Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2010) in Poker Player newspaper.
Over the years, I’ve presented over 50 poker seminars. Some have been spread over days and some have lasted only an hour and a half or less. Lately, I’ve confirmed my stature as a hermit. I stick close to my computers, here in my forest by a lake in the Ozarks, and seldom make public appearances.
I left these quiet surroundings last year to conduct a series of six seminars – joined by Doyle Brunson – at the Rio during the World Series of Poker. Although I was honored to see a seminar clip included in an ESPN profile of me recently, even that hasn’t motivated me to travel from my hermitage. Instead, I’m devoting today’s self-interview to six important tips I’ve selected from past lectures, while mentally reliving the experience of actually delivering them in person.
Question 1: Why is it possible to win at poker?
In a way, that’s an entry-level question. But even long-time professionals fail to remind themselves of the reason why they should win, and that sometimes leads to bankroll catastrophe. Here it is in a nutshell. I use that old saying sometimes, even though I could never really understand what it means. Nothing goes in a nutshell except a nut, if you ask me – but I’m wandering off topic.
You can’t win at most casino games, because you’re playing against the house. The odds are pre-established in their favor, and there’s nothing you can do about it. In poker, you’re not playing against the casino; you’re challenging other players.
Essentially, you’re creating your own odds, and if you play superior poker, you’re taking the role of the casino and giving yourself an edge. That’s why you can win at poker, but there must actually exist a favorable gap between your skill and your opponents’ skills. Otherwise, you have no edge. So, choose your opponents carefully. The bigger the gap, the better your odds.
Question 2: Can you explain value betting in a few words?
In a few words – oh, you mean in a nutshell. Okay, while there seem to be competing definitions of value betting, I define it as making slightly above marginal bets and raises at high risk. Since these wagers have only a small advantage, your daily results will fluctuate more when you do a lot of value betting. But the small edges add up and eventually account for a decent share of your profit.
Oddly, many otherwise skillful players lose money by trying to value bet. You’ve got to stop value betting into unpredictable and aggressive opponents, because they’re apt to raise unexpectedly and leave you having to call. Even though that call might be justified by the size of the pot, you usually would have been better off checking.
And you should stop value betting into frequent bluffers, because you make more money by giving them the opportunity to exhibit their weakness of bluffing too often. Checking and calling is usually better. Finally, if you’re losing and no longer have a dominating image, you should seldom value bet, because opponents are inspired and play better and more deceptively against you. Limit your value betting to times when you’re in control of the game and against predictable, non-aggressive opponents.
Question 3: What’s the simplest indication that someone is bluffing?
Lack of animation. When you’re against an opponent who typically moves a bit, look for a suddenly frozen posture following the bet. These bluffers are fearful that anything they do might look suspicious and trigger your call. So they often become statues.
Question 4: How should you react to a nervous bettor?
Obvious signs of nervousness, especially a suddenly trembling hand, are almost never indications of a bluff. Instead, they represent a release of tension after the suspense ends and your opponents know they probably have winning hands. You should usually fold, unless your hand is awesome.
Question 5: Which players should you focus on when looking for tells?
The biggest mistake in tell observation is watching too many opponents at once. If you try to do that, you’re apt to see nothing and you’ll end up speculating that tells don’t work.
Pay particular attention to the players interacting with you in this pot, right now. Focus on just one player when you’re not in a pot and see what you can determine. Often the result will be that you’ll learn nothing. That’s fine. Tells are occasional, and some players exhibit them much more often than others. Move on to the next player – observing one by one.
Also, focus on the players to your left before making the first wager. Most poker opponents are actors. Frequently, players intending to play will look uninterested or will be staring away. Players pretending to be attentive or reaching slightly toward their chips are less likely to compete. And if you see a lot of those, you can play a few hands profitable “out of position,” because your adjusted position is really later than it appears.
In general, you should study the opponents who are the most animated, because they have the greatest chance of displaying tells.
Question 6: How big a bankroll do you need to begin a professional poker career?
A minimum buy-in works fine. You’ll probably lose it, but maybe you’ll get lucky and launch a new bankroll that can grow from there. Keep in mind that trying to start a career with $50 and giving yourself 100 tries is just as likely to result in success as gathering $5,000 to begin your first session. The difference is that if you keep trying in small chunks, you may never need to gather a huge starting bankroll, so that approach might be superior.
If that advice startles you, let me add this: Most pros started out underfunded and eventually got kick-started with a good run of luck. The smaller your bankroll, the more willing you should be to risk it all, because it can be replenished through real-world activity. But the larger it become, the more cautious you should be. Protect bankrolls after they grow, because it’s much harder to replace them. — MC