Punching Myself Repeatedly in the Head

It’s no secret that these days online games are much tougher than they used to be. The phrase “a hard way to make an easy living” was once an epithet delivered with a wry smile, as if we all knew it wasn’t so bad. Now it’s more likely to be said through gritted teeth.

Since losing my Unibet sponsorship I went in search of pastures new, and found myself on a new network. With each new network come new rules, different features, and a slew of new opponents to get to know. Bedding in can take a while.

I reckon it took me about a thousand hands to get used to the fact that you can’t change the colour of the cards so as not to match the colour of the felt. That was a tricky one for me because it seems I parse the number of players in a hand that way. The few extra milliseconds it took for my eyes to flick from one table to another and try to distinguish green-on-green can be a long time when multitabling. The odd c-bet into three other players when clearly a check was in order wouldn’t have done wonders for my hourly.

By three thousand hands or so, I’d gotten used to a couple of other gripes such as not being able to vary my preflop raise amount with a mouse click (in PLO). I don’t think I would ever have gotten used to the pop up which asks me whether I want to auto-post blinds, giving me a check box which says “don’t show this message again” which when clicked doesn’t make a bit of difference.

Moving networks makes one realise just how tuned in the online poker player is. It’s as if the entire flow of the process is so slick that changing the variables only slightly can throw your whole game off. A tiny beat of a butterfly wing at one point can bring on a hurricane of tilt later.

The crazy thing was that I was only playing $0.25/$0.50 PLO. Only three years ago the standard at this level would have been so poor it wouldn’t have mattered how much the new software could throw your game off. In 2012 it’s entirely possible to be up against five opponents at a 6-max table, all of whose stats are hovering around the 26/15 sweetspot (this is PLO, where a slightly looser and less aggressive pre-flop strategy than NLHE is usually optimal).

And so the complexity of the game increases. What Daniel Dennett calls the Tower of Generate-and-Test – a notional edifice of all the knowledge of humankind, layers building upon previous layers – continues skyward for poker. Very little for the time being is halting its growth. These days, if I want to guarantee my hourly it seems that even at $0.25/$0.50, I should be employing some table selection software. What’s worse, as my creaky brain gets older, those occasional mistakes – the kind of mistake that used to go unpunished – will now be quite significant. The ice we’re skating on is so thin that even the slightest slip could be fatal.

Little wonder the tilt monster was often sitting on my shoulder over the last week or so. In one hand, I click raised with top set, hoping my opponent would bluff shove on me (years ago this would have worked), but now he blithely called behind so that he could hit his three-outer. Busy with other tables (remember those valuable milliseconds being siphoned away by the different software), I then failed to notice my stack size and stacked off when I clearly should have folded. I ended up punching myself repeatedly in the head.

As I walked away from the computer screen that afternoon, I thought about picking up my copy of Tendler and Carter’s The Mental Game of Poker. I need to be more disciplined. I need to stop letting it get to me. I’ve got to take it more seriously than I used to.

And then it struck me. No, I’ve got to start taking it less seriously than I used to. There once was a time when getting better at this game was a genuine career move. Now it can only be a question of being as good as the next guy. And when we’re talking about just being as good as the next guy at, say, $0.50/$1 or $1/$2, when you used to be money making at ten times those stakes, that really is a tough way to make a living.

Of course, there are other areas of poker which are still very lucrative. It beggars belief how bad people are at satellites when the skill set required to be good at them is so narrow (or maybe satellites just suit my nitty character). And live tournaments have always been and – I suppose – will always be fishy.

I hope this isn’t the swansong for online cash games: hordes of regs sat in waiting for the next generation of unsuspecting recreational players, hoovering up their hobby money and then having to wait for the next batch. Perhaps it was ever thus, and my only real experience of online cash games was during their heyday when there were so many hobbyists and journeymen that the fish pool fed lazy, flawed creatures like myself.

There are, as I have consistently maintained, other reasons to play poker. There’s what I call the Cheers phenomenon, where a trip to your local club is affirmative because “everybody knows your name”. And then there will always be Vegas, or other such trips abroad to play poker, where the number of recreational players swells the tank to brimming. It’s funny, because for the most part in poker the two camps of fish and sharks are diametrically opposed in their reasons for being there: the sharks are at work, and the fish are there for a holiday, some time to unwind. As I prepare my trip for Vegas, I wonder which is best…