Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

Writing and playing poker as if they were activities worth doing well.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Why Do People Write Poker Strategy Books?

I admit at first I found it baffling. Why would you give away the gold? Why did Doyle Brunson write the first Super System, for example?

Well, he did sell each copy for upwards of $100 a pop, if I recall correctly. My guess is that he ended up making a decent amount of money from the books, although probably not much in comparison to his direct poker earnings.

These days there are a lot of other poker strategy books out there, of varying degrees of accuracy, usefulness, and depth. I suppose their authors make enough money from them for their publication to be worth the effort.

Still, presuming that the authors are also players: why educate your opponents? Wouldn't it make more sense to write a bad poker strategy book and lead people astray?

The consensus seems to be, however, that there are some genuinely good strategy books available. Presumably the folks who wrote them know they are good.

There really is only one possible explanation: even if you read and understand an excellent book, it is still extremely difficult to actually put into practice the advice it offers. So, in order to benefit from a strategy book, the following pieces must be in place: 1) the strategy it proposes must be good; 2) you must acquire and read it; 3) you must both be able to and actually do the work required to understand it; and, finally ~ and by far the most challenging item ~ 4) you must be able to execute the strategy consistently.

My guess is that a lot of people start failing around step 3, and that the vast majority of readers who master step 3 never actually succeed at step 4. Playing winning poker is hard, because although intelligence and knowledge are required, they are far from sufficient. There is a large array of other attributes and behaviors, experiences, habits, and attitudes that make a sound strategy effective ~ and that constellation is fairly rare even in the community of poker enthusiasts.

So go ahead: read the good poker strategy books. Unless you misunderstand or misapply their advice, it certainly won't do you any harm. But don't expect them to provide you with The Keys to the Poker Kingdom. It's just not that simple ~ as their authors surely know.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Play On!

Even as I begin the unpleasant process of looking for a source of gainful employment (oooo, no fun!), I'm still making the rounds of my local poker haunts and playing a lot.

Despite one desperately bad session at the Crime Scene Game in which I ran up against a super-hot LAG who COULD NOT LOSE (that, and I made two truly bone-headed mistakes), the Tweak continues to generate good results. Saturday night I played all night at the Ikea Game. The table was exceptionally juicy, and since I have better-than-average mental stamina my skills held up as others' deteriorated. This was an ideal profit-making scenario for me, and so I stayed and played until it was time to go to Sunday brunch. It's been a long time since my last all-nighter, but it was a good judgment call to stay at this game and it paid off nicely.

I wanted to see what a year of poker-playing has done for my skills, so I decided to take The Donkey Test again. I took it a couple of years ago and scored 90. This time I scored 115. Apparently I've learned something in the intervening period, which is encouraging. I'm too cheap to pay for the full analysis, so all I can report is that the test thinks I'm a winner at low stakes. Yep, that sounds about right.

If I continued the learning progression, well, then I'd be a mid-stakes winner in two more years. And THEN I could play poker for a living, right?! Yeeee-haw!


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Nowhere near as bad as I thought...

I was in a pretty bad funk over my online poker results as revealed by tracking software. Nobody likes to suck. But then I realized that I had not included results from my other computer. So I transferred over the hand history files and imported those too. This provided me with a total of 150K hands to look at.

The result: I am, in fact, a breakeven player online. And if I were getting rakeback, I would definitely be profiting.

While this doesn't exactly offer cause for celebratory fireworks and champagne, it is helpful in two ways. Firstly, it confirms my original estimation that overall I'm not bleeding money online. And secondly, it shows very clearly that I was a significantly winning player until my results FELL OFF A CLIFF 15K hands ago in cash games and in tournaments. And when was this?

It was February.

Okay, that's interesting.

Let's see... what happened in February? Well, gee, I went to Vegas and got my ass kicked. My results in cash games, both online and live, have been in the dumper ever since. My tournament results have been okay live, but pretty bad online.

Some of this, I'm sure, is because most of my online play is very late at night/early in the morning, when I'm not at my best. Some of it is probably down to distraction (online play is particularly vulnerable to this, as the computer offers so many potential *oooh shiny!* attention-snags). And if I were a superstitious woman... well, let's just say I could come up with a couple more "explanations."

But I'm not.

So: have I become a much worse poker player in the last three months?

This seems unlikely. I may have been playing less well because I got so badly beaten up by variance in Vegas, but I don't think I've suddenly lost all my skill. And, if anything, I think the last three months have taught me a ton about overcoming tilt. While there's been a great deal of frustration, I think I've actually come to pretty good grips with the hands I've been dealt (so to speak).

I've also noticed, in the past, that when I'm absorbing new information or ideas about the game (say, from reading a book, or having a useful conversation about strategy), my results tend to suffer for awhile as I digest them and try them out in my own game. Eventually, I process them fully, and incorporate them into my game (or not), and the temporary disturbance passes, much like a case of indigestion from an especially big meal. Usually I emerge from those episodes a better and stronger player. It's possible that is what's going on here. I may be having growing pains, and the downswing may be both contributing to the pain and fostering the growth.

The net result of my analysis is this: I've been running really bad, it's affected my play, I'm learning new things that I've yet to fully master, and I don't totally suck.

Sounds about right to me. What do you think?

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Sunday, May 10, 2009


Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.
~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
It's worth noting that, among many other very interesting and almost intractably deep things that Wittgenstein said and wrote, he also admonished:
Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

I choose to persevere

I am pleased to report that Rex55 is blogging again after a period of quiet. Pay her a visit. Her candor is both refreshing and helpful to all those who want to understand what the poker life is really like.

She also appended a quotation to her post. I tracked down the original recording and offer this transcription:
Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it's not. It takes commitment, and you experience plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won't. It's whether you let it harden you or shame you into inaction, or whether instead you learn from it and choose to persevere. ~ Barack Obama, July 12, 2006, (at approx. 6:25 in video)

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Q and A: What Are Your Goals and What Are You Willing To Do To Achieve Them?

Faithful reader Anonymous asks:
Would you be willing to move to succeed? Would you be willing to get a job flipping burgers just to increase your bankroll? Would you sell your car to take a shot at a main event? Think about it. Also, what are your goals? A grinder (like Rakewell) or do you aspire to be the next Jennifer Harmon?
To which I answer:

1) Moving is the big thorny question for me. I'll know I've chosen to go ahead full-throttle as a poker player when I decide to move. It is absolutely the case that I'm not there yet.

2) "Flipping burgers?" That would be a very long, tedious, and inefficient way to build my bankroll. I am quite sure that I could build my bankroll faster playing poker than flipping burgers. And if I need full-time employment, I have to believe that ~ even in a recession ~ I could find a job that pays significantly better than burger-flipping, and is at least somewhat more interesting.

3) No. That would be really, really foolish bankroll management. Even for the most skilled players on the planet, a seat in the main event is a 1/8000 lottery ticket. Besides, my car isn't worth 10K, and I might need it to get to my burger-flipping job. :P

4) I do not aspire to be the next Jennifer Harmon. I will never be an elite tier poker player: I simply don't have the combination of personal attributes that would make that possible. I would, however, be very pleased to be a mid-stakes cash grinder and/or a modestly successful tournament player. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am perfectly content with a low-overhead lifestyle. I would be delighted beyond words to get some kind of sponsorship deal. I would be thrilled to have a degree of success that would increase publisher interest in the book I'm writing. My ambition, while not neglible, is hardly outsized.

Faithful reader Loose proposes that I quiz myself, as follows:
Ask yourself "what have I learned in the last 6 months?", "Am I a better player then when I started?", "Have I acquired the skills necessary at my current level to be a long term winner?", and the most import question of them all, "Where will my income come from? (Atlantic City, The Crime scene Game, One big mtt score a year, LasVegas)
To which I respond:

1) I have learned a lot, some of which I've documented in this blog, but much or most of which I have not. I've studied books and forums, I've reviewed my own play to identify strength and weaknesses, and I've talked strategy with people who I think know more than I do. A great deal of what I've learned has been about poker, and even more has been about myself. It is also clear to me that the learning never ends, and I am well aware that I have to continue actively acquiring knowledge, skills, and experience.

2) I am definitely a better player now than when I began this project. I'm also a better player than I was last year, and a much, much better player than I was two years ago.

3) I don't know whether I've acquired the skills at this level to be a long term winner. I don't have a "long term" valid sample-size of results. During the time I've been keeping records, I am definitely a winning player. Am I ENOUGH of a winning player to live off my poker income? I don't know that yet, either.

4) My income won't come from Atlantic City because it's a big fat zero of a city and no amount of money on earth could induce me to live there. My income won't be earned at the CSG or other equivalents locally because the stakes are too small and the games too infrequent. (That's assuming that I can actually beat the CSG in the long run ~ recent results notwithstanding.) If I'm going to do this full-time for a living, I'm going to have to move to Las Vegas, with its vaunted 55 (give or take) cardrooms and plentiful MTTs. My data currently shows that I am most profitable playing tournaments. It remains to be seen whether that will hold true for higher-stakes, larger-field tourneys. My next trip to Sin City (next week!) will put that question to the test once again.

I will add that I disagree with two of Loose's other observations. Loose says that I have done NONE of the things I could do were I committed to being a pro. I have certainly not done ALL of the things I could do, but I think I have taken many small but important steps to lay the foundation for such a choice. Loose also opines that I am "comfortable in my current situation." That is absolutely, positively not the case. The "current situation" is not tenable for the long haul, nor would I wish it to be; sooner or later I will have to fish or cut bait (wait a sec... there's a better phrase to use here... um... oh yeah! "raise or fold").

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. I am continually struck by the variety of approaches, attitudes, and tones of voice with which people choose to communicate, and I find something valuable and interesting in them all. Thank you for being engaged readers!

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Friday, April 3, 2009

A Good Checklist

Short-stacked Shamus pointed me to a useful checklist on Nat Arem's blog. Here are the basic characteristics that he considers essential for a successful poker player, and my brief self-evaluation for each.

  1. Even-keeled personality. I am not a volatile person. While I have suffered from depression in the past, I have never been a moody or highly-reactive person. Very few things really, really bug me or make me genuinely angry. Like anyone, I can be temporarily frustrated, but it blows over quickly. I am frequently shocked by how emotional and badly-behaved people can get both at the poker table and away from it.

  2. Good money management. This is a strong suit for me. I live frugally, and I very, very rarely truly splurge on anything. It is not a challenge for me to live within my means, and I have no aspirations to rock the balla lifestyle.

  3. Analytical mind. I spend a great proportion of my waking day thinking things through methodically. I love to figure out how various factors contribute to a decision. When I make a mistake, I review the entire sequence of events to determine what I might or should have done differently.

  4. Ability to view money as a tool. This does not come easily for me; I understand the concept, but it goes against my upbringing and previous understanding of the role and purpose of money in our lives. But accumulated experience playing at appropriate stakes is helping me learn to do this, and it is indisputably a vitally important attitude to cultivate.

  5. Overconfident and realistic expectations. Honestly, I'm not sure why Arem phrased his heading this way. If you read the description, it's clear he considers overconfidence to be a pitfall and, in contrast, values highly the ability to accurately self-evaluate and maintain expectations grounded in a realistic appraisal of one's experience. I like to think that I'm good at this, and that my view of my own abilities would match reasonably well with others' more objective assessment.

Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list. I can think of quite a few more (I should hope so, since I'm writing a book that addresses the topic head-on). But it's a useful place to start.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Q and A: Is Poker Academy A Good Way To Learn?

Faithful reader Anonymous asks:
"I was wondering how much Poker Academy contributed to really understanding the game, rather than [what] can be gained from playing low-limit online poker?...Also do you still play Poker Academy?"
PA was very helpful in the early stages of my learning. It was good to be playing with other players who were also trying to learn and took the game relatively seriously (given that it was for play money). Low-limit play for real money at most online sites is generally tougher, though ~ especially at the relatively small number of sites that still accept US players.

Studying (not just reading) good poker books is really important. It's also very helpful to spend time playing live with other players who are trying to get better. I have yet to look into online video training, but I know others find it useful. It is difficult to improve one's poker game without investing a lot of time, effort, and ~ eventually ~ some money too.

As I'm now trying to assess whether I can earn a living playing poker, I play very rarely on PAO (and then mostly to hang out with poker friends). I need to spend my poker-playing hours somewhere where I have at least SOME CHANCE of making actual money!

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Atlantic City Half-Light

I'm going to have to do some hardcore self-assessment when I get home. I may also need to seriously consider finding and employing a really good coach. I don't know whether what I'm experiencing is primarily variance having its way with me, my weaknesses as a player finally showing through, or the product of a bad case of "monsters under the bed" syndrome.

I need to step back and take a cold, hard look at my play and my results. And I'd like to recruit another pair of more objective eyes to assist me in that review. Any suggestions as to who might fit the bill for that will be gratefully received. I'd also be interested in sweating an accomplished and successful player so that maybe I could get some fresh insights into the game.

Continuing as I am now is not going to result in a viable, sustainable professional career. I must improve; I must keep learning; I must do better.

[Update: I came home and filled out my spreadsheet. It turns out that I actually made some money on this trip. And if I had skipped the tournaments, I would have come home with quite a respectable profit. It helps that I did very well in my last session in AC.]

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Thursday, February 19, 2009


Can you take a licking and keep on ticking?*

It's an important question, because if you're a poker-player you will get beat. A lot. Sometimes more than seems statistically probable. But this is the way it goes.

You're playing a disciplined game. You're at the right stakes. You're not making irrational decisions. The table is exploitable; you've done your due-diligence and are clear on what it will take to win. You go and do what it takes.

And you lose.

Breathe, refocus, rinse and repeat.


Take a break, have something nice to eat, talk it over with a poker-playing friend. Shake it off. Return to the table.


Get a good night's rest. Read a little strategy. Go over your hand histories and your play. Learn something and reset.


Make a self-deprecating joke. Do the math on what your overall EV for the last few days would have been over a large sample size. Remind yourself that no small children or animals were harmed in the making of this downswing. Resolve to continue playing as best you know how.


Avoid the people who can't help but display, with gleaming sharp teeth showing through "just-kidding" grins, their share of Schadenfreude over your recent results. Remind yourself that you are 'rolled for just this sort of eventuality. Keep in mind that your goal is to both survive and prosper, and that you will not be able to prosper if you play with scared money or see monsters under every bed.


How ya doin' now? Hunh? Still playing your A game? Still making your best decisions? Still getting enough good food, good excercise, good sleep? Take a few days off, that's the ticket! Come back refreshed and relaxed.


Do you have the mental toughness to continue with this? Are you emotionally prepared to overcome a prolonged period of negative feedback that is legitimately unrelated to the quality of your play? Do you have reserves of good humor, optimism, and equanimity that will keep you from compounding your bad run with bad play, stupid life choices like -EV gambling, alcohol or drug abuse, and the neglect or destruction of valued personal relationships? Do you know how to leave your work, as it were, at the office? Do you know how to bend with the high wind of variance so that you will not be broken?

When they say that poker is a tough way to make an easy living, this is what they are talking about. Anyone of average intelligence can learn enough poker strategy to be a break-even or modest winner at modest stakes. Truly, anyone. But being a long-term winner requires a combination of personality traits and discipline that are rarely innate, but must be cultivated and sustained in the face of adversity. And this is why teh pokers is not ez, and why most people, in the long run, lose.

Go back to the game. Accept that you might lose. Make the right choices anyway.

*There's a highly-skilled online tournament player whose screenname is "Timex." I have no doubt this motto is the reason why.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Stupid Call

Sometimes I despair of myself.

It's the second-to-last hand of the evening. So far in this session I've managed to follow a typical cycle: lose a buy-in, rebuy, grind back to even, get up a couple of buy-ins.

Final step? Implode. (Feh.*)

I was right in my read on the flop, I was right on the turn too; I knew I was ahead. Yet I could have folded when my worthy opponent went all-in on the river. I could have folded and retained a meaningful profit for the night.

But noooooo, I went and made the hero call and learned the bad news: the backdoor flush had come in. (Why do other people get to go runner runner for a flush, whereas I can't ever get the one measly card I need for my flush? +grumble, mutter, kvetch+)

Actually, I give myself too much credit by styling it a hero call. It wasn't a hero call, it was an ego call. I convinced myself he was on an end-of-the-night big bluff and I wanted to pick him off. But considering how wet the board was, I had to completely polarize the hand-range I was against as either something very strong or air. The action on the flop and turn meant I was unlikely to be up against complete air. And while I was right that my opponent didn't have any of the hands that were the most probable winners on that board, I should have given more credence to the flush possibility. Maybe if I'd thought it through a little better I could have found the fold.

This looks like yet another leak to be plugged. Apparently I'm a freakin' sieve.

(*It could have been worse. I broke even for the session. But still.)

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

For old time's sake...

...I just played a few hands in a mid-limit "cash" game on Poker Academy Online.

The room was filled with French players donking it up. The play was so incredibly bad, I mean MIND-BOGGLINGLY BAD, that it's impossible to imagine anyone could learn anything from it.

I need to check out the highest limit (PAX, of course) room again one evening, just to calibrate against my current cash game skills. Because either the players in general have gotten a whole lot worse, or I've gotten a whole heck of a lot better.

Microstakes online for real money is much more demanding than what I saw in that room. Just super-duper terribad.

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