Reaching Your Potential


It’s unfortunate that for most of my educational career I’ve been an underachiever. I like to think I was always a bright individual, and just failed to apply many of the attributes needed to succeed in school. While I’m certainly not implying I was a failure or a drop out (not that those things are terrible in themselves, I actually attended two private universities), but I can’t stray from that fact that it takes a certain type of tenacity to be at the top of your class. Those who are most successful both in school and in poker have an unrivaled sense for what’s needed and what’s up ahead, and use their aptitude and work ethic to accomplish goals.

What’s neat about poker and maybe sports overall is that there are so many opportunities for achieving great feats. However, because the aspirations in poker don’t always translate well in terms of societal accomplishment, knowing whether or not you’re reaching your full potential or even making the right choices can be difficult. No matter how much we try, the nature of the sport of poker lends itself to stigmas, stereotypes and false judgment. Even if you’re winning millions of dollars (which is probably the best case scenario), losing that same amount, even if justified might be viewed as degenerate. (I don’t want to make the mistake of getting too off track however. I wanted to make sure we briefly commented on how poker can be viewed, just so that maybe we can work hard to improve it.)

Working hard is a phrase that outsiders of the game rarely associate with poker players. But this is simply not the case for most of us. While we all have our lazy moments (maybe poker players more than most), I don’t think this general thinking is applicable to all. It’s both not fair and not factually vindicated. But what I do think is that we can all further improve our work ethic. Because poker is a sport in which we want to earn money, if we’re winning regulars we can get complacent if our results are consistent. It doesn’t contribute to natural drive if you ever get comfortable with where you are, both in poker and life in general.

But should we be making room for improvement? I believe so. In my personal opinion if you’re sights are set as high as they should be, you need to be moving up in stakes and playing better players, even if you are crushing your current level. It’s one of the great ways to improve. But how do we change our mindset from winning $100K comfortably online to increasing our variance by playing mid-to-high stakes games? It won’t be easy, but it’s about finding yourself, your goals, and the tools you’ll need to summon to release your poker genius.

No two players are exactly alike…

Poker has a variety of different player types. Some work extremely hard at what they do (Phil Galfond, Daniel Cates, etc.). And some just seem to be innate geniuses (Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu). However, regardless of which category you fit in, we need to understand that poker is a game of learning and digesting information. Sure, some of these players probably had earlier exposure to the game, or even photographic memory that allows them to recall hands and betting patterns that the average eye just wouldn’t pick up. We can’t alter those characteristics. But what we can do is improve in areas where we’re weaker by focusing our effort around that leak. (If you’re not going around soul-reading people on a regular basis, you probably fit in this category.)

As we play more poker, we begin to gain a better understanding and sense of what’s up ahead. So over time, you may be seen as someone who has a particular knack for how the sessions are running. Even though experience is a great way to improve our win rate, there is a need for the mathematical portion of poker. We’ll also toss in categories of players who play on auto-pilot, those who are extremely creative, and then those who follow “ABC” guidelines. But because no one approach is distinctly unprofitable, the measurement of our success can become blurry. Let’s take a glance in further detail.

Math vs. feel… online vs. live

In recent years online poker has flourished, and because of this, players have needed to work on the probability side of things. When you play online (unless you’re playing on a site such as 888 Poker or Poker View with web cams), you won’t be able to gain information from tells that you might notice live. (Even if you did play with a web cam you probably still wouldn’t gain much useful information.) Since this is the case, in order to succeed we need to be aware of more of the computational components that online poker presents.

If we want to look at an example in particular, let’s take something important such as continuation betting frequency. If you’re an observant player, when you play in a live setting especially in a tough game you can pick up some information by watching players closely. The problem with this is, when you’re playing live it’s more difficult to keep notes, and you can’t do so while you’re in game. Even if you notice your opponent c-betting a lot, you don’t know exactly how many times he’s done so, or how many instances he’s raised and then c-bet or gave up. You need to rely more on your memory, and if your memory can get as fuzzy as mine when I play live, then we could miss a few things. It’s not that picking up information is impossible, it’s just more cumbersome.

When we’re logging sessions online, we readily have most of this information available to us. We have “notes” programs embedded into our poker platforms, we can use our HUDs and databases, or we can use old school pen and paper (the hardest and easily the most strange). But despite what method you use, it’s much easier to pick up on our opponents’ tendencies using one of these formats.

When you decide to c-bet, you need to think about a few things. Your VPIP, PFR, and image are the most essential. However, when you are the pre-flop raiser you’re most often forced to toss out a continuation bet. Understanding this principle, players who pay attention will combine all of these statistics to begin painting a portrait of you.

Let’s say you’re playing 10/8. That’s incredibly nitty by the way, but we’re using it for all intents and purposes. If you’re playing this tight, you’re entering pots rarely, but when you do you’re usually raising and entering with better than average hands. You may widen slightly in position, but not much. You also rarely limp, which suggests you’re more aggressive than passive. Because of this, you should be c-betting more. Probably 80%. Yeah, 80% is a lot for most, but because this particular style is so predicated on pairs and high card hands we should be betting a lot when we’ve taken the initiative.

If we noticed that a player with these VPIP/PFR stats wasn’t continuation betting, or not nearly enough, we could easily label them as a fit-or-fold player. I mean, why would you decide not to bet a 9-high rainbow flop unless you didn’t connect, with those stats? Even if you are trapping because you’ve hit a big hand, good players are adept at attacking boards that don’t frequently hit your range, and will probably give action even if you c-bet your set. It’s thinking like this that players need to go through all the time in order to become better players – it’s something that ABC or auto-piloting multi-tablers are rarely capable of. It’s also what most of the online professionals have earned their living from.

Math is only a small portion of poker, but if you have a sense for odds and understanding when numbers don’t make sense in correlation with playing style you’ll dramatically improve your win rate by exploiting regulars. It’s common knowledge that we’ll be able to earn money from bad players, but if we can take advantage of some of the mistakes that decent players make too, we’ll be well on our way to reaching our potential.

Just because you’re a live player doesn’t mean you’re missing out on equity. There are enough advantages in the live setting that still make it worthwhile. But what I want to express is that in order to reach your peak, you need to be receptive to the idea of improving some of the aspects that are missing, or are not frequently required. If you play live, you’ll need to know pot odds, implied odds, etc. I can’t forgive you if you don’t know the basics. But understanding 3-bet ranges, cold-calling ranges and stealing percentages is something that you’ll definitely understand better by playing online.

We all tend to have our own unique approach to the game – both in how we study it, and how we gauge our success. Since we’re all unique people, in order to start measuring our competency we need to come up with a universal evaluation of sorts.

I originally thought it would be easy for me to do this. Nonetheless, I had to look at multiple factors and players in order to come up with a sound appraisal. While we do need to look internally to find out what each of us would like to gain from poker, reaching the biggest heights of poker comes with a few mandatory accomplishments; documented success, sustainability, and monetary reward.

Because poker can take place in so many different environments, for players keeping track of money won and lost is a task in-and-of itself outside of the game. Having a bankroll and regime in regards to buy-ins brought and spent helps dramatically, but even then with all of the rebuys and add-ons we can lose exact numbers. However, players who have the discipline to monitor how they’re doing and where their money goes will be considered towards the top of their stakes because they have keen money management.

For some reason, as poker players we feel the need to question people based on results. Even if you’ve given sound advice, or appear to play a winning syle, we want you to prove it to us. The only way for us to do this is to keep meticulous graphs, charts and financial statements of how our poker career is developing. This will serve two purposes – it should validate all of your successes and the work you’ve put in, but it will also allow you to talk about and compare your results with the rest of your poker community.

That latter point is the most important because when we’re deciding whether or not we’re reaching our potential, we can look at stats such as AIEV, winnings, rakeback and BB/100 to decide whether or not we can move up. This may not be the goal for everyone, and I hinted that earlier, but if our goal is to become the best player possible I believe it’s a crucial step in our development. Our calculations and results will help guide us into making the right decision, while also giving us proof that we’re capable of moving through the ranks and adapt to players well enough to make significant money. By having this information on hand, our friends and respected players at your stake can also review your hands and see your graph and inform you of how you stand in relation to the rest of the players. While this shouldn’t be a conversation of “whose bank account is the biggest,” it can be reassuring to your confidence.

Everyone looks at the achievements differently. Money, notoriety, sponsorships – they all play a major role, but we should be examining a wider, more comparable scope in terms of achievement. I want to stress that there’s no singular path, be it mathematically-based, feel-based, online or in person that’s going to send you straight to poker’s hall of fame. It’s a slow journey, but if you have no landmarks or measurements for how far you’ve traveled, your arrival just won’t feel as fulfilling.

Are we seeing everything there?

It’s been stated in the past, mostly in regards to women in the workplace that there’s a “glass ceiling” we overlook that stops us from reaching the highest levels. It was in reference to women years ago because regardless of qualification, some women just couldn’t reach the top levels and positions in business. Now, it’s a proven fact that women are doing even better than men in “power positions”, even though men still continue to out earn women overall. (Go guys!) But this isn’t about gender roles. Instead poker players, because of their complacency, have yet to remove their glass ceiling.

The fact is that we’re not always making the right decisions, both in sessions and out of them. We’re not really seeing everything that’s there. To give an example, some live players would advocate against taking a shot at a 400-500NL game if they only had a 10 buy-in bankroll. While from bankroll management standards, seizing this opportunity would greatly increase your ROR (risk of ruin), considering the miserable win rates at live 200NL and lower I personally believe it’s more than justified. If you lose a few buy-ins you’ll be hurting a bit, sure. But you can always move down to build your way back up. And if you happen to win a ton at 500NL over a few sessions, you may be well-rolled enough to stay there and make more money. What I’m trying to emphasize is that not everyone would take that risk because we’ve been told that we need to follow stringent guidelines of how to use our money. However, if more lucrative opportunities present themselves, and we don’t take them, we’ll not only limit our chance for further monetary gain but we’ll also be limiting our maximum earning potential.

When we’re in the heat of battle, especially multi-tabling, we can resort to plays that work or are even +EV, but aren’t close to the highest EV play. This occurs because of a propensity to choose the easiest option, and maybe not the most profitable.

Looking at a hand I recently viewed on the forums, a “Play a Hand With Me” thread (also known as PAHWM) became interesting. These threads always inspire conversation because all of the information isn’t given at once – the original poster gives more information on a delay (usually a day or two later) and you have to formulate strategy based on what you know now, and change or continue your plan based on what you find out later. It forces players to analyze using their own thought process; they can be caught fumbling over their decisions if they fall into groupthink.

Hand: 500NL, $1,200 effective. Under the gun.

Hero opens to 4x and is 3-bet to 15x from one of the tightest, yet equally aggressive villains at the table. Our villain has shown competence, with an ability to slow down or speed up when necessary. Villain views us a competent as well.

Right from the get-go hero is presented with an interesting dilemma. Hero is holding TT. What do you do? (Try to come up with an answer before you move along!)

Well, hopefully you decided on a choice. Unfortunately, no matter what you chose, it’s wrong. Not because of your actual decision, but because you probably didn’t think of all the information available. First off, we’re pretty deep. Seeing as though we’re so deep, this makes this call pretty trivial. Let’s add in that since our opponent is tight and aggressive, we’ll be getting the implied odds we need to stack our villain. He may slow down with the right board, but if he sees something non-threatening we could win everything. We’re hoping to hit a set, and this hand works well even out of position. If the board has all under cards, however, we may have to let this one go early.

Flop is T73r. Oh my goodness. Miracle flop for us, and the hand should basically play itself out from here right? If you said right, you’re once again wrong. This is because our only option isn’t to check! It seems everyone loves to slow play, but what would our opponent do if we lead out? What if the pot was $167, and we decided to bet $50? $85? An over bet? If we lead the flop, will our opponent raise our bet? Will he fold? What if we check, can we possibly check-raise? What about check-raising the flop and then leading the turn? The options are endless here, but obviously we want to get as much money in as possible. Making a plan ahead of time based on our reads can either make or cost us $1,200! Thinking for seconds or even a minute before you act to at least give rationale to why you’re doing what you’re doing will allow you to reach your full potential. At the very least, we’ll be closer to maximizing our EV.

While I love to get into detail on the actual hands, it’s pretty irrelevant. However, hero check-called the flop, lead a Q turn (which was called), and check-folded a K river. (For what it’s worth, while I think the hand was misplayed, that is the absolute WORST run out for flopping top set that I’ve seen in awhile. This hand went from a guaranteed winner, to non-winnable regardless of what villain holds. Best case scenario for hero is villain holding AA (maybe JJ although less likely), but even then his range can easily be turned into a bluff.)

We want to ensure we’re playing our best, achieving our best, and competing against players who help us reach our best. Use EVERYTHING available to analyze trouble spots, your win rates, and how beneficial it may be to take a shot in a high-stakes game. Most importantly, use your tools as a GUIDE, not a RULEBOOK. Nothing is set in stone in the world of poker.

Good luck, and let’s keep crushing. I hope to see you at the tables soon.


Leave a Reply