Five ways to pretend to be good at poker

Alex Rousso

Being at the WSOP you can really play some poker. Without the distractions of everyday life back home, for the last four days I’ve basically done nothing but wake up, shuffle around for a couple of hours, then head to the Rio and play poker for 12 hours, come back to my hotel and fail to get to sleep because I’ve been playing too much poker.

The constant stream of players that come in an out of the doors here is fascinating. For a player such as myself, whose bread and butter comes from online play, there is a boon of information simply from chatting to players, seeing their reactions to hands, and just looking at attributes such as style of dress, ethnicity, gender and wealth.

Most of the World’s poker players are recreational. They are (more or less) well-adjusted about their poker habit. They play for fun and their losses are simply a way of paying for what they enjoy – just like any other leisure pursuit. It’s not those people I want to talk about today. If you’re a money making player, you know how to exploit them. I’ve always wanted to know more about what makes people tick in poker when they are money losing and yet believe that they are money making. I’ve had a chance to think about this over the last week or so, and here’s my list of top five ways people pretend to themselves that they are good at poker.

Believe that buying a crown makes you King

Back in the day there was a prevalent belief that if a person had won one major tournament it meant that they were good at poker. We now know better, but that doesn’t stop a lot of people from believing that two wins (or whatever) is enough to maintain the same delusion. Let’s be clear about this: there’s no specific amount that declares you “legit”. For those of you who don’t know what a bell curve looks like, here is one:

Without going into the details too much, this curve shows you how likely events are that deviate from a norm. The norm in the case of poker is how much you should expect to win in the long run. That’s the middle bar, or mean score. Moving left or right along the graph represents times where you performed better or worse than expectation (we are talking here about better in terms of luck, not outperforming yourself in terms of skill). The further you go away from the norm, the less likely an event is to happen (the likelihood of an event is represented by the vertical score on the graph. So to put it simply, unlikely events do happen, but they just happen less frequently.

To put it another way, even if you’re rubbish at poker, you can still win a poker tournament, it’s just less likely than if you’re Praz Bansi. You can even win two or three tournaments (or more . . .), it’s just that it becomes progressively less likely. There is no absolute point at which God turns around and says “OK, that’s it, you’ve won X bracelets, you must be good at poker”. The graph goes on for ever, with smaller and smaller likelihood of said event happening.

To make matters worse, the more tournaments you play, the more likely you are to win – and that’s true even if you’re really bad. Unfortunately, as I’ve said in previous columns, databases such as Hendon Mob and CardPlayer don’t actually record how many times people fail – only how much they win. Hence, bad players are incentivised to enter as many tournaments as they can to get more wins to prove how good they are. This is, of course, great news for the pros.

Believe that straddling in cash games is a money making move (when no-one else is doing it)

Let’s get one thing straight, all other things being equal, straddling – even from the button – is a bad idea. Pros try to get a mandatory straddle going in a game to create more action, the reason being that they are better than the fish in handling situations where the money is bigger; and when they get a big hand, they’re more likely to stack their opposition.

For the straddle to work, a few things have to be in place: (a) stacks have to be very deep (like 300+ BBs) between you and your target; (b) in an ideal world, the straddle would be mandatory, so that you’re at no particular disadvantage putting in more money blind when other players aren’t (in some cases pros will straddle to encourage action, but they’ll only continue to do so if, say, half the table are following suit); (c) your target is the kind of player to play big and get stacked off; there are lots of targets at the poker table who are bad but rarely stack off – playing these guys in a straddled pot is unlikely to be a money making proposition unless it’s a button (Mississippi) straddle, and even then, beware of check raisers and slow players.

At the cash games in the Rio, there’s always some preppy fuck, fresh out of a Boston college who thinks they know it all. They will sit at the table and instantly straddle. Suffused with that Ivy League Wasp hubris that the maths of the situation is all they need to know (it isn’t), they will straddle off dozens of BBs before having any idea about table dynamics, who the soft spots are and what their relative position to them is. This is just wasted money. Until they actually learn what they should have learned before starting to straddle, even though he’s otherwise a great player, this guy is one of your targets.

Nonchalantly tweet/recount at the bar/facebook status update how many chips you have at the end of day one as if it’s an everyday occurrence to you. When you bust out the next day before the money, believe you’ve blown your only chance

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: your tournament career is a marathon not a sprint. Even if you had a six-figure win tomorrow, the chances are that if you’re not careful with your bankroll management, a lot of that money could be donked up the wall chasing further accolades. Take your time and enjoy the journey. Just look at the number of failed novelists, actors and musicians there are in the world. Maybe only one in a thousand makes the grade. If you want to know what one in a thousand looks like, watch an early round of X-Factor. All those entrants, no matter how hopelessly embarrassingly shite, believe they can win their own personal World Series. Almost all of them must be wrong. And not just in that year – over their whole lives.

There is no such thing as your one big chance in poker. True, if you make the final table of the WSOP, it’s very unlikely that you’ll do it again in this lifetime. But if you started out with that as your dream, you’d be better off getting another dream. Just because Western culture bombards you daily with the notion that your personal nirvana is a big win, that doesn’t mean you should believe the hype. Study some Eastern philosophy. Nirvana has nothing to do with riches or wins or accolades or fame or power or any of that nonsense. Take pride out of the fact that even though you get dealt the same cards as everyone else in the long run, they lose money and you win.

Play high stakes poker and suck at it, but believe that you could smash the low stakes

An interesting thing to come out of the Black Belt grading was that a lot of players didn’t actually turn a profit when playing low stakes. This mirrors my experience of having to drop down the levels occasionally – either through bankroll problems or having to change my game a bit and preferring to test strategies when the money’s not so big.

The mid and high stakes games are filled to the brim with players who are not money making, but play at that level because they are convinced that they are there to improve their game. If only they deigned to drop down to the $0.50/$1 or $1/2 for 20,000 hands or so, they might get a rude surprise. Yep, they’re not making money there either.

There’s something peculiarly back to basics about being a money making player at $0.50/$1. If you can’t do it there, I suggest you stay there until you do. Granted, there are things you will need to learn to beat the $5/$10 which you can only learn by playing the $5/$10 – but those things are outnumbered by the basics (such as BR and tilt management, table and seat selection, and so on) which can be learned at a fraction of the price.

Believe you’re constantly getting coolered when it’s your pre-flop hand selection which is at fault

I had a guy at my $5/$5 PLO8 table at the Rio yesterday who was doing the thing we all know so well: damning his luck and cursing the impossible fate of the situations was dealt. Only trouble was, when he turned over his cards, he was showing hands like 9887ss and A677o.

Sure, it’s comical when someone that bad at poker curses their luck just like the rest of us do, but the humanity of the situation was chilling. Here was someone doing exactly what I do when I’m in FML mode. OK, my hand selection is better than that, but when I’m running bad, am I that certain that the hands I’m involved in a 100% pure coolers and nothing else?

We all kid ourselves that moves were “LOL: standard” and that we were on the wrong side of matchups when things go wrong. However, that can’t be the case when simultaneously we feel like such geniuses when we avoid such situations. Which one is right? Pre-flop hand selection is a big factor here. If you want one nugget of wisdom to help with this problem then do this: avoid playing marginal hands out of position (at least where stacks sizes mean you can’t easily neutralise position). Those hands are unlikely to be better for you than break even, and if anything will tilt you or be money losers.

This article first appeared in Bluff Europe magazine.