06/01/2009

Is the Money Disappearing Out of Hold'em?

Alex Rousso

An old timer at the Vic in London once told me about a game he used to go to in the Seventies. The workers from the North Sea oil platforms would be on shore leave for a few days and there would be a game greeting them. You can imagine the scene: burly men, pockets laden with danger money, and a few days of escape from their windswept home floating in the middle of the bitter cold sea.

Little wonder my friend would drive all the way to Lowestoft for the game. He said it was carnage. Compare this with a medium stakes tournament of any decent card room nowadays. Sharp, taciturn players – barely communicative; shades, baseball caps and ipods with Bose headphones. They haven’t read Harrington, they’ve memorised it.

What the hell happened? I can’t claim to have been there at the beginning, but it’s obvious that the change has been a considerable one. Even in the supposedly good old days, selecting your venue and table would have been key to making a profit, but in the current climate, it’s absolutely paramount. What is the state of the poker nation, and what can a player do in the new order?

How it all started

Ironically enough, the change stems from the boom that brought so many new players to the game. Whether online, in the traditional bricks and mortar card rooms, or tucked away in home games, the explosion of poker has done more than bring new fish to the table. Once a certain critical point was passed, there was a new found marketability of poker-related products. This in turn led to an information explosion around poker.

Books were no longer self-published labours of love in shoddy packaging, many of them by players who excelled at poker, but whose writing skills left much to be desired. Game enhancing applications mushroomed on the internet – head-up displays to work out odds, databases tracking players’ results, play-money games so newbies could learn without getting burned.

In short, the poker industry reached a tipping point where the price of getting good at the game decreased dramatically. By extension, the price of being bad at the game increased. So not only were would-be decent players better incentivised to improve their game, the bad players were punished more heavily – meaning they too should get better, or perhaps give up.

What next?

Does this mean that the pond will eventually dry up, the fish will flap off and die? Whether the poker “market” self-corrects so that the fish and the sharks stay in equilibrium is an interesting question, but here is not the place for an in-depth analysis of that. More pressing is what players should do about it. Many pros to whom I’ve posed the title question above have shown relatively little concern, and perhaps at the stakes where nobody is going to lose their house – or even their holiday – the live ones will always be live.

However, from my own personal experience, I find that the $1/$2 cash game hold ‘em tables online, historically the highest level where one could absolutely guarantee an easy game, have toughened up over the last few years. In general, more raising and reraising pre-flop, and fewer players seeing the flop, means less easy money to be made, and on most sites that I’ve played, that seems to be the trend.

Of course, there are weak players all the way up to the $25/$50 tables and beyond, if you have the bankroll and the stomach for the action. But the volatility of the game means that you could find yourself many thousands down before you have to admit to yourself that these pastures ain’t so green.

Think you’re making money? Think again

The problem here is that good or bad cards are such a significant factor in poker – especially in tournaments – that a player could take up to a year to discover that they’re not making money any more.

The volatility of results is constrained by two factors: the randomness of the game, and the difference in ability between opponents. Perhaps the biggest misconception in poker is when a player mistakes a good run of cards (the randomness of the game) for a significant edge over their opponents (the difference in ability).

Say you’ve had a good run of results; you’ll want to know how much this is down to the cards, and how much is down to your skill. Unfortunately, this is something that cannot be hypothesised – we can make a guess, but only cold, hard stats will give us answers. To make things doubly complicated, the randomness in the statistics (gleaned by recording results) is itself affected by how good you or your opponents are. So not all games will yield the same results, and not all games will be equally easy to beat, but either way, it will take time and analysis to know the relationship between the two.

Some examples might illustrate. A Professor of Mathematics might run rings around a five year old child when it comes to understanding the probabilities involved in tossing a coin, but if they staked money on the outcome, the elder would not turn a profit in the long run (assuming he offered the child a fair deal!) At the other extreme, a county level long distance runner might seem, at first glance, to be very similar in standard to an Olympic gold medallist, but if they ran a marathon against each other, we would expect the Olympian to win virtually every time.

So although luck plays a role in the volatility of results, certain games will show less long-term volatility, by virtue of how much better one player can be than another at that particular game. To reiterate my point, I’m claiming that whereas once upon a time, Hold ‘em might have been such a game, it’s questionable whether it still is.

At the Lowestoft game back in the good old days, my friend’s edge came from the fact that his opponents were lucky to know what time of day it was, let alone whether they had the odds to call all in with bottom pair. Nowadays, if you’re at the final table of a tournament, what edge do you have if half the players there are thinking about their equity if they go all in from the cut-off with Ace-Six offsuit? You may be better than these players, but how much? How much will that superior skill tell in this particular situation?

In it for the long haul

The answer is, unfortunately, not a lot. Maybe in the days of Doyle and T – 2 suited there was a big edge, but not today. Most players consider ten or maybe twenty thousand hands a good yardstick for evening out the “luck” factor. It’s a moot point, but I’d say the true figure should be upwards of fifty thousand hands. In tournaments it’s higher in hand-equivalent terms because results are skewed by the luck factor towards the final tables. Think upwards of 500 tournaments of the same buy in to start building a picture of whether you’re the next Ivey or Negreanu.

If you don’t believe it, go to Sharkscope.com and have a look at some of the results of the more proficient SNG players. You’ll need to pick someone who has played a few thousand SNGs of the same kind – using the leaderboards will help. If you look at a graph of their results (remember, these are money making players over the long run), you’ll see that they can suffer from downswings of over 60 times the buy in. That’s for SNGs; imagine the volatility for multi-table tournaments.

For live play, it’s true that a good reader of the game has a much more significant advantage over the weak player than online. However, even for live games, I would only halve the above figures. In other words, about four months at 40 hours a week, or more than 250 live tournaments to get an idea of where you’re at (which is more than a year’s work for most pro tournament players). It’s a tough job, but...

Go West, young man

It’s not all bad news, of course. The very resources that ramped up the standards can be used to your advantage. Regardless of what you play, there is a decent poker literature out there for your game. Even rarer games like Razz and Omaha hi-lo are decently represented. Although nothing should be taken as gospel, it is very handy to have the results of hundreds of hours of professionals’ thought, or millions of computer simulations at your fingertips. Not having to reinvent the wheel here has saved many a player thousands.

One of the most important disciplines in a pro’s repertoire is game selection. Certain websites and applications can actually scour the net on your behalf, looking for juicy cash games. In general, bigger pots and more players seeing the flop mean more fish and more money. However, just because a table is wild and aggressive, it doesn’t mean you’ll make money there; stay aware of the kind of table that’s good for your playing style.

There are similar applications for tournaments. Sharkscope is great for SNGs, and Bluff’s own MTT database – “thepokerdb” will help you assess whether your opponent is really a shark in fishy clothing. These same applications will bring to your attention where you should be playing. It is said that rooms which are offshoots of the larger gambling companies (such as Bodog in the States, or Pacific in Europe) have fishier players.

It’s also about knowing how to use the technology to your advantage. Many players know about table selection in cash games, or tournament selection, but how many have the discipline to sit down, do the maths and act on their findings? Record your results and look for tables and tournaments which will pay off your particular style.

It’s in the game

In addition to sites and tables, you can always change games. If the professionals on Full Tilt are anything to go by, Omaha is a potentially more lucrative game than Hold ‘em these days. Games with professionals sat at them appear in red in the lobby. On any busy night compare the number of red tables in the Omaha lobby with the Hold ‘em one – it tells an interesting story.

However, even that can change in a matter of months. About a couple of years ago Pot Limit Omaha Hi-Lo was the fishiest game in town, and there was plenty of action, even on the $2/$4 tables. Slowly but surely, the good players smelt the blood. The $1/$2 games still exist now, but you’ll have to select your tables wisely to turn a profit.

It does take time to learn another game, but there are rewards for doing so. Other skills are more prominent in the different variations of poker (counting outs in Omaha, or remembering cards in Stud, for example). You might find that other games suit your style more. If you’re a tight, nuts-only grinder for example, you’ll love Omaha Hi-Lo!

Whether there is still a lot of money to be made in Hold ‘em is open to question. However, asking that question of yourself will always lead to you improving your game in the long run. First, it will lead you to look at your results. Second, it will get you to assess honestly whether those results are down to a good run of cards or good old fashioned skill. Third, it will make you keep an ear to the ground where the poker community is concerned – there are always greener pastures, it would be a shame to miss out!

What game is right for me?

Cash games v Tournaments

Most online players actually plump for tournaments (the ratio is over 5:1 for most sites) – maybe we’re all glory chasers at heart. If you’re good at varying your game, and not cracking under pressure, play tournaments. If you’ve got the patience of Job and study opponents well, (and as some would argue, have to pay the rent) opt for cash games.

SNG v MTT

Some players are SNG specialists. You’ll find that most of them play turbos – such is the need for a high turnover of entries to show a long run profit – the slower SNGs do not yield a high enough return. A special understanding of the game is needed to flourish here, you’ll need to know your odds! Multi-tables are perhaps more fun, and require a wider range of skills, but have more volatility results-wise.

Omaha v Hold ‘em

The popularity of Hold ‘em is down to two things – how easy it is to pick up, and how television-friendly it is. There other variations of poker may not have such accessibility, but many players still get caught by the Omaha bug: imagine – instead of any two cards winning, now any four cards can win! Be careful – this is a treacherous game. An acute knowledge of when to bluff, and good mathematical ability will reap rewards.

Omaha Hi v Omaha Hi-Lo

Although still a relative backwater, the hi-lo variant of Omaha is slowly snowballing. As players get more sophisticated, perhaps more will become attracted to the complexities of four-card poker. With its split pot potential, Omaha Hi-Lo makes players feel there’s no downside to calling a bet. Maybe as a result of this, when the water’s good, there are very few games that will pay you as much in BBs per hour. The secret is to find a fishy game – otherwise it’s a nutsfest and you’re probably wasting your time.