Ian Taylor aka Piemaster
We all have an idea of the archetypical bad limit hold’em player or ‘fish’ as they are often called. They are very loose, very passive, chase terrible draws, don’t value bet or protect their hand enough etc. The Poker Tracker fans out there might describe this player as something like 80/4/0.2 (at a full ring table), with these stats representing the percentage of time they voluntarily put money in the pot, the percentage of the time they raise pre-flop and their post-flop aggression factor (ratio of raises to calls) respectively. These types of players are extremely common, especially at the lower limits, but also at the mid-limits and sometimes even the higher limits.
After listening to Ed Miller speak at last year’s ITH convention, I made up my mind that I wanted to learn how to play no-limit cash games. Given their popularity at the moment it seemed silly not to have this game in my arsenal. Six months later I am now reasonably confident playing the game and have some nice positive numbers over a decent-sized sample. I still consider myself a relative newbie at the game. Don’t worry, I’m certainly not going to sit here and try to tell no-limit players how to improve their game. However, what I would like to do is provide some tips for limit players who are thinking about learning no-limit cash games.
I have spent a lot of time in these columns talking about bad beats, downswings and tilt, which are all related to luck, but sometimes it pays to take a step back and look at the more fundamental question. What exactly constitutes luck in poker?
The first thing to realise is that luck in poker is more or less zero-sum. Any money that you win at poker comes from the other players in the game. Therefore any piece of good luck you experience directly corresponds to bad luck experienced by your opponents either singly or collectively. Likewise any piece of bad luck you experience is reflected in good luck for your opponent. It’s not quite a perfect model, because all the time we have the rake chipping away at our stacks, acting as a leech on the ‘good luck pool’. But for practical purposes we can consider luck to be zero sum. If somebody’s gutshot hits, somebody’s top pair, or other winning hand, got drawn out on. If player A is getting no good cards, then players B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I and J are collectively winning more than their fair share of pots, with hands that might otherwise have lost.
I play a lot of heads-up limit hold’em. In fact, it probably accounts for about 30% of the hands that I play on a day-to-day basis. A few forum members know this and have asked for help with their heads-up game. Unfortunately it is probably more difficult to give advice on this form of holdem than any other. Any hand in isolation is virtually meaningless. The correct play in any given circumstances it almost always dependant on what you know about your opponent and how similar hands against them have played out previously in the session.
I am a big advocate of reviewing hands in order to improve your poker game. In fact, as internet players, it is one of the most powerful tools we have. Looking at a hand with the luxury of time and the ability to seek a second opinion can work wonders for your ability to spot leaks and identify better lines than the one you originally took.
What many players don’t realise is that reviewing past hands can also be good for managing your psychological game. In my Poker Tracker database, I have four hands that I have kept and frequently refer back to, not because they teach me anything in particular about the technical aspects of the game, but because when I am running badly and lamenting my misfortune I can remind myself about the role of luck in poker and how the pendulum of variance swings in both directions with equal vigour. Each of these hands, in subtly different ways, helps put bad beats and downswings in perspective for me.
I’m running badly at the moment. Well, hopefully by the time you read this I won’t be, but at time of writing I am definitely courting the dark side of variance. However, I did make a pretty good play earlier today that saved me two big bets.
The game was five-handed and the player under the gun raised. I re-raised with AK from the button and the blinds folded. I hadn’t played too much with the UTG player, but he seemed to be a reasonable player and hadn’t made any obviously bad plays in the time I had been there. The flop was AJ5 with two clubs. He checked and called my bet. He check-called again on the turn, which was and off-suit 6. The river was the J of diamonds, he checked and I checked behind. He showed QJ and took the pot with his trips. Had I bet, I would have been forced to make a crying call of his check-raise and lost two extra bets.
Bluffing in limit hold’em is an interesting science. In loose games it is usually inadvisable to bluff because your opponents will call down with very marginal holdings. However, today’s games are not as loose as they used to be, especially at the mid/high limits. If you play in the tougher limit games of 2007, then bluffing is something that you almost need to have in your arsenal. Not only does it stop you becoming predictable to observant opponents, but more importantly it helps you to pick up some key pots that would otherwise have slipped away. Also in tougher games, pots are more likely to be fought heads-up, which is by far the best situation in which to bluff.
The only way to make money at poker is through your opponents’ mistakes. Consequently if you make fewer mistakes than your opponents then you will make money, in the long term at least. In fact, poker is a game based entirely on mistakes. You must make as few as possible and exploit those of your opponents (not exploiting an opponents mistake is, in itself, a mistake). Theoretically, there is no such thing as a ‘good’ play as such. There is the correct play and then there are various degrees of mistakes.
On the 5th of May 2006 I left my cosy office job for the last time, in order to throw my hat into the ring as a professional poker player. Long-time members of the ITH forums may remember my plea for last minute advice before I finally took the plunge. No matter how prepared I thought I was, giving up a guaranteed income to try and make my way as a professional gambler was a huge step and one which I don’t think you can ever be completely ready for. I was extremely grateful for all the advice I received.
About 6 months prior to this I had written an article called One Week as a Pro (note to editor, please hyperlink), in which I described taking a week off work to see what life would be like as a poker pro. I thought I would write a follow up to this article, chronicling my experiences as a full time pro and answering some of the questions that I am frequently asked. In the last year I have received several inquiries as to my progress and experiences now I have taken the plunge for real. It has been an exciting year, with plenty of ups and downs, but ultimately it has been a rewarding experience, both financially and in other ways as well.
Everybody likes to think that they are ‘logical’, but in poker as well as every day life, many people show weakness in this area. They will make poor decisions and act in ways that are irrational, because they fail to follow a rational thought process to its conclusion. In The Poker Mindset we call this phenomenon ‘Woolly Thinking’. The data input is in place and a decision is reached, but somewhere in between, the wires are crossed.
The level of thought required to arrive at the correct logical conclusion can vary from trivial to very deep indeed. Some problems are too complex for even the greatest minds to think their way through. On the other hand, there are some far simpler situations where trivial errors of logic are routinely made. Many of these have been categorised and labelled by philosophers as ‘logical fallacies’. Several of these are commonly seen at the poker table and are detailed in this article.