Thinking Outside The Tank

Tank Man

One thing that poker coaching has forced upon me is the necessity to change the way I think about the game. Any player who’s given any serious thought into the game knows that poker is about playing the opponent more than it is about playing the cards but it’s a startlingly difficult thing to do at the microstakes when opponents barely know what they’re doing themselves. The principle behind the adage about never bluffing a fish is equally valuable when it comes to assessing their likely holding.

One of the first things I did when I started doing sessions with my coach was to cut from nine-tabling to six-tabling so I could spend more time thinking about decisions. I’ve since cut it down to four and I don’t think it’s entirely necessary for me to step above that again in most circumstances, but we’ll reassess further down the line. Even with only four tables at a time it’s difficult to analyse $3.50 turbo S&Gs on a street-by-street basis because so much of the early levels involves betting out and taking the pot with a flop c-bet. It’s not long before you’re into fairly standard push/fold fayre.

One solution that I came up with was to start playing live poker again. Slower action means more thinking time and, with a moderately higher buy-in than my normal stakes at one of my local Friday night tournaments, I expected to encounter a fairly reasonable level of play, at least in part, despite a steep blind structure. I was amazed to find that the standard of live play had plummeted since I’d last set foot in a casino. I sat for the first half hour watching multi-way pots and random bets while people called off huge portions of their stack with absolute junk. Eventually I picked up aces in the big blind and strapped on my safety belt. One loose player in early position who was bad but not a total maniac raised 3xbb and the player to his left called. In a remarkable break with tradition, everybody else folded. I seriously considered jamming for about 80bb (I think it was about 80bb, it was a while ago now) as I half expected a call but as the raiser wasn’t completely horrible I decided to throw in a slightly larger than average 3-bet. The raiser jammed, the guy to his left folded and I called. Naturally a fourth heart on the river killed me.

Couple having romantic dinner
“I call, and so does my darling wife.”

I rebought and was placed three to the left of a guy who was clearly in the middle of a serious session on the pop. I soon found myself with AKo on the small blind and a man, whose name I don’t know but we’ll call him Fishy McLoosedonk for the time being, min raised under the gun. The two players to his left called, followed by one of the waitresses, six people on the next table, half the bar staff, a couple in the Chinese restaurant next door, a pigeon with a gammy leg in the street outside and, finally, the drunk guy three to my right. The two players between us had clearly suffered from some debilitating brain injury that prevented them calling behind – I think even I would have called any two in position when the number of players in the pot had equalled the capacity of Wembley Arena – and I thought it prudent to make a fairly solid raise with Anna Kournikova in my hand.

There was so much in the pot that shoving was definitely a valid option but I opted instead for a substantial raise with the intention of getting the rest in on a nice-looking flop. My raise somehow managed to eliminate all opponents except the drunk guy to my right and the flop was a delicious looking JJ3 rainbow. The question of the best way to get the chips in was solved when my sloshed nemesis started putting his chips together as subtly as Brian Blessed turning up at Anne Frank’s house and asking if the Nazis have found her yet. He was clearly intending to put them in the middle so I opted to check on the off-chance that jamming might scare him off. Sure enough he put me all in and sheepishly showed Q7o.

Brian Blessed

“ANNE! DO YOU STILL HAVE THAT DRUM KIT I BOUGHT YOU?”

The hand bothered me. In fairness, I suppose his call before my 3-bet is okay with position on a lot of random opponents – not that he would have even considered that – but it’s the fact that he would have played it anyway and most of the other players at the table would have played crap like T6o, K3o and 92s (“Yes, but they’re suited”). People had been doing it all night but this was the first pot I’d been in where I’d come up against such a weird holding. In fact, I think it was the second pot I’d been in, the first being when I went busto with aces. It may be a weird thing to say but winning was a secondary consideration. I was there to learn.

In terms of positive expectations in a tournament then I’ll take a donkfest every day of the week. In terms of learning to be a better poker player then it’s even worse than the online micros as it’s very difficult to narrow an opponent’s range and you’re forced to play the board rather than pinning down their likely holding. It makes things a bit tougher in its own way for a microstakes turbo merchant because there just don’t seem to be that many hands when you can play down the streets against opponents with the full quota of functioning brain cells. In hindsight though, I suppose I have to accept that it is what it is, take advantage when I can and be grateful that I’m still able to swim amongst so many fish.

Perversely, there is actually a certain element of ranging in the Q7 hand that goes along the line of, ‘Right then, pissed-up-fucko, you’re playing so many hands that you’re missing that flop so ridiculously often I’ll play for stacks and happily pay you off if you rock up with any sort of holding.” It’s not close to good enough to improve reading skills though and the inclination is to return to the old, very limiting, habit of playing the texture of the flop.

For the record, the sozzled fucknut was cock-a-hoop when he hit his seven on the river but that was fine with me – I don’t really mind bad beats, particularly when they’re being paid for by people who are ultimately handing me their cash the majority of the time when the hand stands up. In fact the guy was amazed that I was happy to laugh and joke along with him as he scooped my chips, clearly not understanding that I just don’t want to scare away the fish. I went out a few hands later when I got AQ in short-stacked and lost to AJ. I mention it not to rattle on about bad-beats but because I’ve seen so many people on the internet recently banging on about how internet poker is rigged and the same doesn’t happen in live games so I’m happy to document their fuckwittery.

Potential Serial Killer
“I like making friends and the taste of human flesh.”

I was dwelling on this a couple of weeks ago when I received a friend request on Facebook from somebody I don’t know but whose name I recognised from the site’s Ace High Poker Group. As he didn’t have the immediate aura of a person likely to hunt me down and kill my family I decided to accept the request and I was very pleasantly surprised a couple of days later when he sent me a message outlining his poker history and asking if I’d like to swap some hands for comparative purposes. A couple of hands down the line and it felt like a mini breakthrough. I’ll often analyse my own hands and try to identify where I went wrong (or occasionally right) but it can be tough without a secondary reference to bounce off. I know that my hand reading is improving anyway, even though I’ve been struggling to get enough off-table work in, but being able to have access to somebody else’s decision making processes and contrasting them with your own is a fantastic tool.

There should probably be some sort of conclusion here. I suppose it’s to suggest that you find a study friend if you’re a microgrinder and don’t already have one. It’s a lonely life being an online poker player, particularly if you’re short of poker-playing friends in the real world. Learning to range your opponent is a difficult skill and I know that I’m still a long way away from being confident with it, particularly during in-game situations, but with access to the experiences of contemporaries, as well as the knowledge of a coach and some focus on opponents who aren’t deranged mentalists, then it’s very clear that mastering this vital skill can only be a matter of time.

I’m also going to plug the benefits of social media in general. Since I joined Ace High Poker Group on Facebook and signed up to the Ranking Hero website I’ve found a coach, I’ve discovered plenty of learning resources, I’ve got fellow players to bounce ideas off and I’ve been pointed in the direction of one of the softest poker sites in the entire universe where the players have already contributed about 0.75% to the cost of my mortgage in the space of two months. There’s also some cracking laughs to be had too, once you’ve ignored the whines about online poker being rigged.

Oh, and play more live poker too. Most people are shit.

First Thoughts

beach poker

I look back at 2015 as something of a success as I managed to tick off a number of boxes on my ‘to do’ list. over the course of the year I was able to perform stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe, spend two months travelling in Australia and learn the fundamentals of improvisation. I also completely destroyed my own record for consuming ridiculous volumes of tea, which I think should be rewarded with a national honour of some description but nobody else seems to be particularly bothered. Among the many experiences I was fortunate to have I also made a very simple and very significant decision which will be my primary motivator for the months ahead; I want to become location independent.

Location independence simply means that I don’t want to be tied to one place, whether it be at work, at home or, in my current situation, both. It’s a switching of priorities to ensure that I can earn my living from a location that I choose rather than work choosing it for me. I want to see more of the world and I want to start yesterday. If I’m going to succeed then I need to be able to cut my reliance on income from my current office job and switch to something more offbeat that I can do primarily from my laptop. After shortlisting a few possibilities, the notion of income though poker crept its way up the list to the point where, in September, I made the decision to pay particular attention to it.

I’ve been playing poker on-and-off for about 11 years now. I started with a few online freerolls at the height of the post-Moneymaker poker boom, read Super System, learned the basics and developed enough to get slightly ahead of the microstakes S&G curve. I even started a local poker club along with two friends of mine who have always been exceptional card players and we developed something of a reputation for being one of the best pub poker schools in the area, though anybody familiar with pub poker will know that’s like making a bacon sandwich in the final of Masterchef and winning first prize because your opponents either made anthrax soup, couldn’t find their way to the studio or were so incompetent that they impaled themselves on a whisk and died. After a sabbatical I started playing again in around 2009 and spent some time absolutely crushing the S&Gs on UltimateBet. After an argument about rakeback I moved most of my bankroll to Pokerstars and went on a losing streak long enough for me to lose heart, give up and cash out the lot for about $1600. Not huge amounts but not a bad return for an initial investment of $40.

The problem was that the game was changing rapidly around me and I wasn’t adapting to suit. S&Gs were being smashed by people who had taken the time to get ICM nailed down while I was still playing a very standard game of tight early and aggressive late. It works enough to get past the fish but better players will still have the lion’s share of equity. I also hadn’t recognised that the player pool on Pokerstars, while undoubtedly fishy at the micros, is – or appears to be – significantly better overall than their counterparts on other sites. With hindsight I think a lot of my UltimateBet profit can simply be attributed to woeful opposition. And Americans. I think every winning online player took a hit to their ROI when we lost American players.

Fast forward to last year, the occasional session here and there just for the fun of it and a graph that was slowly dropping further and further away from the breakeven line. I’d spent time working on ICM and doing some sporadic study on my overall play and I still couldn’t beat the nine seat $3.50 S&Gs, which was hugely frustrating. On the other hand, and I’m undoubtedly on the right side of variance given the format and the sample size of around 400 games, I gave the $2.50 180 seat S&G quite a kicking and I started getting my appetite for the game back.

In September I actually made the decision to try and earn a living – as far as possible – from playing poker. I’ve always loved the game and what better thing is there than being your own boss and enjoying yourself at the same time? I’ve finally got round to getting one-to-one coaching with the excellent Ben Smith and he’s already transformed much of my game. My goal from here is to learn and improve as quickly as I can and be confident about every decision that I make, regardless of the level I’m playing at. Poker has become much more difficult in recent years and I don’t think that trend is likely to change soon, or at least not until we get the Americans back, but as with all walks of life the best route to success in your field is to be an expert in your field. These days that means plenty of structured study time as well as sessions on the felt.

I’m still spending a lot of time on the $3.50 S&Gs because even though I’m confident I’ve got the game beaten, I’m not going to put them down until my results back me up. From a long term perspective my intention is to play MTTs primarily as they’re usually softer fields and I much prefer that format of the game. More specifically, I’ve recently turned my eye towards satellite tournaments. There appears to be a lot of excellent value in these games, particularly at low stakes, mostly because they seem to be brimming with players who are either just downright bad or have no idea about the need to adjust when playing to outlast a percentage of runners rather than just taking it down outright. In short, I’m chasing the easiest money. I’ve also been reading quite a bit of what satellite specialists¬† Willie Elliot and the remarkable Dara O’Kearney have to say, which is very helpful.

Weak satellite tournaments have also given me the opportunity to achieve one of my goals for 2016 in the first weeks of the year – I’ll post the rest later – as I’ve qualified for a package at the Unibet UK Open in April. It’s ‘only’ a ¬£220 buy in so hardly qualification for the WSOP Main Event but it’s a decent start to the year nevertheless, particularly for somebody whose usual grind is $3.50 S&Gs.¬† In fact, the opening weeks of 2016 have been pretty spectacular relative to my normal stakes so perhaps my goal of being location flexible may not be as distant as it initially appears. More of that at a later date though.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, admittedly rather self-indulgent, first post which is intended as a synopsis of who I am, how I got here and the journey that I want to take. I’ll be using this as a benchmark at the end of the year to measure my own progress but I otherwise want to provide content that is accessible, informative and entertaining. I’d love to keep it as interactive as possible too so please add comments, suggestions and vouchers for free curry as you see fit.

MT