Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Professional Poker Player Lifestyle

the lifestyle of a professional poker player.
It isn't this!
Many people picture the professional poker player lifestyle as one of fame, riches, Bentleys and private jets. Maybe for a handful of live players running really good in tournaments of late. Or for another handful of nosebleed online players who are at the top right now. But this is just not the reality for the vast, overwhelming majority of people who play this game for a living or as a side income.

Their poker lifestyle is one that you are probably more familiar with from your own day to day life. It is one of hard work, sacrifice and commitment. Sure, there is the freedom to set your own schedule that comes along with being a professional poker player but be careful what you wish for in this regard. Many people use this as their ticket to just be lazy all day. I know this because I did it myself for many years! Make no mistake you have to put in the work if you want success in this game and a lot of that work is actually done away from the poker tables.

Winning at poker does not just revolve around the decisions that you make once you sit down at the tables. How you manage your life away from the tables can actually have a much bigger impact on your results than you might think. I think there is a changing of the guard coming with online poker players at least. It is a very competitive environment these days and the best know that you can no longer half ass it and expect great results.

Work Ethic

First off, everything starts with work ethic. If you can't get yourself to sit down and play each day (or at least most days) then you are never going to make it in this game. Playing poker professionally or semi-professionally requires dedication and the ability to play even when you don't feel like it. And there will be many days when you don't feel like it for a variety of different reasons. You have to be able to cut through all that and get yourself going.

Eric Thomas (a now famous motivational speaker who I have followed for years) likes to talk about just showing up. Just showing up is half the battle. Many people "go pro" and think that they will love playing every day forever. It will be so easy. Wait until you hit that 100k+ hand soul ripping downswing. Then tell me how much you feel like playing. Wait until you are burnt out from months or years on end of mass multi-tabling and the new Call of Duty has just been released.

You are your own boss and you need to be able to force yourself to show up on these days. Just because you have this "freedom" to determine your own hours does not mean that you get a license to abuse it. You would never do this at any regular job and it needs to be the same with poker. 

Make Time for Regular Play

If poker is a serious part time or full time pursuit to you then it needs to come first before anything. One of the best ways to help yourself in this regard is to set a regular schedule each day for when you play. I find that my mind is the sharpest in the morning and I also live in Asia and so that is when the games are the best. So I tend to simply schedule my poker sessions for first thing in the morning. Some people are different and prefer midday or nights though. It doesn't matter, just set a schedule and stick to it.

Make Time for Regular Study

I recently talked about how to conduct a poker session review and a database review. You need to schedule time for these each week as well. I prefer to make some time for each of these in the afternoon on weekends. I will review hands or entire sessions from the previous week and look into ways to improve my overall game. During a couple of week nights I will make time to watch and take notes on a training video, read and take notes on a poker book or catch up on some poker strategy forums and post hands. 

Taking Care of You

Poker is not like a regular job. You can't just show up and run through a bunch of mundane tasks that you were told to do while checking Facebook. Poker requires constant focus and attention to detail. It requires you to be mentally sharp and prepared at all times. In order to consistently be in this state we need to work harder than most people on taking care of our mind and body. This is an area that I think a fair number of elite level serious online grinders are starting to wake up to. However, the large majority are still woefully inadequate.

Being prepared both physically and mentally requires three things above all else: a healthy diet, regular exercise and a good nights sleep. I don't want to go too much into detail on any of these because you have probably heard it all before, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that this stuff really does work! So I will have a bit to say.

Eat for Performance

First off, simply don't allow yourself to buy crap at the grocery store or market. If you load up your fridge with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats then that is what you will eat. Secondly, cut out the fast food and soda drinks completely. Nobody serious about their life in general (let alone poker) needs to be eating that garbage. There are plenty of healthy options out there if you are in a rush that does not include a big mac, fries and a sugar bomb drink.

We all enjoy eating. It is one of life's greatest pleasures but you have to remember that what we eat affects us deeply on so many levels, especially mentally. In a game like poker that requires multi-tasking, fast and accurate decision making and steady emotions neglecting this area is just crazy. I choose to eat for performance in life for the most part. This doesn't mean that I don't occasionally "cheat" and have some pizza or ice cream but it is very rare. Remember that these are momentary pleasures. My health, the clarity of my mind and achieving my goals in life and at the poker table are much more important.

Get Active

Regular exercise is another big key. I know from meeting a lot of poker players here in Thailand that many of them workout and/or do cardio regularly. I have also done this for years and the benefits are just huge. The biggest key is getting yourself to do something that you like. I am a naturally athletic person so this is not difficult for me but I know that plenty of people just don't like to do physical things that much. Well, there must be something that you enjoy doing!

How about joining a rowing club and being out on a beautiful lake early in the morning while getting some exercise? How about hitting the pool more often? Who doesn't like swimming? How about buying some cheap tennis rackets and learning how to play with a friend? One of my personal favorites is mountain biking. Descending down a beautiful mountainside and breathing in that fresh crisp air can be an awe-inspiring experience. The key thing is to just get out there and do something that you enjoy and then it won't seem like work to you. Getting in shape does not require endless hours on a treadmill.

Get Enough Sleep

I am pretty bad at this one I must admit. And I know that a lot of people suffer from some form of insomnia at least once in awhile. I think the key is just learning how to shut your brain off. I know that this is my biggest problem when lying awake at night. Some things that help me hit the mental off switch are to meditate before bed, take a hot shower or read a boring but useful book.

Poker is a Business

From the above it might seem that the poker lifestyle is a bit on the boring side. What happened to all of the partying at the hottest clubs and sipping cocktails on exotic beaches all day? Well, the lifestyle of your typical online poker professional is a lot different from this in reality. Don't get me wrong, there is a time and a place to go a little bit wild but if you really want to get real results in this game then you need to treat it like a business.

The real truth about being a professional poker player is that it is a lot of hard work and sacrifice. This is why so many people try it and fail. They only think about the freedom part. They forget that it entails just as much responsibility (way more in my opinion actually) than a regular job especially if you want to be highly successful.

I just hit the 7 year anniversary of when I quit my last "real job" but believe me it has not been all roses and sunshine. It took me years to start taking this game as seriously as I should and start putting in the work. I scraped by in those early years but I could have accomplished so much more.

Having big dreams about poker is great. The are many awesome things about playing poker professionally that I didn't even get a chance to touch on in this article. I am so happy and blessed to have found this game. But understand that this is also a very demanding job that most people are simply not cut out for. You really have to want it.

As they say, and no truer words were ever spoken about it, "poker is a hard way to make an easy living."

Let me know in the comments what the professional poker lifestyle means to you. Please "Like" or "Tweet" this article below if you found it useful!

Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a microstakes grinder, poker coach,DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes. Now available in Spanish and Russian as well.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

5 Lessons That I Have Learned From Moving to Thailand as a Poker Player (Two Years Later)

This isn't a travel blog but my post last year about what it is like to move to Thailand for poker players has quickly become one of the most popular in the history of this blog. Several people have contacted me since then who are moving here at least partly because of it or they were already coming here anyways. Online poker players continue to migrate around the world in large numbers and not just to Thailand although it is by far the most popular destination.

As I have now officially spent two years over here I thought that I could discuss a few of the lessons that I have learned for some of the newer guys planning the move. Here are the top 5 things that I have learned since coming to Thailand as a poker player.

1) Choose Your Poker Friends Wisely

Many people come over here because of the large amount of poker players that are already living here. As mentioned, it is easily the most concentrated group in the world. And we all know how much easier it is to talk with someone who "speaks your language" in this regard. Discussing poker with someone who doesn't at least play the game seriously as a part time income is almost always a waste of time. They don't understand the game. They think it is all luck etc.

However, unfortunately not everyone in the poker community here is of an upstanding character. A lot of poker players who come here are marginal winners at best and get caught up in the nightlife (I will get to that in a minute don't worry lol). They quickly become huge degens constantly looking for a stake or any other handouts or scams they can pull off on somebody else.

Choose your poker friends wisely and don't think that just because you both play this game that you have some sort of special bond or something. I have met some great people from the poker community here who are great influences on me and will be friends long after this. I have also met many who I thought that it was best just to avoid completely however. One of the easiest ways to separate the two is to find out how much time they spend on my next topic.

2) Thailand Nightlife

After Two Years What I Have Learned From Moving to Thailand as a Poker Player
Walking Street, Pattaya, Thailand
(The most degenerate place on earth)
Ok, let's just call it "nightlife." It is no secret that this country has an enormous party scene and with that comes Thai girls and lots of them. Heck sometimes they aren't even girls! Whether it be in the clubs, the bars or even on the internet and massage parlors there are seemingly young, attractive women everywhere falling all over you. It is very easy to go down the path of getting caught up in that at first.

You need to remember that not everything is always as it appears. Many of these girls are "working" to some degree and you are either a short term or long term paycheck to them. You are not really an actual love interest (yes even if they tell you how much they love you 10 times a day). Of course there are always exceptions but with these types of women this is the norm.

After all (and this is a big shocker to many white guys who come over here and think of themselves as an Asian girl's dream) most Thai girls first choice in a partner is in fact a Thai guy for fairly obvious reasons. If they have gone down the "farang" (white foreigners) path now it is often because they are not that desirable to their number one choice anymore. And it is important to remember that as a white foreigner Thai people will always assume that you are rich. This is just the way it is.

Luckily for most of the poker players over here getting messed up badly with these types of women isn't too big of a problem. It is the old guys (50 years old+) who often believe that these girls are really in love with them and open up their heart and life savings in the process. A lot of the younger guys (which represents pretty much all the poker players) are actually playing the girls for the most part as they know the score before going in. Even so, many of them still wind up spending way too much time and money on them that could be much better spent grinding or doing literally anything else.

There are of course plenty of decent Thai girls out there if you actually want a real relationship. Just like in your home country they aren't found in bars, clubs or on the internet for the most part though. It takes time and effort to meet them. Often even more so here because the good ones usually speak little to no English at all. One of the easiest ways to spot the type of girl that you don't want a relationship with is the level of her English and how many farang "boyfriends" that she admits to having in the past.

If you want to mess around a bit and you know what to expect going in with these types of women then go ahead. But if you don't know then please do yourself a favor and read up a bit on the internet about Thai women before coming here and losing your mind with one. Play the game and you will be fine. But that takes knowing what the game is first. Like nearly everything else in life has a huge amount of information on this topic.

3) Travel Around the Country First!

After Two Years What I Have Learned From Moving to Thailand as a Poker Player
วัดพระธาตุดอยสุเทพ Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Chiang Mai, Thailand
So many poker players who come here often head straight to their "grindhouse" with some people who they only know through the internet to live in an isolated little bubble. This is dumb on so many levels. I am going to get into the grindhouses in a moment but let me first say this about Thailand. This is a large country with massive differences from region to region. It is really silly not to explore them all first before deciding which one that you want to live in.

Most poker players here live in one of three places: Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket. These places are all extremely different and it is up to each individual person to decide which one is best for them. Do you like the big city or a small one? Are you in love with the idea of living near the beach or can you make due without one? What sort of budget do you have? Do you want to live in a touristy area with inflated prices but more Western type conveniences or can you live among the locals?

You can't answer these questions without first going and having a look at all of these places yourself. And I truly mean that. You have to see it for yourself. No amount of watching Youtube videos or reading about it on the internet can replicate the real thing.

My advice is to set aside enough money to just be a complete tourist for your first month here. Honestly, this is one of the most amazing places on earth for the quality of experiences that you can have anyways. You can go visit ridiculous temples on the top of a mountain, go to some of the best beaches in the world, party on one with 20k other people, ride elephants and zipline through jungles, explore a mega city like Bangkok, chill out with some tigers in the north, check out world class diving and rock climbing in the south. And on and on and on.

Be a tourist when you get here and just have fun! Head straight to Khao San Road in Bangkok (backpacker capital of the world) and meet up with some backpackers who are going your way. Go with them and have the time of your life. Or don't take my advice and head straight to your room in somebody's grindhouse and miss the boat on what this country has to offer completely.

4) Don't Join a Grindhouse

Ok now this one might ruffle a few feathers but I will say it anyways. And please remember like before with the Thai women that I am not trying to make sweeping generalizations here. A grindhouse may in fact be an amazing life changing opportunity for you. However, I think they are a bad idea for most and here is why.

Firstly, there are many small time scams going on with these places that I have noticed popping up lately where they are charging enormous amounts for rent because the newbie doesn't know what the prices are like in Thailand. For instance, I have seen multiple listings pop up in the 2+2 travel forum in the last couple of months regarding Chiang Mai where they are charging the same amount for a room as I was paying for an entire house of the same size that is also quite a bit closer to the city.

I just laughed and never said anything. Suckers are gonna be suckers of course. But seriously, do a little bit of research about the prices before moving into one of these houses. Google "house rentals [area of Thailand]" and you should have a pretty good idea within a matter of minutes by checking out some listings. To the grindhouse guys credit though they often do help you get set up, adjusted, and take away the leg work that comes with finding a place. That is certainly great and all but the price that you are paying for this "service" is still often very exorbitant in my opinion.

Secondly, a lot of guys coming over here dream about what it would be like to live with a couple other elite young grinders and the learning opportunities and motivation that that would provide. In some ideal scenarios that is the case. But as I stated, there are many more degens in this country that will often just annoy the shit out of you in general. And even worse will actually be -EV for your poker game because they are borderline break even players at best.

If you can somehow find a great group of solid grinders then that is fine. But most of the time you are moving in with 3 or 4 guys who you barely know anything about in all actuality. This just does not cut it for me. There is nothing wrong with finding a place on your own and grinding it out just like you did in your home country. You certainly won't be lonely because you can often afford to live right in the city in this country for next to nothing. And by all means hang out with the poker guys regularly. Go to sporting meetups and such especially. Just don't live with them. This has worked for me at least.

5) Realize How Lucky You Have it Every Day

After Two Years What I Have Learned From Moving to Thailand as a Poker Player
Not my actual work station. But it could be!
I have woken up pretty much every day since I arrived here with a smile on my face. It is hard not to when it is sunny and 30+ degrees basically every day of the year. I am looking at a beautiful beach as I type this from my condo that costs a laughable amount per month (top secret location with barely any tourists, most beaches here are not like this).

Also, I am very blessed to be able to do what I do and work anywhere in the world. This is something that most people dream about. Just wait until you start posting the pictures on Facebook and the comments that you will get! Truthfully though most people can actually do this. They just don't have it in them to take the necessary steps to make it happen. You took the huge first step by just getting on the plane. Have a blast but don't take it for granted once you get here!

And really that has everything to do with the "nightlife" as it applies to Thailand. Somebody once told me that you will get exactly what you put into this country and it is so true. If you come here looking to go crazy with the women and party it up like a rockstar you sure as hell will find it. Many a foreigner has come here and destroyed their entire life in a degen whirlwind in places like Pattaya for sure but also in Bangkok and other cities. But many other foreigners come here, keep their shit together for the most part and truly live the dream.

I still don't really even want to go back "home" after two years. I mean I eventually will for sure because I certainly miss my family and friends back in Canada. But I know that it won't be long before I am sick of the exorbitant prices and terrible weather again to name a few things. I will soon be back on a plane to Thailand, or perhaps exploring another similar location in South America, because sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side.

Thanks for reading. Let me know about your experiences traveling or relocating as a poker player in the comments below!
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a microstakes grinder, poker coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes. Now available in Spanish and Russian as well.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How to Conduct a Poker Database Review (A Complete Walk Through Guide).

Poker Database Review
Last time I talked about how to conduct a poker session review. Session reviews are important especially for newer players to make sure that they are putting into practice what they have learned away from the tables. Also it helps them to start thinking about the game more independently. Session reviews are also useful for people who have just moved up and for anyone who is in a lengthy downswing. In all cases the main goal with a session review is to make sure that you are sticking to the game plan so to speak. But in order to really improve your play and make good use of Pokertracker or Hold'em Manager we need to take it a few steps further.

A database review is something that all players should be doing on a fairly regular basis. While the goal of a session review is primarily just to double check your play a database review involves an in depth analysis of your play and that of others in order to improve. By using your own database and all the filters available in a program like Pokertracker 4 (PT4) or Hold'em Manager 2 (HM2) you can find out the long term profitability of almost any situation.

Our goal with a database review is to consider new lines (strategic plans of attack) in certain spots and to test their viability over a period of time. These new lines can be influenced by our study away from the tables or by reading books, watching training site videos etc. But most people fail to make any use of the absolute best resource that they have at their disposal...the biggest winners at their current stake!

If you have played at your current limit for any length of time it usually does not take long to figure out who the biggest winners are (i.e., the best players). They will usually be the ones giving you the most trouble. They will most often be playing a TAG or SLAG style of play. They will be the ones 3Betting the crap out of you, constantly raising and floating flops and just generally being as annoying as possible especially if they are running good.

You may already have thousands of hands on these players with examples of how they play in many different spots. Why on earth would you not use this to your advantage? And by the way, this isn't about copying somebody else's game. This is about looking at what some of the best players at your stake are possibly doing better than you, testing it out and then perhaps incorporating it into your own game.

Let's get into some specifics!

Stats Comparison

The first thing that I always want to look at when conducting a database review is my general stats. This is because the raw numbers across a variety of different metrics tell us a lot about the general style of play and potential weaknesses. They can never tell us the whole story though. Deeper hand history analysis is necessary for that. But they can point us in the direction of any key problem areas which is of enormous importance.

Specifically, I want to know what my numbers are across a variety of different stats and I also want to be able to compare them to the biggest winners at my current stake. I am not interested in the average numbers at my stake because the average player is a losing player. I am only interested in comparing myself to winning players. In order to do this I find that using the "My Reports" tab in PT4 is the way to go. At the top of PT4 make sure these options are clicked:
Next make sure that you have selected your player name and a report. If you have never used My Reports before then you will probably need to create a new one. Reports are highly useful because they allow you to save custom stats and filters for future use.

Next it is time to specify what stats you want listed. Simply locate which stats you want included in the report in the "Available Stats" box at the bottom. Double click on the ones that you want included in order to get them saved to the "Report Stats" box above.

If you have just created a new report then there will be a few default stats already listed under "Report Stats." As usual though the default stats/settings in either PT4 or HM2 are pretty useless. We want to customize them ourselves. I use quite a few stats, 30 in total. I discuss many of them in a popular article from last year on how to optimize your HUD for today's microstakes games.

I won't be discussing them in any detail in this article but I will list all of the ones that I use below:

I regularly refer to all of these stats while playing and so it is a good idea for me to get familiar with them in my time spent away from the tables. I want to know two things:
  • What my numbers are for each of these stats
  • What the average numbers are for the biggest winners for each of these stats
*Edit* As pointed out in the comments to this post there are some discrepancies between what PT4 calls certain stats in the "Available Stat" and "Report Stats" boxes and what they call them when they appear in the actual report. All the stats above are how they appear in the actual report.

These specifically are the ones that I noticed (Name in available stat and report stats box on the left. Name in the actual report on the right).

Fold to PF 3Bet After a Raise = 2Bet PF & Fold
Fold to PF 4Bet After a 3Bet = 3Bet PF & Fold
Fold to Raise After F CBet = CBet F & Fold
Fold to Raise After T CBet = CBet T & Fold
Fold to 3Bet Preflop After Steal = Steal PF & Fold

Using the Best Players as a Measuring Stick

Knowing what my own numbers are for each of these stats and being able to compare them to the best players at my stake is very useful in figuring out where my leaks may be. I want to be clear though that there are many different styles of play that can win. Just because my numbers deviate significantly on a certain stat from the biggest winners does not necessarily mean that I am doing something wrong. 

The only stat that actually matters at the end of the day is your winrate. If you are already among the biggest winners at your stake then it may in fact be that all of them that are doing it wrong. So do not be too hasty to change something just because your numbers don't align with theirs. With that said, the handful of players who are among the biggest winners at your stake are usually a good measuring stick to look it. They are winning in a big way after all so they are probably doing quite a few things right. 

How Do You Find the Biggest Winners at Your Stake?

I should probably finally discuss how you are going to get the stats of the biggest winners at your stake! Besides an educated guess as to who they are are as discussed above we will probably never really know for sure. The reason for this is because it can take as many as 100k hands to say anything conclusively about someone's winrate. You are simply unlikely to ever have a sample that large on anyone. 

So I often just use filters instead to narrow it down to the players fitting the stats which most of the biggest winners typically fall between. This is really simple to do in PT4. 

On the left side of the screen on the "My Reports" tab you will see "Filters" shaded in blue.

Filters > Edit Existing Expression Filters

This should bring up the "Edit Report Filter" box as seen below:

As you can see I have added a bunch of filters with some of the most common statistics for assessing overall play style (VPIP, PFR, Total AF and 3Bet). I have also added a total number of hands filter so that I can narrow the results to only come back with regs who I have a lot of hands on. Using standard greater than (>) and less than (<) expressions you simply add in the values and generate the report. The numbers that I have used above represent the ranges that I think most of the biggest winners will fall under in a full ring microstakes cash game.

For 6max microstakes cash games, I would input something like this:

#VPIP# > 19 AND < 25
#PFR# > 16 AND < 22
#Total AF# > 3
#3Bet Preflop# > 4

This is by no means an exact science though. Breakeven or losing players can still have very good looking preflop and postflop stats. They may have a major problem with tilt for instance. But setting filters like this will give us the best chance of getting the results of the biggest winners. I will make note of any stat averages that deviate significantly from mine and then move on to the micro analysis which is discussed next.

Hand History Analysis and Filters

Stats are great and all but they often don't really tell us the whole story. If I told you that your major leak was that you are barreling the turn 60% of the time when you should only be doing it 40% of the time this is sort of useful information but also not so much. You would know to cut down on your turn CBetting a fair bit but with which hands? Against which opponents? On what boards?

You could just consciously try to bet the turn about 1/3 less of the time when you are playing but it is much more useful to actually look over some hand histories first and find out which spots are profitable and which aren't. In other words, with what hands, on what boards and against what opponents should we be barreling the turn and which should we not. We need to look deeper now at actual scenarios. The numbers can only tell us that there may be a problem in this specific area.

This is where the scenario specific filters that PT4 and HM2 provide are so valuable. Similar to studying the play of top winners this is another area in my experience that people do not bother much with. Which is totally crazy. There is nothing scary or nerdy about this stuff. Let's have a look:

First in PT4 make sure that you are now in the "Statistics" tab at the top.
Make sure that your username is correct and set your dates and stakes on the left like before. Click on "More Filters" at the bottom to bring up the "Cash Filters" box.
From this box we can literally filter our results for almost any scenario imaginable including what cards we have, the board texture, the action in the hand, the stack sizes and more. However, when I am using these filters I use "Actions and Opportunities" as shown above at least 90% of the time. This allows me to set the action in the hand which is what I am most interested in. Let's go back to our previous example of barreling the turn. 

In order to bring up results only in spots where you barreled the turn you would go:

Actions and Opportunities > Actions and Opportunities - Turn > Turn Bets > Continuation Bet > Add to Filter > Save and Apply Filters
Once you apply the above filter it will now only show spots where you CBet the turn. By definition this means that you were the final raiser preflop, you CBet the flop and got called and then you CBet the turn as well. Since these spots do not pop up very often (or at least they shouldn't - barreling the turn every single time at the micros is a surefire way to burn through money) there should not be too many results unless your database is huge.

From here I will ask myself in each spot if it was a good situation to fire again given my hand, the opponent and the board. If you look closely enough you will probably begin to notice some similarities. For instance, recreational players don't like to fold especially on action heavy boards where they often have a piece. Barreling them with air is often suicide for your winrate. On the flip side there are many weaker nits and bad regs who will happily lay down decent hands on the turn to continued aggression so that they can "wait for a better spot." This can bring big benefits to our winrate if we can consistently push them off made hands when we have air.

If your database is big enough you can use the filters to run profitability tests in other areas as well. For instance a big leak for a lot of players at the micros is calling 3Bets too much. It is important to have some understanding of the profitability of different situations though before deciding that you have a big leak in this area or others.

Calling 3Bets is one of those spots that is a losing play for almost everybody, even the very biggest winners. However some people lose much more than others. The same thing goes for blind play. Everybody loses from the blinds. So don't freak out if you see a bunch of red for yourself. Instead compare how bad you are losing in these spots to the biggest winners. 

By the way please also do not conclude from this analysis that we should never call 3Bets and should fold every hand from the blinds. We have to play hands in these spots at least some of the time for balance considerations alone. You would be insanely exploitable if you decided to take such a harsh response. These situations are like a balancing act. Our goal is simply to lose the least. In fact it can make a big difference to your winrate if you can manage to have just small losses overall in these spots.

Let's get back to the issue of calling 3Bets though. If you have identified that you do indeed have a leak in this area, then you can dig deeper by going through individual hands. You should ask yourself if a 4Bet or a fold was more profitable in these situations. Often that is the case but sometimes it does indeed make sense to just flat the 3Bet. Assuming the flat was correct are you making any attempt to bluff raise them post-flop in these situations? 

If not then you are just throwing away money by calling preflop. You simply won't make enough when you finally hit a hand to make up for all of the times that you folded. From what I have seen this is the case for the the vast majority of people with the "calling 3Bets too much" problem. Sometimes it isn't even that they call 3Bets too much but that they never try to win the pot when they miss. These players will need to find the spots where they can push players out of pots. Once again it is often the weak/tight bad regs who they should be targeting. 

Split Testing 

Now that you have compared your stats to the best players at your current limit and identified specific scenarios where you might be able to improve, you need to prove that these new lines are in fact more profitable! Once again, this isn't about copying someone else just because they are having success from what you can tell. We still have to test their line over a large sample in order to prove that it is in fact more +EV.

To do this we employ a commonly known method of getting results in the SEO and blogging world called "Split Testing." Split testing is simply the act of comparing two or more different actions based on the data that you have collected on each of them. In the blogging and SEO world this might mean comparing the placement of certain ads on a website over several weeks in order to find out which spot gets the most clicks. 

With regards to poker, split testing means gathering and comparing data on two or more different actions as well. It is not always as simple with poker though because with the need to balance our range in many scenarios versus good thinking regs we simply aren't looking to take the same line all the time. Hence, even if we know for a fact that a certain line is lower EV than another we will still take it sometimes for meta-game balance. 

But at the very least we can use split testing to improve the frequencies within our ranges. For instance if we know for sure that check raising with our strong hands is the best line to take versus certain types of opponents then we can exploit that by increasing the frequency with which we take that action. But for range balancing purposes against good thinking opponents we will still need to lead out or check/call against them from time to time as well. 

At the very lowest stakes this is not an issue at all though because most of the regs (and certainly everyone else) are semi-brain dead. For instance those who have read my book will know that I do in fact advocate just check/raising with your really strong hands 100% of the time. This is because I know that this is the most +EV line to take since it gets the most money in the middle versus players who won't fold. And also, I know that I don't need to balance my range versus these beginner levels opponents. It is over their head and means nothing to them. So split testing is incredibly useful at these stakes. But it also applies perfectly very well to many preflop spots in particular at higher stakes and for modifying range frequencies as well. 

Split Testing in Practical Terms

In practical terms split testing in poker is actually pretty simple. We already have a vast amount of data in most cases on one approach (the way that we have been doing it all along). Now we just need to build a set of data on the new line that we have decided to take. It is definitely useful to document the date that we changed our approach and exactly what it is even if it is just changing up the frequencies within a range.

Like everything in poker the results will of course not come over night. In fact it will often take weeks or months before we have reliable data depending on the change that we made. River 3Bet bluffs will take an eternity to create a reliable sample on because how often does that spot even arise in the first place? Altering our 3Bet range though can give us results much faster because we get an opportunity to 3Bet much, much more often.

I am not a statistician though but of course more hands is always better. A very large amount of poker players (like literally all) are simply unable to fathom the long run in this game. It is much, much longer than almost all of them think it is. Play more tables and play every day if you want to get there faster. If you follow the advice in this section and play only two tables 3 or 4 times a week expect it to take months or even years on some metrics. 

Mock Scenario of the Entire Process

1) You notice that the large majority of the biggest winners at your stake have a 4Bet ratio that is twice as high as yours.

2) You review hands of 4Bet spots from big winners where their hand gets shown down so that you can figure out what they are doing it with.

3) You decide to change your range. You note the day that you started and you stick to this new range.

4) You come back at some point in the future when you have put in at least 10's of thousands of hands utilizing this new range and look at your results now when filtered for 4Bet winrate.

5) Filter for the 4Bet winrate before the changes were implemented and compare.

6) If the results are better than before then you should continue using this new range. You should scrutinize the sample size a bit more though just to make sure that it wasn't just a bunch of run good (you coolering the hell out of them a bunch) that caused the change.

7) If the results are worse then you should also scrutinize the sample size before coming to any conclusions. This is why we need 10's of thousands of hands at a bare minimum. Run KK into AA a couple times here and watch your winrate suffer in a spectacular way. 

You also need to ask yourself if there are other aspects of the hand where you are possibly spewing now. Since your 4Bet range is wider have you correctly adjusted your 5Bet calling and folding ranges? If your 4Bet is simply called are you over or underplaying your hand? If the answer is negative to both of these questions then you should chalk it up to a failed experiment and simply revert back to your old 4Betting range.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article gave you a better idea of the sorts of strategies and priorities that I have in place when conducting a database review. This is such a large topic that I could literally write half a book about it and there are many areas that I just don't have the space (this article is 4k words already) to go into. The best way to get started is to simply start messing around with filters and scenarios yourself though. 

I think far too many people buy these programs (PT4 and HM2) and then don't even use them at all other than to check their graphs and have HUD stats up while playing. This is totally ridiculous given the capabilities of these tools. Get yourself better acquainted with them and you will quickly see how much they can do for your game. Both PT4 and HM2 have forums and customer support that you can make use of if you can't figure something out.

To sum up, the two most important areas for me when doing a database review are 

1) Studying the play of my opponents (the best ones).

These are the players who are actively crushing the game right now. What better resource to learn from? I either view them individually based on my perceptions of playing against them or filter for them using commonly known winning stat ranges as shown above. I then compare my own game to theirs both on a macro (statistics) and micro (hand history) basis. I then set up split test trials over large samples to test the profitability of lines that they take.

2) Filters, filters, filters

They are right there in either PT4 or HM2. There is nothing scary about them at all. You just enter some values, hit apply and see what comes up. Most people know where they are having problems in their game. Filter for these scenarios and spend your database review time looking at these specific situations. 

Most people (if they even do a regular database review at all) spend all of their time lamenting over bad beats and coolers. This is a totally pointless waste of time. You should be spending the large majority of your time looking at ways to improve in the areas where you are currently lacking. 

AK, OOP in 3Bet pots where you whiff the flop a problem for you? In either program filter for that exact hand, 3Bet pots and boards where you miss. Ask yourself what other lines could you take against certain opponents, on certain boards and given any relevant history.

Rinse and repeat often and split test again and again when you think a new line or set of frequencies within a range is more profitable. This is how big winners approach the game. 

What strategies and approaches do you use during a database review? Let me know below in the comments!
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a microstakes grinder, poker coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes. Now available in Spanish and Russian as well.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How to Effectively Conduct a Poker Session Review

"How do you do a session review?" is one of the most common questions that I get asked. Since I have never covered this topic here on my blog before I thought I could put something together now.

When I answer this question often this first thing that I say (to their dismay) is that I don't actually do a session review most of the time. At the risk of sounding condescending I think that regular session reviews are better for less experienced players who are having trouble in spots that they are not overly familiar with. More experienced players who are better at making adjustments on the fly or have simply seen all the spots before won't benefit nearly as much.

I have played something like 7 million hands of poker online and 99% of my decisions (at least at the micros where I play the vast majority of my hands) are automatic. If I am playing a different format or taking shots at higher stakes then sure I will review my hands after most sessions. But after a typical session at NL25 for instance the vast majority of the time I do not look at anything unless I am in a really bad downswing which I will talk about a bit more later.

The reason is that due to having played so many hands at these limits I have been through the same spots versus the same player types many times before. I have probably reviewed it in the past and come to a conclusion on the best line to take. Therefore reviewing the hand later would not really serve much purpose for me unless I thought that my conclusion was wrong. My approach to these games only changes slightly over time. Yes the games are always changing, as everybody loves to point out, but the actual changes on a month to month or even year to year level (at the micros at least) are negligible.

With all of that said, I do think that regular session reviews are a very good thing for less experienced players (I used to do them much more often) and for everybody when in a downswing or moving up.

The Value of a Session Review

Newer players should review their sessions to find out what mistakes they are making that are either costing them money or not allowing them to get enough value. But really the biggest reason that they should conduct session reviews is in order to think about the game themselves. Those who have been through my book will know that it reads like an instructional manual of sorts (if A...then do B etc.) because this works at the lowest stakes. However, nearer the end I implore the reader on several occasions that learning how to think the game through on their own is the only path to big success in this game. 

You can only follow what a book, training video or coach tells you to do for so long before you get to levels where the players are too sophisticated to fall for "ABC" or even so called "advanced" strategies. This is because the elite players are able to detect your strategy and find ways to counter it on the fly. Your book, training site or coach won't be there in real time with you to help you counter-react. And this is the real value of conducting a session review. Learning how to think about a hand quickly and determine for yourself what the most profitable line is to take is how to succeed in this game.

This is a scary concept for many people. Many people seemingly want someone to hold their hand all the way to the big game these days. I am sorry but it doesn't work that way. My own experience at the micros clearly shows this. There was no "Crushing the Microstakes" or equivalent for me to read when I was starting out. There were no training sites or micro stakes coaches either. I had Pokertracker 2 though (the best poker tracking program at the time) and developed many of the strategies myself that would later give me huge success at these stakes and be detailed in my book.

I spent hours pouring over hands in PT2 finding out what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. I also played a ton of hands so that I could utilize huge sample sizes when looking at the profitability of certain spots. This allowed me to be statistically near certain in my conclusions.

Keys for Conducting a Session Review

Ok so I have already kind of alluded to how I go about a session review but let's break it down a little bit more.

1) Mark Hands During Play

This is the obvious starting point. Most of the hands that are going to be of interest to us in the session review are the ones that gave us trouble. Hands where we were sort of lost as to what to do. It obviously makes sense to simply mark these hands for later review during play. This way you will not encounter problems later on remembering which hands they were and where they are in your database.

I use Pokertracker 4 because I think it is the best poker tracking program available right now in 2014. Marking hands is super easy with it. On the poker table just hit the tag button at the top left beside the PT4 emblem chip.

From there you can simply select a recent hand and choose "review" from the dropdown menu. You can also tag hands that are in progress and/or that you aren't even involved in. Just because you aren't in the hand doesn't mean that it won't be useful to you especially if a good reg is involved (more on that later). This process is very simple in Hold'em Manager 2 as well.

2) Review Marked Hands

Now that you have marked your hands during play you can go look at all of your hands for the session in PT4 and click the box "Show Marked Hands Only" to narrow it to only those ones that are of most interest to you. If you have used multiple tags then you can select from the menu box to the right also.

(Click image to increase size)

I don't want to waste time on bad beats so I like to have the All-In Equity there. So for instance the hand above where I lost several stacks getting it in with a set of Jacks won't be worth looking at because I had 82.42% equity when the money went in. It was just a bad beat.

What I am really looking for are hands (usually medium sized losing ones) where I felt lost in the hand or I feel that I got outplayed. Coolers and bad beats happen to everybody. Learn how to differentiate them from the hands that matter and don't spend much time on them unless there is a legitimate theory concern.

3) Ask Myself Questions

So as I said, the hands that interest me the most are ones where I felt that I was lost and/or got outplayed. They aren't always losing hands but generally they are. What I want to do now is take the time to accurately configure my opponent's range. More specifically I want to ask myself questions such as:
  • Given my opponent's actions throughout the hand thus far, our relevant history (if any), my image and the board texture what range of hands is he likely representing here?
  • Give this range did I take most profitable line in this hand or was there a better option?
This is the thinking through the game yourself part that I was alluding to before. You have all the time in the world now to consider the situation. Put your opponent on a range yourself. Given the board texture, your hand and any relevant history what is the most profitable line to take against him?

This is the heart of the session review and what will carry you forward in the future to become a better player. There is no point in just spamming all of your marked hands on some random forum and getting a bunch of crappy advice and a tiny bit of good advice. If you are truly lost even after reviewing the hand then fine, post it. Or better yet ask somebody who you know who is a strong winning player what they think. But above all, you need to take the time yourself to find the most profitable line. This is how elite players approach the game.

4) Big Losing and Winning Hands

The newer you are to poker the more that this next step will matter. If you tend to stack off with overpairs or top pair hands when your opponent has taken a line that is so obviously a two pair or better hand then you are going to need to spend a lot of time looking over your big losing hands. This is something that I had to do a lot of early on before I smartened up and learned to make correct folds.

Something that is also a big problem for a lot of newer players is not getting enough value out of their big hands. If this is the case for you then you need to spend some time looking over your biggest winners and ask yourself if there are portions of your opponent's stack remaining that you could have gotten. If the answer to this question is frequently yes then that is a big problem for your winrate.

5) Small/Medium Losing and Winning Hands

Same thing here. Another big problem for a lot of newer players is not getting enough thin value bets in and calling river bets when it is obvious that they are beat. You need to ask yourself the same questions. Could I have gotten more out of this player if I played it a different way? Or conversely could I have lost less in a certain hand if I took a different line or analyzed his range a bit better?

***Question from the comments of this post: How do I sort by pot size?***

You could just use filters. In Pokertracker 4 go:

More Filters > Hand Details > Pot Size and Stack Depth > Pot Size and Stack Depth - Hand Total. Enter the amount and click "Add to Filter"

                                             (Click image to increase size)

I would probably make it between like 30bb-100bb for small/medium sized pots and 100bb-500bb for big pots.

Or if you don't want to bother with filters then you can just click on the "Won" column above where the hands are and just find the 30bb-100bb pots yourself. When reviewing hands in the replayer I prefer to just grab a bunch at once. You can do this by left clicking on one hand, holding down the "shift button" on your keyboard, and clicking on another hand to highlight several. Now right click anywhere in the highlighted hands and add them all to the replayer.

When in a Downswing or Moving Up

I do think that it is a good idea for everybody to do regular session reviews when in the midst of a bad downswing. I know that this is the time when I am playing my worst and therefore I use these session reviews to keep myself in check more than anything. So I will be heavy on #4 and #5 above. Is it really just all coolers and bad beats or is there tilt on my part? If the latter, what steps can I take to prevent it from happening in the future? If the former, then it is out of my hands, there is nothing that I can do except try again tomorrow.

I also regularly conduct session reviews when I move up or play higher stakes than I normally do. My opponents will be better and may present me with problems that I have not seen before. Also, given the relative lack of information that I will have on my opponents the answers aren't quite as easy to arrive at in real time.

Database Review

It would probably be better if I just devoted an entirely new article to this (I will actually do that next time) but the next step is doing an overall database review. This involves using filters for broad spots where I think I am having trouble. This can be as vague as hands where I simply raised preflop to hands as specific as I had AKo OOP, 3Bet preflop, missed the flop, fired a CBet and got called.

Lastly, something that I have always been big on is reviewing the games of those at my stake who I think are better than me. It amazes me that so few people take advantage of all the free information that they have on the top crushers in their own game. Never I am looking to completely copy their game. My own play style is what works for me already. What I am trying to do is incorporate those aspects of their game that I feel they do better than me, into my own game. Or perhaps just spend some time understanding how they think about the game in general. This can only make me a better player.

That is all I have for now. I hope you guys are having a great start to 2014! Please leave any comments below that you have concerning session reviews and hit one of the share buttons below if you liked this article!
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a microstakes grinder, poker coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes. Now available in Spanish and Russian as well.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Setting Poker Goals for 2014

Setting Poker Goals for 2014
First off, I hope you all had a very merry Christmas! New Years is a time of big dreams and goals for many poker players. You will see new blogs or old ones get re-invigorated with lofty plans for the new year. Many of them with unrealistic projections spurred on by the excitement of the moment...the "new start." But like the legions of lose weight resolutioners most people have given up after a few weeks when the initial enthusiasm wears off. In this article I will talk about how to make sure that this doesn't happen to you. It all begins with proper planning.

Rakeback Goals - Start Planning Now

In the case of online poker making goals at the beginning of the year actually makes a lot of sense. This is because many poker rooms (and particularly the biggest site in the world - Pokerstars) work on a yearly based system for the upper echelons of their rakeback program (Supernova and Supernova Elite). This means that it is much better to start towards your rakeback goals at the beginning of the year as opposed to halfway through or later.

As regards cash games, Supernova Elite is something that is only realistically achievable for a very small amount of players already playing close to mid stakes (at least 1/2) or higher with big volume. This is a microstakes blog so this will probably represent a very small amount of my readership.

Supernova however is achievable at low stakes, as low as NL25, or maybe even NL10 if you are a truly sicko grinder. For a lot of people struggling at the micros I often recommend that they make a plan to get to NL25 as soon as possible, although with a proper plan and bankroll management strategy in mind. It really makes all the difference in the world. So many regs in the NL25-NL200 range especially are kept afloat through the cash bonuses, milestone rewards and more available to you when you become a Supernova on Pokerstars.

The rakeback levels at lower tiers such as Goldstar, Platinum star etc. are just not comparable. Also, VPP accumulation and thus FPP accumulation is almost non-existent at NL2 and NL5 and not so great at NL10 either. This is of course balanced out in some way by the much higher winrates that are possible in those games. But it just doesn't come close to making up for all that free rakeback money that you are missing out on.

Not everybody plays on Pokerstars of course but similar programs exist on other sites. Many sites still use a "traditional" rakeback format where there are no levels to achieve though. You just get a standardized cut of your rake paid back, 30% for instance. If you play on a site where this is the case then you should just skip ahead to the next section of this article on table profit and moving up.

If the site that you play on has a yearly based rakeback system though, and you play low stakes, start planning and going after your rakeback goals now, not in July. It is very easy to do this by getting a rough idea of how many points you earn as you play. For instance, if you play 10k hands of NL25 on Pokerstars then just divide that by the number of VPP you gained in order to calculate your VPP per hand at this stake.

So say you gained 1200 VPP in those 10k hands. 1200 / 10000 = 0.12

Your VPP per hand is 0.12

Since it requires 100k VPP in order to achieve Supernova on Pokerstars you will need to play approximately 834000 hands over the course of the year in order to get there.

0.12 x 834000 = 100080

You could break it down further by volume needed per month.

834000 / 12 = 69500

You will need to play 69500 hands per month at NL25 in order to achieve Supernova by years end.

So as you can see it is very easy to calculate how many hands you will need to play in order to achieve a certain rakeback level even down to the exact number of hands needed per month. This also assumes that you stay at the same stake all year - hopefully not! Obviously higher limits mean much higher VPP rates. Please note that the VPP rate used above was just an arbitrary number used for the example. You will need to play a certain amount of hands yourself in order to see what your VPP rate is. Probably just a few thousand hands will be good enough.

For more on all of this including milestone bonuses and FPP multiplier rates at each rakeback level you should refer to the Pokerstars VIP page on their website. Or if you play elsewhere then check your poker rooms equivalent page. The important thing here is to plan now.

Table Profit Goals and Moving Up

But enough about rakeback. Table profit is why you should be playing this game. A forgotten concept amongst so many of the mediocre regs who fill the micro and small stakes tables these days.

First off, as I have stated in many previous articles, including my "State of the Games 2013" post a few months back, we need to understand that online poker is not as easy these days. I don't think the games have gotten considerably tougher in the past couple of years but they are quite a bit harder than they were in the so called golden days of 2005-2009 roughly.

If you want to take this game seriously and develop a solid side income or even a full time one then you will need to be prepared to work hard in today's online poker climate. The vast majority of people out there are simply not willing to do this and they will get left behind.

The key thing to remember is that there will always be a pecking order in this game and it is all completely relevant to who you are playing against. If the hypothetical 6th best player in the world sits down at a table with the 1-5 best players in the world then he/she will have a losing EV (expected value) in the long run in this game. In other words, the 6th best player in the world would be the fish in this game.

The beautiful thing about poker though is that you only need to be better than most of the players that you are playing against in order to have a long term positive EV. Nobody is a world beater at the micros and small stakes these days. In fact most of the regs are downright terrible. If you exercise a little bit of table selection and work hard on studying and improving your game then you can certainly do just fine in these games.

Also, as I have been preaching for awhile now, mass multi-tabling, though good for rakeback goals, will simply bring down your EV in a big way. Many of the regfish that populate these games are bad simply because they are playing so many tables at once and do not have enough time to explore the most profitable lines in certain situations. That plus the fact that they simply have to play much fewer hands overall. You can't win if you are always folding preflop. It is important to find that sweet spot where you play enough tables to keep your volume decently high but have time to make quality decisions and table select effectively as well.

If you are new to online poker or do not have at least some history of winning online then I would suggest that you start at the lowest stakes. That would be NL2. It is very difficult not to win at this stake in the long run. You would have to have major fundamental problems with your game in order not to. NL2 will allow you to find that out for sure and at a very cheap price and then make the appropriate adjustments. Stay committed to consistent play (every day if possible) and slowly move up. If you aren't winning then study the game more to improve, be it training sites, reading books or hiring a coach.

Also, set aside some time to study the issues that you are having in your game in either Pokertracker or Hold'em Manager on a regular basis. Both of these programs provide a plethora of great information on every detail about your game. Perhaps even better they both have fantastic filters that allow you to look at any conceivable situation in detail. Having trouble in 3Bet pots OOP (out of position)? Apply the filter and look specifically at 3Bet pots where you were OOP!

Equally as important and often overlooked is to study the games of the best players at your current level. What are they doing better than you? What parts of their game could you perhaps incorporate into your own? How are they playing in 3Bet pots when OOP differently than you?

Lastly, take controlled shots at the next limit when ALL of the following conditions are met.

  • You have been consistently winning at your current stake over a significant sample size (20k or 30k hands bare minimum)
  • You are currently feeling confident in your game and not in a downswing
  • You have a sufficient bankroll for the next stake (at least 20 buyins although preferably much higher for most people who take the game seriously and/or are professionals)

A controlled shot means that you are prepared to potentially lose X number of buyins in order to take a shot at sticking at the next level. If things do not go well for you then YOU WILL move back down and regrind what you lost and rinse/repeat the process in the future.

I wish you all the best in 2014 and let us know what your poker or even life goals are in the comments below!
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a microstakes grinder, poker coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes. Now available in Spanish and Russian as well.