Tuesday, September 30, 2014

47 Things That I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Started Playing Poker

The top things that I wish I knew before playing poker

Here are the top 47 things that I wish someone had told me before I started playing poker. They are not in any particular order. I am sure that I missed a few important ones even though I managed to almost make it to 50. Also, I am sure that a few will be controversial! You can feel free to leave your comments at the end.

Without further ado...

1) Tight is Right. I actually did figure this one out very quickly. Most of the bad players play too many hands. Play better quality hands than them and you will have an immediate (and huge) advantage over them.

2) Use Position. The immense power of position cannot be over-stated in poker and it takes some people (including myself) years to fully understand this. Have a look in your poker tracking program and look at your winrate by position if you don't believe me. You should be using position to take down pots on a regular basis.

3) Steal the Blinds A lot. Most people at the micros, even in today's games, are tight and passive. They will only fight back if they have something really good. Even if they do call you still have position which as mentioned has a massive impact on your likelihood of success. You should be abusing the button and cutoff in most micro stakes games today.

4) CBet A lot. You can still easily get away with CBetting at 80% versus most opponents at NL10 and below. You only need to get somebody to fold around 30% of the time in order for a standard 60% of the pot CBet to breakeven. Pretty much everybody folds to CBets at least this amount of the time, even most of the biggest fish.

5) Fold When They Fight Back on the Big Money Streets. By big money streets I mean the turn and the river. When you get raised by one of the legions of passive players at the micros on the turn or river, your one pair hand is almost always no good.

6) Abuse the Weak/Tights. The micros are still chalk full of pseudo TAG's. These players only present the illusion of being solid aggressive opponents. In reality they are bad regs who back down when the pressure gets too hot either preflop or postflop. You can find these players by looking for a high fold to 3Bet, a high fold to 4Bet or a low WTSD%. Frequently bluff them and take the pot.

7) Don't Bluff the Fish. Seriously, don't bluff them. Some things never change in this game. Fish love to call. Why would you want to bluff somebody who loves to call?

8) Don't Bluff the Calling Station Regs. The opposite of the weak/tight TAGfish regs which were discussed in point #6 above are the calling station regs. These players are easily found because they will have a low fold to 3Bet, low fold to 4Bet and a high WTSD%. Don't bluff on the river with air. They will look you up with third pair.

9) Relentlessly Value Bet the Fish. Thinking of hitting the check button with your mid pair? Make a bet instead. It never ceases to amaze what crazy crap they will call with. Even if you don't get called it makes you appear more aggressive which is always a good thing.

10) Relentlessly Value Bet the Calling Station Regs. Once again, bet thin versus players who love to call. Easy game right?

11) Get a HUD. Don't be an idiot like me and play 4 million hands of poker before finally admitting that a HUD is a good thing to have. Sure you can win without one but you are without a doubt giving up potential winnings. Go get the free trial for Pokertracker 4. There is nothing wrong with Hold'em Manager 2 either and they also have a free trial. I just personally use and slightly prefer the former. The main point here is this: if you are serious about this game, get a HUD. Stop underestimating how important they are.

12) Play More on the Weekends. Bad players don't have as much time to play during the week because they have jobs to attend to. They like to unwind on the weekends with a little online poker. The games are always a bit better on these days. Try to play more on them.

13) Play More During Prime-time Hours. Most of the bad players come from affluent countries such as America, Canada, England, Germany and France. Play more when it is prime-time in these countries.

14) Start From the Lowest Stakes. Don't be a hero. Even if you have been "killing it" at your local casino in the $1/$2 game, chances are NL10 will still present some difficulties for you. Online players on average are way better than their live counterparts. Check your ego at the door and start at NL2 (this is 1cent/2cent). What's the rush anyways?

15) Exercise Proper Bankroll Management. 20 buyins at the very least for a recreational player. 40 or 50 for a professional or semi-professional. This minimizes your chances of ever going broke and having to re-deposit.

16) Play With Bad Players. I cannot possibly stress how important it is especially in 2014 to make sure that you are consistently playing with bad players. Winning in this game is all about playing with people who are worse than you. And when they are far worse than you, this is when you will really win big. Get these players on your table and isolate the living crap out of them.

17) Make Sure You Are on the Left of the Bad Players. It isn't enough just to find the bad players. You also need to make sure that you are on their left as well. Having position makes a massive difference in your ability to tilt them and get max value when you have it.

18) Play Less Tables. Don't try to copy your favorite mass multi-tabling hero and pull up 34 tables at once. This will lead to poor decisions at the table and an inability to table select effectively. As the games have tightened up in recent years quality decision making and table selection have become much more important factors in your overall winnings.

19) Rakeback is Massively Important. Rakeback is still huge though. It is important to understand how the rakeback program works on the site that you play on and/or what levels it really starts to kick in on. For instance, Pokerstars has a volume incentive yearly based program where the rewards in cash games don't really start to kick in until about NL25. You should plan your play strategically around this.

20) Move Up Slowly. Moving up is not a race. The slow and steady approach is always superior. This doesn't mean that you need 100k hands at each limit before you should consider moving up, but you should have enough to prove that you are a solid winner (20k or 30K is a good benchmark). Furthermore, you should feel very confident in your abilities at your current limit and absolutely know that you are one of the best players there.

21) Know That You Are the Best Player at the Table. If you aren't the best player at the table (or close to it) then why are you sitting at the table? As mentioned in point #16 winning at poker is all about playing with people who are worse than you. If you can't confidently state (and know) that you are among the best players at the table, then you probably are the fish.

22) Don't Waste Your Time Playing Play Money. I did this for over a year when I first got started with online poker. It did allow me to build a bankroll out of nothing but it was a total waste of time. Nobody plays for real in play money because there is no risk to them. Once you have the basic rules of the game down you should move on to the very lowest stakes cash games.

23) Play Cash Games. I am not here to put down SNGs, MTTs and other formats but cash games are where the most potential money is. I would actually put SNGs closely behind in second place due to the ability to reach amazing levels of rakeback with them especially on Pokerstars. Check out this blog of a friend and prolific SNE grinder for instance. MTTs are a distant third though. Don't be fooled by the flashy scores. Most of the top MTT players, both live and online, don't make close to what the top cash game (or online SNG) players make.

24) Put People On Tilt. This is such a massively important thing to be doing especially in 2014 cash games. And this especially goes for the bad regs. Once you get a reg on tilt they can literally become your personal ATM for weeks or months on end. This is why I saved a big section which explains exactly how to go about doing this near the end of my latest book, Modern Small Stakes.

25) Sign Up to a Training Video Site. I don't want to sound biased since I make videos for DragTheBar. It is a good site with many great coaches. However, there are tons of other good training sites out there as well that fit all needs and price ranges. Find the site that makes the most sense for you and watch videos related to your games and take notes on them. Both of these are important points. If you play NL25 what good is watching a video on NL2k going to be for you? These games have absolutely nothing in common. Also, these videos are not meant to be watched passively like some TV program. You get what you put in. Take notes and ask the coach questions on the forum or in a private message.

26) Find a Poker Circle. Finding a close circle of poker friends can be beneficial to your improvement as a poker player. It is always better to know people who are better than you. People who are worse than you are not going to be very helpful. Make connections at the tables, on forums and elsewhere. Set up sweat sessions as well. I actually have a sub-forum on my forum specifically designed for people to organize these.

27) Don't Waste Very Much Time on Forums. For the most part, I would go so far as to say that the big poker forums today are pretty much useless. There are just way too many uninformed opinions, spammers and pointless squabbling. You are much better served to stick to smaller forums in my opinion with a close group of dedicated and talented people.

28) Read Poker Books. I think poker books still hold a lot of value in 2014. Seminal works such as David Sklansky's "Theory of Poker" and others really helped my career take off by forcing me to think about the game in the right way. I really wish that somebody had written my first book Crushing the Microstakes before I got started. This would have saved me more time than anything else on this list.

29) Review Your Sessions. It is very important in the early going of your poker career to review your sessions. It is easy to get off track when things don't go your way and make poor decisions. By regularly reviewing your decisions in key pots you will force yourself to make sure that your current knowledge base is getting implemented at the tables as often as possible. Reviewing your sessions during prolonged downswings (and getting a second opinion) is also vitally important.

30) Conduct Regular Database Reviews. At a certain point, the only way to really push through in this game is to be able to think through hands on your own and figure out what the best line of attack is based on the opponent and the situation. Database reviews can allow you to find out what macro strategies work the best in the games that you play in. They can also allow you to learn from the best possible source of information out there which is the people who are currently crushing the limit that you play at.

31) Don't Rush Into "Going Pro." A lot of people have dreams about quitting their day job and playing this game for a living one day. It isn't all roses and sunshine though. Playing poker for a living is a "hard way to make an easy living" as the famous saying goes. This is something that requires a lot of careful planning and forethought.

32) Consider Moving Abroad (or Travelling). This is also not for everybody but one of the benefits of playing online poker for a living is being location independent. This means that you can essentially work from anywhere in the world as long as you have a laptop and a reasonably decent internet connection. As I have mentioned before, Thailand has been a huge magnet for online poker players in recent years (this is where I have lived for several years now). But there are many other areas that are popular as well such as Playa Del Carmen and Rosarito in Mexico, The Philippines, the island of Malta and my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. Sometimes a change of scenery can be a very good thing and it can also allow you to meet like minded people.

33) You Have to Play the Game. A lot of people like to sit around on poker forums talking about the game. You have seen them, the guys with 9,000 posts in the last two years. Don't be like them. There is one common denominator that almost all of the best poker players share. They are usually found at the tables. That's right, they spend most of their time playing the game instead of talking about it.

34) Remove All Distractions. You need to treat poker like a business. Your time for playing this game is not to be mixed with Skype, Facebook, forums, your kids, some unimportant phone call, the latest episode of the Walking Dead etc. All of these things can wait. When you are playing poker it should be just you, the tables and whatever software you are using. Lock yourself in a room, only have poker software installed on your poker computer. Do whatever you have to do to make this happen!

35) Turn the Chat Box to Silent. Seriously, don't waste your time with the chat box. Poker is a game where egos clash and emotions run high. Some of the most toxic, pointless discussions in the history of humanity can be found in the chat box at online poker tables. Always turn this crap off and stay focused on what matters, taking everyone's money.

36) Make Sure that Your HUD is Setup properly for YOU. As I mentioned in point #11 having a HUD is vitally important in today's games. Make sure that your HUD is setup in the most efficient manner. This means having the right stats in the right places, using color coding if need be, the right font etc.

37) Tag the Bad Players Right Away. Always make sure to tag the bad players on whatever poker site you play on right away. These colors or tags literally stay there forever and they make your table selection decisions so much easier in the future.

38) Don't Bother Taking Notes at the Micros. This is especially the case if you play on one of the bigger sites like Pokerstars. With the sheer volume of opponents that you will face on these sites it is literally pointless to make notes on individual players. Also, notes typically only have a sample size of one. What if your opponent is savvy enough to balance his range well? Now your note is not only incorrect but downright dangerous.

39) Balance Your Range Against the Better Regs. It is not enough to play the highly exploitative game that I talk about in my first book, in many of my blog posts and elsewhere once you get to the upper limits of the micros. By about NL25 you will start to encounter a few "thinking" regs. You will need to start learning how to take different lines in the same situation versus these players in order to prevent yourself from becoming predictable. You need to learn how to balance your ranges.

40) Don't Listen to all of the GTO Fanboys as it Applies to the Micros. GTO (game theory optimal) has become the big fad on poker forums and in some books in the last few years. If you play anywhere at the micros (NL50 or below) you are wasting your time and money by studying this stuff. In order to be effective GTO theory assumes an environment full of solid, well balanced, thinking opponents. This is not the case in literally any micro stakes game on any site in 2014. Exploitative play is still far superior to GTO play at all levels of the micros.

41) Don't Think About Poker in Terms of Money. When you are first starting out you should be playing the game because of your passion for it and an urge to get better. Too many people want to be armchair accountants and figure out what their hourly is going to be before they even get started. Poker does not work this way. Play for the love of the game and the money will come to you in time. If a regular salary is what you want then go work in an office.

42) Take Care of Yourself. In today's online poker climate you need to fight for every little edge that you can get. You should be exercising regularly, eating healthy and getting a good sleep. Treat this game like a sport. If you typically play when tired, hungover, in a bad mindset, hungry etc. then you are doing yourself (and your winrate) a major disservice at the tables.

43) Never Play Drunk. You should never play poker while intoxicated because your emotional control and ability to make logical decisions are both heavily compromised. You are putting yourself at a severe disadvantage. There is a good chance that it will not end well for you. Don't worry if you have done it in the past (I have too). Just make sure that it does not ever happen again.

44) Consider Hiring a Coach. Having somebody who is as good or better than you look over your play for a session or two can sometimes make a huge difference in your game. Even if they notice just one small thing that you are doing wrong this could add up in a huge way over the long term. Not all coaches are created equally though. Make sure that you vet coaches first and stay away from the ones with flashy marketing and excessive use of "testimonials." The real coaches out there have no need to advertise in this way.

45) Be Aggressive. One of the biggest things that separates micro stakes players from mid and high stakes players is aggression. When people are just starting out they tend to think that they are aggressive but in reality they aren't at all. This doesn't mean you should be triple barrel bluffing your opponents every chance you get. However, you should be taking advantage of spots to make bluffs against weak/tight players on a regular basis. You should have an ability to shove preflop sometimes without the nuts etc.

46) Downswings Suck. They also happen to everybody. Sometimes they can defy reality in their intensity and length. This is when your will and dedication to this game will be tested. Think about how many others will just give up or play terribly when this happens to them.

47) Poker is ALL About the Long-Run. This game will drive you mad on a regular basis. This is normal. However, once you fully understand that nothing in a single session, a handful of sessions or even an entire month's worth of play holds any meaning, then you will come to terms with this game. Master this skill and you will have a massive advantage over the large majority of your opponents.

That's all I can think of! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Anything you would add or take out? Agree or disagree with something that is included?

And also, if you found this article useful, please share it with you friends below on Facebook and Twitter!
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a poker player, coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Becoming an Online Professional Poker Player

Becoming an Online Professional Poker Player
Should I Go Pro?

This has been one of the most common questions on online poker forums for years. It is often asked by somebody who is fairly new to the game and has ran hot for some insignificant number of hands at the micros. Usually they have no clue about what playing this game professional actually entails on a day to day basis. They also often have a very poor understanding of the actual nature of variance.

I don't really consider myself to be an online professional poker player anymore even though most people still assume that I am. I am fine with this though after grinding for a living for 5+ years. I don't want to say that burn out was the deciding factor in scaling back my play because I do still love this game and play it regularly for a side income. However it does seem that years and years of grinding can take its toll on some people. I have seen this with several others as well so I know that it is not just me.

Whether I go back to playing full time for a living again one day or not is a question that I will decide in the future but I can certainly discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of "going pro" as somebody who has done it for half a decade. A lot of people who play this game think that playing online poker professionally would be the best job in the world and they dream of making it there some day. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.

There are a lot of great benefits to playing poker professionally on the internet such as the freedom to work from anywhere in the world and the ability to set your own hours. I value these two things greatly and they were primary motivating factors for getting involved in this game in the first place.

However, dealing with variance (read: soul crushing downswings) is also a part of being an online poker pro that people rarely talk about. These downswings will happen to everybody and nobody is going to explain to you how to handle them or want to listen to your sob stories. You have to be able to battle through them and many people simply are not capable of this.

Being a professional poker player also requires a strong independent work ethic that you won't really understand until you work for yourself. I will discuss all of this and more below.

Overall I do not regret my decision to play online poker professionally at all. In fact it has had an incredibly positive impact on my life. Here is a recent video where I talk about how I got my start in the game.

In this article I am going to discuss what I learned about making it as an online professional poker player over the long haul. This will hopefully help you make a more informed decision on whether it makes sense for you or not.

The Attributes of an Online Professional Poker Player

Before I even talk about actually being a winner in this game (this is something that is kind of important if you want to be a professional poker player) I want to discuss the personality traits that are important to have. I think there are several personality traits that pretty much all professional poker players have in common. So much so that if you don't fit this fairly narrow profile then I don't think that you should even consider playing this game professionally. I am going to list them roughly in order of importance (in my opinion).

1) Emotional Control

The ability to control your emotions and be patient in this game is absolutely critical to your success. Many people are driven by impulse instead. They revert from the game-plan very easily and for no good reason at all. An online professional poker player needs to have the discipline to make the right decision regardless of how he feels at the time. The ups and downs in this game are never-ending. The professional is able to keep a clear head under pressure and make the right decision the large majority of the time .

2) Logical Decision Making

Logical decision making as it relates to poker is the ability to just kind of see the right action in many cases in this game. I believe that poker is much more rooted in logic than mathematics at a core level. This doesn't mean that you need to have college level logic in order to beat this game. It just means that you should be able to understand why certain plays are better than others intuitively for the most part. This skill is vitally important as you move up the stakes and need to be able to develop effective counter-strategies versus good opponents on the fly.

3) Work Ethic

You can go back through this blog and you will find that this was the one that I struggled with the most. When I quit my last "real job" back in early 2007 to go pro I thought that playing poker for a living would be the easiest thing in the world. After all, I was making double or triple what I made at my job all day in just the few hours that I played each night at NL50 or NL100. However, once I quit and became my own boss the will to play each day was not always there.

It wasn't that I didn't enjoying playing the game and making money. It was just that I would often find something that was a little bit more interesting at the time such as the latest Call of Duty game or going out with friends. While being your own boss is one of the most freeing and compelling reasons to become an online professional poker player, it can present some challenges as well because you will have no one to answer to except yourself. You have to be able to discipline yourself to set certain work hours and stick to them no matter what.

Personality Traits of an Online Professional Poker Player4) Independent

Internet poker in particular is very much a solo venture. Most people who play for a living spend hours upon hours every single day by themselves in front of a computer screen. You need to be the type of person who is ok with being alone for long periods of time (live poker is a bit different of course). This can prove to be a difficult thing for a lot of people. You don't need to be a total hermit/recluse in order to be a successful online poker pro. However, if you are the type of person that constantly craves social interaction then online poker for a living is probably not for you.

5) Gamble

While poker is absolutely a skill game in the long run there is a lot of luck in the short term. The person who is more willing to take calculated shots to chase a fish at a higher stake for instance is more likely to climb the limits faster and profit more. The same goes for moving up in general. Some people are way too conservative and it can really hold them back. Most really successful professional poker players have a small bit of degen in them and are not afraid of taking a shot when it makes sense.

6) Intelligence

Most professional poker players have above average intelligence. Everything that I have mentioned thus far kind of relies on this to a certain extent. People with higher intelligence will often have a wider perspective on things and thus an easier time controlling their emotions. They will also often be better at logical decision making, staying cool in stressful situations and being able to think independently.

It isn't 100% necessary to be strong in all of these areas in order to be an online professional poker player (#3 was a big struggle of mine and I am not very good at #5 either). However, in my experience most people who play this game for a living have strengths in most of them. It just makes more sense to already fit the profile rather than try to change who you are. After all, if playing poker for a living were easy then everybody would be doing it right?

Who Should NOT Go Pro?

Let's assume that you do in fact fit most of the categories above though. There are still some people who should stay away from this game at least at a professional level.

1) Focused on the Money

This is the #1 way that I know if somebody has what it takes or not. If the first thing they talk about is how much money they can expect to make then they will almost certainly fail. The most obvious reason why is because there is no precise answer to the question of how much money you are going to make! Games are always changing, everyone's skill set is different, some people are better at multi-tabling or table selection than others etc. Furthermore, there is massive variance in this game.

Trying to figure out your "hourly" is just silly. You should want to play this game professionally because you have a passion for it. That's it. If you are simply chasing the dollar, don't waste your time. Go be a doctor or a lawyer or get some other career where there is an average salary that is highly predictable. This isn't the way that it works in poker.

2) Married with Kids

I am going to be honest. I don't know anybody who is married, has kids, and plays online poker for a living. I am not saying that it is impossible. I know that there are people out there who do it. And I do know people who are married but without the kids who make it work. However, for fairly obvious reasons the large majority of people who play this game for a living are not in this situation. In fact the vast, overwhelming majority of online poker pros who I have met are single or just do some casual dating on the side.

3) In School

I always tell people to finish their schooling before taking a shot at going pro in this game. The reason why is because even though everybody always thinks that they are different most people who choose to play online poker professionally will end up failing. This is just the cold hard reality. If you have a college degree to fall back on however, then your life will be much easier should poker not work out for you.

I was very lucky in this regard because I had just finished graduating from university around the time that online poker blew up (~2004). A lot of people have chosen to drop out of university/college since then because they felt that online poker was a better option for them. This was a bad decision for a lot of them. Poker will always be there when you are done with school. Believe me, it isn't going anywhere. Finish your degree first and then try out being an online professional if it is something that you have a passion for.

Online Professional Poker Players Win
Professional Poker Players are Long Term Winners

You need to be a winning poker player.

Duh right? However, this is a point that is lost on many people in their dreams of what life will be like as a professional poker player. The large majority of people who play this game will lose in the long run. Furthermore, it can take a very long time to overcome variance and say for certain that you are a winning player. In fact it can take upwards of 100k hands in order to say anything conclusive about your results. This can represent months of play for some low volume online poker players and could take a year or more for a live player to attain.

In addition to this, you should know that once you go pro you will begin to feel differently about the game. This isn't something that you will fully understand until you take the leap for yourself. I have played this game both full time and part time for long periods of time. When you have a regular paycheck coming in there is a lot less pressure placed on you. When you play professionally though your results will always be a little bit more important to you even if you have a large amount of savings. You can't pay the rent with poker losses.

Strong Finances 

People have often said that you should have at least 6 months living expenses saved up before you consider going pro in poker. I would say that at least one year is a better idea. And what this actually means in practice is that you take what you currently spend in a single month for all expenses (and add about 10% for emergency situations) and times this by 12. You should have this amount in a liquid account before you even consider going pro.

In addition to this you should have a bankroll that is suitable for the stakes that you currently play at. As an online professional poker player this should be on the conservative side as well. While as little as 20 buyins is fine for many recreational players, as a pro you should have more like 50 buyins for the limit you are playing. This ensures that there is little to no chance that you ever bust your bankroll and have to dip into your life funds.

These two sets of money are never to be mixed. Your bankroll is for poker and the money that you have in the bank is for your bills and living expenses.

Final Assessment and Trial Run

I hope that this article has given you a bit to think about in terms of who should consider "going pro" and what it is like. It is not all roses and sunshine like many people make it out to be. Let me tell you from first hand experience that playing poker for a living is absolutely work in every sense of the word. It can also be extremely stressful at times. In fact I think that playing online poker for a living is more demanding than almost any other job out there. It requires your constant attention to detail and the ability to make quick, high quality decisions under sometimes very difficult circumstances.

But there are also several great benefits to becoming an online professional poker player. These include the ability to control when and where you work. For many people like myself this is worth the world. I have zero interest in ever working for somebody else again and the freedom that this game has given me has been life changing.

If becoming an online professional poker player is something that interests you, then you should do a trial run starting at the micros for upwards of a year before taking the leap. This means playing for a few hours every single night after work. If you find that you are having success after this period of time, you have a deep passion for the game and the right situation in life, then give yourself 6 months to a year to just go for it. If it doesn't work out no biggie. Consider it your gap year and move on with life.

Perception of Others and Resume Gaps

There are a few other smaller things to mention that are part of being a professional poker player such as the perception of family and friends and resume gaps. I feel that both of these are fairly minor in importance overall though. You will be the center of attention at parties when people find out what you do. Usually this will entail a bunch of stupid ignorant questions about how you can make a living playing a card game on the internet followed by a bad beat story from 5 years ago at the local casino.

You need to realize that as a professional poker player you will still appear like an alien to most members of the general public even in 2014. The ignorance surrounding this game is still vast and it will take a long time to change. When the questions come just play along and even make jokes about it. Never get into long drawn out debates about the nature of the game. My policy now when people try to convince me that poker is a game of luck is to simply agree with them and move on.

As for the resume gap thing, well I think that most long term successful poker players won't have to worry about this anyways. If they have the rare ability to survive in this game over the long term then they are probably capable of starting up plenty of other successful ventures on their own as well.

Those who don't make it playing poker professionally (or those who did but simply decided that it is not for them anymore) should not worry too much about the resume gap in my opinion. I would just be totally honest and put professional poker player on my resume. Somebody in a management role who is too close-minded to at least understand this on some level in 2014 is probably not somebody who I would have any interest in working for anyways.

Let me know your thoughts below about the whole "going pro" thing. Have you ever considered it? If you have made the leap what has your experience been like so far?

If you enjoyed this article please share it with you friends below on Facebook and Twitter
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a poker player, coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Ultimate Guide to Table Selection for Today's Online Micro Stakes Cash Games

Table selection in today's online micro stakes cash games
Table selection has come a long way over the years at the micros. It was literally a foreign concept when I first started playing online poker in the mid 00's. The games were a lot better back then but nobody paid any attention to what table they sat down at and they certainly didn't care what seat they got. Fast forward to 2014 and if you aren't table selecting in a big way (even at the very lowest stakes) you are doing yourself a huge disservice.

Table selection is an absolute must in today's games. Long gone are the days when you can sit down at a random NL25 table and expect to have a couple of huge whales splashing around. You can get lucky and find this on rare occasions especially on a weekend but this is very much the exception to the norm. The typical table these days will consist of a bunch of tight regs and one semi-bad, slightly loose player.

It is impossible to crush these games if you insist on sitting at tables like this all of the time. No matter how much you study how to beat the regs or stay on top of every new strategy out there you will still face a winnings ceiling. This is the point where your winrate simply cannot go any higher because fundamentally your opponents just aren't making enough mistakes.

No matter how bad many of the tight players are who dominate today's micro stakes games they simply aren't in enough hands to make the same kinds of massive mistakes that recreational players do. They also don't put themselves in positions to make second best hands as often by getting get out-kicked or out-flushed because they don't play as many weak hands.

There are some people out there who still refuse to take table selection seriously in today's games. If you are in this category then this article is not for you. A mediocre winrate is the best that you can hope for due to your decision to neglect this absolutely crucial part of the game. To the rest of you who are interested in having a big winrate in today's games I am going to outline some of the key strategies that I use to find good tables and perhaps more importantly, good seats.

Table Selection Versus Seat Selection

Let me first get into a key distinction that I just brushed over. Finding the right table in today's games is only half of the battle. In fact for many hardcore bumhunters (people who only sit with huge fish) it is just the beginning. This is because they know (and you should too) that getting the seat to the left of the fish which is often referred to as the "Jesus Seat" is where the big money is made in this game.

The power of position is an often misunderstood concept for newer players. By this I mean that they massively underestimate it's importance. When you have immediate position on someone at the poker table (you are on their direct left) you have an advantage so large that even against a much superior opponent you can expect to at least break even versus them over the long run.

The reverse is also true. An inferior opponent who has direct position on you will likely bust you given enough time. Getting on the direct left of the recreational player (or as close to it as possible) is of absolutely vital importance in the table selection process. If you are on the right of the fish it will severely restrict your ability to isolate them preflop and value bet and bluff them postflop. This will negatively impact your ability to get their stack in a huge way.

I will talk about getting the Jesus Seat a bit more later though. First things first, how do we find the tables with the recreational players on them?

Play Poker at the Right Times

As mentioned finding the big fish is not always an easy task in today's games even at the very lowest stakes. There are some strategies that you can take though to seriously improve your odds.

1) Play More on Weekends 

This is the oldest and totally foolproof table selection "trick" in the book. The games are always a little bit better on the weekends because recreational players have jobs to attend to during the week. On the weekends they want to unwind, perhaps have some drinks and play a bit of online poker. I have been playing online poker for nearly 10 years now. It has always been my experience that the games are a bit better on the weekends. Fish are out in larger numbers and there are more intoxicated lunatics.

Obviously we all have lives outside of poker though and if we only played on the weekends then it would be hard to get much volume in. So the point of this is not to say that you shouldn't play during the week. Yes of course you should. But if you can, you should designate more hours on the weekends. Play those epic long sessions then as well.

2) Play More During Prime-Time Hours

This is another table selection method that may pre-date the dinosaurs. People ask me all the time when the best time to play is. The answer isn't so clear in today's games though. Before the American online poker market was decimated by Black Friday several years ago the best time to play was clearly during the prime-time North and South American hours (6pm-12pm roughly).

In today's online poker climate game quality is much more balanced between the prime-time hours in North/South America and those in Europe. Prime-time in Asia is a distant third. Since most people reading this article aren't from Asia then this shouldn't be a big concern. If you do happen to live in a place like Thailand though, then it is advisable that you change your schedule a bit usually by playing early in the morning which is prime-time in North/South America.

Recreational Poker Players non-HUD Tells

Guide to table selection in today's online micro stakes cash games
As I have discussed before there are several clear as day "tells" that recreational players give off to identify themselves as bad players. None of these require any HUD data.

1) Stack Size Below 100bb

100bb is the maximum allowable buyin in most online poker cash games. Good poker players always want to have the most money possible in front of them. The reason is pretty simple. The more money you have in front of you, the more you can win. If you are the best (or among the best) at the table then it only makes sense to push your edge or "scale up" as much as possible. The only time when you should ever consider buying in for less than the maximum allowable stack size is if you are playing a higher stake than normal to chase a fish and he has bought in for less than the maximum.

There are some well known mid stacking and short stacking strategies out there. I do not advocate using either of them because no matter how you cut it you are placing an artificial ceiling on your potential winnings. However, you will occasionally run into some decent players in today's games who use one of these strategies.

The large majority of the time though when you run into someone at the tables who has bought in for less than the maximum (or they are not using the auto top up stack option) they will be a recreational player. The clearest sign of all is when somebody buys in for something like $17.63 on an NL25 table. This is clearly their entire bankroll and you should identify them as a fish right away.

2) Posting a Blind OOP

Anyone who takes this game seriously knows that you should always wait for the big blind to come around to you before posting a blind. The blinds can be thought of like a tax that you have to pay in order to play the game. Nobody would ever voluntarily pay more taxes than they owe.

The only players who disregard this are recreational players. When they sit down at the table they simply want to get playing as soon as possible. They have a limited amount of time to play and they want to get in the action as soon as possible. If you see anyone post a blind OOP you can identify them as a fish immediately.

3) Limping

There really is no justification for limping at the micros in any scenario. Pretty much everybody has realized these days that it simply makes a lot more sense to raise when first in the pot or if there are limpers. If you see anyone open limping then you can immediately identify them as a recreational player.

4) Min Bets Postflop

Another surefire sign of a bad player is a min bet after the flop. While there are some good players who will open for a min raise preflop, especially from LP, nobody who has any knowledge of the game would ever make a minimum bet after the flop. The reason why is because a bet of say $1 into a $10 pot is totally meaningless. Your opponent can profitably call with any two cards.

5) Playing One or Two Tables

Regs will almost always be playing at least half a dozen tables at once (and often many more) since they play tight and therefore have less decisions to make. They also want to increase their rakeback. Recreational players play a lot more hands and their decisions are often based on superstition and emotion rather than logic and repetition. They also generally have no clue about rakeback. Therefore they can often only handle a table or two at a time. Most poker rooms allow you to search a player. If you suspect that somebody is a bad player then search them and note the number of tables.

6) Low Rakeback Status

On sites where it applies such as Pokerstars a big clue to someone's ability is their rakeback status. It is advisable to never show your rakeback status for any reason. Giving out free information at the poker table simply makes no sense at all. However, recreational players don't care about this. If you see somebody showing Bronzestar or Chromestar on Pokerstars for instance, and you are playing NL25 or higher, this is a big clue that they are a bad player. Anyone playing these stakes regularly would have a higher rakeback status.

7) Smart Phone or Tablet Symbol on Pokerstars

Pokerstars intoduced the smart phone and tablet symbols beside each player using them awhile ago. These can be turned off in the options. Once again recreational players are more likely to leave them turned on though. Also, recreational players are far more likely to be playing online poker using a smart phone or a tablet. The large majority of regs would rather use a desktop or a notebook in order to play as many tables as they want and utilize all of their poker related software. Players showing these symbols on Pokerstars are almost invariably bad players.

Tag Them Right Away

If you notice a player that is showing any of these 7 signs then you should tag them as a recreational player immediately. Almost all poker sites allow you to put a color tag or a note beside a player. These essentially last forever and make table selection much easier in the future because you already know who is a fish. On Pokerstars you should go:

Options > Player Notes > Left click player to assign label
table selection in micro stakes cash games
This will allow you to tag somebody as a recreational player with one click. Whenever you have down-time at the tables (nothing is happening) you should be making sure that you are on good tables and tagging all the bad players. Always make sure that you tag them as you are closing down your session as well since you will have the maximum amount of information on everybody. Speaking of that, I am going to talk about how to identify recreational players with your HUD next.

Recreational Player HUD Tells

Finding the fish in today's online micro stakes cash games
If you read this blog regularly then you will know that I highly suggest using a HUD in today's games even at the lowest limits. You can certainly still win without one but it is just silly to forgo the kind of information that these programs are capable of providing you with. They will often pay for themselves in a week or two at the most.

The absolute easiest way to spot a recreational player is by VPIP (percentage of hands that they play) and PFR (percentage of hands that they raise with preflop). Bad players will have a VPIP that is at least 30 or more. This goes for 6max or full ring. And they will often have a PFR that is considerably less than this. The true bumhunter specialist is looking for the recreational players with a VPIP of 40, 50 or more though. These are the players who burn through stacks at a truly incredible pace.

Sometimes they will have a PFR of just a single digit (52/7 for instance). This is often referred to as a whale or a "drooler" fish. Sometimes they will have a PFR that is much closer to their VPIP though (52/37 for instance). This is often referred to as a maniac or an "aggro fish." While the strategies to exploit these two player types differ in some ways both are like rocket fuel for your winrate. If you spend all of your time at the tables playing against these kinds of opponents it is literally impossible not to crush these games beyond belief.

Always make sure that you play a few orbits before you make a final decision on somebody. Just because you spot a player with an 80% VPIP doesn't necessarily mean that they are a recreational player if the sample size is only 5 or even 10 hands. It is definitely possible to simply have a good run of good cards over a sample like this. I prefer to wait until I have about 20 hands on someone before I decide for sure whether they are a bad player or not.

Start Your Own Tables

One of the best ways to find recreational players in today's games is to simply let them come to you. The easiest and most well known method of doing this is to simply start your own tables. As I mentioned before, fish only have a limited amount of time to play poker and when they sit down at the virtual felt they want to get dealt in as soon as possible. Because of this they are more likely to choose a table that has empty seats on it. Start your own table and watch them come to you.

Many people do not like to do this because they are not confident in their abilities when it is heads up or ultra short handed. The first thing that you need to remember is that the tables that you start will usually fill up really fast. You will often be playing 6 handed or 9 handed like you are used to before you even know it.

Secondly, even if you have to play a few hands short handed just play your normal game and don't worry about it. We are talking about terrible players here. You win money off of them by making hands and value betting the crap out of them. Therefore the same method to beat them applies whether there are 2 people at the table or 9. Just open with a few more hands than usual and play normal poker after that.

Lastly, if no recreational players show up and you find yourself playing heads up against an obvious reg (he doesn't limp the button, 3Bets a fair bit etc) then simply leave the table or sit out. There is no need to prove anything versus another reg. Just move on and start another table or sit out and wait for the fish to show up.

Snipe The Jesus Seat

This final method is in the arsenal of all hardcore bumhunters these days. It is also highly effective. The idea of starting your own tables to attract the recreational players is not a new idea. Therefore, you will probably notice a few other regs doing the exact same thing. Simply open up a bunch of those tables and observe them but don't sit yet. As soon as an unknown player or a known fish sits down at any of these tables immediately grab the seat to the left of them. There is no easier way to get the most profitable seat in the game.

Don't be afraid to simply hop around the table and grab the Jesus Seat if the table is not full either. This isn't live poker, you won't be hurting anyone's feelings. Don't bother waiting for the blinds to come to you. Just leave the table straight away and rejoin at the seat to the left of the bad player. You want this seat at all costs.

The Importance of Table Selection

I hope that some of the above methods will help you better identify the bad players and get the best seat against them. I have to reiterate that choosing to ignore table selection in today's games is an absolutely colossal mistake. I would go as far as to say that you should be spending upwards of 50% of your actual time at the tables looking for bad players and getting the right seat against them.

You can study all of the latest and greatest poker strategy theories until the sun goes down. Against decent thinking opponents this stuff can only help your winrate in a small way though. You simply cannot crush these games anymore at any level above NL10 if you are not fully committed to finding the worst players and playing with them a large majority of the time.

Many people are stubborn (or ignorant) though and refuse to accept the fundamental rule that you cannot create a big winrate against players who are not making many huge mistakes. The latest fad is GTO (game theory optimal) play. If I can just figure out how to balance my ranges perfectly against every opponent in every situation then I will finally be able to crush these games! Err...no. You are still trying to draw blood from a stone. The real money in this game will always be in playing against extremely bad (or tilted) players.

Let me know in the comments below how you table select at the micros these days. If you found this article helpful please share it on Facebook and Twitter below. It really helps me out. Thanks!
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a poker player, coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

CBetting the Flop at the Micros (Modern Evolution)

CBetting the Flop at the Micros (Modern Evolution)
I don't believe that I have ever really covered CBetting the flop in detail on this blog. Also, CBetting theory has certainly evolved at the micro and small stakes in recent years. Five or six years ago when the games began to tighten up people began to realize that frequently continuing up their preflop raise (regardless of their holdings) was a very profitable thing to do. This is because the play shifted to a weak-tight model where a lot of people thought that being overly tight both preflop and postflop was the way to go.

The pendulum has started to swing back in the other direction though in recent years at least amongst "thinking" players at NL10+. By this I am referring to the better regs at these stakes who are aware that you are CBetting too much and will actively take steps to exploit it. It is important to note that versus most of the regs at lower stakes and against most recreational players at all limits CBetting the flop frequently is still very effective.

So how should we re-adjust on the flop versus the better players in today's games?

Be Unpredictable

Decent regs at the micro and small stakes today are going to rip you apart if you CBet the flop 80%+ of the time against them. They will float you when they are IP and bet the turn when checked to. Or they will simply raise the flop or the turn. If OOP they will check/raise or check/call and lead or check/raise the turn. They know (correctly) that against heavy CBetters they will be able to get folds a lot of the time with these types of lines because their opponent simply won't have a hand to fight back with very often.

The way that we can counteract this though is by widening our check/continuance range on the flop. By this I mean having a range of hands that we check the flop with as the preflop raiser both IP and OOP. However, we are not giving up with these hands. This range should be a fair bit wider when we are OOP in order to counteract our positional disadvantage.

So in practice we do this by mixing in more check backs IP and check/calls and check/raises OOP with a wide variety of holdings. This is really just about balancing our range more in these situations. When you have an active checking range on the flop (that doesn't only include total air) you make yourself much harder to play against. This is because your opponent now faces the threat of being played back at when they attempt to float or check/raise you on the flop or turn.

Now don't get me wrong. We should definitely still be CBetting the flop frequently in many spots against good players. We did raise preflop after all which generally means that we started the hand with something halfway decent. It is certainly still profitable to follow it up with a bet quite a bit of the time. Conversely, we also want to still give up with total air especially when OOP a certain amount of the time.

What this is really about is widening that third part of our range (checking and continuing) that became almost non-existent among the flop CBetting frenzy of  past years. In 2014 CBetting 80%+ and giving up almost always when floated or played back at will not cut it against many of the better regs especially by the time you get to NL25. We need to let our opponents know that a check on the flop is not necessarily a white flag from us. In fact it very well might be dangerous for them. Let's look at some examples of how this might play out.

Example #1 (Full Ring)

TAG Villain: 15/12/3, fold to flop CBet 56%, raise flop CBet 33%

Hero opens from MP+1 with A♥5♥
Villain calls from the BTN

The flop comes:


Most people would just make a "standard" CBet here versus a single opponent on a dry single broadway board like this. But consider the opponent in this situation. We are against a reg who folds to a flop CBet a fairly mediocre to low amount of the time at 56%. He also raises a flop CBet at a fairly high 33% of the time.

Also though, as I mention repeatedly in Modern Small Stakes, we need to adjust for the situation. We need to think about why a good reg like this would choose to flat us preflop in this spot. He knows that our range is wide when opening from MP+1. Most regs will simply go ahead and make a light 3Bet here. When he calls it is at least in part to balance his range and prevent us from being able to 4Bet the crap out of him.

But more importantly it is also done with the full intention of using position to take the pot away from us after the flop. We would do the exact same thing if the roles were reversed here. So considering the situation (he knows that we are weak a lot and at a positional disadvantage) we should probably expect our opponent here to float or raise us considerably more than what the numbers above indicate. How can we adjust to this?

Well, as I mentioned before, this is where having a reasonably wide check/continuance range can really help. Instead of just blindly tossing out a CBet here and getting floated or raised all day why not check/raise sometimes instead? Or how about a check/call and then lead the turn or check/raise the turn line? This puts all of the pressure back on our opponent here. And the truth is, he usually doesn't have anything very good either especially on an exceedingly dry board like this.

If you are capable of taking lines like this a reasonably significant amount of the time then the better regs will have to think twice next time about flatting you IP preflop and trying to screw with you after the flop. It should be noted that we should have a check/fold range here as well. And a traditional CBet range as well. But versus an active reg in a situation like this who is obviously only in the hand to mess with me a lot I am not afraid to alter my frequencies heavily.

It is also very important that you are able to take these lines with much more than the nuts as well. It should be balanced out with draws, middle pairs and even total air like in this hand.

Hero Should: 
Check/Raise or Check/Call (with turn followup) 1/2 of the time, CBet 1/4 of the time, Check/Fold 1/4 of the time

Example #2 (6max)

TAG Villain: 22/19/3, fold to flop CBet 52%, raise flop CBet 35%

Villain opens from the CO
Hero 3Bets from the BTN with Q♠Q♣
Villain calls

The flop comes:

Villain checks

We are IP this time and we have the virtual nuts. This is another spot where we need to develop a checking range in order to make it more difficult for the better regs to play against us. Checking behind here on occasion will encourage the more aggressive regs to lead the turn and possibly the river as well as a bluff. It will also make them think twice about check/raising us when we do CBet because they will know that we can show up with hands like this sometimes as well.

In contrast, most of the weaker regs at the micro and small stakes these days will just auto-CBet here and only check behind on occasion with total air. This is extremely exploitable because first off we can just lead the turn and/or river no matter what we have and expect to take it down a lot because they have essentially given up. Or we can take a check/call the flop and lead the turn or check/raise the flop and lead the turn line and expect to get a lot of folds because a lot of their range includes ace highs and mid pairs that cannot withstand a lot of heat.

By balancing our range better in these spots versus the thinking regs in these games we can prevent ourselves from being exploited by these lines. We can confuse our opponent and provide no clear path to success for them. This should always be one of your main goals when playing against good poker players.

Hero Should:
Check behind 1/3 of the time, CBet 2/3 of the time

Final Thoughts

I hope that this discussion has proven useful for some of you who are struggling versus the better players who will play back at you as you move up the stakes. Balancing your range against them is the answer. And regarding the flop this means widening your check/continuance range (especially when OOP) so that your actions are not so black or white and predictable.

I want to be very clear though that none of this really applies at NL2, NL4, NL5 and even NL10 for the most part. The regs at these stakes are still largely beginners and are not thinking much beyond the strength of their own hand. Even versus many of the bad regs at NL25, NL50 and NL100 this sort of balancing is not overly important. This really only applies to that small subset of regs who populate the higher end of the micros, play a moderate or low amount of tables and are actively thinking about how to exploit their opponents.

Otherwise, you shouldn't bother complicating things for yourself. Making the obvious play is still overwhelmingly the right decision in most scenarios at the micro and small stakes games today.

Let me know your strategies for counteracting chronic flop floaters and raisers in the comments below.

Also, if you liked this article please share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter below.
Nathan Williams aka "BlackRain79" is a poker player, coach, DragTheBar instructor and the author of Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Slow Losing Poker Sessions - Here is How to Make Sense of Them

Understanding Slow Losing Poker Sessions
We've all been there. They happen quite frequently even to the biggest winners especially at any stakes above NL10. They are those slow losing poker sessions where you can't quite put your finger on exactly what went wrong. It is not as if you ran into a bunch of coolers or bad beats all at once. That is something that I call a "hell session" where you simply cannot win a hand to save your life. They also seem to have the nuts every time. No, it was just a slow decline. You actually thought that you played pretty well. However, when all was said and done you were a couple buyins worse the wear.

Making sense of these sessions is difficult especially for newer players. It is also hard for people who have marginal or negative winrates because they will happen very, very frequently to them. It is important to realize though that these sessions are a natural occurrence for everybody who plays poker. They are part of the variance that comes with playing this game. The key is to make sure that they were unavoidable and you were not the problem.

The Most Important Stat

The first stat that I always look at when analyzing a slow losing session like this is WSD (W$SD% for HM2 users). In more precise terms this refers to the percentage of the time that you won money (the pot) when you went to showdown. In Pokertracker 4 this stat should already be added by default. The same goes for any other poker tracking program. If it is not, then add it right away.

Most winning players have a WSD that hovers somewhere between the high 40's and the mid 50's (if your WSD is significantly outside of this range then there might be some deeper fundamental issues with your game). If you had a slow losing session then it is likely that you will be in the mid or low 40's. Anywhere below this (in the 30's for instance) is definitely a hell session.

The difference between a winning and losing session can often be a very fine line. Often it will boil down to just a few key pots. However the cumulative effect of losing just 5% or 10% less often at showdown than you normally do can easily make the difference as well.

Win/Loss Ratio of Medium Sized Pots

As I talked about in a post earlier this year about how to conduct a session review it is easy to filter for pots between a certain size in PT or HEM. Again, in these small losing sessions it is assumed that the big pots (you stacked someone or they stacked you) roughly even out. So I want to know what happened in a bunch of smaller pots of roughly 30bb-100bb in size.

Most winning players over the long haul should have a decided advantage in winning versus losing pots of this size. In a slow losing session though you will likely have quite a few more than normal in the losing category. It is key that you examine the losing hands carefully and make sure that the reason you lost them was outside of your control.

As I talk about near the end of Modern Small Stakes there are a number of key questions that you should be asking yourself when reviewing these hands.

  • Could I have won this pot with a different line?
  • Did I correctly make use of all the HUD data that I had on my opponent at the time? (i.e. imbalances that can be exploited)
  • Did I put my opponent on a correct range based on the action in the hand and the player type?

If you are satisfied that in the majority of these hands that there is no better way that you could have played it, then you just have to move on and accept the results. If not then this is the time to note the mistakes that you made and make adjustments in the future.

The Long Run is Long

As we know winning poker is just a series of good decisions made over the long run. At limits above NL10 where the winrates for most long term winning players are typically not above 5bb/100 a sizeable number of your sessions are going to end negatively even if you did everything right. It is important to understand that this is simply a reality in today's games.

As long as you are confident that you made good decisions most of the time (nobody is perfect) then you have nothing to worry about. I often don't even bother reviewing these types of sessions anymore. The WSD stat usually tells me everything that I need to know. But for newer or struggling players it is a good idea to review your medium sized losing pots frequently. This is often where the difference between winning and losing players is found.

Anybody can stack someone with a set when their opponent has an overpair. Everybody goes broke when they run KK into AA. These pots play themselves. You need to make sure that you are doing everything in your power to win the pots when nobody has anything (or at least anything very good). Everything else is just a part of the natural cycle of variance in this game that we all go through.

How do you approach slow losing poker sessions?

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