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.
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.
Therefore it is no surprise that identifying and eliminating mistakes from our game is the cornerstone of our poker analysis. Sometimes these mistakes are obvious and easily corrected. Playing weak hands out of position is a mistake often made by new players. It only costs you a fraction of a bet, but it is a mistake you can make time after time. Fortunately it is a mistake that is easy to correct with a simple set of starting hand charts. Other mistakes are a lot harder to fix. Knowing when to call down a turn raise and when to fold can be a very difficult decision indeed. In this case, even a group of excellent players collectively may not be able to identify which is the correct play and which is the mistake.
Accomplished players will often spend many hours identifying the tiniest leaks in their game that they can correct and improve their win rate. Most mistakes that we make while playing poker are small in nature and so a will lead to similarly small increases in profitability. Of course, it is necessary to keep doing this, but at the same time I can’t help but notice some far bigger leaks that some players seem to ignore. Leaks that are costing them not a big bet or pot here and there, but potentially tens or even hundreds of big bets. It is not as fashionable to talk about these other mistakes, but they are far more important than discussing whether to cap with AKo pre-flop or whether to bet with your 4th nut flush when the four-flush hits on the river. If you commit any of the following leaks, it can cost you big!
I will admit at this point that I have made many of them myself. I hope you can learn from my mistakes.
I’ll start with the most familiar of these ‘super-leaks’. I won’t spend too much time on it because there are plenty of places to read about sound bankroll management, including a whole chapter in The Poker Mindset. Many players look at bankroll management in the wrong way. They consider it an inconvenient set of rules that prevents them from playing at higher limits and hence making more money. However, it is actually the other way around. The reason we employ bankroll management is to prevent us from going broke. If we go broke then our win rate drops to zero, or at least down to low limit rates again until we can rebuild a bankroll.
Of course, this can cost you a huge amount. Every hand that you spend rebuilding your bankroll is a hand that you could have spent earning at your previous limits. Even at the mid-limits then this can be the equivalent of losing hundreds or thousands of dollars. Unfortunately I can’t give you any harrowing tales about money I’ve lost due to bad bankroll management because I this is the one crime in this article I haven’t committed. However, I’m sure you have all heard stories of famous players who have gone bust and rely on backers to even sit at the table. Bad bankroll management can cost you far more in the long run than any single mistake you could possibly make at the table.
Even if you exercise good bankroll management you can still lose out if you don’t look after your bankroll away from the table. Gone are the days when poker players have to deal with cheats and robberies on a regular basis like Doyle Brunson’s generation had to in decades past, but poker players still mix in circles that leave plenty of opportunity to lose their hard-earned cash. The traditional leak for poker players is other casino games that can’t be beaten in the long term by the player. Live players who love action are often forced to walk through the casino to get to the poker room and back and often fall foul of the craps or blackjack tables. Even online players may now have other casino games only a click away while they are playing poker.
If you are a winning poker player then look after your winnings!
It’s not just other gambling leaks you have to look out for. There are a million ways you can lose money if you put your mind to it. Last month you may have read about my unfortunate incident where I lost $10k when a dodgy online poker room discovered a cash flow problem just after I decided to cash out all my money. I could cry about how unfair it was, but the fact is that I made a mistake. The internet is a dangerous place and leaving such a large portion of your bankroll in one place is akin to walking through South Central with it in your pocket. A big leak! Fixing this leak may potentially save me far more money in the future than working out whether it is profitable to open raise J8s from the cutoff.
This is a big leak that is vastly underestimated by a lot of players. Many players talk about their long-term win rate like it is set in stone. As if they can sit down at any poker table live or online and win their 1.3 BB/100. While they may broadly accept that they should play in the best possible games, they don’t realise how much they can hurt themselves by playing in bad games, or in games that are outside their usual comfort zone. A winning player can not only hurt his win rate by playing in bad games. A winning player can become a losing player.
Obviously there are bad games and there are bad games. Most winning players are probably sensible enough to know that a winning hold’em player can’t just walk into a stud game and win if he has no idea how to play the game. But many won’t acknowledge that they can’t win in a game that is tighter than usual, more aggressive than usual or more short-handed than usual. They will play in these games and simply assume that they can win, just because they consider themselves winning players. This is another big mistake that can lose you plenty if it goes unchecked, because it may take you a long time to realise that you are out of your depth.
The problem is that most players overestimate their own ability and don’t accept that that they are not good enough to beat both their opponents and the rake. This is another mistake that I have made myself in the past. As I was going up through the limits, I learned the value of loose players and how to take advantage of them. Then I signed up for a new site and I was happy to find tables with plenty of loose players. They were mainly loose-aggressive players rather than the loose-passive players I was used to, but they should still be making enough mistakes to make me plenty of money right? Unfortunately after a few months of breaking even I was forced to conclude that I couldn’t beat these players. While they were making mistakes, my own game was simply not at a level where I could take advantage of loose-aggressive players, especially those that were only semi-loose and played well post-flop. In fact, looking back on it, many of them were obviously outplaying me.
My bad game selection effectively cost me three months of profit (or thereabouts, I could have been running badly as well I guess). At the time that wasn’t a great deal of money (maybe $1000 or so), but that is still a lot more than your average bad fold on the river.
Those familiar with my writing and forum posts will know that this is a pet peeve of mine. One of the reasons for this is that I have seen first hand the damage it can do. About two years ago I sometimes used to play heads up against a particular opponent. I didn’t play heads-up very often, but I knew I could beat this guy. He was extremely loose and aggressive, way too much so even for heads-up play and I beat him for a fair amount of money over time. In fact, he was quite a gravy train for me when he turned up. Oh yes, and he was a habitual trash talker. Every hand I won he would call me names, tell me how lucky I was and how awful I was etc. Sometimes he was deliberately extremely offensive saying how he hoped my family would die of cancer etc. I rarely bothered replying.
On one particular day I was in a bad mood for some reason. I found this guy sitting on his own at a table and so sat down to play. Before the first hand had even been dealt, he said:
“Oh great, the idiot has turned up. You are the worst player on this site by far”
For some reason I replied:
“You know I always take your money, so how about you just shut up and give me your chips like you normally do.”
I was just trying to tilt him, or at least that’s what I told myself. In reality, I was in a bad mood and probably just wanted to insult him for its own sake. To give back some of what he always gave me. I was expecting a huge load of verbal back, but none came. He sat out and then after about a minute said:
“I’ve changed my mind I don’t want to play any more, I have better things to do”
And then he left the table and I never saw him again. I have no idea what happened, but I can only assume that I triggered a realisation in him. That I always beat him and he was probably not as good as he thought he was. Or maybe he had a friend sitting with him who he was playing up to and what I said burst his bubble. Whatever the reason, one misplaced sentence had totally derailed my gravy train. No idea how much money this cost me, but it is sure to be at least a few buy-ins.
The worst thing about berating a fish is that it achieves absolutely nothing at all. At least bad bankroll management or bad game selection you can see why people do it. As online games get tougher, and bad players become fewer and fewer, you would think that they would be more appreciated. But the number of players risking their games and their profitability by insulting the very players they seek to profit from seems to be on the increase if anything. While not every case will be as disastrous as the one described above, who knows how much money you lose from bad players leaving the table or playing better after being on the wrong end of abuse.
Putting it in perspective
In this article we have outlined four big leaks. If you have any of these leaks then you might be costing yourself a lot of money even if your poker game itself is fantastic. Fixing leaks in your poker game is all well and good, but look also to fix these less obvious leaks too. You might be throwing money away faster than through all of your other little leaks put together.
Ian Taylor, AKA “Piemaster is the Co-Author of the highly regarded Poker Psychology Book “The Poker Mindset”.