Friday, December 25, 2009

The Keys to Winning Poker

As I've experienced more success with tournament Texas Hold'em, quite a few friends and others have asked how they might become successful poker players. How did you do it, they ask. Because, after all, I'm filthy rich and famous and grace multiple TV networks with my mug. And I'm not just struggling to keep my total winnings high than my buy-ins. Really...I swear. Okay, you got me. Perhaps I'm only barely keeping my head above water, but I'm making money, if not yet a living.

And there's the rub. A successful poker player is not defined as only the player that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. With the vast majority of players losing money, poker success probably is best defined as actually making money, whether one dollar or one million. My path toward relative success follows, and while I recommend ignoring it completely, it is my story.

The Twinstalker Way

1. Remember how you were born to play poker. Selective memory plays a big part of getting started in the poker world, as well as justifying your poker playing to your mom and/or girlfriend. Everybody remembers constantly beating your relatives at "guts" or "in-between" or "baseball." The losses fade from memory, and the wins stand out. As do the compliments from Aunt Marion about how good of poker player you were. He's such a good little player, Barbara, you must be so proud.

2. Play the game. After learning how to play your favorite game, in my case no-limit Texas Hold'em, forget studying strategy and just dive right in. I decided to get an online account and started losing right away. It's fixed, after all.

3. Determine that the only thing that matters is your gut feel. When to bet, when to call, when to's all a gut feel.

4. Learn the game. After excessive losing and having your wins packaged with chat room derision from your online competitor's, it might be time to learn how to play the game with a little. I went out and found a Phil Gordon book that explained the game to me at a very high level. It was the first time I'd learned the relative value of starting hands and heard of pot odds and implied odds. Awesome, I can use my math major.

5. Find a live game. I found this a great way to leave the internet derision behind and receive live chiding and denigration from a number of living, breathing, poker players. My wild-ass, non-strategic betting confused people enough to make my new cash game a winning proposition. At this point, I started to implement my new understanding of "odds" and proceeded to lose $800 on a Monday, $800 on a Thursday, and nearly my life on the Friday when the game was, um, interrupted. I didn't like cash games, really, so at this time I decided to switch to live tournaments, my favorite poker genre.

6. Realize it's not bad luck you're experiencing. This is actually the one piece of advice I give to anyone who asks. I started playing live tournaments in the fall of 2008, my improvement at it has been steady, and one aspect has stood out for me. Almost every tournament you play in, you lose. I won somewhere between five and eight live tournaments in 2009, probably twice the rate someone would expect to win if all players were equal, but it still meant that I lost 95% of the time.

The first time I lost, somebody told me I experienced a bad beat. I thought about it for a moment. Yeah, but what was I doing risking all my chips when I didn't have to. It occurred to me that I made a mistake by allowing someone to get lucky and knock me out. From that time on, I took note of the mistakes I made and realized that I could trace every loss back to those mistakes. Instead of attributing losses to bad beats or claiming to be card-dead, I learned from my mistakes and tended not to make them the next time. This led to much-improved play, better results, and, eventually, gruding recognition from my peers that I've made the transition from dangerous donkey to pretty good poker player.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How to Lose $1100 in Thirty Minutes

Saturday was the poker celebration of the one year anniversary of Running Aces, and the casino hosted an $1100 event that drew seventy-three buy-ins. My success recently had me pretty confident I'd contend for what I assumed would be close to a $20k first prize. Add to that my intent to improve my third-place standing in the Deep Stack Player of the Year Standings, the winner of which wins a place in the 2010 WSOP Main Event, and I surrendered the entry fee without blinking.

There are a couple strategies to choose from for the start of a big tournament like this (deep stack, 20,000 starting chips). Either play extremely tightly and hope for monster hands or push the pace and create a loose table image to use to trap people. I decided to let the table help determine which I would choose. As I walked to my starting table, I noticed a lot of the better players from Canterbury were there, as expected. I started on a table I knew would be broken quickly, and given that, I should have abandoned the second strategy--a table image would have been of little use.

I sat in the 10 seat and during the first orbit noticed the table's very tight play. I let play go round again and then woke up in the cut-off with pocket 7s, all folding before me. The big blind I knew well as a loose player and calling machine with decent hands...someone I'd seen get very lucky when sticking in hands. Not a bad player, but definitely a known quantity. I bet 3x the BB (3 x $100), fold, fold, and the big blind called as expected.

The flop came A, K, T rainbow. My 7s were likely beat, but since I was possibly representing an Ace, I needed to bet if given the chance. The big blind checked, and I bet 500 into the 700 pot. BB called. He had something, either a pair or a draw. I was pretty sure he didn't have an ace. The turn was a 6. He checked again, and I fired 1000. He called. He had a pair. The river was a 3.

This was where I made my first mistake. BB checked, and I realized I probably had him if I bet enough. At the same time, if I bet too much, he was likely to see my bluff. The main problem came with the player himself. If he had a king, he would call almost anything in the normal range, thinking he might be good. Most players wouldn't. Too big a bet on my part depicted a bluff. I was stuck. I decided to cut my losses and check as well. He had a king. So what should I have done? I should have checked the turn and saved myself 1000. I was down to 17,500 instead of 18,500. Every chip is valuable, even early, even in a deep stack.

Next time around on the button, I looked down at A5s with one limp before me. I raised to 400 (4x), and the limper called. An ace flopped, and I played it carefully, but the limper showed pocket aces. I felt lucky to be left with a 16,000 chip stack. Eight hands later, I woke up in the big blind with AQ and called the cut-off's 3x raise. An ace came again on the flop, I check called the flop and turn, and checked down the flush scare card on the river. My opponent again had pocket aces, and I was left now with 11,800.

This was not how I had anticipated the day would go.

A few hands later I called a raise with ATs, not my normal play. My opponent checked the J, T, 5 flop, so I bet 1200, which he called. If he had a jack or an overpair, he likely would have bet. I put him on AK or AQ, or possibly a pair under the Ten. Worst case scenario would be his checking a made set, but I figured I just couldn't keep running into monster hands, and if so, then so be it. The turn came Ten and gave me three of a kind. Only a made set on the flop could beat me, and so after his check I bet $2200. He called. I now decided he slow played a big pocket pair after the flop or had played poorly the whole way with KQ. Either way, I was good. The river came K, he checked, and I bet $2800. My opponent then went all-in.

Was he just plain stupid with AK and now thought he was good with Kings? Not likely. My KQ scenario was not likely, either. His all-in indicated he was good. What else could I beat? I could beat KJ, but I didn't think it was likely he would raise pre-flop or that he would check the flop. There really wasn't anything else beside another pocket aces or pocket queens I could beat. I realized he had either stupidly stayed in with AQ and now had caught a straight or had slowed played a set turned full house, in which case it just wasn't my day.

I just couldn't put him on a made hand prior to his check raise, and I figured if he were playing it stupidly, he could just as well think two pair was good as he could bet a straight. I called with my last 5000, and he showed Broadway.

It was pretty much the ugliest, worst-luck sequence of poker I remember playing, and it happened on an $1100 buy-in event. To top it off, I took my last $200 to the blackjack table, grew it to $700, and lost it all systematically with $25 bets over the course of another forty minutes. I never play blackjack...

I have no idea who won, and after a tourney like that, I figured I would ask after taking off a few days! My play was not good, and that happens every once in a while. Focus and discipline were not there for me. I could have continued to play and wait for a big hand with the 5000 chips I instead donated at the end. I could have saved 1000 on the first hand I played, and I could have folded my A5. All these actions were simple plays a rookie might make, and when I start making those mistakes in a tournament, it's time to take some days off. I'll likely play Wednesday again after three days rest.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Poker, Poker, the World Series of Poker

The Twins are suffering the effects of horrible management, both on-field and general, and the Gophers football and basketball are a ways away from newsworthy. And given this "blogger's" apparent inability to write about his favorite frustrating teams, maybe his severe interest in poker is enough to jump start this blog. So I'll write about poker.

The main question an aspiring poker player needs to ask is: how good am I really? There are three certainties in life, namely death, taxes, and you thinking you're a better poker player than you really are. A general misconception of one's abilities shouldn't be too surprising, given the tendency of players to blame their losses on anything but themselves. Heard any bad beat stories lately?

Actually, one measure of how good you are might be how long it's been since you bored someone with a bad beat story.

So where do I stand in line for future poker superstardom? It's a tough call. My results indicate I'm probably in the top ten percent of Minnesota no-limit Texas hold 'em tournament players. I am average at best at no-limit cash, and once the topic becomes limit hold 'em or any games besides hold'em, I would be considered bad at this time. For that reason, any discussion of "poker" in this blog means by default No Limit Texas Hold'em.

2009 Results
While I would like to brag mightily about my success, you can probably understand why I will provide limited information here. I will give a little background information prior to 2009 sometime soon, but suffice it to say the profit was always negative, and I generally look at pre-2009 as strictly a learning experience.

I will brag about my biggest win of the year, which the government is eagerly waiting to get its hands on. Mind you, I'm all about paying lots of taxes, but it still hurts. It seems I spend all my time collecting poker receipts these days. Back to the success. Running Aces started a new deep-stack tournament this calendar year (1st, 3rd, and 5th Saturdays of the month). At the time the buy-in was $550, and in my first attempt, I took down first place. It was a tournament where I was severely short-stacked with blinds getting big, so when I went all-in four times in a row and got called twice, I found myself with maybe the average chip stack, and I pretty much was in the zone thereafter. I played strongly, withstood the temper tantrum of a poker diva whose main characteristic is nastily chastising those who knock her out, and eventually found myself heads-up against Everett.

Everett is another top 10% player in the state, I have come to find. We played in the same World Series event last week, though his results I don't yet know--he told me he was short-stacked during our first break. Heads-up at Running Aces, I had passed him in chip count, and it wasn't long into our match that I threw out the standard raise--three times the big blind--with pocket sixes, he raised all-in with A7s, and we had a showdown. The flop yielded a 7, but I turned a 6, and I won my first ever poker tournament championship, nearly $8k.

That started a winning stretch for me, and I started to believe I was good and knew what I was doing. But as any seasoned poker player knows, success comes in streaks, and "running bad" is soon to follow. My bad streak culminated in late April at Canterbury during a $340 satellite to the Minnesota Poker Championship when I went all-in with fives, got called with Aces, and threw my cards so hard they landed face down on the floor. As I left, I told the tournament director Eddie to not let me play again that week. I no longer knew what I was doing at the poker table.

Daniel Negreanu is the one I credit with pulling me out of my slump a mere ten days later. I decided to join a poker internet site, one that taught the game, to see if it could help me. I chose Negreanu's It helped immediately, and I haven't looked back since, cashing in nearly every local tournament I've played. With the exception of some horrible luck at the World Series of Poker, I'm still going strong. I flew in from Vegas at 5:30 am this past Saturday, entered the Running Aces deep-stack tourney at 2pm, and took first place at around 1am Sunday morning. Since then I've had a non-cash at Canterbury and a 4th place at Running Aces.

So that's a summary of my 2009, and many of the items I mention in brief here, I'll expound on in future postings, including the WSOP, my recent win, chopping tournament money, running bad, and Poker Bitch. Maybe that's sexist...she seems nice otherwise, and trust me, there a lot of guys with issues, too.