Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Art of Bluffing at the Micros: When to do it and Why

bluffing at micro stakes poker
One of the oldest rules in the book at the micros is to "never bluff." So why would I write an article about bluffing at the micros then you might ask? Well, because poker as we know it on the internet has changed a lot over the years and bluffing is now profitable against some opponents at these stakes. Long gone are the days when literally every single player is incapable of folding anything. Many regs have long since realized that frequently finding the fold button (especially against other tight regs) is vital to their success at these stakes.

But the great thing about poker is that for every adjustment there is always a counter-adjustment. Many micro stakes players have taken this folding thing way too far and some of the better regs have taken advantage of this by being more aggressive and bluffing more. The prime target for these bluffs is a player type that I have discussed many times before, the "TAGfish." They typically have stats that look something like this:

Full Ring: 13/10/2 WTSD 22%
6max: 19/16/2 WTSD 22%

The first set of numbers is VPIP/PFR/TotalAF. If you are unfamiliar with what these mean go check out my mega article on HUD setup here.

Basically this player type is tight, fairly passive and doesn't like to stick large amounts of their stack in the middle without the nuts. We can notice this most especially by their relatively low WTSD% (went to showdown %). The average is about 24% among regs according to my database. These players are the perfect opponent to run a big time bluff against on the later streets. I will go through a couple examples of how we can do this shortly.

However, first I want to be really clear about something. If you are table selecting properly at these stakes (a horse that I have beaten to death on this blog, in my books and elsewhere) then you should be running into a whole bunch of other bad regs who are calling stations and who you should not be bluffing very often. They will have stats that look something like this:

Full Ring: 13/10/2 WTSD 27%
6max: 19/16/2 WTSD 27%

As you can see the WTSD% is the crucial stat here once again. Even though this player type is only going to showdown 5% more often than their TAGfish counterpart this is actually a huge relative difference. Every session we all face many close decisions on the later streets. Some regs just won't fold their small over pair, top pair or even their middle pair though. On the other hand, plenty of the weaker TAGfish regs frequently fold all of these hands.

This is where most of this 5% difference comes from. You don't want to be bluffing these calling station regs very often whose WTSD% is in the high 20's. Players who are in the low 20's though should be a prime target.

If you are table selecting well then you should also be playing with plenty of the standard SLPs (semi-loose passive) and fish at these stakes. These players of course don't fold anything at all. They will have stats that look something like this (Full Ring or 6max):

SLP: 27/8/1 WTSD 29% 
Fish: 52/8/1 WTSD 33%

You are simply not going to turn a profit trying to run a big bluff against either of these player types. You should almost never try to bluff these players on the later streets. It is often simply winrate suicide because they will call you down with any piece, even no pair hands on occasion.

So therefore, when bluffing at the micros, we should be squarely focused on the weak TAGfish regs who do not go to showdown very often. Let's go through a couple examples of how this will work in practice:

NL2 Full Ring


Villain is a 13/10/2 TAGfish with a 22% WTSD

Hero raises from UTG with A♥Q♠
Villain calls from the BTN

The flop comes,

6♣6♥7♦

Hero CBets,
Villain calls

The turn comes,

K♣

Hero???

We have all seen this position many times before. It is the classic double barreling spot against a weaker reg on a turn scare card. When he calls preflop we put him on a range of mostly pairs trying to set-mine us and the occasional slow-played big ace or big pair. Very few of these hands hit this flop hard and very few of them will be happy about seeing that king pop up on the turn either. Suppose we double barrel and get called on the turn though?

The river comes,

2♥

Hero???

This is a spot where you could think about firing another shell. It really looks like our opponent is probably hanging on with some sort of mid pair hand like 88, 99, TT, JJ or QQ. Even if he somehow hit the king on the turn we can expect a player like this (22% WTSD) to think long and hard about folding it too if we can fire the third bullet here. Unless he literally flopped the absolute nuts with 66 or 77 there is a good chance that we get a player like this to lay down the entire rest of his range.

NL5 6max


Villain is a 19/16/2 TAGfish with a 22% WTSD, 75% Flop CBet, and a 60% Turn CBet.

Villain raises from UTG
Hero calls from the CO with 8♣8♠

The flop comes,

J♠6♥2♦

Villain CBets
Hero calls

The turn comes 9♠

Villain CBets
Hero???

Here is another spot versus a weak reg where we could consider running a bluff. Once again we should ask ourselves what our opponent can have in a spot like this. When he raises from UTG in a 6max game a tight reg like this is probably on a range of the typical 22-AA, AK, AQ, AJ and KQ. We can also see that this player follows up with another CBet on the turn fairly often at 60%. However, we know that given this range and this board that he rarely has a nut hand. He would have to have exactly JJ, 99, 66 or 22 to feel extremely confident here.

Since this is another weak reg this looks to be a good spot to turn our hand into a bluff on occasion by raising. I should mention that once again our actual hand value doesn't really matter that much because we are simply playing the player and his range here. We know that he can't be very strong all that often on this board and that he often folds when faced with big pressure.

I should also mention that like the previous hand my plan is to fire a lot of rivers if called on the turn. When I find an opportunity to bluff like this I do not like to give up without firing the final shell as well. This is because he is going to call our raise a lot on the turn with hands like AA, KK, QQ and AJ. A TAGfish reg like this though will often check all of these hands to us on the river unimproved and make a tough lay down if we can fire another substantial bet.

Final Thoughts


Like I said before, my intention with this article was not to get you all to start bluffing up a storm against the typical regs that you find at these stakes. This would be terrible for your winrate against most regs especially at NL2, NL5 and NL10. This is why I zeroed in on the very specific TAGfish player type who is relatively tight but typically won't put big amounts of his stack in the middle without a huge hand.

When pushed around enough though even these players will eventually adjust so it is important not to bluff them every single time in spots like this. Many regs at these stakes will simply start spite calling you if they think that something fishy is going on. The key is to walk that fine line where it is just believable enough for them to keep letting you have it.

The old adage "don't bluff at the micros" is still mostly true these days especially at the lowest stakes. However, hopefully this article helped show you that there are a few spots where you can boost your winrate against the right opponent in the right situation.

If you found this article helpful please do me a favor and click the "Like" or "Tweet" button below. Thanks!
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a poker player, coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Setting Poker Goals for 2015 - Your Guide to a Breakthrough Year

2015 poker goals
Hey everyone, I hope you have had a great start to the new year! I wanted to wait a little bit before publishing this post because right after new year's eve is when everybody is in a frenzy about their resolutions and emotions are guiding their actions more than anything else. By the second and third week all the people who were merely talking (and not actually committed to taking consistent action) have started to give up. This post is for those who are serious about taking the necessary steps in 2015 to have a breakthrough year in poker. I want to speak to the people who are still grinding hard but don't have a clear direction for the year yet.

Each time the new year rolls around I think it is a good idea to look at where you are in poker, where you want to be and make goals for the coming year. This is something that a lot of people do on a monthly basis already. However, when you look at the entire year it is much easier to see the big picture. With proper bankroll management and a solid work ethic both at the poker tables and away from them it is certainly possible to be playing four or even five stakes higher than you currently are by the end of the year. This is the kind of progress that most people are looking for. It is not going to happen overnight though.

It also makes sense to set poker goals at the beginning of the year because many online poker rooms such as Pokerstars have a yearly based rakeback program. This means that your player points count is reset to zero every January 1st. The points that you accumulate all year long determine which level you reach in the rakeback program. The upper tiers of course is where most of the big money is. Therefore you want to be clear on what your rakeback goals are from the start of the year rather than starting your planning in September.

So in this article I am going to go over what I think are some of the best ways to reach your goals at the poker tables this year. If you haven't reached the success that you have wanted in the past it is time to forget about that now and focus on what you can do to start turning your results around in 2015. So let's get started!

1) Consistent Play

This is really so much more important that anything else. If you can't find the time to play poker on a regular basis then you are not going to get the results that you want, period. We all have busy lives but the truth is that if success in this game means enough to you then you will find the time to get an hour or two of play in each day even if you have a full time job or student work load. It is important that you schedule this at the same time each day.

Back in 2007 when I last had a "real job" I would work the typical 9-5 all day in an office. Every night when I got home I would make a quick dinner and then hit the tables. On the weekends of course I would try to play all day and then have a social life at night. I would literally play every single day and I actually managed to put in more hands than most professionals. Why? Because I made my success in poker a priority in my life. If you really want to make it happen in this game then you have to do the same.

Action: Set a specific time period when you will play poker every single day unless there is an emergency. Minimum 7 hours a week. Everybody can find one hour a day if success in this game is a priority for you.

2) Consistent Study

This is also very important in today's games. You need to make sure that you are constantly improving. Playing all the time is huge part of this for a lot of people, myself included. I learn the best through my own mistakes. However, regular study is still important. I need to analysis those mistakes in Pokertracker for instance. I try to watch (and take notes) on at least one training video a week. I try to keep up with the latest poker literature. I discuss hands with poker friends. Sometimes I might even hire a coach.

Now I don't do all of this every single day but I make time at least on a couple occasions each week. Back when I had a full time job I would often do a one hour session review of the entire week's play on Saturday morning. This would help me identify mistakes in individual hands and make sure that my play was solid overall. On Sunday morning I would often do a one hour database review in order to look for overall changes that could be made to my game often by studying the best players at the stakes that I was playing. During the week I would designate an hour on a Wednesday for instance to watch and take notes on a training video that was highly relevant to the games that I play in.

Action: Set a couple of specific times each week (3 or 4 hours minimum) that are dedicated to studying the game in a variety of ways.

3) Make Hand Goals (Not Monetary Goals)

 If you look back through the history of this blog (before I revealed who I was and had any readers) you will see that for years almost all of my entries were about how many hands I played that day and if I was on pace for my monthly goals. Notice that I didn't mention money anywhere. We cannot control our short term results in this game. We can control our volume of play however. So along with playing and studying consistently you should have concrete goals on how much you are going to play each month.

Action: Set monthly goals for number of hands played. I would say that 50k hands a month should be the rock bottom for anyone who is serious about succeeding in this game (6max or full ring).

4) Set Moving Up Targets

This is another area where a lot of people fail because they do not have the proper planning in place. You should always practice good bankroll management but you don't need 90 buyins for the next limit before you move up! I think 40 is more than enough. So say you are playing NL10 right now and your bankroll has hit $1000. This is 40 buyins for NL25. You should immediately move up and give yourself an 8 buyin shot for instance. If your bankroll dips below $800 at any point then you move back down to NL10 and grind it back to $1000. If you stay above $800 though, then you continue to play at NL25 until you reach $2000 which is 40 buyins for NL50.

This is just an example but you can see how having the proper planning in place can make things extremely simple. You can adjust the metrics upwards or downwards depending on your preference. However, if moving up 4 or 5 limits this year is a priority of yours then you need to set targets on when you are going to move up and when you are going to move down as well. Failure will happen and it is important not to beat yourself up about it. Remember that we are planning out an entire year here. There will be many ups and downs.

Action: Set specific bankroll targets for when you will move up and when you will move down. Stick to these throughout the entire year no matter what.

5) Set Rakeback Targets

As I mentioned before, many poker rooms these days operate a yearly based rakeback program. If you play on Pokerstars for instance then you should plan where you want to be by the end of the year. Even if you are playing NL2 right now you can still achieve Supernova and maybe even a milestone bonus with consistent play and moving up throughout the year.

So first things first get your current VPP per hand and do some calculations. You can simply look at how many VPPs you have before a session and then how many you have at the end. Divide the difference by the number of hands that you played. Here are some very rough VPP per hand estimates from my experience.

NL2: 0.02
NL5: 0.03
NL10: 0.04
NL25: 0.09
NL50: 0.14
NL100: 0.25

So let's assume you play NL10 right now once again. At 0.04 VPP per hand if you play 100k hands per month you will collect 4000 VPPs. This is enough to easily get Goldstar, the 2x FPP multiplier and plenty of stellar rewards along the way. However even if you put in this volume every single month at NL10 all year long it would not be enough to get to Supernova where the big rakeback money starts to roll in. Supernova requires a yearly VPP count of 100k. 4000 x 12 = 48000.

But this is why we have set targets to move up. If you play at NL25 or higher where the VPP per hand is significantly higher then you can see that achieving Supernova and even milestone bonuses is definitely achievable. So for instance Quarter #1 NL10, Quarter #2 NL25, Quarter #3 NL50 and Quarter #4 NL100. You can then calculate your rakeback based on playing higher stakes throughout the year with the same volume. Our example here according to the VPP per hand numbers above and 100k hands a month would be:

Quarter #1: 12k VPPs
Quarter #2: 27k VPPs
Quarter #3: 42k VPPs
Quarter #4: 75K VPPs

Total: 156k yearly VPPs and easily Supernova.

You could then go on to calculate your FPP's and your stellar rewards according to your rakeback level etc. You get the idea. It is possible to plan out some rough rakeback numbers over the year and then calculate them into actual dollar amounts according to what bonuses you plan to buy.

The numbers above on a very rough estimate represent something like $7500 with fairly relaxed volume and most of the play early in the year coming at low stakes and low rakeback levels. Once you start consistently playing at the upper end of the micros and beyond where Supernova Elite and multiple milestone bonuses become available then the rakeback dollar amounts go much, much higher.

For more on the Pokerstars rakeback system visit here.

Action: Set monthly (and yearly) rakeback targets assuming that you will move up on several occasions this year.

6) Blog About All of This!

Make all of this public. You can start a blog for free in minutes with Blogger or Wordpress so money or time cannot be an excuse here. When you publicly state your goals it is a powerful thing. It doesn't even matter if anybody is reading it or not. I had literally zero people reading this blog for the first three years. It didn't matter to me at all though. The simple act of consistently writing down my goals and charting my progress daily helped keep me accountable. I will give you the opportunity at the end of this post to publicly promote your blog if you want a few readers though.

Action: Create your new blog as soon as you finish reading this post and immediately write down your daily playing schedule, weekly study schedule, number of hands, moving up and rakeback targets and goals.

7) Be Realistic About Your Current Abilities

I get emails all the time from people telling me that they have played 50k hands at NL10 and they aren't winning. In a polite way I typically recommend that they move down. I know this is very hard on the ego for many of us but you have to start at a limit that you can currently beat! If that means playing at the circus they call NL2 then so be it. If you table select just a little bit and understand the fundamentals of poker to any degree then you should have no problem beating this limit.

If you are still having trouble succeeding at these stakes (NL2 and NL5 in particular) then I would highly recommend checking out my first book "Crushing the Microstakes" which literally gives you a complete roadmap on how to dominate the terrible players who populate these limits. I have also put out dozens of totally free videos and articles on how to crush the lowest stakes.

The point is that you start where you abilities currently are. It is going to be a tough year ahead if you are constantly playing in games that you are not good enough to beat yet. It is much better to start at a stake that you are confident that you are a winner at. This will give you the confidence to play more and study harder. Remember, poker is not going anywhere and it isn't a race to the top. Start small and build big.

8) Build for the Future

Success in this game does not come fast or easy. You need to understand that there will be many hills and valleys this year and you can rant about them in completely obscurity on your blog if you want (I sure used to on here!). But as you can see, you are building for something more than the short term ups and downs here. You are building to get out of the micros and start making 5 figures or 6 figures + per year where we all want to be in this game. This is why planning out your year now can help you see the forest through the trees and ultimately reach that end goal.

If you start to look at the numbers now at 4x the stake you are currently playing (which is where you will be by years end) you can use this as your carrot so to speak. I didn't even mention the table winnings above. Assuming you actually beat NL100 for instance for even a couple bb/100 that in itself is a couple thousand dollars a month along with the 1k or 2k in rakeback with typical volume levels.

Final Thoughts

I am not trying to toss numbers around to get you all excited. God knows I have discussed many times before how much of a mistake that is when you are just starting out. And they aren't really that spectacular anyways. 3k or 4k a month is not exactly spectacular money in any first world country. However, a lot of people do have dreams of playing this game professionally one day or making a significant side income to pay for a new car or some fancy vacations. It absolutely is possible but you need to be willing to put in the work. As I stated right from the start, it begins and ends with consistent play.

Back in 2007 when I quit my job it took me about 8 months to go from NL2 to NL100. I had about a 5k bankroll and maybe 10k in the bank that I had saved from my job. It wasn't anything miraculous. I just played every night for a couple hours and set aside time for study as well. I set targets to move up and down and I stuck with the program every day no matter what. 

This was many years ago and it is not quite as easy to have such success this quickly today. However, the opportunity still remains. There are many success stories similar to this that come out every single year. The common denominator among them is almost always the same. They set goals and they work extremely hard at them every single day.

Even with all of this I can't promise you that you are going to move up 4 stakes this year. But I can promise you that it will not happen if you keep quitting every time the going gets tough. I can promise you that it also won't happen if you continue to half ass your commitment to playing this game. This is why the goals, the targets and the process of writing it down each day on your new blog or journal are so important. The only obstacle between you and your success at the tables in 2015 is you. Now go and make it happen!

Leave a comment below with the URL to your new blog if you would like a bit of free exposure. I may promote a few of them on social media as well.

If you found this article helpful please do me a favor and click the "Like" or "Tweet" button below. Thanks!
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a poker player, coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes.

Monday, December 22, 2014

How to Value Bet Effectively at the Micros

Value Betting Micro Stakes Poker
It has often been said that one of the biggest keys to success at the micros is value betting. I really couldn't agree more. If there is one thing that stands out to me from playing millions of hands at these stakes it is that most regs do not know how to get the max value from their good hands. This is especially the case when they are playing against fish. I thought it would be a good time to revisit this topic because the holiday season is upon us and this is the time of year when you will find some of the biggest whales on earth at the poker tables.

So let's get back to basics here.
  • What is value betting?
  • Why is it so important? 
Value betting is simply the act of making a bet when you have the best hand. It is usually pretty easy to tell when you are ahead in poker. You have a strong hand such as top pair and your opponent is just calling. Your opponent probably has a draw or perhaps some worse made hand that he is hanging on with. If your opponent is a recreational player then he could be calling you with anything including no pair/no draw hands. It is even easier at the micros to know where you stand because most players are extremely passive. When they raise you on the big money streets in particular (turn and river) they are very often letting you know that you are behind.

Value betting is extremely important in poker because as you may have noticed by now it is really frigging hard to make a hand like top pair or better! You need to be getting the maximum value out of them when you do. Also, many of your opponents (especially at the lower end of the micros, NL2, NL5 and NL10) are incapable of folding. They are literally begging to call you with whatever junk they happen to have. You need to give them the opportunity to do just that.

One of the biggest ways that people shoot themselves in the foot at these stakes is by thinking that pots will magically build themselves. This is not going to happen in most cases because extremely passive players don't like to bet without a big hand. They will call you down all day but if you give them the opportunity to check with their middle pair, gutshot or queen high they will usually take it. Therefore, please remember this: If you want to win a big pot at the micros you almost always need to build it yourself. Let's look at a couple of common value betting scenarios at the micros versus bad players.

NL2 Full Ring


Villain is a 26/7/2 SLP (semi-loose passive) with a 30% WTSD (went to showdown).

Villain limps from UTG+1
Hero raises from the CO with K♥J♠
Villain calls

The flop comes,

J♦6♣8♦

Villain checks
Hero???

First off this should definitely be a standard preflop raise. I don't want to get into a deep discussion of preflop strategy in this article but as I have discussed many times before you should be isolating bad players like this frequently and especially when in position. We actually have a reasonable hand in this example. I would isolate this player with far worse here, half the deck for sure.

So we flop top pair, now what? Well again, this should be a fairly straight forward CBet after the villain checks. As I noted above it is important to build the pot at these limits and not expect a passive fish like this to do it for you. Checking back here to be "tricky" is a huge mistake at these limits. You don't need to balance anything against a player like this whose only concern is his own two cards and what he thinks of them. Just value bet 100% of the time here.

I also don't want to get into a big discussion of bet sizing in this article. When value betting versus a recreational player it should almost always be 75% of the pot or more. Check out a recent article of mine for more on optimal bet size amounts at these stakes.

Hero CBets

The turn comes,

T♠

Villain checks
Hero???

This isn't the greatest turn card in the deck. It completes a few draws such as 97 and Q9 and perhaps makes a few two pairs such as T8 or JT. However, we always need to remember that these hands only represent a small portion of this player's overall range. He has plenty of other hands that we beat and he would love to call a bet with them. These include, T9, QJ, QT, J9, A8, K8, Q8, 98, 87, 99 and any two diamonds. I think I am being conservative here. With a bad player like this there definitely could be more hands added to this list.

Hero bets

The river comes,

2♦

Villain checks
Hero???

Once again the river isn't the best card in the deck for us because it completes the flush but it certainly isn't the worst card either. A lot of regs at the micros will freeze up here though and choose to just check behind for the showdown. This is a major mistake. You are throwing away EV (expected value) by not making a value bet here. Remember that villain can still have any of those one pair hands that we listed above on the turn. And what do SLP fish with a 30% WTSD like to do?Call of course.

Please don't worry about being check/raised in this spot either. If the opponent here check/raises us we are folding 100% of the time. Why? Because passive players at the micros do not check/raise the river without the nuts. Most regs today at the lower end of the micros are still not making the bet on the end here. Don't throw away easy money like this. Always value bet here.

NL5 6max


Villain is a 52/12/2 Whale with a 34% WTSD with a 0% Fold to 3Bet.

Villain raises from the CO
Hero 3Bets on the BTN with 9♣9♠
Villain calls

The flop comes,

T♠7♦2♥

Villain checks
Hero???

It is certainly not a crime to just flat preflop here and maybe let some other bad players in. However, since we have a pretty strong hand in position against a fish who doesn't fold anything I would prefer to just juice up the pot here a little bit. Once again on the flop this is not the time to be getting tricky. Yes there is one overcard but there are simply so many hands that a bad player like this will continue with including ace high.

Hero CBets

The turn comes,

Q♠

Villain checks
Hero???

The turn isn't the best card in the deck but it is not the worst either. While it is another overcard to our pair it does seem odd why somebody would ever have a queen in their hand here though. However, you should never put something like that past a huge whale like this. We know that a player like this could have easily floated the flop out of position with plenty of no pair/no draw hands which may have a queen in them.

Since this is a 3Bet pot I would recommend just checking behind here in order to prevent the size of the pot from getting out of control. The biggest reason why is because we don't really have a lot to gain by betting here. Villain will likely fold all of the made hands that we beat because it is starting to get really expensive for him to continue. Conversely, he will happily call along with all of his made hands that beat us and any of the few draws available on this board. Therefore, betting again here is mostly a lose/lose situation for us because we can't get much action from worse hands and we simply build a bigger pot for hands that have us crushed.

Hero checks

The river comes,

6♥

Villain checks
Hero???

This is a classic thin value bet spot. We need to be betting for value here. This hand is similar in many ways to the last one because a passive bad opponent has checked to us on the river. This typically indicates weakness. And as we mentioned before, if he does happen to be sandbagging something big he will let us know and it will be the easiest fold in the world.

Something that I like to mention with regards to thin value betting is that you should be getting looked up from time to time by better hands. If you make a bet here and a recreational player calls and flips over something silly from time to time like QJ or T8 you shouldn't feel like you made a bad play. If you are not getting looked up by better hands like this on occasion then this should be cause for concern. This is because it is likely that you are not making enough thin value bets. If on the other hand you are frequently getting looked up by better hands then you are probably value betting too thin.

Always remember that these value bets on the river can make a huge difference to your winrate in the long run because they are often for significant amounts like 20bb. If you miss just one of these opportunities every thousand hands a little simple math tells us that you have just thrown away 2bb/100 in EV. This is an absolutely massive amount in today's games. Don't be like all of the other bad regs in these games and check back without thinking in spots like this.

----

I hope this article helps some of you struggling to make your mark at the lowest limits. If you aren't having the success that you want right now you should go back to the very basics of this game and ask yourself if you are getting the maximum value from the recreational players. Always remember that they are the entire reason why we play this game. You should always be making them pay the maximum.

If you found this article helpful please do me a favor and click the "Like" or "Tweet" button below. Thanks!
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a poker player, coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Real Reason You Aren't a High Stakes Pro Yet

why you aren't a high stakes poker pro

There is often a belief out there that big winners in poker (especially mid and high stakes pros) have some sort of magical power or super human IQ. I know that I have been guilty of believing this at times as well. That is, putting higher stakes players on a pedestal and thinking that they are somehow far superior to me technically. The reality is that this belief is mostly false.

Something that changed my thinking drastically in this regard happened a few years ago. I was being mentored by a mid/high stakes pro at the time and he was sweating me at NL50. He told me that there is actually no substantial difference in technical poker ability between the typical NL50 regs that I was playing against and the NL600 regs that he battled on a daily basis.

Both understand the mechanics of solid TAG or LAG play well. Both read hands reasonably well and both understand some of the basic math behind the game. So why is one player playing at 12 times the stakes as the other then?

Well in truth of course some of those NL50 players will in fact make it to NL600 one day and beyond. The only reason that they are not there yet is because they are still working their way up the ladder in online poker. However, the large majority of them will not get there. In fact if you come back two years from now most of them will probably still be playing NL50 or maybe even lower if they don't keep up with the evolution of the games. So again, what is the big difference then?

Well there are a few things in my opinion. 

Bankroll to Move Up


The first thing that we all need in order to move up is the bankroll. Many people at the micros massively stunt their progress by cashing out too much. I know this all too well because I did it myself for many years. People would often ask me why I played millions of hands at low stakes and didn't move up more. Well guess what? I had bills to pay! This is why I constantly preach against going pro in this game until you are playing decent stakes and have a large life bankroll saved up as well.

I actually did have both of these at the time when I originally went pro but anyone who has followed my story on this blog knows that I also did not have the discipline to put in the hours back then so I allowed my bankroll and savings to regress to a point where I should no longer be pro. I chose to grind low stakes for years instead of getting another job though. But this also killed any chances that I had of moving up because I was cashing out nearly all of my winnings every single month. 

So even if a typical NL50 grinder is winning at a small clip (2bb/100 for instance) if he plays 100k hands a month this equals $1000. Add in another $500 for rakeback (very conservative estimate) and he banks $1500 a month. If he does not touch his bankroll for two months then he has 30 buyins for NL100 ($3000) on top of what he already had. However, if he can't stop hitting the cash out button you can see that he will never get anywhere. This is especially the case these days when most regs are extremely risk adverse nits. I am guilty here as well. 

Courage to Move Up


This leads me to my second point, having the courage to move up. Often making the jump to a higher stake is really just a mental block more than anything for a lot of people. There are many grinders out there today at stakes like NL10, NL25 and NL50 who have tried making the jump to the next limit several times in the past without success. Because of this they have all but given up on even trying any more. They have actually convinced themselves in some cases that they simply can't beat the higher stake! 

This is completely foolish thinking for a number of reasons. Firstly, if you are even a small winner at your current limit it only stands to reason that you will be able to beat the higher one as well. The reality is that the players who you think are so big and bad at the higher limit are actually only marginally better than the ones who you battle it out with on a daily basis at your current limit. And let's face it, fish are fish at any limit.

And as I have discussed before moving up is not easy for anybody. Most people fail multiple times before sticking at the higher limit. You have to realize that the sample size is always totally insignificant in your move up attempt and routine variance can often be the sole cause of your failure. People often also over-adjust when moving up and this is why I constantly try to warn against changing anything. Just do what has brought you success to this point. 

Taking Shots


high stakes poker pro

Something that I also want to discuss is taking shots. This has sort of been frowned upon by many people over the years because it involves risking significant portions of your bankroll and sort of contradicts the slow and steady approach which I have long suggested as well. But the thing is many mid stakes players and most high stakes players will tell you that they finally broke through in a big way by taking a shot at some point. 

What do I mean by taking a shot? Well if there is a fish sitting alone at a table that is 5 times the stakes that you normally play do you sit down or take a pass? If variance isn't on your side and the fish gets lucky he could decimate your bankroll in a big way. Many high stakes pros have lost half of their bankroll at times by taking shots like this. 

However, if you simply run just normal or good (remember that this happens the majority of the time) then guess what? You could conceivably double or even triple your bankroll over night especially if the fish goes on tilt and keeps reloading. This is like winning a tournament which has also propelled many players ahead early on in their careers. It will allow you to immediately feel much more comfortable playing higher limit games than what you normally play. 

The "Disclaimer"


Now I want to be very clear here. I don't want everybody who reads this post to suddenly start taking shots at NL200 with their $1000 bankroll because they see a fish waiting for action. Nor do I want people to think that extremely aggressive bankroll management is the only way to achieve success in this game. The truth is that the slow and steady approach still works just fine. There are many examples such as this small/mid stakes crusher who I interviewed earlier this year. He started from the very bottom (NL2) and even though it took several years he is now making good money and has been signed as an instructor by a major training site as well. 

The main point of this article is that you need to step outside your comfort zone at times and take some chances in this game if you want to truly reach your potential. I don't have a ton of experience in mid stakes or high stakes games myself but I know enough to know that there isn't really anything magical that these players have done to get there. Sure, some elite winners are technically better in some areas than others but for the most part they are just trading blinds back and forth, beating up on the bad regs and massacring the fish. This is the exact same thing that goes on in your NL25 or NL50 games.

You need to let your bankroll grow unfettered if you really want to move up in this game. I typically don't suggest that anybody even think about going pro until at least NL50. And like I said you should have a large life bankroll as well (savings) so that you rarely need to touch your poker funds. If you are not able to do this though and need to dip heavily into your winnings each month then you will be the guy who is still playing NL25 two years from now. 

Another reason to keep your day job is so that you have the courage to take more shots at moving up and even jump on opportunities to play against a fish at much higher limits. You can do this when you have a full time job because even if you go broke your bills are still paid and you can simply reload. I have talked about playing poker professionally many times on here and the pros and cons that go along with it. However, many people still choose to go for it way too early and end up paying the consequences for it.

Ultimately You Should Pursue YOUR Goals in This Game


But each situation is unique and I am not here to crush anyone's dreams. I am just here to provide some proper perspective from my experience. I recently came across one of the most hilarious and eye-opening PG&C threads that I have ever seen on 2+2. Two young guys (early to mid 20's) grinding NL2 and NL5 all day and partying all night in Cambodia. This seems insane to me and many others given how little they are making. However, anybody who has ever been to Cambodia knows that it basically costs nothing to live in that country. They are also young and having the time of their lives. So for them living on a beach in Cambodia grinding nickels and dimes all day still easily beats working some crappy 9-5 back in cold and rainy England. Who am I to argue with that? 

Pursue your dreams in this game but you should also look at it realistically if you really want to move up one day and get to the real money. And always remember, the real money isn't at the micros.

If you found this article interesting or helpful please do me a favor and click the "Like" or "Tweet" button below. Thanks!

Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a poker player, coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes.

Images used in this post: flickr.com/photos/shanghaisound, brainyquote.com

Monday, December 8, 2014

Rakeback Grinding Versus Bumhunting in Today's Small Stakes Online Cash Games

bumhunter or rakeback grinder in online small stakes cash games
With 2015 nearly in our sights I thought it would be a good idea to talk about two different approaches to small stakes online cash games these days. In one corner you have what I would loosely call the "rakeback grinders." These are people who play high volume. This means 16+ regular tables or 3+ Zoom tables. Often at least half of their actual profits come from rakeback.

On a big site like Pokerstars with a yearly based rakeback program which rewards heavy volume the goal is to reach Supernova for small stakes rakeback grinders. By getting to this level they can then trade their FPPs for cash bonuses, hit milestone cash bonuses and get some other secondary stuff like stellar rewards and tournament entries.

Rakeback programs are different on all poker rooms but the end result is pretty much always the same. Play a lot and they will give you a portion of the rake that you paid back. And at some sites like Pokerstars they will give you a higher percentage depending on how much you play and the stakes that you play at.

For many heavy grinders who get to reasonable stakes (typically at least NL25) this can add up to substantial amounts. Thousands per month by the time they approach mid stakes are certainly possible. If they can manage to just stay breakeven at the tables then obviously this is a decent payoff for them. Winrates are often fairly low for rakeback grinders though because when playing this amount of tables it is difficult to give enough proper attention to table selection and making high quality poker decisions.

In the other corner we have the people who I would loosely refer to as "bumhunters." These people play much lower volume. This typically means 1-15 regular tables or 1 or 2 Zoom tables. A much bigger portion of their profit usually comes from winnings made at the poker tables. They tend to focus a lot more of their attention on finding the weak spots and making higher quality poker decisions. They can afford to do this because they free up a lot of time by playing much fewer tables than their rakeback grinder counterparts.

I Had to Decide, Rakeback Grinder or Bumhunter?


mass multi-tabling rakeback grinder versus bumhunter at micro stakes cash games
Famous grinder "ElkY"
Now I used to be firmly in the first category. Anybody who has taken even a casual look through the history of this blog will know that I used to grind 200k+ hands a month at low stakes. While I was able to keep my table winnings fairly high in softer games I was also certainly keen to get those rakeback rewards from heavy volume as well. This worked very well for me for many years. I would simply open up as many tables at the micros as the poker room allowed me to (24 on Pokerstars) and grind for hours on end knowing that I would likely come out ahead and that I would score a bunch of rakeback in the process as well.

About 5 years ago though the games started tightening up. No longer could I just open up 24 random tables at NL25 or NL50 on Pokerstars for instance and expect to print money in my sleep. I actually had to actively table select in order to maintain my previous results. This is not the easiest thing to do when you have this many tables running because your time is obviously limited.

Many of the regs started to gradually get better as well so I had to actually think through hands a little bit more in order to find new ways to exploit them. Again, this is something that works fine when playing 8 tables but not so much when playing 24.

So I eventually got to the point where I had to make a decision. Was I willing to accept a small winrate and big variance while keeping my rakeback rewards or cut the tables substantially and start winning again at the pace that I was formerly used to? For me this was not a very difficult decision because I have been an extremely competitive person my entire life. I play this game to win.

I am not the kind of person who can accept a small winrate with massive variance on a day to day basis. I am well aware that every time I sit down to play poker that I could lose but this should be a rare occurrence in my opinion. With extremely low winrates of say 1bb/100 or 2bb/100 though (which is what most rakeback grinders these days are making) they are probably looking at losing around 40% of their sessions. This is simply unacceptable to me.

So several years ago I did indeed start cutting the tables in a big way and to this day I rarely play on more than 8 at a time. This affords me much more time to find the tables with the fish on them and to make sure that I get the right seat versus them as well. It also gives me the time to dig much deeper into my HUD when I am involved in hands against good regs and find the lines to exploit their weaknesses.

Hello Again #Winning!


table selection and mass multi-tabling in small stakes cash games
After dropping the tables from 24 to 8 my results at the tables also turned around in a big way. I went from grinding out a fairly miserable 2-3bb/100 existence at NL25+ while mass multi-tabling to approaching double digits again and coming away a big winner on most days. This is what appealed to me the most. This approach also reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the game. Rakeback grinding is just not the reason why I started to play this game in the first place. It really saps all of the fun out of it and makes poker seem like too much of a job to me.

But this is just me. You need to decide for yourself how you want to approach this game. Many people are just fine grinding the long hours for rakeback and dealing with heavy variance. If this is you then don't let me persuade you otherwise. Money is money in poker. I don't care how you make it. Rakeback dollars spend just the same as the stack that you took from a fish. If you are able to show a profit in this game (no matter how you do it) then more power to you because you are ahead of the large majority of people already.

Also, keep in mind as well that overall profitability is still higher for most people in small stakes cash games by following the rakeback grinding model. And once you get to mid stakes where Supernova Elite (worth 100K+ USD on it's own) becomes possible on Pokerstars this is just too big of a carrot for many people to resist going after. This is indeed why many professionals still prefer the rakeback grinding model and the long hours and heavy variance that comes with it.

What Approach is Right for YOU?


With 2015 coming up though you should consider what approach that you want to take in the coming year. Because like I said before, some of the big poker rooms run yearly based rakeback programs. Therefore, if rakeback grinding is for you then you should start to plan out your goals early on in the year.

If the bumhunting model is for you though then I think you should start focusing on how you are going to improve in two categories in 2015. Firstly, you need to stay on top of the latest strategies and trends concerning table selection. Finding the fish and getting the right seat versus them has to be a major priority for you at the tables. It needs to be your full time job in fact when playing.

Also, you should spend more time on improving your game because playing against regs is inevitable no matter how elite your bumhunting skills are. This can take many forms. More database reviews, session reviews, quality training videos, books, coaches, forums and poker friends. I want to emphasize the word "quality" here because there is a lot of garbage out there these days. Don't just listen to anybody. Remember that most people actually lose at poker.

Ultimately you need to decide the path that is right for you. While there is likely still more money to be made as a rakeback grinder across the board in today's games, don't expect to crush anything besides NL2 or NL5 nowadays with this approach. What you give up in overall profitability by following the bumhunter model is often balanced out in less obvious ways though by becoming a more skilled poker player overall. There is also a psychological edge to bumhunting as I discussed above that applies to some people (you win more often).

There are clearly pros and cons to both and the ultimate decision needs to be made by you in accordance with your goals and approach to this game. I ran in informal poll the other day on my Facebook page and the results were pretty much split down the middle. I hope this article gave you some food for thought.

If you have any thoughts on rakeback grinding versus bumhunting please leave them below. Which category do you consider yourself to be in? Which is better and why?

If you found this article interesting or helpful please do me a favor and click the "Like" or "Tweet" button below. Thanks!

Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a poker player, coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes.