Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Goldilocks Asks: Are You Scared... or Not Scared Enough?

A long time ago (not in a galaxy far, far away) the Guru told us newbie students in his beginning poker class that fake money play tables online* would hurt our poker skills in the long run. "It's not real poker if you're not playing for real money," he said, "So, don't even think about doing it."

And he was right. If you play for nothing, then by definition you have nothing to lose, which in turn means you're going to not care about the stack of chips in front of you. Shoving all-in, ramming and jamming, calling big bets with 1- and 2-outers, chasing insane draws... it all degenerates into a child's game for Monopoly dough. Lose all your chips? No problem, just reload. And this of course leads to a whole slew of bad habits in your game. Playing trap hands OOP, flatting 3bets with suited connectors, playing any ace and any two suited cards, ignoring position, etc... these are all common-enough leaks in most beginner's games without having the bad habits reinforced by zero pain.

Yes, I said pain. Losing at poker needs to be painful. You have to stay sharp and focused to win, and part of ensuring that state of mind is the awareness that it's gonna hurt if lose your chips....

...but not too painful, either. Yes, I said that, too. One of the tricks to playing well at poker is finding those stakes that aren't too high and aren't too low for your personal comfort zone. It's a sweet spot kinda thing. Think Goldilocks when you're deciding what to play.

If the stakes are too low, then consciously and/or subconsciously you won't really care about losing your stack. It will become Monopoly money to you. You'll surf the web while playing. You will take a phone call and keep on clicking. Watch the sports game on the wall and chat with the waitress. You'll open far too many tables online and not pay attention to the action. You won't REDi. Instead, you will degenerate back to L1 poker and start to "gamble" with draws you're not priced in to chase. You'll play the part of sheriff to see what your opponent has. And so on. In other words, you'll play poorly.

But like Goldilocks, you don't want the stakes you play at to be too high, either. First, there's the whole Risk-of-Ruin math working against you. Statistically speaking, if the stakes are too large a percentage of your bankroll, you can and will go broke simply due to the variance in the game. But an equally important reality is that you'll play "scared."  Bluffing on the river is something you will suddenly be unwilling to do. Bet-folding is also out. Heck, you won't even bet with your moderate Value hands, preferring to see a showdown cheaply than maximizing your profit. You will be bullied and pushed around, and the more your opponents see you fold to 3bets and re-raises, the more they're going to do it to you. And so on. In other words, you'll play poorly.

One of the leaks in this Bug's game is that in cash games I often play at stakes too big for my online bankroll to support. This isn't actually a huge leak, primarily because my actual total poker bankroll includes money that I don't have tied up online, and if I were to lose the online 'roll, it would be relatively easy to deposit some from the big offline 'roll. And despite the fact that I'm playing relatively high, I'm not playing insanely high, either. I feel that, from purely a technical point of view, I could actually sit down at stakes as high as $400 to $1000NL online with my current skill set... ah, but from a "I'm scared" psychological point of view, I'd be like a deer in the rounders' headlights.... so I don't play up in those relative nosebleed stakes**.

Similarly, when I play lower than $25NL, I know that I personally am going to get bored rather quickly, and I'll start leaking in all those ways I mentioned above, playing too loosely, calling down lightly, etc..  The low stakes games for me are relatively easy to crush if I'm on my A-game, but the truth is that I slip out of that mindset pretty quickly and can/will lose money.

My sweet spot is currently $50NL and $100NL, both 6max and full ring. This is technically too high for my online 'roll, but it's fine for my overall total bankroll. You need to similarly find your own sweet spot. Playing poker at the correct stakes should be a little uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable. It should be painful to lose, but not overly so. Goldilocks would understand this concept-- and so should you: you need to be scared, but not too scared.

All-in for now...
*Another significant problem with the play tables is that there is no rake taken out. This makes beating the game seem particularly easy, as it is a true zero sum game, so even if you're playing just marginally better than half of the villains at your table, you're going to accumulate chips over time. Poker seems easy played this way, and bad habits get reinforced very quickly and very strongly. Real money tables, on the other hand, obviously have rake taken out, so just to break even you have to beat the rate at which the house is peeling off money. This is actually quite hard to do for the beginning player. A long time ago (not in a galaxy far, far way) a student of the Guru's, who was crushing the play tables, once (arrogantly) remarked to me that he and his son intended to become professional poker players, and that beating the low stakes would be child's play. I said poppycock... and to make a long story short, I ended up betting him an expensive meal that he would go broke at the $5 Sit-n-Go tables with a starting $25 bankroll. In fact, I said he could reload the $25 up to three times. Guess who won the bet? (And guess who welched on paying me off afterwards, too. Grrr.) The play tables are in fact ridiculously easy to beat... which makes it all that more startling when/if you do step up to real money tables and start getting beaten to a pulp in $0.01/$0.02 games. Don't forget this fact. (And pay your debts when you lose a prop bet, too, okay? Grrr.)

**This fact is part of the whole ABC Edge thing I wrote about here. To win consistently and long-term at poker requires you to have three distinct advantages, or edges, over your opponents. If you/I play too high, then you/I won't have that third, vital edge of Emotional Control over the villains at our table... and you/I can/will lose our entire chip stack and/or bankroll.

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