Monday, 26 October 2009
If you are a winning player, you play more hands and you will make more money. Simple, right? Having just come back from a hectic schedule of tournaments in Vegas with the promise of fame and fortune (I came 549th in the Main Event, am I famous now?), I felt that I needed to get back to the grind and put more time in online.
I’d been running well, but making easy money can deceive you into thinking that you can just log on and play for three hours a day and make a good living, but for most (professional) poker players that's simply not true.
I had the solution, of course: I was going to play at least eight hours, six tables minimum, and that would mean that I should hit around 50,000 hands a month (with a few well-earned days off). I was going to be a millionaire within the next couple of years and all I had to think about was how I was going to spend all the money. A butler perhaps? A house in the country and a flat in Belgravia? Maybe even a gite in the South of France?
What actually happened following my return from Vegas makes me laugh. I had my biggest losing month in 2009 (bye-bye $30k) and, despite all my best intentions, I just seemed to run really badly. I looked at my EV graph (what I should have won versus what I did win) and it's just a fucking joke.
So, time to reflect. A few weeks on, here's what I think happened: Luck is luck. You cannot control it, you just have to ride with it. I always do sensible things like drop down stakes when I'm losing or feel unconfident, or am generally just getting beaten up at the tables, so I decided to listen to my mentor, Phil Galfond, to see how to proceed to the end of the year.
Phil and I have never met, but I can honestly say that he has had a huge impact on my game from his strategy writing (great article in Bluff last year – "You Are Bad at Poker") and the videos that he makes. Since I couldn’t win a hand at poker any more, I decided to watch a bunch of these training videos to see if anything good could come of it.
Something clicked and I’ll come to that in a bit. First, here's a summary of where I realise my head has been over the last month. I think the biggest problem for me (and maybe for YOU!) is the fact that, at some point, I had ceased to think about what I was doing when I was playing. Multi-tabling “robotically” will throw up many situations that, on the surface, seem similar, but it’s easy to forget that each situation is unique in some way.
I realised had been playing on auto-pilot. I felt that I’d been mimicking the strong 25/50 online players and repeating their “winning” plays, which is fine, but in the smaller games these plays were overly sophisticated and were probably causing me to leave money behind on the table.
Let me explain. A concept that has been around for a while, but is in danger of being misused is that of “balancing your range”. We don't want our opponent's perceived range of us to match up with our actual range. When we make a specific play, we must do it with a wide enough range of hands to stop our play being too predictable.
This is all very well if your opponents are extremely observant, but in your average MTT or mid-stakes online cash game, they are often not. I realised I should be simply looking to take the most profitable line in a hand until an opponent – usually another regular in my games – figures me out, and then I should look to balance.
My mate Phil G recently did an online series of advanced heads-up 5/10 NL videos where he was pretty sure the opponent didn't know who he was (or said opponent would have run to the hills, I imagine). He then did something in a hand that blew my mind.
Phil raised pre-flop to $30 and got called (standard so far), then, when checked to on the button, bet $10! Yes $10! Wow! I mean, what the hell is that bet? What a donk!
Well, no, because it's Saint Phil (apologies if I’m getting overly sycophantic here). What he did was make a bet that would make his opponent THINK. Yes, that's it, THINK.
Would you know what that bet meant (apart from looking a bit weak) or, more importantly, would you know how to react to it? Because it looks weak, it puts the opponent in a weird spot where he kind of feels he has to check-raise, just out of principle.
Ultimately, Phil showed me that I shouldn't feel too constrained about what the “right” bet is, and that there is still a lot of space for creativity many unique poker situations. Now, every time I’m in a poker hand, I think more creatively about my bet-sizing:
“What if I min-bet?”
“What if I over-bet?”
“What will each bet mean in relation to the board, and how will my opponent react to it?”
Rewind to Monte Carlo 2005. I am in the hotel lobby, playing online in a heads-up SNG with a friend. Johnny Lodden is playing online opposite me. We don’t really know each other and he doesn't speak to us until the following happens:
I’m chatting to my friend about the hands in the SNG, and in this particular one my opponent (some lunatic Swede) had raised the button, and I’d called from the big blind. Rather than checking to the raiser post-flop, I min-bet 10 into 60. Maniac Scandie raises (obv.), I call. To be honest, I don't think I even had a pair at this point. The turn is brick and now I lead out for 20 into about a pot of 140. Scandie thinks and raises again to 400, at which point I shove for about 1,500 all-in. Scandie boy snap-folds – ship, ship.
Johnny Lodden hears all of this and suddenly becomes animated: “I know that pattern! I know that pattern!” he says. “It's so weird. Some guy used to do that to me all the time in high-stakes SNG’s on ’Stars last year. Was it you?”
I said no, and that I’d learnt it from my friend Scott Fischman (emptyseat88). It turns out that Lodden and Fischman had played heads-up for days and days. Lodden, who went on to be one of the most formidable high-stakes cash players online, remembered this unique and creative little play because it was so “out-of-the-box”.
My point? Well, it just reinforced in my mind the endless potential for creativity in this game and how much flexibility there is. Scott's min-leading/shove plan only worked for a while (it's hard to balance), but even then it took the great Johnny Lodden some time to figure it out and counteract. It made him THINK. Poker is a game of guile and deception, and just maybe, in this brave new world of multi-tabling and training videos, we’re forgetting that.
I think that for the rest of 2009 I’m going to play fewer tables but still work really hard at my game. I am going to slow myself down and really think about each hand. This lack of volume might cost me some $$$ in the short-term but I think it will improve my game hugely in the long run.
by Nik Persaud