Friday, April 6, 2012

Walking Before You Immelmann

From a conceptual point of view, learning how to crush poker isn't particularly difficult, but it does take work, and it needs to be done in a logical progression of steps. You can't jump right into applying advanced reading, estimating, deciding, and implementing tactics, for instance, until you've mastered some of the more mundane skills of poker. And once you've learned something like REDi, you have the whole next layer of deception and adjustment to add. Poker is learned step by step, piece by piece, beginning with the basics. Said another way: you have to learn to crawl before you can dogfight an F15 Eagle.

I've been giving this some (sporadic) thought while I've continued working (sporadically) on a long-standing poker tutorial project. If a complete newbie in poker came to me and said that he or she wanted to learn how to crush NL cash games within 12 months, how would I go about teaching them? There's a ton of information to convey, so where would I start? And then how would I add to the basic knowledge in a logical progression?

Every poker coach goes about this their own way, some good, some bad. I'm an engineer by training and vocation, so I tend to think in a linear fashion. You don't learn how to draw the letter D until you've mastered A, B, and C. In poker, the standard linear school of thought is that of "levels," so that's how I've addressed the problem (and consequently organized my tutorial series).

Most poker players start out playing a Level-1 style of poker, in which their own cards are almost entirely what matters. How strong is their hand? How likely is it to improve? Are the getting the right odds to draw to their hand? And so on. In a sense, L1 poker is mostly about showing down the best hand... and learning to fold before you get to showdown if your hand probably won't be best.

As they move up in skills and stakes, players transition from L1 to L2 thought. It is here at Level-2 that a player really begins to understand that their own cards don't matter nearly as much as they thought. What matters more is what their opponents' cards likely are. At this level of thought, poker transitions from a showdown-only affair into a combination of both showdown and bluffing.

Then, at the L3 and above, poker gets incredibly deep and complex. Here a player realizes that the strength of their own cards is probably the least important thing they have to factor into a decision. What matters much, much more is what range their opponent holds, what range of cards the opponent is putting the hero on, and what the villain is trying to do with this knowledge. At the L3 level of thought, poker is almost entirely about deception and playing-the-player.

With all of this in mind, here are the topics and concepts that I believe a player needs to master on his or her way to poker dominance. Consider this Bug's poker training syllabus:

Level-0 Poker
"How do I play this crazy game?"
  • General Concepts: How Profit Comes from Exploiting Edges
  • Basic Skills: How the Game of Hold'em is Played, Key Terminology

Level-1 Poker
"What are my cards, and how strong are they?"
  • General Concepts: Starting Hand Selection, The Importance of Position, Stealing I, Gap Concept, Expected Value, Introductory REDi
  • Preparation Skills: Bankroll Management, Game Selection, Record Keeping, Studying Methods and Habits, Leak and Plugs
  • Psychological Skills: The Concept of Results Don't Matter, Dealing with Bad Beats
  • Level 1 REDi:
    • Reading Skills: Board Texture, Game Type and Texture
    • Estimating Skills: Calculating Pot Odds, Outs, Equity, EV, 2/4 Rule, 10/20/30 Rule
    • Deciding Skills: Choosing a Line: Value or Bluff, Why We Bet, Big Pairs, Small + Medium Pairs/Mining, SCs
    • Implementation Skills: ABC Poker vs. FPS, Bet Sizing I

Level-2 Poker
"What cards does my opponent have, and how strong am I against that range?"
  • General Concepts: Advanced REDi, Range vs Specific Hand, Continuation Betting, Blind Play, Minimax Philosophy
  • Preparation Skills: Pregame Warm-ups, Check-lists, Hand and Session Reviews, Outside Advice
  • Psychological Skills: Anti-Tilt, Downswings, Variance
  • Level 2 REDi:
    • Reading Skills: Opponent Types/Stats/Tendencies/Notes/Tells/Level/Position/Stack, Combinatorics, Table Sizes Factors
    • Estimating Skills: SPR + Commitment, Fold Equity, Implied + RI Odds, Discounted Outs
    • Deciding Skills: Advanced Line Decisions: Value, SDV + Pot Control, Semi-Bluffs + Draws, Bluffs, Folds, Isolating, Continuation Betting, Stealing II and Reverse Steals
    • Implementation Skills: Bet Sizing II, Check-raising

Level-3 Poker
"What cards does my opponent think I have?"
  • General Concepts: Deception, Adjustment, 3- and 4-Betting
  • Prep Skills: Health + Mind, Treating Poker as a Business
  • Psychological Skills: Inducing and Taking Advantage of Tilt
  • Level 3 REDi:
    • Reading Skills: Villain's Perception of Hero, Table Dynamics, Meta-Game
    • Estimating Skills: Villain's Perception of Commitment, Manipulating the Odds
    • Deciding Skills: Merging and Balancing, Bet/Fold and Raise/Fold Lines, Squeezing, Turning Made Hands Into Bluffs
    • Implementation Skills: Bluff Catching, Inducing Bluffs, Multiple Barrels

Level-X Poker
"I want to get even better!"
  • Live vs. Online Poker: Understanding and Exploiting The Differences
  • Tournaments: MTT, SnG
  • Other Varieties of Poker: PLO, O8+, Stud, Stud hi/lo
  • Etcetera...

And that's all there is to mastering poker. Easy game, right?


In all seriousness, in the coming weeks and months, I'm going expand a little bit on many (if not all) of these concepts and topics. My plan is to use blog posts as a sounding board and outline of sorts for my poker tutorial. (I also intend to use it as a psychological lever to help focus this blog a little more tightly and get me working more seriously on the tutorial project...) I may start out basic and simple minded with the posts, but (hopefully) by the time I'm finished, your afterburners will be fully on and your air-to-air missiles seeking targets. Hell, we might even have you doing REDi Immelmanns before we're through.

All-in for now...
PS. I welcome any and all feedback on this syllabus. What am I missing? What is out of sequence? What can be added, dropped, or expanded upon? Feel free to drop me an email with your thoughts, suggestions, likes or dislikes.


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