Wednesday, 3 February 2010

It’s not the winning or the losing, it’s the decisions that count, says Nik Persaud

When most people play a session of poker, they tend to view that session in terms of how “well” they’ve done, which means how much money they’ve won. They’ve been in a couple of big flips, won all of them, and they think they’ve played well, despite running way above expectation.When people look back over sessions they should detach themselves from the money involved and simply look at poker as a game – specific decisions, street-by-street, flop turn and river, should be specifically analysed and critically reviewed to see if they could have been played any better. Instead, most people see a big pot and go, “Well, I had A-Q, the flop came Axx and I got it all in – well played me!”

To most people, profit is money banked. Why should they preoccupy themselves with how badly they played when they won money? When poker players lose, they always think more critically about their hands, but what an expert player should be doing is analysing whether check-raising all-in on the flop with the nut flush draw was the right play, regardless of whether he rivered a fifth diamond or not. Was my image right? Was my opponent’s mindset good? Did I have fold-equity? You need to detach yourself from the results and think about the process. Sometimes I’ve left the Vic a few grand up but, deep down, I know I’ve played like an idiot. I could play for a few months and perform at a totally mediocre level but win lots of money. People would fear me and see me cashing out lots of chips, but at the end of the day, I’ve not been playing well.

A lot of poker players don’t have a true understanding of variance. An amateur player reads that it’s a good move to check-raise a flush draw, so he does it a few times and it never works, and he gives up on the idea, but he hasn’t really thought about it. When I check-raise a flush draw, I’m only doing so if my image is right and I have fold equity. I’m always thinking a street or two in advance – and that’s how you must approach the game.

If you don’t have an analytical mind, there are ways to improve. Tools like PokerTracker allow you see the picture more clearly. It’s black and white; it’s numbers, and you can’t argue with numbers.

So we should look at poker as a game, the object of which is to make perfect decisions, rather than as a moneymaking pursuit. I’m sure Isildur1, who by all accounts lives with his mum in the attic of his house in Gothenburg, isn’t thinking about the money when he makes a $200,000 bluff on the river – he’s just thinking about the hand in its entirety.

When you make a play, don’t think, “Oh God, I just bluffed a 16GB iPod” or “I just bluffed my rent”. If you ever have that thought, you’re either not a good player or you’re playing too high for your bankroll. I’ve trained myself to pull the trigger whenever I think it’s a good spot for a bluff – and it’s about the stack-sizes, image, player history and a myriad of other factors.

Poker is a balance sheet. All the good decisions you make, minus all of the bad decisions you make, equal your profit. The problem with this simple analogy is that variance kicks in – you can make a tonne of bad decisions but because you won lots of flips you can make a gigantic profit.

But winning at poker in the long-term is more about the marginal spots than the coinflips. These are always the harder decisions; they are also the ones that rarely come up on PokerTracker because they’re hardly ever shown down. You raise pre-flop, bet the flop after and, after a check from you opponent, are now faced with a really difficult turn card. Should you double barrel? Many people autopilot and just check/fold a difficult turn card without realising that they have position and that card is a scare card for their opponent’s range. The better players make better decisions in these spots.

So remember, amateurs are results-orientated. Professionals are not. If you want to improve, you must learn to become decision-orientated and see poker for what it is – a game, not a gamble.

Tags: Nik Persaud, Poker Strategy