Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bootstrapping and Burger Flipping

Why do I play poker? As I mentioned previously (here) I ultimately play to make money… ah, but this is a bit misleading. There are lots of easier ways to make money than poker. There are also certainly less frustrating ways to bring in a small second income like I do playing poker. Hell, there for a long time when I was grinding the microstakes tables and learning the basics of L2 poker, I would have easily made a higher, more consistent hourly wage if I’d simply taken a minimum wage job at the local burger joint.

So why play poker? Answer: I play poker to make money, but I also do so because it’s challenging and stimulating. Flipping burgers is decidedly neither challenging nor stimulating. Said another way, I play poker for the mental challenge (of making money).

For me, it’s like solving a never ending puzzle. What does this guy have? Am I getting implied odds here? What does he think I have? How can I extract value from the maniac in the big blind? What has that huge loss four hands ago done to his mental state. What does he think of the big laydown I just made? Is he paying attention? Can I bluff him now? How much should I bet? What will a check look like to him? Is this play plus EV? And so on…

I was thinking about this the other day while I pondered basic Level-1 preflop play. This is as basic and simple as poker gets: should I get involved in the pot with the hand I was just dealt? But you know what? Even though this is as simple as poker gets, it’s still quite complex. Which is why a starting hand chart can be such a good idea for a new player.

Unlike a lot of poker coaches and books, I’m a fan of—gasp--starting hand charts, especially for absolute beginners. Yes, this is a crutch, but I believe it’s a necessary one. Think of a hand chart as a device to bootstrap a new player’s game. Poker is ultimately a game of “why” and “it depends,” and to succeed at the upper levels of the game you will need the opposite of a starting hand chart; i.e., you will need to think on your own…

… but to get started on this “it depends” learning curve, a new player needs some guidance on which hands to play and which not to play. One of the most important skills to learn in poker is which hands to get involved with, and which ones to skip. Unfortunately, even at a basic L1 style of poker, in which you’re primarily worried about the quality of your own hand, the decision to enter a pot is filled with complex factors. Gap theory, late position vs. early, stack sizes, table dynamics, etc. all come into play:

Yep, these are the factors that go into a basic L1 starting hand chart. Once the beginner has used the chart for a while, they will start to understand why it looks the way it does; i.e., why does one call an upstream raise in LP at a tight table when deep stacked and holding 3-3, but fold that same hand when the stack sizes are shallow? A chart tells you the What, but the student can begin to understand the Why as they use it over and over. In fact, after a while, the beginner should be deviate from the chart and experiment, developing their own style, and ultimately discovering on their own that poker is stimulating, challenging, and a whole lot more fun than flipping burgers.*

All-in for now…
* Another really interesting thing to note about the use of starting hands charts (especially for doubters) is that it trains you to think in terms of hand ranges as a function of position and action. Sure, beginners can use the chart to decide which of their own hands to play in different positions facing different upstream actions. L2 players, however, can use a chart to begin narrowing their ABC opponent's hand ranges. For example, let's say you see an ABC player cold-call in LP when facing an upstream EP raise; you can use a chart to winnow down the types of hands this opponent is likely playing. In a sense, by using a starting hand chart, you're beginning the process of learning how to hand read. Cool beans.

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