Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2009) in Poker Player newspaper.
About this series: The following entry is part of a series of self-interviews in which I get to ask my own questions and then answer them.
About the numbering: Don’t worry if you haven’t read any previous entries in the series. Each one is independent. The questions continue with number 172, but you can subtract 171 and start fresh, if that makes you happier.
About today’s word, “Money”: This interview is about bankroll and money management. My thinking in this area is different than other advice you may have read.
Question 172: Do you think it’s a good idea to begin learning poker by playing in free games?
Yes, if you separate the mechanics of poker from the money. You can become comfortable with the rules and procedures by playing for pebbles or by participating in the training games at real-world casinos or the free games online.
However, that’s about as much benefit as you’ll get from those games. You won’t learn much about how to win.
That’s because your opponents aren’t sufficiently motivated to play well. There’s no penalty for building huge pots with inferior hands or for calling to the showdown with faint hopes.
As a result, many opponents choose to enter the majority of pots. So, playing in free games gives you an unrealistic sense of what it requires to win. That makes learning to earn profit difficult.
Question 173: Can poker games be too small to play your best?
Well, most players don’t bring their best game to the table when the stakes are insignificant. That’s a psychological problem. I ask my students to always play the very best game they can, even if the stakes seem insignificant.
If you find yourself competing for small stakes against friends who aren’t comfortable playing for as much money as you’re accustomed to, you should still try to annihilate the game. That’s important.
Consider it a practice session — an opportunity to improve without much risk. Look, football players spend most of the week exercising or practicing plays. They can’t treat these scrimmages as if they don’t matter.
Scrimmages matter a lot — and if you find yourself in a poker scrimmage, you must treat it with respect. If you approach these without trying your best because the “stakes” don’t matter, you’re apt to find yourself rusty, psychologically unprepared, and ineffective when they do matter.
Always play your best game. All the time. Forever.
Keep in mind that typical small-stakes games will be populated by opponents who don’t care much. They feel they can tolerate small wounds, so they play many pots inadvisably.
Still, it’s important to be able to beat these very loose games. The secret is twofold: (1) Play hands selectively, making certain you’re entering fewer pots than your opponents, on average; and (2) Don’t be tricky, because deception is seldom needed — and often costly — against weak opponents who call too often.
Question 174: Can poker games be too large to play your best?
If your bankroll is in jeopardy because the stakes are frightening, you’re apt to be overly cautious, sacrificing profit to survive. Listen closely.
Even though I attribute most of my success to my table image, which is a bit bizarre and invites calls, the easiest players to beat are often ones playing beyond their bankrolls. And it isn’t because they call too often; it’s because they don’t call often enough. I can bluff them quite easily.
Ideally, you should play for fairly comfortable stakes that matter to you. That means that there should be only enough discomfort involved to keep you keenly motivated. Sometimes you should move up or down from this level when you find games that appear especially profitable.
But when you bump up to stakes that are uncomfortable or that matter too much, you’ve got to worry about the survival of your bankroll. So, you make sacrifices.
You make daring, but profitable, value bets less often than you would if you had adequate funds. You bluff less, even when bluffing is the right decision. And you call less, even when calling more often would show a long-range profit.
You play in a constant state of fear and intimidation. And that’s a bad thing.
Sure, you could just pretend you’re in a smaller game and make all the same marginally profitable moves, but those added risks are apt to quickly destroy your limited bankroll. So, games can be too large for you to play well — and you should avoid them.
Question 175: Why do you need antes or blinds?
Small antes, relative to the size of the bets, help tight players and hurt loose ones. If you’re a tight player in, say, a draw poker game, you’d prefer a $1 ante with a $10 bet to a $5 ante with a $10 bet.
In the former case, with eight players, there’s only $8 in the pot and in the latter case, $40. Theoretically, the smaller the ante is, proportionally to that $10 bet, the tighter you should play.
But loose players don’t adjust much. They often play almost as many hands regardless of the size of the antes. That means tight players can sit and wait at lower cost. And that works in their favor.
Then why do you need antes at all? When I teach beginning classes, we play one-card poker. There are no antes.
Typically, some players will call and raise with a king or a queen, and sometimes bluff with a deuce. Then I explain that those decisions are 100 percent guaranteed to fail against proper strategy.
All you would need to do to beat them is to only play when you’re dealt an ace. And if everyone were playing correctly, every bet or raise would only be made with an ace. Aces would never be beat, but they would never win any money, because the best they could do would be to tie.
From this simple training exercise, we learn that if you bet anything except the perfect hand in a no-ante game, you must lose to a superior strategy. This means that logically, you can’t play poker without something initially in the pot to fight over.
If there’s value in the pot, then you can take risk in pursuit of that reward. And you don’t need to have the perfect hand to gamble.
Blinds serve a similar purpose. They place something of value in the pot before the battle begins. Without blinds or antes, poker isn’t poker.
Question 176: Should you be more cautious when your bankroll is small?
The answer is just the opposite of what most players think.
You should be more daring with a small bankroll, because you can replace it from real-world funds and try again. Large bankrolls are harder to replace and require more protection.
Strangely, most players suffer by treating their bankrolls in exactly the opposite manner. They worry about going broke with a small bankroll and feel more comfortable taking great risks with one that has grown large. That’s backwards.
Question 177: What’s the biggest mistake poker players make when managing bankrolls?
They spend their bankrolls.
As a bankroll grows, most players underestimate the chances of running poorly for days, weeks, or even months. So they buy things with what they think is a surplus.
That’s why there are so many winning players out of action. They start with $200, build to $20,000, spend $15,000, lose $5,000 and are broke — even though they’re actually $14,800 ahead and should be faring just fine.
Something of value
A final word: Remember that poker is a fight over something of value. Theoretically, you could play poker to settle a dispute or to determine who must sacrifice a life. The stakes can be anything.
Traditionally, poker is played for money, because that’s the most obvious way to motivate and keep score. Poker played properly isn’t about pride or entertainment.
Poker is about money. And if you’re playing it for other reasons, you’ve probably chosen the wrong game. — MC
Next self-interview: Pending