Sunday, September 13, 2009

Close Shaves, or: The Better Part of Valor

The difference between winning and losing poker can be razor thin. Just getting to the point of breaking even at this silly game can be an achievement. It's been estimated that 80% of all poker players are losers over the long run, with just 10% breaking even, and only the top 10% showing a long-term profit. No wonder the game can be so damn frustrating; the odds are pretty long that you make money at it.


I've been pondering this whole razor-thin-margin thing a bit lately. I been reviewing my poker tracker stats, with a focus on shoring up some leaks and improving my win rate. During this introspective process I discovered a few interesting problems and a couple of odd statistical anomalies. I've also noticed that I'm not a losing poker player, but I vacillate somewhere between break-even and winning. Witness a plot of my last 30K hands of no-limit cash games. The good news is that I'm up $250 over the course of those hands, but there's some bad news to report, too. In simple terms, I experience relatively long periods of barely break-even poker.


Look at the first 11K hands, for instance. During this stretch, I barely made ten bucks. I was up nearly $95, but I gave almost all of it back. Then, from around 14K to 19.5K, the same thing happened. And then again, from about 21K to 29K. What's going on here? Is this normal? Do all "normal" winning poker players have these kinds of dry spells? The answer, sadly, is probably not. Looking through some PT3 stats of winning players (e.g., coaches) on the 2+2 and FlopTurnRiver forums, I see that my graph is not nearly as linear as it should be. The best players seem to have breakeven sessions that last, at most one to two thousand hands, not ten thousand. So what's going on?


Dunno, exactly, but I think it boils down to two major things: a) patience, or lack thereof; and caution, or lack thereof, too. Here are my initial thoughts on both:


The patience part is simple to understand. During my long breakeven stretches, I think my VPIP is just a tick too high. I typically play around 16% of my the hands dealt to me, but during the long dry spells I see that I'm averaging numbers closer to 18%. Now, this isn't to say that 16% is "better" than 18% for a VPIP, but I do think that it means that I know how to play well at 16%, but not at 18%. Some of the stats I've looked at for other winning players have VPIPs that range anywhere from 12% to 24%. In other words, you can win consistently by either playing very tight or somewhat loose, but in any case you better know what you're doing. I clearly don't know what I'm doing when I'm playing looser than when I'm playing tighter.


The caution part is also reflected in my stats. My WTSD number for winning periods is around 24%, but creeps upwards to around 28% when I'm breaking even. In other words, I think I have been going to showdown just a tick too much during those periods. This is reflected greatly in my W$SD numbers, which are 58% during winning sessions, but only 48% during the breakeven periods. In other words, I'm going to the river just a tad too much, and it's costing me dearly.


The VPIP/Looseness issue is an old, well-understood problem. I know when I'm playing too loosely, but for whatever reason, I still let this problem creep back into my game. That's the easy thing to track, and therefore fix. Keep track of my VPIP and Cold Call numbers after each session and try to catch the problem early, rather than late.


The caution part, however, is a little harder to get a handle on. Sure, I can look at my WTSD numbers postmortem and see what I can glean, but over the course of a typical session (500 hands), I'm not sure if I can spot this trend that accurately. There is just too much variance in that short of a period to have the WTSD number really mean anything. Instead, I think I just have to constantly ask myself why I'm chasing a hand down to the river. Does my opponents' tendencies warrant it? Or am I, as SolarTed said recently, "trying too hard to 'will' the cards to win" instead of picking my spots… and getting away from situations where I'm not a reasonably strong favorite? Don't know… but I do know that I tend to win more at poker when I'm afraid of my opponents than when I'm trying to steamroll them. Caution is truly the better part of valor in my case.


All-in for now….

-Bug

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