induce adequate action.

But the guy who hits a few three-outers and walks away a winner -- that's money well spent. While we see a large turnover of opponents in most games, some people do come back. But, if they are to come back, players who are steady losers have to win some of the time. Why else would they return? It's pure Skinnerist psychology -- intermittent rewards are the most likely way to keep someone willing to introduce themselves to situations that are overall bad for their bankrolls.

Also, what's that guy going to say to his friends? He's going to say: "games at that casino/club/site are easy". He'll entice others to play at the same place. Word gets around. After all, why do we have so much money flowing into the poker economy right now? Because lots of people have heard it's easy to win at poker, and have found it's fun. Most of them won't win over the long term, but as long as they win sometimes, they'll keep coming back.

For these reasons, I urge everyone to love "bad beats": no matter when they come, and no matter when someone leaves. It's part of the economy that we all rely on, and we don't want to discourage it. Be careful to play at limits where the bad beats are for amounts of money you can tolerate without frustration, and love it when it happens.


I can't finish a treatise on "bad beats" without addressing the constant arguments I hear about whether or not one takes fewer bad beats in NL HE vs. limit HE. This is a downright silly argument. If you are in a loose game -- which are almost always profitable for a solid player -- you should be seeing lots of "bad beats". In NL HE, these bad beats should, in fact, be for your whole stack! The whole reason NL HE can be so profitable is because you can get people to bet their whole stack when they have only a few outs. It's rare that you'll find a player so bad, or a situation so special, that he'll hand you his whole stack drawing dead. NL HE isn't a better game because you can "protect your hand" and "get people to fold". The whole idea of "protecting your hand" in NL HE is about winning small pots, which you certainly do need for long term profitability. But the real wins come when you get all of your chips in with the best of it, and when you do, you want to get called by someone with only a few outs.

So, my advice to all of you who are frustrated with "bad beats": Make peace with them. When I finally did, my entire outlook on poker has changed and it has made me a more profitable player. I still have challenges ahead; namely, getting fully comfortable with the bad-beat-giver leaving the game before I want him to, and my thoughts expressed above are helping me along that road. Get used to allowing some of your bankroll to be spread around the table, as long as it is in the stacks of players who make lots of mistakes.

The beats that should frustrate and anger you are those where you have made mistakes, or have been outplayed. That frustration is healthy and can be constructively channeled into improving your game. There is, however, no constructive outcome of "bad beat" frustration. It can only serve to make you hate the game you actually love, or to make you imitate that losing Skinnerist play. I know that pain and frustration when the tenth two-outer hits the table and you've lost three buy-ins already. Let it go. Drop down limits so that it doesn't hurt as much, if that's what it takes. Learn to love the bad beats; it's where you profit comes from.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

I paid my backer another $250 or so this week -- his 33% of my approximate $800 in winnings. I've been steadily beating both live games here in NYC and online.

Because I was chasing some bonuses on a few sites, I've been playing on sites that I generally felt in the past were "bad games". Some of the higher bonus sites online tend to attract bonus hunters, who are by their nature, low-risk, tight players. Like most players, my optimal game is a loose-passive one, where my value bets get called and I can play the best hand and win with it. Generally, I still feel that such players are the most profitable opponents for limit games, since the best hand is usually shown down.

However, on many sites, there are many more NL HE games running than limit. As such, I've been playing a bit more online NL HE than I used to, and am discovering that the tight-weak style of the classic "bonus chaser" or "correct player" makes for profitable NL HE games. I discuss in this entry a number of reasons why I feel this is so. )

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November 2016

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