Poker grade averages matter more than results


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2011) in Bluff magazine under the same title.


Here’s a simple way to play your best poker all the time. As an added benefit, once you begin to use this method, you’ll find yourself less frustrated by poker misfortune and bad beats.

In consulting with online poker sites, I’ve looked at large databases of hands played. Sometimes my mission has been to determine whether a particular player is cheating. At other times, I’ve delved into hand histories at the request of customers who suspect something is wrong, based on their unfavorable results.

I’ll need to separate skillful players from the poor players. And there are a range of players – from superior to good to average to weak, and way down to terrible.

Who’s who

But how do we determine who’s who?

You’ve probably heard, “The proof of how good you are at poker is in the results.” Well, the proof of poker skills is not in the results.

I’ll tell you why that’s true in a minute. First, you need to understand that even if skill was entirely measured eventually by results, poker is a game where luck plays such an important role that it would take a long time for that measurement to be accurate. How long? Not 10 hours. Not 100 hours. Not months. Not years. Not even a lifetime.

Poker has too many factors governed by fate. Let’s suppose two friends, Aaron and Bob, are superior players. Each thinks he’s slightly better than the other. In truth, Aaron is a little bit better. You might think that over years of day-in and day-out play, the argument could be settled by results. But it can’t. Bob might win more money than Aaron.

Luck makes a difference

That’s because, when players are closely matched, the luck of the cards really does make a difference. It may overwhelm the slight advantage that Aaron has over Bob. And that’s why 100 top poker pros could compete in an unlimited-rebuy, ego tournament that lasted 10 years, 10 hours of play each day, and we still couldn’t be sure that the winner really was the best player.

The differences in skill levels near the top of the poker heap aren’t pronounced. I’ve often asserted that the top players are so closely matched that you really can’t tell the difference, except for the gap between me and second place. Whenever I say that, I’m joking – I think.

Now, let’s imagine what happens when players aren’t evenly matched. When there’s a large difference in skills, the participants who play superior poker tend to win. It won’t happen every session, but now if we play for 100 hours, the players who consistently made quality decisions are much more likely to win. But they might not.

Here’s poker truth:

1. The cards won’t be distributed evenly to everyone for a long time, but the longer you play, the more probability begins to promise a fair share of luck;

2. Even if you get your fair share of cards, you might not be lucky enough to stumble upon the most profitable games or to be in the right casino the night a billionaire drops by to giggle away $10 million;

3. Some skillful poker players don’t always actually play skillful poker; and

4. Some high-quality players lose by placing themselves against superior competition.

Results don’t prove it

For those reasons, results don’t prove who’s the best player. But, it’s important to play the best poker you possibly can.

So, how to we do that? Well, as an analyst looking at those online databases, I never judge a player’s skills by results. The dollars won or lost give a quick indication of what might be true, but only investigation can determine the truth.

One thing that’s very difficult to determine is #3 on my list above. If a player is skillful, but chooses to play poorly, due to emotional instability or for the adventure, I can’t easily decide how good he’s capable of playing. But I can decide how well he played.

So, I grade every decision. Grade? Does that mean A, B, C, D, and F. Yes, in fact that’s how I do it, but you could score decisions any logical way you choose. I keep in mind that quality players mix up their tactics, so they don’t get graded down for making an unusual play, unless it’s blatantly bad. But they do get graded down for doing unusual stuff unnecessarily or repetitively. Other than that, the grading is pretty much straightforward.

Grading opponents

Then I grade the player’s opponents. If the player lost for a long period of time while having a much higher grade average than his opponents, that’s troubling. Likewise, if a player we suspect of cheating is winning much more than his grade average vs. his opponents’ indicates, there’s a red flag.

In fact, this is one of several core ingredients of my automated online cheater detection methodology COPS (Caro Online Poker Solutions) that is under development. Hopefully, it will be used by online poker rooms soon. Doyle Brunson is now supporting it. So, stay tuned.

Sorry, I got sidetracked. You’re wondering if that’s subjective, letting me give the grades? Sure. But, I guarantee you that – even though I’m grading by my perspective and other experts might grade a single decision differently – it will point pretty closely to the truth after examining even 100 hands.

And that’s the point! You don’t need to have me do the grading to determine how well you’re playing against your opponents. You can do it yourself. You don’t need to be an expert on the best method of every play. You just need to not disappoint yourself. When you start focusing on giving yourself a grade on each decision you make, your poker will quickly improve.

And you won’t be emotionally put on tilt as easily, either. That’s because, win or lose, when you’ve earned a good grade, you’ve succeeded. And that always feels like a winning night, no matter what. Try it. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

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  1. Hi, Mike, it’s me again! -and no, I’m not a stalker- ;) great way to put in words things that are very difficult to put in words. I think I got it. And of course, I translated the article to my Facebook page. Once again, thanks for sharing.

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