Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Improving your poker skills

I was inspired to write this after reading Lucko21's most recent post. I've been meaning to write something like this and so I felt like now is as good a time as any. I'm gonna go a little off topic here and start with a pseudo-analogy. I am an avid basketball player. I love playing basketball and I play 3-4 times a week. So, when someone asks me if I'm a good ball player, I tell them I'm ok. But inevitably, someone else always chimes in and say "but you play few times a week right? So you gotta get better." And I always found that to be a funny statement. I mean to an extent, it makes sense right? If you play, you get better. If you sit on your ass and do nothing, then your skills obviously deteriorate. But then again, do you really get better? I know that in basketball, I have a decent jumper but my defense/footwork could use a little improvement, I could probably bulk up a little bit more so that I could take it to the hoop stronger, and I probably should also work on crisp passing and quick cuts to the hoop. When I play, do I keep these things in mind? Sure. To an extent. But I don't practice it. And when you play, what do you do? Well, you do what you're most comfortable with. Me, I move a lot to get open so that I could take my jumpers. So, inevitably, you might be able to maintain your skill or maybe even improve what you're already pretty good at but the areas that I know need work, still needs work. How does this story relate to poker?


If you are a pretty good cash game player, what would you typically play? I'm guessing cash game. If you are a pretty good tournament player, you probably play more sng's and mtt's. If you're a tight aggressive player, how do you play? You play tight and get aggressive when you have a hand. In other words, chances are, when you play, you're probably playing the way you feel is right for you and the most profitable way for you (or at least what you feel is the most profitable). But, unfortunately, this isn't making you a better player. Oh sure, you're gaining experience so you have to be improving right? But please, before you make that assumption, really think about it. Have you analyzed your own plays? Do you know your leaks? What are your strengths and weaknesses. Can you honestly list them? If you can, I bet you that you could probably find more weaknesses than strengths. That's a good sign. Why? Because that means a) you're honest to yourself and b) you know what areas you need to improve.

I know that personally, I have a lot of leaks in my game. I tend to leave a lot of chips out on the table where I should probably be taking a stab at them. And then sometimes, I take stabs in situations where I should probably be hitting the brakes. In other words, my timing is off. It's not just off, sometimes, my timing is downright horrendous. I have many other leaks but I don't want to disclose them all. Does that mean that I'm a losing player? Surprisingly, no. I haven't had a losing month (knock on wood) in over a year and I'm climbing up the levels (I was at $1/2 NL last year, currently, I'm at $3/6 NL and doing fairly well). I was a tad short of $1,000 in winnings in January but I tripled that in February and I'm on pace to match my February performance in March. So, my game must be improving right? Maybe. But I know that I'm not addressing the leaks in my game. In other words, I continue to do what I'm good at but I'm not opening up my game. I would guess that at some point, that's gonna hurt me. Or, basically, that's gonna put a cap on how high I can go. In order to be successful at a higher level, I feel like you have to be a lot more creative, opportunistic, and aggressive at the right time.

Where am I going with all this? Well, there are tons of tools out there today to help improve your poker game. Lucko21's post addressed that and you can also get pokertracker to see how you play. How often are you in the pot? How often do you raise preflop? What's your aggression factor? In other words, are you more aggressive preflop, or on the flop, or on the turn? Which two card holdings do you make the most money with? Which two card holdings do you lose the most money with? A lot of players I think tend to blame bad beats as the reason why they never build a big bankroll. But I think that's generally just an excuse. I mean I hear it all the time. "I was sitting at the $1/2 NL table and I had about $250... up $50 for the night. I have pocket aces so I raise it to $7. This guy who had $80 pushes all in so I insta-call but he catches trips so I end up down $30 for the night." Well, true, that's a bad beat. But is this something that happens all the time? Or do you just remember the bad beats? I used to feel like aces always get cracked. Well, of course they do. No matter how you play it, aces aren't gonna win 100% of the time. But when you lose with aces, you probably feel like they got cracked because aces are best PREFLOP 100% of the time. Unfortunately, in poker, the game doesn't end there. There's a flop, turn and a river. When I look at my pokertracker stats though, I've made a lot of money with aces. Contrary to my personal opinion, I noticed that aces were actually good. AK on the other hand was a hand that was losing me some money. So, when I look at all the times I've had AK, I can analyze what situations cost me money. Did I overcall? Did I overbet? And these are just tips of the iceberg. There's a lot more research you can do on your own play.

So, if I know that I could do all these other things to improve my play, why haven't I done them? Because of time. In a given weeknight, I probably only have 2-3 hrs a night to play poker. I mean I work during the day so I'm at work till about 6pm (starting at 8ish). I might have basketball or something, eat dinner, and so by the time I have my laptop on my lap, it's like 9pm. I can only stay up till about midnight in order to function ok the next day (I've hit the 1am mark a few times but I really pay the price the next day) so that's 3 hrs. And again, that's tops. So, if I only have 3 hrs a day, what do I end up doing? Well, I play. I have to. Right? I mean how else am I gonna build my bankroll up? If I don't build my bankroll, how am I gonna move up in stakes? If I don't move up in stakes, how can I make more money? These are all the things I use to justify playing instead of studying the game. Oh sure, I read other people's blogs here and they have been tremendously helpful. I also read magazine articles and other websites but I'm not doing the most important thing which is critiquing my own play.

So, next time you think "I need to play more poker in order to improve my game," think again. Maybe what you need to do is to sit back and look at how you've played certain hands in certain situations, think about what you could have done differently and also think about what caused the last session to be a winning session or a losing session. Did you win because you were simply hitting the cards? Or did you win by outplaying some of the players at the table? Did you lose because of a series of nasty beats? Or did you lose because you put yourself in situations to get unlucky (by not betting enough and giving the opponent proper odds to call, etc)? I think these are things that we should all do in order to improve our skills cuz let's be honest.... for those of us that take poker this seriously, we're in it for the long haul aren't we? Poker, like life, is a journey of constant evolvement. And when you stop adapting to the situations around you, you might find yourself falling behind...


BurnleyMik said...

WOW.... great post sir! I am also in a similar situation where as I can only play for a few hours each day, due to work, family commitments etc and although I have and use pokertracker, I am not really using it to focus on my own game, rather I have been using it to gather all the relevant information about the players at the tables which I sit at!
Looking at my own game from a critical perspective is something I NEED to do, so you have now inspired me to spend some time each week analyzing my own game. Thanks!!


lucko said...

I obv definitely agree. It’s easy to get lazy and into routines. Stepping back and putting time in on our own games is so important to long term success.

Great post!