The Riddle of the Robot

The Riddle of the Robot

Monday, 24 March 2014

Too many players have sacrificed creative thought to become mindless drones, says Miikka Anttonen.

There are endless ways to play a hand of No Limit Texas Hold'em. Since you are reading this article, you probably already know most concepts that have become basic knowledge for any aspiring players during the last decade. You probably have at least a vague idea why C-betting more often than not is a good idea, or semi-bluffing with a flush draw, or why three-betting in position is such an effective tool. I'm not going to bother you with any of that. Instead, I'm going to talk about a condition I believe most poker players aware of these principles unknowingly suffer from, and offer a couple of suggestions and tricks to tackle it (and your unsuspecting opponents).

When I was starting my poker career, there was very limited (and often outdated) information available about poker strategy. CardRunners was the only training site out there, our cover boy Phil Galfond was still known as “Sweaty Phil” from his High Stakes Poker appearance where he played like a virgin, and most strategy articles were written by washed up live pros whose last tournament score was in the Punxsutawney Thanksgiving Freeroll in 1996. These days it's quite the opposite. There's actually too much information out there, and most new players acquire a certain skill-set earlier on than ever before. This skill-set – let's call it the microscopic winner – is now found in almost every opponent, you see. But these skills, I'd like to argue, could also be hurting you. Since all the poker schools are teaching you the same style, as if you're practicing for a history test with the answers to all the questions set in stone, you're being stripped of the key asset that could put you, ahead of others, en route to real poker professionalism. Creativity.

One of the most interesting poker videos I've ever watched started with a 16-minute monologue about not wanting to play 5% ROI poker and do things the same way as everyone else. Then, finally, the instructor proceeded to play his first hand where he did something that can only be perceived as bad according to common poker wisdom. It was something along the lines of open limping a small pocket pair, with 16 big blinds effective, and check-calling three streets. It was a hand that does more bad than good for your poker game if you just suck it in and start playing the same way, but clearly the guy (one of the best online MTT players of all time) was onto something. What if the tight-aggressive style of playing 14/12/5 in full ring games, doing textbook C-bets and not risking your whole stack without a premium hand is an inferior strategy? What if there's something else, like a secret garden of Eden, that no-one has told us about?

And the last sentence is my exact point. In today's poker economy, with an infinite amount of learning resources, new players get everything handed to them on a silver plate. You are taught to do things, not to think on your own. You can buy a membership for a training site for as little as $10, mimic someone's style, and probably make a little bit of money at micro-stakes straight away. You can download one of the countless poker calculators and ask them any kinds of mathematical questions, and they will tell you the answer down to the decimal. You can post a question on a forum, and you'll almost always get an answer from a seasoned pro. There's always someone telling you what to do, like your teacher at school. And even though the teacher is usually right, copying what he says is a surefire way to stop thinking yourself. And not thinking is the worst enemy of success in poker.

A prime example of these robotic grinders are turbo MTT and SNG grinders. I'll try to not to be disrespectful, because I have to admit I couldn't even handle a single day in that profession. The best of these guys are very good at what they do. You can wake them up in the middle of the night and ask them what percentage of hands they should shove from this and that position with this and that stack size, and they'll instantly know the correct answer is 13.54594351% without thinking twice. But put one of these guys to play street poker with 300 big blinds against a bad live pro who hasn't even heard of PokerStove, and they are going to be in trouble. A typical course of action for the turbo wizard, I'd imagine, would be to three-bet a somewhat “correct” range, C-bet most flops and be done with the hand. On the other hand, the live pro would know that after the turn is dealt the hand has only just begun. Even though only one of the two is playing “correct” poker, could they both learn something from one another?

It would be hard to fault the turbo player for his lack of deep-stacked skills, when all he's ever done is master short-stacked play and earned loads of money whilst doing so. He's probably spent thousands of hours working on his push-fold game striving to become one of the best in his field. But what if there was something more there for him if he just gave it a shot? What if he, for just a few weeks of his life, forgot about the turbos and started playing deep-stacked poker, questioning every decision he makes, and giving this beautiful game some serious thought? Could he evolve to something even better, or at least introduce some new nuances to his everyday game?

The key here is the questioning yourself part. Ideally, I believe, you should ask yourself “why?” several times during every hand you play and answer these questions as you go. I know, most decisions are more or less automatic these days, and it feels dumb to ask yourself why exactly you're folding 7-2o UTG or why you're C-betting a 5-3-3 rainbow flop with 100% of hands. But it's important. Making a habit out of explaining and justifying yourself your actions in the middle of a hand (pro tip: in a live poker setting you might want to do this just in your mind) constantly is the best way to make sure you're focused, and your mind doesn't wander away from the decision-making. This way you'll always be alert, and most importantly, open to new ideas. How are you ever going to successfully turn second pair into a river check-raise bluff if you can't explain it to yourself? When you don't ask yourself questions, you're not really answering them either, but rather playing like a robot. And that's what most players these days are – robots. If you're good at being a robot and have digested everything you've learnt from your studies, congratulations, you're probably making a bit of money. But you know, they pay $12/hour at McDonald's, too. That's the exact 5% ROI poker we all should not settle for but try to avoid, yet most of us are too scared to even try.

The craziest part is that using your brain and trying to come up with creative lines is actually fun. I bet the original road gamblers would turn in their graves if they knew about the robotic number-crunching game poker has become in the last ten years. Who on earth decided that this is what poker should become? And more importantly, why does everyone strive to be a clone of all the other tiny winners, never achieving anything big or inventing something new? Steve Jobs didn't create the empire Apple is now by trying to copy what his colleagues at Microsoft and IBM did. And you aren't going to win the WSOP Main Event by trying to become like everyone else.

In the next part we'll go through the best types of questions to ask yourself in the middle of a hand, the most common auto-piloting mistakes to avoid, and some creative solutions to common situations that most auto-piloters haven't even thought of. Until then, enjoy using your brain!

Tags: Miika Anttonen, strategy