Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Simple Yet Highly Profitable Strategy at the Micros That You're Probably Not Using

simple strategy micro stakes poker
This simple little strategy that I am going to talk with you about today can provide a massive boost to your win rate at the micros even against the best regs. And yet nobody seems to really ever talk about it at all! In fact the only place that I have literally ever seen this idea discussed in depth is in my new book, Modern Small Stakes, where I discuss how to apply it in detail. Ok so enough with the posturing already. What exactly am I talking about?

Intentionally tilting your opponents.

We all know that tilt is a game changer in poker. Even the very best players go on tilt from time to time and much of their technical know-how goes out the window. They begin to play on raw emotion and make snap decisions without thinking. Micro limit players in particular are notoriously known for this. But why should we wait until our opponent hits a huge downswing or we happen to cooler the crap out of them for this to occur? Is there a way for us to put them on tilt or to "get in their head" right now instead?

Of course there is! You just start fu messing with them!

Now this strategy isn't for everybody and it doesn't come naturally for most either. After all, what I am essentially advocating here is that you go out of your way to intentionally piss somebody off (I will explain exactly how to do it in detail below, don't worry!). We would typically never do something like this in real life though. And I get that.

However, poker is war. This is how winning poker players view it anyways. When I sit down at a poker table my goal is to bust every last person there. It might sound harsh but I am not there to make friends and I am not there for small talk. My goal is to get your chips and add them to my stack, period.

The Mental Game is Where the Really Big Edges Are Today

So therefore I think we should utilize every single edge that we can get. This is even more important in an era when people are constantly complaining about how hard the games are. Every one is solid! No money at the micros!

This isn't actually true by the way.

You could always just utilize a little bit of table selection as well as stop playing Zoom and find bad players all over the place. But let's play along anyways.

If everybody is a world beater at the micros these days then why waste your time poring over every flashy new technical theory or piece of software that comes out claiming to give you a leg up on solid players? You do realize that we call them solid for a reason right? You aren't going to suddenly find some new way to play AK that is going to shock the world.

The mental game is where the really big edges are found these days. The reason why is because most players at the micros are still incredibly weak in this area. If you don't believe me just go visit any forum, reddit thread or anywhere where low stakes poker is being discussed and you will find somebody complaining about how their aces got cracked 4 times in a row. Oh my God! Sound the alarm! They took a bad beat! This has never happened to anybody else in the history of online poker!

And with that their quality of play typically goes right down the pisser as well. They can't believe their awful luck! Nobody has ever run this bad for 2400 hands before. Nobody can understand their pain, all is lost etc. All rational thought gets tossed out the window and they can become just as profitable to play against as the recreational players who we usually look for.

This isn't a phenomenon that is limited to the micros by the way. Many people have been commenting for years now that high stakes games only run when one of two conditions is true: a recreational player sits down or a reg is on tilt. Tilt changes every thing. It turns good players, solid players, some times even world class players into spewy ATMs.

The 5 Step Process to Tilting Regs at the Micros

So let me break down my strategy to tilt regs here into 5 simple steps.

Step 1: Find the Mark

As I mention in my book, at the start of most sessions I will pick a reg who I have on my right on multiple tables and go out of my way to screw with them at every opportunity. Having position (especially direct position) is vitally important here so make sure that this is the case. Often though this will happen by pure fluke. A particular reg just happens to already be on your right on a bunch of tables. Easy, pick him.

However, I do want to be a little bit more selective than this at times. I much prefer that the mark be a bad reg (Nit or TAGfish). The reason why is because these players are often marginal winners at best and therefore emotional stability is usually not a strong point for them.

This doesn't mean that I won't go after any of the good regs either though. I certainly do from time to time. However, it's just easier and more profitable to pick the low hanging fruit. I should add that I won't be talking about recreational players in this article because it goes without saying that you should be trying to isolate and tilt them at every opportunity already.

Lastly, once I have found the mark I want to be clear that I will be targeting them in this particular session only. I always pick a different reg every time. And therein lies another reason why this strategy is so effective.

Many bad regs at these stakes will automatically peg me as a maniac for life because I got out of line versus them during this one specific session. The reality is the exact opposite though. My play will actually revert to normal versus them in all future sessions. However, on many occasions I have had weak regs stack off ridiculously light to me weeks or even months down the road just because of the image that I created during this one single session.

Step 2: Be as Annoying as Possible

First things first, I am going to start 3Betting them every single time they open the pot. I don't care what I have, it could be 72o. A lot of bad regs play way too many tables these days. Therefore, it will usually take them several orbits to clue in to what I am doing. So I will often get away with it many times in the beginning unless they happen to wake up with a really big hand.

I should mention that it is fine to mix in some preflop flatting and postflop floating/raising with any two cards during this stage as well. I tend to lean towards 3Betting them more at the start though because it gets under their skin quicker. The main point here though is to be as utterly annoying as possible versus them in the early going and bluff them every chance that you get.

Step 3: Tighten Up Your Range and Run Big Bluffs

Eventually they will start to figure out that something is up. How long this takes varies from reg to reg. It might be just 3 hands with some. It might take 10 or more with another. It is usually pretty obvious when they start adjusting though because they will start doing things which are completely out of character.

For instance, they will start calling your 3Bets much lighter than normal or even 4Betting more than they usually would. If you have been flatting preflop and floating/raising postflop then they will start barreling or even bluff re-raising you with a higher frequency. So it is important that we re-adjust at this point as well.

I have two key goals here. I want to keep getting in a lot of pots with them but I also want to tighten up my range considerably as well. So instead of 3Betting them with any two cards I will have a much more value laden range that might look something like this:
putting regs on tilt online poker
Please keep in mind that I might choose to flat or even fold some of the hands listed above. It totally depends on the action in the hand and how my opponent has been adjusting. However, as you can see here this range is mostly made up of broadways, pairs and a few good suited connectors. Not the nuts by any means, but still fairly strong.

Furthermore, if I were to construct a range of the hands that I will 3Bet OR flat with here it would be even wider. Perhaps something like this:
putting regs on tilt micro stakes poker
I still want to play a lot of pots with them during this stage as I believe that I can still get away with plenty of funny business. At this point our opponent is highly suspicious of our actions but there is one key thing that you should always remember about most bad regs at the micros:

They absolutely hate to get their entire stack in the middle without the nuts.

That is, unless they view us as a maniac. But at this point they are still not sure. They will look at their HUD and see us as a reasonably tight player even if they are using versus hero stats because this is how I have always played against them before. So they will try to reason with themselves that we have just been hitting a sick run of cards.

The great thing is that if I can get away with a big bluff or two here (which I often will because it is really hard to make the nuts) then it will almost always be the tipping point which puts them on monkey tilt. And you must remember that even if we get caught it is not the end of the world. In fact it is insanely good for your image. When they see my ten high they will never give me any respect again and I will get all sorts of action in the future.

Step 4: Value Town and Bluff Catching

Congratulations! By this point you have successfully ruined your opponent's day. They will be foaming at the mouth to get even with you. So it is definitely time for us to re-adjust again at this point.

In the end stages when I have them on life tilt I am going to revert to a completely normal 3Betting range. In fact I will sometimes tighten it up even more because I expect them to spaz 4Bet me a lot which can create a difficult spot with hands like 99, 88, AJ or KQ. So my 3Betting range at this point might be as narrow as this:
simple strategy putting regs on tilt
My 3Betting OR flatting range though is still going to remain fairly wide. Not quite as wide as before because I know that I am going to need to make a hand much more often now. But perhaps something like this:
tilting regs micro stakes
It is all about value now. We aren't going to get away with too many bluffs anymore. Our opponent is going to look us up if he has anything. On the flip side though, this means that we can expect to get some crazy value if we can make a hand. And it doesn't need to be a monster at all.

We could win a big pot by hitting top pair or even middle pair because we expect a lot more wild bluffs out of them and our value bets to get looked up almost every time. Our implied odds here are literally through the roof. And this is why I stressed how important having position was before. They will literally be fighting an uphill battle against us the whole way.

Step 5: Profit

Employing this simple strategy is the easiest way to separate a micro reg from their stack in today's games. And even if it is not immediately profitable due to some run-bad you will often enjoy the benefits of your new terrible image for a long time to come.

Most regs at the micros these days have a reasonable knowledge of the technical side of the game. They know roughly what hands to play and where. Many of them can even get away from their aces when you hit your set. You can pull some moves on them here and there but you will never win big with just this strategy.

If you want to win big versus the regs in today's games then it is important that you attack their mental weaknesses as well. Get on their left on a bunch of tables and just make their life hell for awhile. Believe me, they aren't used to this at all and they won't take too kindly to it either. You will get all the action that you ever wanted after that!

Let me know in the comments below how this strategy works for you.

If you found this article helpful then please do me a favor and share it with your friends by hitting the "Like" or "Tweet" button below!

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

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Can You Win at Online Poker Without Using a HUD?

win at online poker without using a HUD
A lot of people want to know if you can win at online poker without using a HUD. I see this question on forums all the time and I get emails about it as well. As someone who has played over 7 million hands of online poker now, both with a HUD and without one, I want to finally answer this question in a blog post here once and for all!

For anyone who does not know what a HUD (Heads Up Display) is, it is a component of the popular poker tracking programs like Pokertracker 4 or Hold'em Manager 2. It allows you to display information on your opponents directly beside their name at the poker tables. This information is extracted by these programs from your own hand histories. Hand histories are small text files that are automatically created by the poker site after every hand and stored on your computer.

So for instance, say that you have played 100 hands of poker with a specific player. And by this I simply mean that you were seated at the same table as them for 100 hands. You probably both folded preflop the majority of the time. The poker tracking program will find 100 different hand histories where this player showed up and it will then be able to calculate for instance what percentage of those hands that they decided to play. You can then display this information (as well as many other stats) next to the person's name at the table if you wish.

So your online poker table with a HUD enabled may look something like this (I blacked out the player names to protect their privacy):

winning at online poker without using a HUD

Don't worry about what all of these stats mean right now. I will have more on that later.

Let's get back to the original question here first. Can you win at online poker without using a HUD or is it necessary to have all of these fancy numbers on your screen?

The answer to this burning questions is...

*Drum roll*

Yes! You can definitely win at online poker without using a HUD. 

However...why on earth would you choose to play without one?

Let me explain.

Using a HUD Simply Gives You More Options

Playing online poker without using a HUD would be like playing golf with only 2 clubs. There is a reason why most golfers (professional or amateur) usually carry around a dozen or more of them. It just gives them more options when confronted with different scenarios. Could you still win a round of golf against someone by using just two clubs? Sure, if you played against somebody who is terrible at the game like me then you could probably still manage to get the win on most occasions. But if you were to play against somebody who is equally as skilled then this advantage that they have might be difficult to overcome.

The same goes for online poker. All a HUD really does is give you some extra options (information in this case) at the tables. You don't even have to pay much attention to it if you don't want to. In fact for people just starting out at the lowest stakes I recommend a very scaled down bare bones HUD so that they focus more on the fundamentals of the game instead. Information is power though even if you only make limited use of it.

Think about how having the following data in front of you might help you make a better decision in a key spot:
  • Percentage of hands that they play
  • Percentage of hands that they raise
  • How aggressive or passive they are
  • How often they make a 3Bet
  • How often they fold to a 3Bet
  • How often they make a continuation bet on the flop
  • How often they fold to a continuation bet on the flop
I could go on but I think you get my point.

But Using a HUD Isn't Real Poker!

This is a common complaint that I hear from those who are more let's say "old school" about the game or those who come from a live background. Many of these people think that a HUD breaks with the tradition of the game which includes reading your opponent and making gut decisions.

Well I think first off we need to remember that online poker and live poker are in fact two different games. While it is true that the rules are the same just about everything else is different from the pace of the action to the ability to physically interact with your opponent. There is a huge dimension of the live game including physical tells, appearance and table talk that just really does not exist in the online game.

"Reads" in online poker are much more based on stuff like timing tells and betting patterns. And of course the other main difference is that the online game is played through a powerful computing device like a laptop, pc or tablet. It is only natural that people are going to try and make use of this technology to their advantage.

You must remember though that all a HUD really does is process data from a bunch of hands that you yourself have already played. While it might sound a bit ridiculous there is absolutely nothing stopping you in a live game from using some sort of mobile device and compiling data on your opponents in a similar way. So to answer another common complaint, no, there is absolutely nothing about using a HUD that is "cheating" or breaking the rules of the game.

At the end of the day the information that we get from a HUD merely gives us clues to work with. No HUD on earth can tell you what two cards your opponent is actually holding. If you had access to that sort of information then you absolutely would be cheating. In online poker we still make decisions based on our gut instinct all the time. A HUD simply organizes the information that we already have in a more efficient and useful manner.

Using a HUD Pays For Itself Quickly

I actually scoffed at the idea of using a HUD for a long time myself, for years even. I have still played a slight majority of my 7 million+ hands of online poker without the use of one. Nearly all of these hands were played several years ago though when the edges were bigger online and it was easier to get away without using a HUD. Also, very few of my opponents were using one at the time either which is certainly NOT the case today.

I eventually smartened up though after realizing how useful the information that they provide could be and how easy they actually were to use. Now when I sit down to play poker on the internet my HUD is always fired up and ready to go with hesitation. It is not something that I even need to think about. A HUD is simply a key tool that all serious poker players use in today's games. And the reason why is because even with minimal use they pay for themselves very quickly.

For instance:

You have QQ in an NL5 full ring game. You raise back and forth with a particular opponent and then he shoves all in. What do you do?

Well, if you are using a HUD then you might notice that your opponent is a massive nit who only plays 10% of his hands. Most nits are hesitant to get all the money in preflop without the mortal nuts and your HUD might provide you with further evidence to back this up. So there is probably a pretty good chance then that this player actually does have one of the two hands that beat you. You could probably safely lay down your queens and save yourself $5.

On the other hand, your HUD might tell you that your opponent is a maniac who plays 50% of his hands and raises and re-raises with a large amount of them as well. In this case we should quite literally beat our opponent into the pot. We will most likely win and stack them for a $5 gain. A very simplistic situation like this will come up often enough that the entire cost of the HUD would be paid for in a short period of time even at extremely low stakes like this.

Now of course one might argue that you could just play a single table or two and watch your opponents closely. But then you would take away from one of the key strengths of online poker which is the ability to multi-table. This allows you to maximize your hourly, get to the long run faster and collect more rakeback all at the same time. And also, raw numbers (actual data and percentages on your screen) are always going to be more accurate than your memory.

If You Are Serious About Online Poker Then Use a HUD

If you take online poker seriously at all then getting a HUD is easily one of the most +EV investments that you can make. This is not even to mention all of the innumerable benefits of the poker tracking program itself such as the ability to conduct a session review and a database analysis of your game and that of your opponents.

As we already saw, even if you only use your HUD for the most basic scenarios it would already start paying for itself very quickly. But furthermore, both of the major HUDs that are used these days have a free trial so you can simply test drive them for 30 days at no cost and see for yourself.

I personally use Pokertracker 4 when I play online because of how well designed the interface is, how easy it is to find stats, use filters and setup the HUD. They provide a highly detailed quick start guide as well for if you have any problems during the installation. It is also Mac friendly by the way.

And lastly, I have written a comprehensive guide on how to optimize your HUD which also happens to be the most popular post in the history of this website. In it I discuss:
  • What each of the HUD stats mean and the technical abbreviations that are used
  • How I sort the stats on my HUD and use them to make poker decisions
  • Sample size convergence for various stats
  • Complete HUD customization including how to add or remove stats, change fonts, prefixes etc.
  • FREE downloads of both the lite and full versions of the custom PT4 HUD profiles that I personally use at the poker tables.

Final Thoughts

I hope that this blog post has once and for all helped answer the question of whether or not you can win at online poker without using a HUD.

Yes, you definitely can.

If you are a solid player, table select well and keep the tilt to a minimum then you should have no problem beating most levels at the micros.

However it makes no sense to be without the kind of quality information on your opponents that a HUD can provide. This is information by the way that an increasing number of your opponents will have on you as you climb up the stakes. Using a HUD is not some magic wand that allows you to print money at the tables. However, when used effectively it will help you make better decisions based on the data that you have already gathered. This will pay off in a big way over the long run.

If you are serious about online poker and you do not use a HUD yet then do yourself a favor and at least try one out. Don't be that anti-HUD hero. You are only hurting your own bottom line at the tables.

Let me know your thoughts on playing online poker with or without a HUD below!

If you found this article helpful then please do me a favor and share it with your friends by hitting the "Like" or "Tweet" button below!

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

Saturday, April 4, 2015

How to Play Against the Fish Who Doesn't Fold Anything

poker fish who doesn't fold anything
We've all encountered them. The recreational player who does not fold to any bet. It is as if they do not have a fold (or even a raise button) like the rest of us. They just like to call with anything and everything. These types of players can be extremely frustrating to deal with when you are not running well. There are simply going to be times when you are up against this type of player and you can't hit a flop to save your life. It is very important not to get over aggressive here and try to bluff a player who cannot be bluffed.

You will see these players most often at the very lowest stakes with stats that look something like this:

64/5/1 (VPIP/PFR/AF).

These are the limits where a typical bet size often isn't even as much as the price of a coffee. Therefore, if they have any kind of a draw they are calling. If they have bottom pair they are calling. If they have ace high, king high (hell, sometimes even 8 high), they are calling! You need to remember that these players play the game in order to catch you in a bluff or make their long-shot draw to win a big pot. Logic and mathematics be damned. They get a thrill out of playing sheriff or making something ridiculous on the river.

There is no point in getting mad at these players, or even worse, trying to educate them. You need to accept them as they are and realize that their existence at the tables is one of the biggest reasons why this game is so profitable. If you look at long term win rates (loss rates in this case) these players pay a heavy price for their terrible play. Often they are losing at 20bb/100, 30bb/100, 50bb/100 or more! They are literally giving away their money (at a very fast pace) in the long run.

So since we know exactly how these players think about the game the only thing that we should be concerned with is how to most profitably counter it. There are two main points with regards to this that I want to cover in this article. The first one is mental, the second one is technical.

Do Not Get Frustrated

As mentioned it is extremely important that you do not to get frustrated when playing versus fish who don't fold anything. We already know that they are going call if they have any piece of the board so what is the point in getting annoyed when they go ahead and do just that? Let's be honest here. The only reason that it is frustrating sometimes is because either a) you aren't hitting anything or b) they are hitting their long-shot draws much more often than they should. It is important to remember though that neither of these two events are normal.

When you are playing fairly good cards like most regs do these days (I suggest about 15% of hands in full ring and 20% in 6max) then you are going to have a decent hand after the flop a good amount of the time. Statistically you will make at least a pair after the flop around 1 out of 3 times with a completely random hand. Since you are playing much better than a random hand you will hit the flop even more often than this.

Sometimes though you will have one of those sessions (or even a couple of them in a row) where you just cannot hit a flop, turn or even a river no matter what. On the other hand, sometimes you will have sessions where you literally knock it out of the park every single hand. Curiously we tend to remember the former much more vividly than the latter. That is a topic for another post though. What is important to understand here is that neither of these two events (hitting nothing or hitting everything) are normal.

Also sometimes you will experience a session (or a few of them in a row) where these recreational players will hit every ridiculous draw in the world. We call them "long-shot draws" for a reason though. We all know that mathematically you don't hit a gutshot straight draw very often for instance. It is roughly 11 to 1 with one card to come and 5 to 1 from the flop to the river. Same thing with bottom pair. Guess what normally happens when you call down the whole way with bottom pair? Yup, you guessed it! You still have just bottom pair on the river.

However, just like we discussed above, sometimes they will hit their ridiculous draws with a much higher frequency than they should. On the flip side, sometimes they will hit even less often than the odds would dictate. Once again, we tend to recall the former much more vividly than the latter. And also once again it is important to remember that neither of these two events are normal.

Value, Value, Value

So from a technical standpoint what is the most profitable way to counter the fish who doesn't fold anything? Well clearly trying to bluff them will be the worst strategy possible. We already know that these players love to call with anything and one of the very reasons that they play the game is to catch you in a bluff! Trying to bluff these players is pretty much like kicking the ball directly into your own net.

This is why I stressed above that we need to stay calm against this player type when things aren't going well. This is because the tendency can be strong to get over-aggressive and "make something happen." They can't have it every single time! I will show them what is up!


Their bottom pair is still way ahead of your ace high. And guess what? They are going to call the whole way with it. By attempting to bluff them off of their hand you will simply lose much more money than you should have and also manage to tilt yourself even more!

The correct and most profitable strategy versus the fish who doesn't fold anything is to value bet the living crap out of them. And then value bet them some more! Now it is important here for me to define what I mean by "value bet." The reason why is because this is a relative term. Betting the turn or river for value against most nits for instance requires a very strong hand. This is because these types of players often will not go past the flop without something really strong like top pair, a solid draw or better.

However, we already know that the whale described in this article will call you down with two napkins. So therefore we can lower our standards significantly when value betting against them. Any strong hand like top pair or better is an easy three streets of value. Middle pair can often be good enough for three streets as well versus a complete drooler with no fold button. There are even some spots where we could get some really thin value with hands as weak as bottom pair or ace high.

Super Thin Value!

One of my favorite spots to get thin value on the river versus this player type is on a double paired board like this:


I will always bet the river here with 99, 88, 77, 66 or 55. This is because they will never fold ace high on this board. I will also frequently make a bet here with ace high as well because sometimes they won't be able to find the fold button with king high either. We chop at worst.

Boards where there is an obvious missed draw is another spot where you could go for some super thin value versus a recreational player. On this river for instance:


You could often make a profitable value bet versus the doesn't fold anything fish with Tx, 6x or any pocket pair such as 99, 88, 77, 55, 44 or 33. The reason why is because this player type will often call down with a hand like AK or AQ the whole way here. And with the river pairing a low card they will be even more inclined to look you up. Sometimes they won't even be able to fold the most obvious missed draw here which is KQ. It is important not to bomb the pot in cases like this. We want to toss out that teaser bet of half pot or so which will make them just curious enough to hero call you with their ace high or king high.

Keep Calm and Value Bet On

So I hope this article helped prove useful to some of you guys battling these crazy fish at the lowest stakes. They show up all the time at the NL2 and NL5 levels and frequently in low stakes live games as well. It is important to remember two things when playing against these player types.

1. Stay patient when you can't hit anything and they are hitting all of their crazy draws. Remember that this is not a normal occurrence and these players pay a heavy price in the long run for their terrible play.

2. Make sure that you are always getting full value versus these players with your big hands. Here is a recent article where I discuss this in some greater depth. And my first book, Crushing the Microstakes, is also literally ALL about this topic. But also make sure that you are getting that thin value versus these whales as well. This is about most effectively countering their style of play. We often do not need anything close to the nuts in order to extract value from them.

Lastly, make sure that you look out if they ever do find the raise button especially on the later streets. We often have a tendency to dismiss the actions of fish altogether. But the fact remains that they get to hit their flush, straight and two pair sometimes too. They get dealt strong hands just as often as we do as well. These players are typically about as passive as you can get. When they finally decide to wake up you would be best served to give them a little bit of respect sometimes.

Let me know how you approach playing against huge fish in the comments below!

If you found this article helpful then please do me a favor and share it with your friends by hitting the "Like" or "Tweet" button below!

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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Your Physical and Mental State Affects Your Results in Poker

Mood, mental state and physical state and poker
A topic that gets discussed a fair bit on poker forums, in books and the like is tilt. I have even written about it a few times myself (here for instance). These conversations typically revolve around recognizing the signs of tilt and creating effective quitting strategies. These discussions can be very useful especially for inexperienced poker players who often suffer the most from poor emotional control at the tables. Indeed, as I have stated before, I believe that the number one bankroll killer for beginner level poker players is without a doubt, tilt.

But what if we dig a little bit deeper and talk about how mood, mental and physical states can affect our play and the likelihood of tilting even before we sit down? In other words how about we look at some of the main root causes of the problem instead of looking for band aid solutions? Tilt is going to happen to us no matter what in this game from time to time but it is certainly within our control to lessen it's impact. Professional athletes have all sorts of pre-game rituals and use mental imagery techniques to get themselves prepared. Why shouldn't poker players? If you take this game seriously (and especially if it is your job) then you should be mentally and physically preparing yourself for the grind before you even sit down to play.  

I want to stress here that I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist and I have a very limited academic background in the subject (a few college level courses). However, I have played poker professionally or semi-professionally for about 9 years now so I have had ample experience in understanding how my own physical and mental states can affect my results. What follows will be based on what I have learned in that time. Let's start with some of the more obvious stuff first.

Poker and Nutrition

You are what you eat, literally. Everybody probably already knows this but it bears repeating here. You are going to feel way better about yourself if you choose the rice/chicken, salad and green tea rather than the big mac, fries and a coke. This is not to mention what all those extra calories are going to do to your waistline! "Bad food" is often loaded with sugar and leads to insulin spikes which can affect your mood rapidly. Healthier choices that have more actual ingredients found in nature will often have the opposite affect and provide you with a much more stable mindset. 

I don't want to sound like some health nut here trying to sell you on the benefits of eating right. You already know all this. Everybody does and it is a personal decision whether you heed that advice or not. However, something that I have found as it relates to poker though is that you should always eat a moderate portion before playing a session. Even if you eat healthy food, if you eat too much you will often get that lethargic and bloated feeling afterwards which is not conducive to making the quick high quality decisions that online poker demands. 

This is indeed a bigger problem though with a lot of high fat/high sugar "North American diet" foods that are popular today. They are extremely calorie dense and if you eat out in restaurants a lot the portion sizes are often enormous as well. It is much harder to OD on the chicken salad than a huge plate of pasta. So at the very least, if you are planning a poker session try to make sure that the meal you have beforehand is of a moderate size and of course preferably healthy. You can always snack on something during your session if you get hungry. Again preferably something healthy like apple slices and almonds. Prepare these ahead of time so that you can just grab them out of the fridge during a washroom break. 

Poker and Exercise

Regular exercise simply helps me feel better both mentally and physically in life and improves my mindset and results at the tables immeasurably. Ask yourself this, have you ever done some strength training or fitness and said to yourself at the end, "well that sure was a waste of time!"? No of course not! You probably felt great once it was over. Those endorphins are pumping, you feel energized and proud of yourself. Sure it might have sucked during the session and you may have felt like quitting. But afterwards you always feel a natural high. And then of course there are the long term health benefits and lowering of stress levels which is what directly relates to reducing the impact of tilt.

The problem for most people though is just getting started. They will procrastinate and put off going to the gym for another day. Soon enough of those "another days" pile up and they have all but quit exercising altogether. I know the feeling. We all lead busy lives and it can be so easy to make excuses and put it off. If this is a problem for you then I suggest prioritizing fitness as the first thing that you do in the morning no matter what. I have really taken to this of late myself because I have been traveling a lot and often don't have the easy access to a gym that I normally do.

So in order to make sure that I stay on a regular exercise schedule I do some light strength training and go for a jog on most days as soon as I wake up. And I literally mean as soon as I wake up. I crawl out of bed and start doing some sets of pushups, tricep dips and body squats for 20-30 minutes. I then put on my running shoes and I am out the door for a 30 minute run at the beach, in a back alley, where ever. I try to do this at least 3 or 4 times a week.

I should mention that I typically wake up at 6am and this is a great time to safely run anywhere even if you are in a completely foreign place. If it is raining heavily then I may just do some jumping jacks, burpees or Tae-Bo type stuff in my hotel/guesthouse room. Anything to get the heart pumping a bit. I think music is a great motivator as well so I always listen to something uplifting and inspiring like Trance. I highly recommend Armin Van Buuren's weekly show "A State of Trance."

I complain vigorously to myself on most mornings both before and during these exercise sessions but I always feel like a million bucks when I am done and throughout the rest of the day. Don't allow yourself to make excuses. There is always time in every day for this crucial element in your life and poker. Start first thing in the morning before you do anything else if procrastination is a problem for you. Eventually it will become a habit and you won't even need to think about it.

Everything that I have written about so far was probably a bit mundane and you have likely heard a lot of it before. However, sometimes we need to be told things again and again for them to really sink in. You should also know that nobody is perfect as regards nutrition and exercise. I regularly screw them both up myself. The important thing is to keep trying to create and maintain better habits and if you fall off the train to pick yourself back up and get on it again.

Good nutrition and regular exercise will pay big dividends to your bottom line at the tables by allowing you to think more clearly and thus make better decisions. It will also greatly improve your overall mindset and lower your stress levels which is a huge key to reducing the impact of tilt. Let's move on.

Poker and Your Mood

Understanding how your mood or mental state can affect your game before a session is something that rarely gets discussed but it is so important. Now once again I am not a trained psychologist here so I don't want to dig too deep into real mental health issues such as clinical depression. I don't really have any personal experience with this kind of major debilitating depression either. If this is something that you suffer with though, then you may want to re-evaluate how it affects your game and maybe even put poker on hold for awhile until you get control of it. 

For most of us though it is the more run of the mill stuff like being in a bad mood due to a stressful day or feeling mildly depressed (the normal kind that most people get from time to time) due to some life event or even just feeling lonely. These states of mind can affect your game more than you might think. We all have bad days and I know that on my bad days I am more likely to have a much shorter tilt leash than normal. Whereas it might normally take 5 or 10 bad beats/coolers in a short period to get me off my A or B game on a bad day I might be feeling tilty after just 3 of them. My overall decision making and the likelihood of making mistakes will also suffer on my bad days.

So it is important to recognize your mental state or mood and address it before you even sit down to play. Just because you are a bit short of temper or mildly depressed does not mean that you need to cancel your session though. It just means that after you recognize the problem you decide to allocate 10 minutes before the start of the session to some meditation or mental imagery. Shutting the door and having a quick "time out" of simple deep breathing exercises can often dramatically improve your mood. 

Sit cross legged, close your eyes and start slowly breathing in deeply until your lungs are completely full. Exhale just as slowly and do this 50 times. If you would like some sort of relaxing background atmosphere while performing this calming exercise here is 2 hours of Thai Buddhist monks chanting. 

This simple meditation technique may seem tedious at first but you will be in a much better state of mind to play poker after doing this. It should not take more than 10 minutes of your time and you really only need to do it on those bad days where you feel a little stressed or depressed. Most professional athletes prep both physically and mentally for hours before the actual game begins. Surely you can find 10 minutes to make sure that you are in a relaxed state of mind before loading up the tables. Ideally, do this before the start of every session!

Poker and Substances

This is going to be a bit of a difficult topic for me to get into because different substances affect people in different ways. However, I can discuss what works (and more importantly what doesn't work) in my experience. Let's start with everybody's favorite, alcohol! I had some nights very early on in my poker career that were either very memorable or very regrettable due to playing while inebriated. I have both won and lost several thousand dollars in one evening while playing under the influence. I am (proud to admit?) that I also won my first poker tournament while hammered even though it was only for about 1k. 

Overall, I may have actually been up a little bit in my playing drunk career. But it was after one final night where I had been dealing with a lengthy downswing and tilted off about 2k at 1/2 and 2/4 that I told myself that this needs to stop. Truthfully, in today's tougher games my results probably would have been much worse at these stakes while playing in this state. I simply do not play anywhere near my best if I have had one too many. I play much more aggressively than normal (although this is not always a bad thing) and tilt harder and want to jump stakes if losing. This is why when I chose to take this game seriously and make it a profession I swore off playing while drinking alcohol completely. 

I do not drink and play period. I do believe that there is some truth to the idea that a light buzz (one or two beers) may make some people feel more loose and possibly even play better. I choose not to go down this path at all though. Alcohol and poker can be a lethal combination for your bankroll and it is really easy to go down that slippery slope of feeling the buzz and having a few too many. I am not here to screw around in this game. I have had absolutely zero tolerance when playing poker for many, many years now. No alcohol at all. This is what works for me. 

I personally do not use any drugs when playing poker or at all for that matter either. I definitely don't want to come across as preachy about this topic or belittling those who do though. Many people for instance use marijuana on a regular basis because it makes them feel more relaxed. I think that if this is something that works for you then more power to you. This is something that only you can know and I don't really have much more to say on the subject. 

The same would go for all of those prescription based medications that are popular these days such as Ritalin for ADD. If you feel that this positively affects your concentration at the tables then I would say that it is probably a good thing then. Just be totally honest with yourself about any of these substances. Are they +EV or -EV for you at the tables? 

The same can be said for energy drinks and caffeine. For me personally I rarely drink either of these while playing poker or in general. I will sometimes have a single cup of coffee in the morning but that is all. I am one of those people who gets negatively affected by too much caffeine or energy drinks in my system. However, maybe you are different and it helps you concentrate and think more clearly. Just be honest with yourself and cut them out if they are harming your game or your sleep in any way. 

When NOT Playing is +EV

Despite taking all of the precautions and steps above there might be some days where it is just better to simply not play poker at all. You always have to remember that the games are there around the clock 365 days a year. Taking one day, or even a few days or a week off is not that big of a deal especially if you do not play this game for a living (most of you reading this do not). It is simply more profitable sometimes to not play at all. Recognizing this is another one of those pre-game prepping skills that I talked about above. 

One of the most critical times when you need to be on the lookout for this is during a prolonged downswing. We are often taught to just battle through it and keep your head up during these dark hours. But truth be told, sometimes the best thing that you can do during these periods is to simply limit your play. The reason why is because even if you feel completely fine in your day to day life, these downswings have a way of eating away at us. They lead to negative feelings even before we sit down to play and fatalist and poor decision making while at the tables. 

Sometimes downswings can simply be so lengthy, even for a winning player, that breaking through it could take weeks or even months of big volume. There are very few players who can get in there each day during these periods and consistently keep their wits about them. They are indeed some of the biggest winners in this game. This is not a skill that can be learned over night though. It takes years and years of practice and a deep understanding of the long run nature of this game. This is why it is often better for newer players at the micros to simply take some time off when things have been going poorly for a long period of time. 

This will allow your mind to get away from the game for a bit and stop the negative thoughts and feelings that can have a devastating impact on your play. If you don't want to get away from the game completely then instead of playing you could choose to conduct a thorough session review or database review. Often I make my biggest breakthroughs during these periods and I come away feeling much better and ready to go the next day. 

Another time when it is sometimes better not to play at all is when you are really tired. We all lead hectic lives and sometimes you are simply exhausted when it comes time to play your session especially if you typically play at night. Sometimes the wiser decision may be to take the night off and perhaps watch a training video or read a poker book instead. Again, the games will always be there tomorrow. This is about not knowingly sitting down to play when you know that you are only capable of playing your B or C game at best. 

But more often than not being tired is simply due to a lack of sleep. A lot of people suffer from insomnia these days. I get it from time to time myself. It is important to know that you will not be capable of playing your best on 4 hours sleep. And no amount of caffeine or energy drinks will fix this either. Once again, the games will always be there tomorrow. Use this opportunity to study the game or even just read something totally unrelated to poker. Reading a good book is the best cure that I have ever found for insomnia.

Lastly, we will all go through some difficult setbacks in life such as the death of a close family member or a divorce. It is definitely advisable that you limit your play during these periods or even stop for awhile altogether. You will be too distracted and emotional during these periods to play your best. Poker is just a game. There are much more important things in life. 

Final Thoughts

I hope that this article proved useful to some of you out there. You really get what you put into this game and it often goes well beyond your actual play at the tables these days. And most of your opponents at the micros these days have an absolutely terrible approach to the mental game (i.e., they just sit down and play whenever they feel like it and sometimes tilt off a few stacks when things go bad). Oh well right?

Not alright.

If you take this game seriously and you want to get ahead then you need to start understanding that your mental and physical state are just as important as how well you play AK in 3Bet pots. In fact arguably much more important. People always think that the biggest winners have this secret technical knowledge or mathematical formula that allows them to win so much. No. What they actually have is an ability to be on their A or at least B game literally all of the time when most others coast along on their B or C game and dip into D, E or F when things don't go well.

At the micros you can often succeed by simply not making the same tilt inspired mistakes that the vast majority of your opponents make on a regular basis. This starts before you sit down at the table and fits into an overall positive approach to life. From the very basics of eating the right foods and getting regular exercise to recognizing your mental state before sitting down and perhaps meditating for a little while in order to focus your thoughts and release all negative energy.

And sometimes it involves simply having the wherewithal to recognize when you are too tired, inebriated or in too poor of a mental space to play. Simply keeping yourself from playing the game during these times alone can have a big positive impact on your winrate.

In today's tougher online poker environment you need to approach this game like a professional more than ever if you want to get great results. Most people focus almost all of their energy on getting technically better at the game when at least half the battle simply revolves around being mentally stronger than your opponents on a consistent basis. By focusing some real attention on this aspect of your game for awhile you might be surprised at how much it can affect your results at the tables.

Let me know your thoughts below on how you think your mood, mental and physical states affect your play at the tables.

If you found this article helpful then please do me a favor and share it with your friends by hitting the "Like" or "Tweet" button below!

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

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Inspirational Poker Players - Who is Your Hero?

inspirational poker players
I think it is important to have someone who you look up to in poker especially when you are just starting out. These are people who inspire you to achieve the success that they have and maybe even go beyond. These people have the power to show you what is possible even if you currently have little to no results at all. They also typically display the attitude and work ethic which is necessary for long term success in this game.

My Biggest Inspiration

Nearly all of my play over the years has been online and so naturally my heroes in the early days were almost always online poker players. The overwhelming majority of my play has also been in cash games so naturally they tended to be cash game players as well. The player who inspired me the most was definitely Dusty Schmidt who is better known online as "Leatherass." He was sort of the original mid/high stakes mega grinder on Pokerstars back in the day.

I would read all of his blog posts religiously, drool over his million dollar a year graphs and study and re-study every training video that he ever put out, literally. I actually originally chose to be an instructor at DragTheBar, even though I received offers from much bigger training sites, in large part because he was a lead coach there at the time. Even though it has became cool to bash Dusty in recent years on popular forums like 2+2 because he is a "bumhunter" and a "nit" (have I mentioned how idiotic these people are before?) his impact on almost an entire generation of young online poker players is undeniable. And also, even though I never went on to have anywhere close to the success that he did (although my priorities did change with regards to this game a fair bit) his impact on me was huge.

Present Day Heros

I think there are still many players out there these days who are blazing a path like this for a new generation of online poker players. Doug Polk, better known online as "WCGRider," for instance is now regarded as the best heads up high stakes poker player in the world. I remember the famous prop bets and playing against him at NL25 in what seems like just a few years ago. Randy "Nanonoko" Lew is another great example of what dedication and a great attitude can do for you in this game. He has been a top talent for years in mid/high stakes cash games on Pokerstars and is a long time and very popular member of Team Pro Online.

There are other guys who are much less well known but whose blogs I love reading as well such as Tim Stone. It's become cool to hate on him a bit as well because he uses seating scripts and sometimes types a few words differently than the rest of us. However, this is a guy who has dominated mid stakes cash games on Pokerstars for years and lives a ridiculous life traveling all over the world. Another blog that I love to read is "The Rant" by talented Supernova Elite SNG grinder Aaron Barone. Even though he is an SNG player I still learn a lot from his posts such as his outstanding work ethic and ability to overcome adversity. He is also a good friend of mine in real life so it helps me keep up to date on his current travels as well.

There are many more stories of great poker players these days who can inspire you. I always chuckle a bit when somebody emails me saying that I have inspired them at the micros through my results and blogging over the years. I am flattered by it really because in relation to the people mentioned above I have accomplished very little in this game. However, I am glad that I have had the power to provide guidance to even a couple of you out there. I know that some of the people listed above had a big impact on my poker career. If I can do that for someone else as well, then that is awesome.

Everybody Needs a Poker Hero

I guess the point of this short piece is to say that you should stay inspired by what is possible in this game even during your darkest hours. The reality is that only one person can be the best heads up cash game player in the world. But Doug Polk has shown that with the right amount of dedication and focus that it is possible to go all the way from the micros to the very top of the game. If you play online MTTs then maybe that player for you is Chris Moorman with an all-time best of well over 10 million dollars in cashes.

If you play live cash games then maybe Tom "Durrrr" Dwan inspires you with his amazing bluffs and sixth sense for the game. Or maybe a hardened veteran who blazed paths for all of us like Barry Greenstein or Doyle Brunson is somebody who you look up to. Heck, if you play live poker tournaments then maybe Phil Hellmuth is your man!

Never stop dreaming in this game. Very few of us will ever achieve the results of these people however their power to inspire and show us "what is possible" can have a huge impact on our success. Study what makes them tick more than the actual technical details of how they play the game. Their character, work ethic and ability to see the forest through the trees, to use a tired old cliche, is often what truly makes them great.

All the best at the tables, unless you are at mine :)

If you found this article helpful then please do me a favor and share it with your friends by hitting the "Like" or "Tweet" button below!

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