Posts Tagged ‘Poker Strategy’

Since the WSOP I’ve been in an awful lull, moreover when I play I lose. Some of this is a result of negative variance, but mostly I feel I’ve spent a lot of hours pressing. I’ve let the game get away from me. It’s been slipping for quite some time. I have done my best to spend hours off the table analyzing my sessions; where I’m leaking money, even to the point of questioning my entire approach to live cash…something I’ve never, in my career, second guessed.

Life has a funny way of giving you exactly what you need just when you need it the most. In my case it was the opportunity to coach. For two weeks I was holed up in Stony Brook, playing the role of Gregy, a style in which my own game closely reflects. Being surrounded by 9 other people dedicated to improvement through discussion, debate, analysis, even trial and error allowed me to begin a stripping down process. I came home ready to conquer the world, completely blind to how much more work needed to be done. After a handful of sessions where I got beat up by the deck as well as by my own poor judgement, I was fortunate enough to be approached by a friend looking to transition from the work world to playing for a living. My initial response was jaded. I told him, “As much as I love poker and don’t regret the past 9 years, if I had the chance to do it all over again I would have never played a single hand.”. However, I really enjoy the coaching process and seeing his enthusiasm it was easy to take on the challenge of teaching someone from square one. In turn I’m also going to do the same, checking my ego at the door for the greater good.

The Challenge:
So much of my game is built around creating edges in areas where conventional wisdom dictates taking a more traditional approach. The result is a fine line between excellence and utter failure with no middle ground to cushion the blow. So obviously I must be insane to employ such a style if there are easier, lower risk ways of operating. Maybe, but I feel to continually stay ahead of the game and maintain such a high win rate I have to constantly challenge myself and thought process. I trust the foundation in which I’ve built my game upon. Unfortunately, after playing double dutch with that fine line this year, it’s clear that my game needs patch work from the bottom up. So this is where I challenge myself in a different way. This is where I check my ego at the door and take a step down to work out the kinks, strengthen the ABC’s and force myself to care about the intricacies as much as the results. For at least the next 5 weeks I’m going to do two things that I haven’t done in years, grind 6 days a week and do so exclusively at $2/$5NL.

Since this is meant to be a learning experience I am going to go through the same exercises I assign to my student. The first of which is a completed list of short-term goals I expect to complete over the next 5 weeks:

Goals (Nov. 17th – Dec. 23rd)

-Play 6 days a week; minimum 30 sessions total

-Play a minimum of 30 hrs/wk

-Let no session go longer than 10 hrs.

-Maintain $75/hr win rate (very likely on the high-end, but I’d rather err on the side of unobtainable)

-Spend 5 hrs/wk on hand and session analysis

For the sake of balance I’ve included a few physical goals as well:
-Maintain a strict workout regiment

-Continue strengthening my arm through long toss once or twice a week

-Back to tracking diet via myFitnessPal

Along with logging my hands for future analysis I will also keep a log focused on reflecting upon each session utilizing these questions…

Quality of play:

Quality of the game:

Number of mistakes and cost:

Quality of Focus (did we go on cruise control, tilt?):

Ability to over come dip in focus:

Somewhere along this uncleared path I call a poker career, I lost my way and for too long was unwilling to backtrack. Fortunately, there is a trail of crumbs leading me back to base. I hope this challenge proves to be a step backward in order to take a leap forward, but most of all I hope it humbles me. I’m at my best when my ego is bruised and in check. When the only hurdle is defining to myself just how badly I want to succeed.

“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, that’s when you’ll be successful.”

ImageGrowing up as an athlete it was beaten into my brain that mental errors are inexcusable. If the sick feeling of screwing up wasn’t enough there was the inevitable browbeating quick to follow. No one ever wanted to be “put in the corner” so to speak; it was embarrassing and counter productive from a learning standpoint. I did, however, take something away from those encounters… even the best make mistakes.

When I decided to create Coach’s Corner, I wanted to keep with the spirit of singling out inexcusable mistakes; less the public humiliation of course. The first subject I chose to tackle is easily the most common mistake among competent players; playing on auto pilot. Whether it’s a marathon session, problems off the table, tilt, or simply being stuck, everyone can think back to a hand, or series of hands where they weren’t totally engaged in the action or decision-making process. This disengagement from the game leads to playing in a predictable manner with an absence of forward thinking, ultimately making us an easy opponent to target. Moreover, when we’re restricted to making decisions street by street we get led down a disastrous path that could have been avoided by executing a well formulated plan. In my own personal experience, I often fall victim to auto pilot when I’m stuck or when sessions run long (not surprisingly these go hand in hand). Session length plays a big role in my game; I’m generally driving the action, which equates to having to make a lot of critical decisions. In order to stay engaged and continually make crisp, calculated choices, it becomes important that I recognize when my brain has checked out. In my bonus pack I have selected five hands, three of which exemplify mistakes I made playing on auto pilot; the final two will demonstrate the deep thought process of our  A+ game.

Hand #1: Snowball Effect

I won’t overdo the detail of this hand, as our mistake is quite clear. A strong case can be made for squeezing preflop, and to be honest had I been fully engaged in the game it’s the option I would have been most likely to take. However, putting in a large three-bet here, out of position is a very high variance play and will require high level play on all future streets. In a vacuum calling is the correct play, and what I would recommend to anyone I was coaching. The flop is a clear check/fold situation. When we call we rarely have the best hand and have no idea which, if any, of our outs are live. Case in point, we were floating ourselves dead in this hand. Biggest point of emphasis is if when we improve we still do not have a hand strong enough to play for max value then folding is the correct choice.

Hand #2: Winning Isn’t Everything

One of the biggest mistakes made while in cruise control is overlooking obvious details. In hand two we see a raise from under the gun by a 60bb stack. Now let me take this opportunity to be clear, in a cash game I consider players with less than a buy in to be short stacked. This is obviously exaggerated as true short stacks are closer to the 40bb or less range. However, we must consider our style; we play large pots applying max pressure forcing multiple decisions. Shorter stacks take that leverage away from us. More to the point, in this case where we hold a small pair we’re calling merely to set mine. Given stack sizes we’re barely getting the proper price, assuming we stack him when we flop a set. Since our opponent is also tight, it’s much more likely he’ll get let off the hook when he misses with AK, has an over card flop when holding JJ, QQ, KK, or worst case set over set us. All these, very apparent, details are forgotten when our mind wanders elsewhere and we instinctually flick in a call. Afterall we are already invested a big blind, and we have a very playable hand. To most this hand becomes an afterthought, just another instance where we make a set and don’t get paid. But the astute realize, that despite winning this pot, we made a clear negative EV call.

Hand #3: Deer In Headlights

This image is a close depiction as to how I must have looked upon facing such an awkward flop bet in a scenario that I hadn’t anticipated. Had my head been in the game I would have realized two things: my stack is too awkward to flat preflop, and this old man has been getting out of line. Folding is fine as is three-betting and playing for stacks, at least at the $5/$10 level. At lower stakes I would suspect that no matter how out of line it appeared this man has been getting, it’s more likely that he’s just catching a solid run of cards, since people play true to their tendencies at $1/$2 NL. Ok fine, everyone makes small mistakes, at least we have position and a strong holding to compensate. Unfortunately, once we’ve mentally checked out it’s tough to reel it back in. The flop is an easy shove. We made a questionable call preflop, but now our hand has as much value as we could ever expect. We hold an ace so it’s less likely he has aces, his bet is quite large so I give him less credit for a set, and if we are unfortunate enough to have run into KK we have some equity. Sure it’s a gamble to shove, but we’ve put ourselves in an awkward spot and it’s certainly the most profitable play at this point (he can easily make a bad call with AK or JJ, as well as draws or KQ)… So I call. I imagine this is what it feels like as the deer realizes a car is bearing down on it. Since it becomes clear that we have either a queen or a draw, our opponent checking the turn leaves us in a position where now we are no longer playing our hand for max value, but instead to lose the minimum when beaten. We can’t really shove for value now as we’ve defined our hand and will likely only be called by better. Also, when we are being checked to it’s often one of two scenarios, a full house or a hand he’s given up on. Since we’re never paying when AK makes broadway, I elect to make at least one good decision in this hand and check behind. Much like an act of God keeping the deer from becoming another victim, the deck saves us with a rivered queen. Unfortunately, we will rarely make any money on this card. It now becomes easy for our opponent to fold ace high, JJ, KK or AA as well as busted draws. Tens full and eights full may make a crying call, but that’s our only glimmer of hope. Of course the old man shows a monster draw that I would have never given him credit for, which had he hit the ace I would have paid off. If nothing else this hand demonstrates just how thin the line is between playing as a high level pro and a breakeven amateur. The devil hides in the detail.

Hand #4: Fight or Flight

Very rarely will we encounter a blind vs. blind battle at the $1/$2 level; in raked games it’s both profitable and good etiquette to chop. However, once we get to the mid stakes we start paying time, in which chopping is now foolish. In this particular hand we have a dream scenario: heads up with a hand that flops well, in position against a decent player who is going to generally try too hard against us. The reason I consider his trying too hard as relevant is it will naturally take him out of his comfort zone, leading to a potential large mistake. Hence why we do not three-bet him, too often he’s going to try to play above the rim and find the courage to four-bet. Since our hand flops well we elect to call with the intent to take it away on favorable flop textures. The 10-6-3 rainbow flop is about as dry as it gets so we should suspect our opponent to hold no pair a large portion of the time. Of course we anticipated his continuation bet, and since we are playing our A+ game we are going to take this pot away with a raise. We have a draw to the nuts as well as a backdoor flush draw, should our flop plan falter we will have ample opportunity to take this pot away as the board texture changes. Unfortunately, we turn one of the worst cards in the deck, and are facing heavy aggression as our opponent retakes control. Since his bet/call range on the flop is mostly middling/top pairs, 54, and strong Ace highs (AJ-AK) this card will often strengthen his hand, it’s also a great card for him to bluff, assuming he had any intention of doing so. Since our stack-to-pot ratio is awkward we can really only shove (likely into a hand or strong combo draw) or fold. We correctly tuck our tail, lick our wounds, and move on.

Hand #5: Driving The Bus

When fully engaged in the game each play we make will be backed by a well formulated plan. Here we are dealt a premium hand out of position. Most of the time our hand strength alone would dictate a three bet, but against an opponent who has such a tight opening range we are much better served flatting. Our plan will be to keep the pot small preflop and either flop the best hand (we assume anytime we make a pair it will likely be best) or use our image of having a wide flatting range to take the pot away on bad flop textures for our opponent’s perceived range (pairs and AQ, AK). Here we have an unexpected caller from the big blind. Despite the flop (10, 7, 3 rainbow) being quite dry, we can take the lead with what is sometimes the best hand or otherwise a hand that has over card equity. Since we expect the big blind to fold every time he has nothing, and some of the time when he has only one pair (based on the pressure of potentially being raised by the player yet to act) we’re putting the big blind and original raiser in a spot where they must have a hand to continue. The preflop raiser’s call tells us one of two things: he either has one pair that we likely have outs against (assuming it’s not AA), or he has specifically top set of tens that he is slow playing. Either scenario is fine for us as we’ll slow down on turn cards that don’t improve our actual hand or our perceived range (what we are representing: set of 3’s, 7’s or T’s, 98 straight draw, or just a ten).

Turn: The turn is actually a monster card for both our real hand and our perceived range, however, it also improves our opponent when he has JJ. Since JJ and TT are only small  portions of his holdings, coupled with his likelihood to misplay both of those hands as well as QQ, KK, AA, and AT, we elect to bet again. The obvious question is why not check in a spot where we are clearly beaten? Two reasons: First we can’t win the pot if we check. In other words he’s never folding when we check, moreover he’s rarely checking behind. The second reason to bet is we are able to set our own price. Against an opponent that I thought was incapable of ever folding one pair, or an opponent who I thought would often check behind/bet too small, I would elect to check. However, this specific opponent will be very likely to make a bet large enough that we can’t call profitably. Since the jack strengthens our representation of JT, sets and 98 I believe our fold equity greatly increases against naked one pair hands.

River: The one thing I can say about aggression is that it is often rewarded. Once he calls the turn it’s clear that if we make a hand we are certainly getting paid. It’s crucial we earn the maximum when we hit such a long shot. If our range assessment is accurate we know that most of our opponent’s hands are sets. That being said this becomes a perfect spot to go for an over bet. Of course check/raising is an option, but he’ll almost always check down KK and AA (where he may call some % of the time)  as well as bet and fold to our raise a lot of the time, yielding us a lower profit than if we had just dictated the price. Analyzing the hand after the fact we see that our opponent makes numerous mistakes, the largest being never attempting to push us off our equity share of the pot. If he puts in a raise on the flop or turn we are forced to surrender. Instead, he allows the board texture to continually deteriorate; even upon rivering a card that improves him, he faces a huge bet and ultimately loses the pot. Here in lies the biggest problem with bluff catching, far too often when pots swell and there is a river bet,  it’s no longer a bluff we are up against.

It’s very easy to lose sight of the big picture while playing a game for a living. But, this isn’t tiddlywinks. We’re playing for real money; cold hard cash, often in excess amounts that most people wouldn’t dream of risking. When signing up for this lifestyle, this career, it becomes our duty to give our undivided attention to the game; that is if we hope to succeed. Eliminate the mental mistakes and results will surely follow.

Winning players, especially in the live realm, are fragile entities. They are hard wired to believe their ability is what sets them apart from the competition. They feed off the weak, rarely encountering resistance, especially from other grinders. Basically, the average winning live cash player survives in a comfortable bubble making a consistent living so long as he isn’t disrupted. My goal, as I set out to distinguish myself, was to ignore the weakest players in the game, and instead focus upon exploiting the everyday regular. The idea of giving capable opponents a pass under some pretense that there are easier spots didn’t sit well with my competitive side. Instead I sought to make the everyday regular a part of the target group.

Enemy Tactics: Small Ball
Given the trendy nature of the game, my task was simplified. Most amateurs mimic the play of those that beat them, resulting in some mix of tight/aggressive and loose/passive play. As I began dissecting the play of most grinders I realize they employ a style of small ball revolving around playing controlled, heads up pots, in position, against break-even/bad players. The strategy is extremely profitable and basic to the core. The goal is to keep pots manageable with small raises and occasional three bets, which are heavily weighted toward strength (QQ+ and AK). Earning one post flop street of value is where they define their earn. Any other bet is a bonus since pots only swell when they have a huge hand, likely pitted against another big hand. Despite this description fitting that of a random winner in a $1/$2 game, the grinders remain the same at all levels. As stakes increase and mistakes decrease, the everyday regulars adapt by tightening ranges and adding aggression. Since higher stake, uncapped games play deeper they also play looser, which allows the grinder to plug away. Overall their strategy remains unaltered; capitalize on loose action and win a little bit at time.

The Counter Tactic: Long Ball
The actual profitability from small ball comes from exploiting common mistakes. Ultimately, in order to be a reasonable winner, we would need to exploit the mistakes our opponents make while making significantly fewer mistakes ourselves. I’d rather get a nine to five. I’m human, I’m flawed, and moreover, I enjoy the creative aspect NL Hold’em provides. To be creative and fight for pots we need to give action and sacrifice small edges to gain bigger edges later. After being fed up with dissecting each and every action, searching for the minuscule mistake where I could have saved a bet, I looked for another approach; one that would give these guys fits. In short, I widened all of my ranges through specific actions.

To most the mechanics of the game have stayed the same. Barring a drunk at the table, the standard raise will be somewhere between two and five big blinds (the latter only after multiple limpers). Three-bets will be infrequent and generally weighted toward premiums. The standard c-bets will be between half and two-thirds pot. Two and three barrels will be polarized to a monster hand or a busted draw. And finally range assessing will be a moot point as most actions directly define the hand. I decided that rather than exploiting tiny mistakes for marginal gain, I would employ a strategy that forced my opponents into awkward, uncomfortable situations; inevitably leading to major mistakes which can earn me players’ stacks. Long Ball was born.

That’s actually misleading, Super System was the first strategy guide on punishing opponents via big pot poker. Early in the boom the misapplication of what Doyle preached could be seen in any given game that consisted of a kid under the age of 25. Raising and c-betting was more profitable then than it ever will be again, which is why playing for stacks with weak draws against tight passive opponents was a big mistake. Other factors made the style unprofitable as well, such as stack sizing (most games were very shallow), misguided aggression, and most of all the inability to range assess. As the game evolved and players became more educated, gambling was reduced significantly. Pot control became a staple and big mistakes became a thing of the past. Most players built a game where they can’t lose much, but can’t win much either…very risk averse. Much like other trends in poker, power poker is prime for a resurgence.

The Breakdown:
Long ball, in it’s simplest terms, is big pot, maximum pressure poker. The focus shifts from having the best hand at showdown for small pots, to avoiding showdown all together in big pots. Much like Texas, everything is bigger. Standard opens are five to ten big blinds. Three bet-to-flat frequency is balanced and based mostly on table dynamics; three betting more often in loose games where pots are often multi-way. Continuation bets are large; ranging from three-quarters pot to twice the pot, all based around stack manipulation and desired pressure. Each bet made has a direct, as well as, expected purpose. My sizing will often dictate how many bullets I plan to unload, both for value and for bluff.

Ironically our overall strategy is similar to that of the small baller. We want to play heads up, in position. The difference is we want to do so for an inflated pot, and our image is maniacal, leading to much bigger payoffs. Those commonalities are crucial as they lead to the most important part of the entire concept, how our opponents react. Because the dynamics are similar, players counter the same as they would against a good small baller; they bluff catch. By taking passive, trappy, check/call lines they constantly allow us to control the two most important factors in any given hand of poker, board texture and pressure. It takes proficiency in post flop ability and range assessing along with seeing multiple moves ahead in order to execute long ball. But when implemented correctly we’ll be playing as if our opponent’s hand is face up while his stack is in jeopardy.

More important than poker strategy, or money we may incur through implementing it, is the bottom line…

Chicks Dig The Long Ball.

In 2003 something very profound happened to the poker world. A degenerate accountant, with a last name too ironic to be fiction, parlayed his last $36 of online money into $2 million. A perfect storm, that if pitched as a script would surely be dismissed as hokey. I’m a first generation product of “The Moneymaker effect”. I’ve watched poker transform from a shady backroom game to a sophisticated, calculated, battle of wits where only the strong survive. I grew as the game grew; taking my lumps in stride, receiving a crash course in business, life and responsibility. 

Those who helped blaze the trail for NL Hold’em to become the game of choice, speak as if the game is solved. A mathematical game dying due to readily available strategy content, far-less “dead” money, and young optimists with all the answers. However, NL Hold’em isn’t a mechanical game easily conquered by someone who employs a solid strategy. It’s a living, breathing organism that feeds off of short-sighted, small-minded, narcissists.

The fact is, most players create a ceiling through a flawed approach to how they think about the game. Given the dynamic nature of the beast, the game quickly passes them by. The fraction of players who keep their fingers to the pulse adapt. They creatively find new ways to exploit the human element, manipulating each and every variable, resulting in an undefined style that leaves opponents questioning every certainty solidified in their own play. The true innovators are the ones who don’t accept such terms as alwaysnever, and standard. They are the ones who are trashed for not falling in line; their out of the box ideas often dismissed as reckless and mechanically flawed. But this game isn’t conquered by execution. Game theory is the driving force of a world-class pro, willing to sacrifice fundamentals in order to challenge players of all abilities, rather than surviving on an all fish diet.They are the trend setters, hidden beneath a cloak of judgement.  

A close guard is kept on the method behind the madness, revealed in detail to only a trusted few. As eye-opening as my mistakes have been, the most influential asset at my disposal was the close group of peers I discussed the game with. I imagine very few have been privy to the diverse talent and intelligence as was in my group. We learned the game on the fly and our results grew in correlation to hard work and analysis. Most importantly we learned how to think.

Earlier this year I was presented with an opportunity to provide content for a poker app that aimed to make a competitive game out of hand analysis.  I couldn’t sign on fast enough. Insta Poker was the perfect format to provide that group-like environment to the masses; providing a road map with a clear starting point to anyone interested in studying the game. Once I committed to working with Insta Poker, it became clear just how enthralled I was with the learning process. My ideas for in-depth teaching quickly surpassed both my time and focus. I developed a structure; each pack would posses a unique lesson, yet collectively (much like chapters to a book) the packs complete a series, “The Playbook”.

Since my audience is vast in skill set and knowledge of the game, I wanted to develop from the ground up. Now that the first two packs have been released, solidifying the fundamentals of poker, I want to expand the learning process by creating a forum in which packs can be further examined/explained, while providing an open line of communication between myself and the audience.

The first major hurdle I aim to overcome is clearing up any uncertainties resulting from my writing style. I’ve received constructive criticism that my explanations tend to be convoluted to those not all that familiar with poker vernacular. I felt blogging would be perfect to further define the content as well as the language in each pack. Furthermore, I plan to address the desire for more free content by releasing a free pack each month which I will dissect both on Insta Poker, as well as in the correlating blog. Finally, I wanted an outlet where the debate can begin where the packs left off. Consider the comment box an open forum where any questions, thoughts, criticisms or general arguments can be posed.

I’ll end this entry with a two-part video series. It’s a commencement speech given by author David Foster Wallace. Amidst his well versed stories and witty quips, lies an eye-opening lesson on our flawed default thought process. In short, he explains the importance in taking the time to learn how to think. Enjoy…