Improving your game
People write to me all the time, telling me their poker history, which inevitably ends up with the same question: “What can I do to improve my game?” Many people use the new year as a time to assess where they are and where they want to go — whether it’s in life or as a poker player. Each person is different and learns in different ways, but here is a list of things that I like to recommend to players to help them improve their game.
Eric “Rizen” Lynch provides a hand analysis
A few months ago, I wrote an article about how some players are misapplying expected value calculations. The column focused on a particular play of shoving a wide range of hands when playing heads up with 20 big blinds. If you do the math, you discover that pushing all in is perfect strategically: You could play with your hand faceup and it would still be profitable. That column discussed several different factors that you should consider, but one key factor is that just because a play is profitable, it doesn’t mean you should make it. You should be making the most profitable play.
I own Dimat Enterprises, which publishes poker books, and after writing that column, I was reviewing a new book that’s coming out in January, Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time, Volume II. The book has three authors — Jon “PearlJammer” Turner, Eric “Rizen” Lynch, and Jon “Apestyles” Van Fleet. Each author walks through the key hands of a tournament that he played, from the bubble through heads-up play. One of the hands from Rizen illustrates that the optimal play depends on the particular opponent you are facing, and it makes for a great follow-up to the column I wrote.
It depends on the player
I read an article recently that reconfirmed to me why playing the online Sunday major tournaments is such a good value. The author of this particular article had won a $24 satellite into a $535 event. Once the bubble broke, the author explained that he was focused on the next pay jump. His explanation was that a pay jump of $500 represented a tremendous increase in his equity, given his initial buy-in of only “$24.”
This is obviously not the best mental approach to take for a tournament. How much a tournament costs to enter and how much you have won already really shouldn’t affect your decisions. There is another way to think of tournament value. Assume that there are 100 players left in a tournament, with $100,000 remaining in the prize pool, and you have an average stack. At this point in the tournament, your stack is worth approximately $1,000 — no matter if the buy-in was $10, $100, or $500.
Is the future here?
In the last few months, I’ve had a couple of live poker experiences that have gotten me excited about live poker again. There is nothing like the live experience of being able to interact with your opponents and look into their eyes during critical decisions. The social interaction simply makes poker more fun. However, online poker spoils you. When you are dealt 60 hands an hour and can play multiple tables at once online, live poker can seem excruciatingly slow at times.
Ever since I started playing online poker, I have not found much enjoyment in playing live cash games. They are just so slow! Poker is a game of patience, and it isn’t fun waiting hours for the right time to exploit your opponents. On the other hand, I still love the excitement of live tournaments compared to online tournaments. There is nothing like the experience of playing for big money in a live setting. Online final tables lack that same excitement, and you lose the ability to see how your opponents are handling the pressure.
Important factors to consider
“You could be the 10th-best player in the world, but if you’re playing against the nine best, you’re the dog.”
I’m not sure who said that, but game selection has always been an important topic discussed by many top players and authors. The goal in poker is to maximize your earn rate, and a big part of that is selecting the right game to play in. Sometimes, dropping down a limit can be more profitable if the games are very tough at the limit you normally play, and sometimes, even jumping up a limit is advisable if the game is very, very soft.
But there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about game selection when it comes to multitable tournaments. The main reason, of course, is that you don’t know who your first nine opponents are going to be, since seating is random and then changes throughout a tournament. But there are many important factors (other than your own ability) that ultimately determine your profitability in any given tournament:
A questionable play
There is a long-standing argument in the poker world between the math guys and the instinct guys. I have always been a proponent of the math side, as every decision made in poker has an underlying mathematical foundation (whether you realize it or not). Of course, I also wrote a book called Texas Hold’em Odds and Probabilities, so I might be biased. Some instinct guys will say that you sometimes have to throw math out the window, but they are missing the point. If your instincts make you feel like your opponent is bluffing, you increase the probability that your opponent is bluffing in the mathematical calculation. If your instincts tell you that your opponent has the nuts, you increase the probability of this in the calculation. Many players don’t know that they are using math, but their instincts and experience lead them close to what the mathematical calculation would conclude.
Remove all emotion from decisions, but …
Editor’s note: This column contains excerpts from the book The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success, by Ian Taylor and Matthew Hilger.
The Poker Mindset discusses seven essential attitudes for achieving poker success. One of these attitudes is to “remove all emotion from decisions.” Many players let emotions affect their poker decisions, yet emotions should have no impact whatsoever on the decision-making process.
In some sports, emotion can be an advantage. For example, a football coach may try to motivate his players by stirring up emotions of anger, hatred, or team spirit, which may arouse them into working a bit harder or giving a bit extra.
Keys to success in today’s poker world
Today’s poker environment is much tougher than it used to be. A few years ago, anyone with half a brain and a little dedication could make money playing poker. All you had to do was play smart and you could make good money. But that has all changed. To be a successful poker player in today’s world requires that you not only play smart, but be smart in every single aspect of the game.
Many of the players who came into the game a few years ago have lost their money and gone on to other pursuits or hobbies. There has been a tremendous influx of educational material that has pushed the level of play higher and higher.
A natural transition for hold’em players
Over the last several years, I have felt a little lazy. I’ve wanted to start learning new games, but I’ve always focused on hold’em. My bread-and-butter game starting out was limit hold’em. I then got into no-limit tournaments, which were really a different beast altogether. With my focus currently on my publishing company, websites, and family (three babies in five years doesn’t allow for tons of free time), I don’t have nearly the time to play that I used to have. So, I’ve tried to concentrate the time that I do have on refining my tournament play.
Every year, all of my poker playing was geared for the World Series. I continually improved my tournament play, with the goal of doing my very best in Vegas.
When the flops keep missing
I recently returned from a nice two-week vacation to New Zealand. My wife and I lived there between 2001 and 2003, and absolutely love the country. Our best friends were getting married, so we decided to surprise them and show up at their wedding. The nice thing about their wedding date was that it coincided with the New Zealand Poker Championships, an event that I won back in 2002. We got to see old friends, eat at our favorite restaurants, and drink our favorite wine, and I got to play some poker. What could be better than that?!
The main event was a three-day tournament with a $3,300 (N.Z.) buy-in (about $1,800) and a little more than 100 entrants. We started with 15,000 in chips, and a decent blinds structure that increased every hour. One great thing they did in this event was move the blinds back a level at the beginning of day two and day three, giving the players more playing time if they survived. Of course, the big challenge was surviving to be able to take advantage of it.