Strength is Learned, Not Earned

Today, I officially started my preparations for the 2016 World Series of Poker. While I was looking over rates and creating the plan for my time in Las Vegas, it occurred to me that this year is significantly different than in years past. In previous years, I’ve gone to the WSOP not having set a bar of success for myself. My main goal was to “make good choices and have fun.” But this is the first year I’m actually setting goals to succeed.

This is a strange thing to admit. Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting this situation. Don’t get me wrong––I’ve always set up a game plan for each tournament I’ve played. I’ve tried to put myself in situations that lined me up for success. But something feels different this year. I feel like I have to have a deep run this year. Anything less would be failure. There’s nothing wrong with losing, but frankly, I’ve already done enough of it. In the past, I have always been content with whatever the outcome was. This year can no longer be learning experience. I can no longer be content with making the wrong decisions. I’ve now found who I am as a poker player. This is the year I return to winning poker.

One of the least talked about topics in poker is losing. I believe we should talk about it, and more specifically, how important losses can be in growing success. Sure, everyone talks about their wins and how they got them. There are thousands of poker books that teach the road to success and give you pointers on winning poker. The one thing that’s always missing from those stories, however, is how much the writers had to lose before they got to where they are today. Everyone has a “bad beat story”––but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I truly believe the greatest bluff ever executed is the one every poker author tries to sell: “I can make you a better poker player!” Truthfully, no one can make you a better poker player. You and you alone can do this.

Sure, there is a road to succeeding in poker. Read all the materials you can get your hands on. Your education is quite possibly the most important tool you have, but know that the information is useless if you have no concept on how to use it. Being able to absorb information and separate the useful from the fluff is just as important and making that hard lay down. If you don’t have a backlog of poker knowledge, you may not be aware that you are behind in a hand and run right into a buzz saw.

The amazing thing about poker is that no hand will ever be the same. The same concept applies to poker players. Each player will have their own personality and their own way of thinking. Why would you want to be just like someone else? Yes, the poker pros are awesome and have made millions, but none of what they have done came without loss. They’ve all put countless hours of work in. The pros are dedicated students of the game. When I watch people watching poker on TV, I’m amazed to see how idolized and revered these people have become. Yes, these people are the best of the best, but the best of the best lose too.

Daniel Negreanu currently holds the position as the highest earning tournament poker player ever. Yet he’s never won the WSOP Main Event. Phil Ivey is arguably the best all-around poker player in the world. Still, he has never won the WSOP Main Event either. Why do we never hear about the failures of these players? Why do we never read about the losses they’ve suffered to get where they are today? Truth is, they don’t want you to know about them. But it’s important to know that these are the moments that created who they are. These are the moments that teach you the most about yourself as a poker player. There is a huge amount of courage needed to succeed in the poker world. Always ask yourself, “Can you succeed and continue through the losses? Did you learn from the moment?”

I take personal pride in learning from my losses and I think it’s important to share the lessons I’ve learned. I find it hard to give credit to someone who can’t accept the losses as important information. Can you look back and be content in your moves? Can you accept that everything you did was correct? Did you get all your chips in the pot knowing you made the right move? Did you make all the right reads? These are questions you have to ask yourself. The only way to grow as a player is making mistakes and learning from them. Luck is a defining outcome in the world of poker. Some people’s success is strictly based on it. But can you be content knowing that you got lucky on the river, or are you more satisfied knowing you made the right move?

I have made many mistakes in my poker career. I spent five years playing poker as a full-time job. Most people invest thousands of dollars into their education; it’s safe to admit that based on the money I’ve spent, I should have a PhD in Poker Education. I have learned my weak points. I have discovered my strong points. It’s through these lessons that I have found out who I am as a poker player.

Daniel Negreanu was knocked out of last year’s WSOP Main Event in 11th place. As he walked away from the table, he was caught for an interview. He was quoted as saying, “Whether I win at poker, or I lose at poker, I know who I am deep down.” This is possibly the most important thing I’ve heard from a professional poker player. Know who you are in this game. Always remember where you came from. Always know where you’re going.

At some point you will have that moment––that instant when you realize you’ve finally figured it all out. There is no perfect poker player, but there are many educated players who have put everything they have into this game. Players who have lost, learned, and developed. Players who started at the same spot you did. Every poker player’s road to greatness is different. I can’t say that I know it all. I won’t say that I’m the best. But I will say that I’ve had my moment. This year is going to be a strong year for me. Greatness is just a pulled pot away.

 

Stepping Up Your Game

Hello! I hope all of you are well! With this post, I’m doing something a little different than you are used to seeing here. Over the last week I have been working on a few topics and one crossed my mind that’s place is needed now. With the recent and future events in the poker world there is a lot of excitement brewing! Last weekend we gave away 4 seats to this up coming World Series of Poker! The people who earned them will be playing in Event #46,which is called the $1500 Bounty No-Limit Hold’em. A few of the players have never experienced the extravaganza known as The World Series of Poker, so my goal was to find a way to help prepare them to go. Around the same time as I was beginning to build my outline, I was asked by my very good friend if could do a guest piece on my blog. Low and behold, all the stars lined up for this! “Of course!” I exclaimed! “And I have the perfect topic for you!”

Today’s post will in fact be offered by none other than my good friend Skylar Hawker. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Hawker, here is a brief introduction: Skylar, who is originally from Orem, Utah, now living in Sandy, UT is a veteran poker player who excels in the Texas Hold’em Tournament genera. He has cashed in several  WSOP events and most recently placed 155th at last years WSOP Bounty event. As a seasoned veteran of the home game, as well as the bar games, he’s very familiar with the differences and the changes that are needed to get you ready for whats to come as you enter the WSOP arena.

The topic I asked Skylar to talk about, is none other than transitioning from the bar game to “The Big Game”. I hope you enjoy what Skylar’s insight has to offer and my hopes are that there is something you can take from this. So without further ado, here is what Skylar has to offer!

 

      -Many of you only play poker casually at the bar or in friendly home games, but would love the chance to play for some serious money. We’ve all seen Chris Moneymaker win the WSOP Main Event on TV and he was an unknown amateur player winning the biggest poker event on the planet. Maybe you’ve been playing well and winning recently, and may think you are ready for the WSOP. This post is going to cover a variety of topics to help you transition from your small local game to playing in some of the largest live poker tournaments around.

Let’s say you decide to just take the plunge and play in a WSOP event. You book your flights, make hotel reservations at the Rio, and break open your piggy bank with the money you’ve been saving up for just this occasion. This is it. This is your big chance. The only thing on your mind is walking away with a gold bracelet and that pile of cash sitting on the table. You know you’re better than most of the people you usually play with, and now you plan to prove it.

You get to Vegas, walk in to the Pavilion Room at the Rio, and are immediately overwhelmed at the sight of hundreds of poker tables and the white noise of chip shuffling. The feeling is electrifying, and your adrenaline starts pumping. You head to the cashier and eagerly hand her your stack of Benjamins in return for your tournament seat assignment. Weaving your way through the tables, you recognize a face from a televised poker show, but you just can’t remember his name. Maybe that could be you next year. Maybe you will be seated at the featured table and you will get on TV.

You eventually find your table and get seated. The dealer slides over your starting chip stack of 15,000 chips and you are dealt your first hand of the tournament. Qc Jc. Two face cards right out of the gate. This is going to be a cake walk.

The blinds are 25/50, and you are in the big blind. The guy on your left (under the gun) raises to 150, the cutoff calls, the button calls, and the small blind folds. You have the option to act, so you raise to 300. The other three players call you.

The flop comes Jh 10h Kd. You are open-ended to the straight and have a pair of jacks. You have a good feeling, so you bet 500 because you want to get as many chips as you can from this hand. UTG raises to 2500 and the CO folds. The button looks at you while he is thinking, and calls. You easily call. They are all falling right into your trap.

The turn is 9c, giving you the straight. Now you check, because you don’t want anyone else to know you got there. UTG bets 4000. The button calls. You have the straight so you easily make the call.

The river is 3h. You shove all in. UTG looks really frustrated and mucks his cards very forcibly into the middle. The button snap calls. He turns over Kh 8h, and wins with the flush, knocking you out of the tournament on your very first hand.

So what happened here? Was this just a bad beat? Or could you have played it differently to win? In this example, there were a few simple mistakes that added up being catastrophic. After playing “bar” poker for so long, there is a good chance you have picked up some bad habits that your opponents will exploit at every opportunity. In large tournaments with thousands of dollars at stake, your goal is to consistently make good decisions, minimize the amount of mistakes you make, and survive as long as possible. If you know the common mistakes people make, you can take advantage of situations when your opponents trip up. There were a few major mistakes made in the example hand, and I will be breaking down this example to help explain them. These mistakes can easily be fixed, and will dramatically improve your results in Vegas.

Starting Hand Values

In the weekly “bar” tournament I play in, the structure is designed to make sure the tournament ends within about four hours. Players start with 25,000 chips, blinds start at 100/200, and double every 15 minutes. With a tournament structure that moves this fast, players will get blinded out very quickly. It is crucial to win chips fairly regularly or you will be a short stack before you know what hit you. Structures like this increase the amount of luck in a tournament by reducing the amount of hands you get to play. Players do not have the luxury of sitting around waiting for premium hands and will limp into the pot a lot more often to see if they can hit the flop. Players who regularly enter these types of tournaments often develop some very bad habits.

Many tournaments in Las Vegas have fast structures, but a good rule of thumb is this: the higher the entry fee, the better the tournament structure. You will see a clear difference between the structure of a $125 tournament and a $1500 tournament. There will be more time between each blind level and the blinds will go up gradually with each step.

At the WSOP, the daily $235 deep stack tournament has a much better structure than any free bar game. The starting stack is 15,000 chips, the blinds go up every 30 minutes and are incremental, instead of doubling with each increase. Players have the ability to slow down their game and fold until they are dealt a premium hand, giving them a much higher probability they will win the pot.

We all have seen people win the pot with random junk in their hand after they get lucky on the flop, but if you are playing junk cards and planning to get lucky, you won’t last very long in any big tournament. This is the same with random “favorite hands.” Just because you may have won a few hands with 6-3 doesn’t mean it is a good starting hand.

One of the biggest problems with playing mediocre starting hands is the difficult decisions you have after the flop. Let’s say you have Kd 8d and the flop is Qh 8c 4d. You have middle pair, but is it the best hand? Should you bet out? Should you call if someone bets out first? What if the flop was Kh 10d 6c? You would have top pair, but is your kicker any good? Will you be calling and betting on each street just to lose to someone with AK? You can easily avoid these difficult decisions by just folding pre-flop and waiting for a better starting hand.

Here is a really good article on the strength of various starting hands: http://www.pokerology.com/lessons/starting-hand-selection/

I suggest reading this article to get a good understanding of which hands you should be playing and which hands you should be mucking.

Playing in Position

You’ve probably heard that it is important to “play in position.” Everyone likes having the button in front of them because they don’t have to post the blinds, but position is much more than that. Your position in the game is CRUCIAL to your success or to your failure. When you are on the button, every decision you make in that hand will have more information than every other player at the table. Poker is a game of incomplete information, so the more information you have, the better your decisions will be.

Let’s say you have a pair of 7’s in your hand. You can play this hand in a variety of ways and a lot of this depends on your position at the table. If you are UTG, you are acting first. Let’s say you raise, but then you are called, raised, re-raised, and then the button goes all in. How confident are you about your hand now? If you had known that there was going to be so much action behind you, would you have bothered to put chips in the middle to begin with? What if you are on the button with 7’s, and see all this action in front of you. It becomes much easier to fold your hand, and you didn’t lose any chips with it.

On the other hand, let’s say you are on the button with 7’s, and there is only one player who has called the big blind before you. You have been able to watch him call, and he doesn’t seem too interested in his hand. Now you can feel much more confident raising with pocket 7’s, since they are likely to be the best hand going into the flop.

If the three keys of real estate are “location, location, location.” then the three keys to poker are “position, position, position.” If you look back to the first example, you were dealt Qc Jc on the button. Suited connectors, even suited face-card connectors, are speculative hands. With speculative hands, you want to see flops cheap and IN POSITION! When UTG raises right out of the gate, he is very likely to have a VERY strong hand. JJ, QQ, KK, AA, or maybe AK or AQ. Look back at the example hand and picture him having KK or AQ. Now you can see how far behind you likely were the entire time. Qc Jc is an easy muck on the big blind when UTG raises here.

What about the button? Should he have folded with Kh 8h? Maybe, but he was in position. The blinds plus a raise and a call were already in the middle, so he had good odds to call with suited high cards. Since he is in position here, he can speculate with his hand. He has the chance to win a big pot, but if he misses the flop, he can easily fold and lose a minimal amount of chips.

Here is a great article about the value of position in poker:

http://www.pokerology.com/lessons/value-of-position/

Your Cards vs. Opponents Range

Most casual poker players are only focus on their own cards and not on the cards their opponents are likely holding. Once you shift your thinking toward what other players may have, you will see a big improvement in your game. In the example hand, you were completely focused on your own hand and didn’t consider that your opponents could be drawing to a flush or could have a higher straight. UTG was definitely considering his opponents, which is why he reluctantly folded on the river.

But figuring out what cards your opponents hold is not easy. There are 169 different combinations of starting hands, and your opponents could be holding anything. This is where observation becomes key, and watching what other players do with various hands. Your goal is to find out what type of player they are and put them on a range of hands. If you can determine what hands they like to raise with, what hands they like to speculate with, and what hands they fold, you can narrow down the range of cards they might be holding at any given time.

Let’s assume you are at a table with someone who is known to only play AA, KK, or QQ. They will fold everything else, no matter what. And when they get AA, they always push all in pre-flop. Is this person easy to play against? Of course they are, because you always know exactly what they have. They have such a small range of hands, reading them is very easy. If a player is extremely tight, you know he won’t be holding suited connectors or low pairs in early position. If someone is playing extremely loose, it is more likely they could be calling with flush or straight draws on the flop and turn. A good concept to keep in mind is this: the earlier position someone is playing, the narrower range of hands you can put him or her on. Then, based on if they are checking, calling, or raising after the flop, you can narrow down what cards they may have in their range of possible hands.

Once you start thinking about ranges and paying attention to how tight someone is playing, you will have more information about when to raise or bluff your opponents intelligently. Again––think back to the example hand. UTG raises three times the big blind. This is the first hand of the tournament and you don’t have any idea how this guy plays. But he doesn’t know how anyone else plays either, so you have to assume that he must have a VERY strong hand to raise without any information from anyone else at the table. If you had been thinking this, folding your Qc Jc becomes much easier.

Here is a good article on putting players on a hand:

http://www.pokerology.com/lessons/hand-reading/

Bet with Intent

When you are playing in a tournament, there are only three reasons you should ever be betting or raising: 1) To isolate opponents pre-flop, 2) to make stronger hands fold, 3) to make weaker hands call. If you do not think that betting any amount will accomplish one of these goals, you should check. Keep in mind––you should never bet or raise to gain information. We should be betting to accomplish one of our three goals and then gaining information based on how our opponent reacts. In a tournament, your chips are your lifeline and you need to protect them at all costs. So betting unnecessarily is a quick way to lose your chips.

1) Raising pre-flop, you want to limit how many players stay in the hand. If you can reduce the number of players in a hand to just you against one other person, your odds of winning the hand go up significantly, regardless of what cards you are holding. For example, if you have AA in a hand with five people, you have a 49% chance of winning. But if you are against just one other person, it goes up to 85%. That extra 35% is huge!

Here is another example: Let’s assume you have pocket J’s in middle position and the button has 5-8. If you were to simply call the big blind, other players may limp in, including the button. The odds of your Jacks winning have just gone down. Then if the flop comes down 4-6-7, you are WAY behind in the hand. However, if you had raised with the intent of isolating only strong hands, the button should fold, and you will likely have the best hand with your over-pair. This is why slow-playing high pairs can be very risky.

Looking at the example hand again, you raised pre-flop based solely on the two face cards in your hand. If you wanted to speculate with suited connectors, you probably should have just called. With a minimum raise, every other hand had great odds to call and stay in the hand. By raising here, all you did was inflate the size of the pot, and risk more of your chips unnecessarily. If your goal was to get other hands to fold and isolate your game against one other player, you need to raise enough to not make it worth a call for your opponents. But as we discussed before, the best play here was to just fold.

 

2) Making stronger hands fold is not always easy, but it becomes easier when you’ve been able to put your opponents on a range of hands. Let’s say you believe your opponent has two high cards––AK or AQ. The flop is A-J-10. You have pocket 5’s. Is there any reason to bet here? Is there any amount that would make your opponent fold? Would they call if you went all in? If a stronger hand will always call, you should never bet in this spot. How about if you have J-10 on the button and you put your opponent on a pocket pair like 7’s or 8’s? The flop is K-9-3 and they check to you. They have a stronger hand, but would a bet get them to fold? In many cases it would, and you would take down the pot. This is why figuring out your opponents’ range is so important to how you bet.

3) Making weaker hands call can be difficult, especially if people have a good read on you. But when you flop the nuts, you want to extract as many chips as you can from the other players. Let’s say you are in middle position with KQ, the big blind and the button are also in the hand, and the flop comes out J-10-9. The button checks to you. How can you play this and get the most value from your hand? First, what do you think your opponents have in their hand? Was there a raise or re-raise pre-flop? If you think they have strong hands like high pairs or AK, you may be able to bet a good amount and get them to call. If you think they are weak and likely missed the flop completely, you may want to check and hope one of them tries to bluff. This is one of the reasons people don’t usually win a lot of money when they have AA and they hit a set on the flop. The chances are low someone else has an ace, and people will often fold their hand if they think someone else hit the ace.

 

Anyone who has enough money in their pocket can enter into the tournaments at the WSOP––and any novice can get lucky on a given hand. But large tournaments at the WSOP are unforgiving and will punish players who rely solely on luck to win. So take a look at how you play your game the next time you sit down at the felt. See if you are making these common mistakes and make a conscious effort to improve your game. Tighten up your range of starting hands. Focus on playing in position and try not to lose too much out of position. Put your opponents on a range of hands and deduce what they are holding when they act. And when it is your turn to bet, make sure your actions have purpose. I promise you will see an improvement in your tournament results and maybe when you get into the big game in Vegas, you will be able to finish in the money.

We’ll see you at the tables!

 

 

What do you mean I can’t laugh at that?

“Back in the saddle again!” Hello all! I’m back and all rejuvenated! I took a little time off to enjoy the holidays and get pointed back in the right direction…

Today I’d like to bring to attention some of the implied rules to poker. By saying this, I’m not talking about the actual rules of poker, but the ones that go without saying.

Often you hear phrases at the table like “Good Luck All In” or”Nice Hand” or “Good Game”… These are examples of statements reflecting good sportsmanship. As I’ve been prone to saying over and over again, poker is a game. If you can approach it as that you should never be in the situation where being a poor sport is the label you earn. Everyone knows how much it sucks to lose. No one likes going all in with A-A and losing to the 7-2 that called for “fun”. But it does happen. There are no rules that say you can’t play whatever 2 cards you want. And yes, there are definitely expectations as to what cards are “playable” but that doesn’t mean everyone plays the same way. What I’m getting at here, is the implied notion of respect. Sure you’re going to generate an opinion of every player you play cards with, and sure, you may not like them, but I’m going to say this bluntly. Show them the same respect you want shown to you. Everyone at the table, in the room, or even sitting at home watching on TV is watching you. You may not like what happened at the table, but always walk away from it with dignity. Respect is earned not demanded. Don’t be the person no one wants to play cards with because of your attitude.

Next on my list are the dealers. The men and women who bring this amazing game to you. I’d like to point out that they are only humans, and are not perfect. Please allow them to be as such. Mistakes will be made. 99% of these mistakes can be fixed, if you will allow them to. There are processes and procedures in place designed for them to fix these mistakes. Yelling at them, berating them, blaming them… That gets you nowhere. These people have feelings too… You may have the view-point that these people are the scum between your toes, but guess what? Without them you have no game. If anything, remember one thing, the dealers are watching you. Most poker dealers are poker players too… if you want them to remember you fondly and not use the information they’ve learned from watching you against you, always tip them and treat them kindly. Every dealer remembers the guy who didn’t tip, or the guy that was an ass at their table. If you end up the unlucky guy playing against the dealer, I hope you were respectful, because I guarantee he remembers.

Next up for discussions, is table play. During the course of the game there are several unwritten rules that commonly get over looked. I’ve compiled a list of a few for you.

  • If you aren’t in the hand, stay out of it. This can be interpreted several different ways, but I will elaborate a bit here. When you’ve folded, you’re done. Don’t comment on what you folded, don’t react to the next series of cards. Don’t lean over to your neighbor and whisper what you had. No one cares what you would have had. No one cares if it was a hard fold or not. Don’t read aloud what’s on the board. Once you’ve folded, there is nothing left in the hand for you. The best players are the ones who fold their cards and move on.
  •  Don’t stall. You know what you’re line of play is every time you look at your cards. There really aren’t that many hard decisions in this game. Don’t make you’re folds dramatic. All you are doing is wasting time. The clock is constantly moving, the longer you take to make a decision does nothing but hurt you and everyone else around you. Most decisions can be reasonably made in 5 seconds. you’re actual actions in the hand shouldn’t take you more that 15 seconds… If you are the guy that calculates the math at the table, do your homework before you sit down. Research the math long before it matters, if you have to calculate the math during the hand, then the math isn’t actually helping you because you probably don’t understand it.
  • If your cards are in the muck, leave them there! If I need to explain the issues with this then you’re aren’t a poker player.
  • Don’t ever touch the pot. Poker is a visual game. If you feel like you’re not sure how many chips are in the pot just kindly ask the dealer to “spread the pot”. The moment you lean over and put your hands in the pot will undoubtedly get a poor reaction from everyone at the table.
  • Don’t ask to see mucked cards. Yes, there is a rule in place that allows players to see a “called hand”. That rule isn’t there so players can gain information… It is strictly there to prevent collusion. If a player chooses to fold, let him fold. If you call to have a player’s hand turned over you better have a good reason, because implications can backfire against you.
  • If you aren’t in the hand don’t call for a clock. We all know that the guy is taking forever, and yes, you do have a “right” to call for a clock, but it’s a very disrespectful action…
  • Keep your cards to yourself. Even if someone isn’t in the game, don’t show them to anyone. The information is for your eyes only. Any reaction that player, or onlooker may have is only giving information to your opponent…
  • Don’t over celebrate. I can’t stress this one enough. There are many different emotions throughout the course of a poker game. Ever win is also a loss. Be respectful to that person who just lost. Hitting your 1 outer on the river isn’t funny. The person you hit it against is probably heartbroken. You laughing at it, turns the emotions they are experiencing into rage…
  • Don’t slow roll. What this means is, if you make a bet and are called, turn your cards over. don’t wait to see if you are beat, don’t hold out for the last possible second to be dramatic. If you have the nuts, turn them over. You don’t need to see your opponents cards first. JUST TURN YOUR CARDS OVER!!

So this is just a few of the unwritten rules to poker… and I’m sure that there are many more, but one thing is for sure, respect is the root to all of them. Again, you may not like the person or persons you are playing against, but show them the same respect you want shown to you, and your poker experience will be enjoyable. If you have concerns in the area of the unwritten rules to poker, I suggest investigating further for yourself. Here are a few articles I suggest reading on this topic.

http://www.railbirds.com/blogpost/109996/the-unwritten-rules-of-poker

Top 12 Texas Hold’em misstakes you should never do

Once again, I’m excited to be back and helping you advance in your journey in this game we know and love! May many pots be pushed in your direction!