Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Online Poker Timing Tells and Betting Patterns - How to Read and Exploit Them

Online poker timing tells and betting patterns
Some people think that because you do not physically face your opponent when playing online poker that there are no "tells." This could not be further from the truth. While the body language cues that are prevalent in live poker do not exist in online poker there are a number of big clues that people give off which suggest what type of hand they are holding. These are mostly related to their betting patterns and the timing of their actions.

Oddly, there really isn't a lot of good information out there concerning these two topics. I believe that understanding betting patterns are at the core of success in online poker. Players at the micros tend to take the same lines over and over again. Once you have seen them a few million times you can almost play this game in your sleep and profit by simply exploiting them.

Timing tells are also a huge part of sizing up your opponent online. Understanding what they mean also comes primarily from experience. All heavy grinders have encountered at least some of them, the long wait and check, the flop insta raise, the auto turn CBet etc.

In this article I am going to break down the the biggest timing and betting pattern tells that I have noticed from playing millions of hands of low stakes poker on the internet. Let's get right into it!

The Auto Flop CBet

The auto flop CBet is often made by somebody who has a mediocre hand at best. In general people are more likely to put some thought into what action they want to take if they have a big hand. The same goes for a total bluff. You should routinely raise these bets up.

Bonus Tip: If you see somebody auto CBet the flop check how many tables they are playing. Mass multi-tablers (18+ regular tables) often do this simply because they have 6 other decisions going on which are more important. These players tend to just auto CBet when in doubt though as well. Always know who the mass multi-tablers are at your stake and make a point of bluff raising or floating them a little bit more often than the other regs.

The Auto Turn CBet

Once again, this is usually an indication of a mediocre hand at best. It is even more the case on the turn because the bets start to get bigger. Most people will want to think about what to do with a really strong hand or a bluff. An auto turn CBet is usually an indicator of a top pair, small over pair or a draw that doesn't know what else to do. You should frequently raise in these situations even with total air. Make sure you check your opponent's WTSD% first though. You might want to think twice about running a bluff on a huge calling station. As I have mentioned before, 25%+ tends to indicate a calling station.

The Long Wait and then Check

This applies on any street and is almost invariably a weak hand. Your opponent wants you to think that they are strong and that they are setting a trap of some sort. The large majority of the time though, they are just hoping that you check behind as well. When you see somebody do this, always take the opportunity to make a bet.

The Long Wait and then Bet/Raise

This usually indicates strength and lot's of it. Your opponent wants you to think that they are running some big bluff by thinking so long. However, the reality is that the vast majority of players at the micros are incredibly passive and they are hoping that you are naive enough to think that they are bluffing. Fold unless you have a big hand.

Bonus Tip: Once again be aware if your opponent is a mass multi-tabler or not. If they are, then the long wait may simply be the result of them having more important action on several other tables at the time. The same thing goes for a check. Mass multi-tablers at the micros are generally weak/tight bad regs though so be careful if they are betting and especially raising on the big money streets (turn and river). This often indicates a strong hand.

The Auto Call (Preflop)

This is an enormous tell which almost always indicates a mediocre hand. Once again, most people are far more likely to take some time with a really good hand and at least consider a 3Bet. Most people also spend a bit of time weighing the pros and cons of a light 3Bet as well. An auto call however generally indicates that they have some sort of small or middle pair, a weakish broadway or some suited connector which they just want to see a flop with. Use this knowledge to your advantage after the flop.

The Auto Call (Postflop)

Once again this typically indicates a hand of medium strength such as a draw, top pair with a weak kicker or middle pair. You should continue to apply the pressure on later streets against opponents who do this. Be aware that many fish will auto-call the flop just because they have ace high or a gutshot. They may be confused and think that they are playing Limit Hold'em where peeling the flop extremely light is completely standard. You should refer to their fold to flop CBet% stat and barrel them liberally if it is low.

Timing Tells and Betting Patterns, Online Poker
The Flop Donk Bet

The flop donk bet (a bet into the preflop raiser) has been a hallmark of bad poker players since the dawn of time. I actually wrote an entire article about this specific play awhile back. When a bad player makes a bet into you on the flop (typically small), this is almost always some mediocre hand at best. If I have any sort of equity at all (as little as a gutshot or some overcards) I will literally always raise these up. Keep in mind that there are some good players at the micros these days who are starting to realize that having a reasonably wide donk betting range (and of course with a normal bet size) is actually a good thing. Versus these players you will need to be a little bit more careful.

The Auto Call and then Small Lead Into You on the Turn or River

This generally indicates some sort of mediocre hand as well. A few years ago some dorks (probably on 2+2) came up with the idea of a "blocker bet." Basically this is a small bet meant to slow your opponent down and get you a cheap showdown or a chance to complete your draw (don't do this by the way). I have been raising these up no matter what I have for years with great success. Keep in mind that weak regs will fold to your raise but sometimes you will need to fire another barrel versus fish because they don't fold draws or pairs very easily of course.

The Turn Check/Raise

This generally indicates huge strength at the micros. Once again, players at these stakes are by and large extremely passive. There is no way that a player like this is going to take a line this strong with a draw, weak made hand or a bluff. For the most part you won't find regs who are capable of making this play until the mid stakes. Therefore, if your turn double barrel gets check/raised and you don't have a monster yourself, save yourself some money and make a fold.

The River Check/Raise

Same thing here except it indicates even more strength (i.e., always the nuts). Unless you have a huge hand you should never look these up. I have only successfully called a river check/raise on a handful of occasions over the span of millions of hands at the micros. They were all against a few of the very best players that I have ever seen at these stakes who I also had a significant dynamic with. 99% of players at the micros are simply not capable of showing up here with a mediocre strength hand or a bluff. Once again, do your winrate and your bankroll a favor and never call here without a monster.

The Insta River Check

This is usually a weak hand. Most people are going to give it some thought if they have a hand worth value betting with. They would also likely spend some time thinking if they had nothing and wanted to bluff. So what does this leave us with? Weak top pairs and middle pairs that just want to see a showdown as well as busted draws that decided against bluffing. You should almost always take this opportunity to make a bet unless you are up against a huge calling station.

Bonus Tip: Versus weak/tight bad regs this is a great spot to consider an over-bet bluff or even an all-in bluff. These are the types of players who will not put in a significant amount of their stack without the nuts. We know that they generally have a weak made hand at best when they insta check the river to us. If you think there is any chance that they look you up with a normal bet size, then make it easier for them to fold by over-betting or simply shoving.

Preventing Yourself From Giving Off Tells

As we saw above there are a plethora of tells that online poker players give off. Clearly it would also be in our benefit then to try and not give them off ourselves. So what can we do? Well two things:

1) Use the same amount of time for all of your decisions

How to read and exploit online poker timing tells and betting patternsNow I don't mean for stuff like preflop folds. I mean any decision when you VPIP (i.e., play a hand). Don't take an extremely long amount of time for any decision but don't insta act either. Use the same amount of time whether you are betting, raising or folding and nobody will ever be able to get a timing tell on you. And never use the auto-call or auto-check buttons. These are enormous tells that I didn't even cover above but I am sure you can realize how bad they are.

2) Vary your betting patterns

As I have discussed before, you need to be taking different lines versus the better regs at the micros these days. These are the players who are likely to understand some of the betting patterns that I discussed above. These are also likely the players who will be aware of your individual tendencies. By mixing things up and taking different lines in the same situation you will become impossible for them to read.

Summing Up

These are a few of the top online poker betting patterns and timing tells that stand out from my experience. It is important to know these basic cues because they often allow you to take action without the need to refer to your HUD or even your own hand in some instances. As I have talked about for years on here (and in my videos and books as well) winning poker at the micros is about understanding the lines that people take. It is not about understanding a set of math formulas.

When you add in the timing tells that nearly all players at these stakes give off as well, you can read your opponents in online poker just as accurately as you can in live poker. Understand the betting patterns and timing tells of bad players and you can practically call their hand.

Let me know in the comments below what you think of these betting patterns and timing tells. Is there anything that you would add?

If you found this article useful please share it 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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

How to Play Draws at the Micro Stakes

Playing Draws at the Micros
I have been meaning to write an article on playing draws at the micros forever now so here it finally is! The reason why is that people ask me a lot about these particular situations. The "common knowledge" for quite awhile now has been to play draws fast versus most regs and even some fish. This is not bad advice. Any time we do something that makes us appear more aggressive that is definitely a good thing. And the beautiful thing about most draws is that they give us some reasonable equity to put in our back pocket as well.

So overall there is nothing terribly wrong with this approach. It is far better than the old school way of calling like a donkey every time you hit a flush or a straight draw and hoping to hit. In other words only giving yourself one way to win the pot. We should always be looking to give ourselves as many ways to win the pot as possible in poker and this is why calling postflop is not always the best option.

However, what many of the biggest winners understand in today's games at the micros is that tailoring your actions versus each specific opponent and situation is the real key to success in playing draws or in any other scenario for that matter. The specific opponent and the specific situation are what matters.

So for instance versus some ridiculous nit at NL2 it might be best to just call with a draw if the math and implied odds are there. This is especially the case on a broadway type board that smacks his (extremely tight) range. He probably has TPTK+ a lot of the time and isn't folding. So by raising with our draw we would just be putting money in bad and potentially pricing ourselves out should our opponent choose to re-raise us.

However, versus many of the weak/tight TAGfish that you see all throughout the micros raising with our draws often does make a lot of sense because they will have a wider range and they don't like to go to showdown without the nuts. This is especially effective when we are in position and can apply even more pressure on later streets.

Lastly, versus many of the good, solid and aggressive regs (i.e., the real TAGs) in today's games issues of balance come into play. So some sort of mix between raising and calling with our draws and the occasional big multi-street bluff will probably work out best. Again though, board texture, position and history with these players in particular will play a vital role.

In this article I am going to look at a couple of common scenarios with a draw at the micros versus a reg and talk about the best line to take.


Hand #1

NL2 Full Ring

Villain ("The Ridiculous Nit"): 10/6/2 (VPIP/PFR/AF)

Key Stats:

  • CBet Flop 50%
  • Fold to Flop CBet Raise 50%
  • Fold to Flop Float Bet 100%

Villain raises in EP

Hero calls on the button with J♥T♥

The flop comes

A♥8♥K♣

Villain CBets

Hero???

Discussion:

So in this spot we called preflop with a suited connector in order to outplay a terrible reg in position. We did this because he has massive glaring weaknesses in his postflop play.

By looking at the stats above we can see that he only makes a CBet on the flop 50% of the time and he folds half of the time when raised (50%)! We can also see that when he fails to make a CBet on the flop he is folding 100% of the time when somebody bets in position. It should be very obvious that this is a profitable situation for us. We will bluff/raise a fair bit on the flop when he CBets and we will bet every single time when he checks to us no matter what we have.

As we can see in this particular example though, villain does go ahead and make a CBet. We flopped a big draw with the flush and gutshot (12 outs). What should hero do?

Hero should call. 

We have already established the fact that this player is incredibly fit or fold after the flop. He is also on a very tight range (10/6 SuperNit). This flop (with the ace and the king) smacks a tight range extremely hard with hands like AK and AQ for instance. We need to realize that when a player like this continues to show aggression on a flop like this, he is going to have a solid piece of it quite a bit of the time.

Not only are we not getting these hands to fold but we could face a re-raise which is the absolute worst outcome of all. This is because we have a huge hand but would be putting money in bad by continuing. Our 12 out draw here is a statistical dog versus AK and AQ for instance.
How to Play Draws at the Microstakes

For all of these reasons we should realize that fastplaying our draw is the wrong answer versus a player like this, in this situation.


Hand #2

NL10 6max

Villain ("The TAGfish"): 20/16/2 (VPIP/PFR/AF)

Key Stats:

  • 3Bet 4%
  • Donk Bet 20%
  • WTSD 21%

Hero raises in MP with 8♣9♣

Villain calls from the BB

The flop comes

J♥T♦2♣

Villain donk bets

Hero???

Discussion:

So in this spot we made a fairly typical open from MP and got called by a bad reg in the big blind. Typically we would put this player on a bunch of pairs that he is set-mining with and a few broadways or big aces that he didn't know what else to do with. As we can see this player only 3Bets at 4% which is definitely on the low end for 6max.

Anyways, in this particular example we flop an open ended straight draw and he donks into us. What should hero do?

Hero should raise

This should be a pretty straight-forward spot to raise against a player like this. First of all his donk bet is fairly high for these stakes at 20%. This means that he is leading into us with a lot more than the 'set or better' range of most nits in these games.

Secondly, typical of TAGfish we can see that he doesn't go to showdown very often (21%). We don't really expect him to fold his AJ, KJ, QJ and AT type hands all that often on the flop to a raise. However, we do expect him to fold them a lot on the turn and/or river when we apply additional pressure (whether we make our straight or not).


Hand #3

NL 50 Full Ring

Villain ("The Real TAG"): 18/16/4 (VPIP/PFR/AF)

Key Stats:

  • 3Bet 10%
  • Fold to 4Bet 55%

Hero raises from the CO with A♦5♦

Villain 3Bets from the BTN

Hero calls

The flop comes

3♦7♠T♦

Hero???

Discussion:

We make a standard open preflop and get 3Bet by a TAG who is also in LP. This is very suspicious from a 10% 3Bet player. His range is so incredibly wide here. We could quite easily just 4Bet here (and we would a lot of the time especially since he folds a reasonable 55% of the time) but we decided to just make the call this time in order to balance our actions versus a good, thinking opponent.

*Please note that calling out of position with a hand like this is very player specific and I would never do it versus the villains in the two previous examples.

With this preflop decision we intended to take various lines to try and win the pot after the flop regardless of the board versus this player. Because as you should know, calling out of position with no plan to win the pot when you don't catch a piece (which happens most of the time) is a recipe for winrate suicide. The fact that we managed to flop the nut flush draw in this particular example though is a huge bonus. What should hero do here?

Hero should donk bet

Versus good players you should always be thinking about which lines allow you to get the last bet in (i.e., the all-in bet). This is because there are a lot of head games and bluffs that go on amongst good players but in order to call off your stack you actually have to have a hand. So one of the main reasons that I like the donk bet line here is because if he raises it allows us to shove (remember this is a 3Bet pot) and absolutely force him to have top pair or better.

Versus good players at these stakes it is important to mix up our play a fair bit also. I want this particular player to know that I can check/call in a spot like this as well so I will take that line from time to time as well. I am not a huge fan of the check/raise line in this particular scenario though. Why? Because as I just mentioned it allows him to potentially get the last bet in.


Final Remarks

I hope you found this discussion useful. The main point to take away here is that playing draws at the micros, especially versus regs, has everything to do with tailoring your play to the particular opponent and the particular situation. You could just fastplay the heck out of them and do ok because blind aggression still works great at these stakes a lot of the time. However, this is no longer the optimal approach. For those of you who have read my latest book, Modern Small Stakes, you will know that finding the right line versus a particular opponent and situation is the central focus.

I need to mention also that I in no way claim to know everything about this game or be some sort of poker genius. If you think that another line is better in any of these examples then please explain why in the comments below. Or if you have any questions about any of the discussion above then please feel free to leave a comment as well.

As always, thank you for reading and if you found this article useful please share it with your 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, October 9, 2014

Having a Winning Mentality in Poker

I rarely mention the mental side of the game on this blog. I have talked about tilt on a few occasions before. However, the mental side of the game runs a lot deeper than that. One aspect that I want to touch upon today is having a winning mentality.

You may have heard me talk before about knowing that you are the best player at the table any time you sit down to play. Now I don't mean this in a literal sense. As we know, skill can be very difficult to determine in poker because it takes such a huge sample to get long term results on ourselves much less anybody else. Also, you don't actually have to be the best player at the table in order for it to be a profitable spot. You just need some players that are worse than you, preferably far worse.

But what I am really talking about with this statement is a belief (or a deep inner confidence) in your abilities. You should know that a simple belief in your own abilities can take you very far in this game. Often this is the difference between top players where the edges in actual knowledge about the game are very small. This is because having a belief in your own abilities allows you to see the game more clearly and make better decisions. One of the biggest obstacles that downswings present is the complete opposite which is a lack of confidence. This causes people to always fear the worst and think negatively about future results.

When you expect to win instead, then you will see opportunities for success and take them. This might be in the form of pouncing on the chance to take on a fish at a stake which is higher than you would normally play at. It could also simply mean making a bold play against a reg because you feel that he is weak in a certain spot. Having a winning mentality simply allows you to loosen up, think more clearly and be your best self at the tables. So how can we develop this attitude?

It All Starts From Within

I don't mean to get all Dr. Phil here but I think that if you have a solid self image in other aspects of your life then it will spill over into your poker game as well. You should think highly of yourself (although not to the point of narcissism) in everything that you do in life. If you struggle with this then at the very least you should try "faking it until you make it." That first date or that job interview is going to go way better if you aren't full of negative feelings about how you might screw it up. Instead focus your energy on how much you will crush it.

The same goes for poker. Even when mired in a sick downswing it is very possible to still approach the tables each day with a smile on your face and an expectation that today will be different. This is due to a deep inner confidence in your abilities. This can also be the case even if you don't have the past results in poker to back it up. This is because the attitude that you bring to the tables is something that is 100% under your control. And if nothing else, convincing yourself that you are a great player even with no results to back it up is still a far better approach than the hopeless, expecting to lose attitude that most people will bring to the tables in a situation like this.

Preparation Breeds Confidence

One of the best ways to instill this winning mentality in yourself even if you do not have a history of success in poker is through your preparation. Many MMA fighters will tell you that their training is way harder than the actual fight itself. This allows them to feel more relaxed going into a fight and focus purely on the mental side of the sport.

Winning Mentality in Poker
It is the same in poker. If you are well prepared in studying all aspects of the game from your own database to books, training videos etc. then playing the game will be the easy part. This doesn't mean that you should spend hours upon hours every single day studying the game. I mean if you have the time for this, then great but most people don't.

However, in the time that you do have, you should use it effectively. So this means that if you are reviewing your own database or sessions that you are using the right metrics and looking at the right information. If you are watching training videos make sure that you are taking notes and asking the coach follow up questions on the forums or in private afterwards.

In short, do the work that is necessary to prepare yourself for success in today's games and you will already have a big leg up on your competition once you sit down at the tables.

Develop a Winning Culture

Lastly (and you may have heard me mention this one before as well), is to develop what I call a "winning culture." What this means is having a history of success in the game. There is nothing that is going to instill more confidence in your abilities than to be able to look at a graph with a big sample size where you absolutely crushed it. You just can't beat cold hard facts.

So this starts off by playing in games that you can beat. If you aren't beating your current limit and you have been playing there for a considerable period of time (several weeks or more) then maybe it is time to consider stepping down. One of the biggest components of success in poker is the ability to tame your own ego. There is always somebody out there who you can beat and there is always somebody out there who can beat you. Find the ones that you can beat and play with them on a consistent basis. If this means that you need to play for pennies right now then so be it.

And of course finally, track your progress! If you still aren't using a poker tracking program and are serious about online poker at all, what are you thinking? One of the main uses of these programs (above and beyond all of the highly useful data) is the ability to track your own results. "I think I am about breakeven" is not a good enough answer anymore. Get a poker tracking program and let it properly take note of your results for you. Therefore, if things aren't going well you can finally stop deluding yourself into thinking that there isn't a problem. The numbers don't lie.

I hope this article was helpful for some of you. It might seem like a small thing but I can tell you from experience that when I am on my "A-game" with my attitude at the tables I always play my best. Our attitude is absolutely something that we control when we sit down to play and it can have a huge impact on our decision making and emotional control as well. You owe it to yourself to give yourself the best shot to win. Next time you play start working on developing your winning mentality!

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.

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?

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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.