This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
For everything you know, there is a time before you knew it. That’s important, and I’m going to repeat it. For every single thing that someone else is stupid for not knowing, there was a muffled moment in your own life when you didn’t know it, either. And there are definable instants in our lives before which we are ignorant and after which we are informed.
Why am I telling you this? I don’t know. Maybe I should take it back and start this column off in a different direction. Let me think. No, let’s just stick with this and see where it leads.
Somewhere along the poker path between the total ignorance, where we all begin, and total mastery, which is still somewhere beyond the horizon when we die, is a point where you are now. Look around you. This is your spot on the path. Here you will rest, and then you will walk forward some more and become an even better player. This is how it will be for you, but not for everyone. Some people stop along the poker path and can’t find their compass. They are apt to hike backward, revisiting places where their game was much weaker.
But not us. You and I take poker seriously, and because we do, I’m going to reveal two selected lessons you will eventually learn on the poker path. These are things you may not have mastered yet. They are, perhaps, ahead of you on the path, but I’m going to transport you directly to those places now. Here are the two things I believe most medium-skilled players need to work on.
By medium-skilled, I mean someone who is capable of winning a small amount of money, but often losses or breaks about even for long stretches of time, even for years.
1. You don’t have to play in that game
The main reason most break-even players don’t earn a lot of money isn’t that they lack the skills to win. The reason is that they aren’t applying the skills they have in the right games. You just can’t imagine how important game selection is.
Now a lot of you who know me will say, “Hey, Mad Genius, I see you playing in tough games all the time. I don’t see you driving all over the universe trying to find the best poker games.” OK, fine. I don’t do it. I’m bad. Are you finished interrupting now? Good. Even I should spend a lot more effort finding good games, but I can probably get by without doing that, because – frankly – the games all look good to me. Still, it doesn’t make much sense for me to play in a game where I expect to average $50 an hour if there’s a game where I can expect to average $500 an hour. Come to think of it, I’ll work on this aspect of my game next year. That’s powerful advice when I see it typed right in front of me.
Anyway, about you. If you’re no longer a novice, but not a professional player, game selection may be the key to winning money. Without using any selection, you’ll probably lose dramatically. By using selection moderately, you’ll probably lose a little or break even. But by using game selection prudently and consistently, you probably will be a winner from now on.
Suppose you were in business and wanted to set up shop. It’s been said of businesses that cater to the public that the three main advantages you can have are location, location, and location. Fine. So, what does this have to do with poker? Plenty. If you’re trying to earn money at poker, then you are a business. But you don’t have a location, right?
Sure you do. In poker, your business location is wherever the game is. So, unlike opening a storefront and carefully choosing a location that will be profitable over the years, in poker you have the advantage of being able to select your location again and again every time you choose to play.
A good poker location is simply one with weak players who are enjoying the game. Good signs are a lot of friendly talk and some laughter. Silence is generally a sign of a serious game among serious opponents who are not planning to giggle and give you their money gladly. Avoid silence.
When you have a choice of games, choose the one that has the weaker and looser players. You want lots of callers in the pots and not too many raisers. It’s much easier to win from players who call too often, but don’t raise when they have the advantage. These loose, but timid players are the ones you should seek.
But the main part of this secret is: You don’t have to play at all. If you’re a top professional player, you can sit in the toughest games without losing significantly. If you’re an average player, though, and you take my advice to be more selective, then there’s something you must know. You are going to lose money in most tough games. You’re just not good enough yet to handle these. There may come a day when you will be good enough, but that day is not now. Now is when you need to accumulate a bankroll, and you can only do this by avoiding the games where you will lose.
So, simply, always remember that location is important in your poker business and, also, that you don’t have to play today. Unlike that shop owner who must open his door day after day no matter what, you won’t harm your future profit if you take off and go fishing.
2. Don’t let losing bother you.
Sure, you’ve heard me talk about this before. I have often said that the main key to poker success is to simply play your best game all the time. The difference between playing your best game all the time and most of the time is so monumental that I don’t think you’d believe me if I tried to give dollar examples.
Let me just say that most players who lose a little money overall at poker would be significant life-long winners if they simply played their best game all the time. But they don’t. Losing can be frustrating, and players tend to become desperate in an attempt to get even or return to their highest level of profit. Players who lose hands that they expected to win often become mentally unstable. Temporarily, I mean. They play too many hands. They call bets unwisely. They bluff too often and at the wrong times.
This tends to turn moderate losses into huge losses. Players need to believe that the money they’re adding to the loss is as important as other money. It doesn’t feel the same. Most smaller-limit players who lose $387 do not feel any more damaged than they would have had they lost $327. That extra $60 seems to disappear and have no significance, and as a consequence they don’t play the same critical game of poker they would if they’d been losing $5. At that point, cashing out $5 loser or cashing out $55 winner does make a measurable difference to them. And it’s the same $60, just as real and just as spendable.
Players who have advanced down the poker path, but are not yet winners, need to realize that their main enemy is likely to be themselves. How can I talk in such general terms about a whole group of break-even and small-losing players? Easy. What I’m saying is true for almost every single member of that enormous group of players. That’s why I said it, and I’m glad I did.
I’ve talked about the Threshold of Misery at my seminars. This is what you cross when you’ve lost more than what you envisioned was likely in a poker session. Beyond the Threshold of Misery lies a land of danger. Here you can add to your disaster without feeling any more agony. That’s because your capacity for agony has been maximized. Anything added is unfelt.
People will argue that trimming $60 off that $387 loss I talked about isn’t as good as winning $60. They’ll tell you that if you win $60, you can spend it. But you can spend the other $60, too. In fact, it’s really the same thing. Exactly the same thing. That’s right, it’s not almost the same thing, or the same thing in some theoretical sense, but exactly the same thing. It’s just as real and just as spendable.
Spendable? How can you spend money you don’t have? But, my friend, you do have it. You don’t believe it? Let’s pretend you lost that $387, instead of the $327 you might have lost had you continued to play your best game. Now you’re heading for home feeling battered, but I walk up to you and say, “Here. I think you could have done a little better tonight, so here’s $60.” I hand you three $20 bills and disappear beyond the door before you can react.
“I can’t believe this,” you mumble aloud. “The Mad Genius just handed me $60 for free. I think I’ll go buy me one of those instant cameras.” But then it dawns on you that you could have done the same thing yourself. You could have lost $327, instead, and then you could have spent your own $60 on the instant camera. Hey, I guess money won and money not lost are really the same, you realize.
OK, so it’s not going to happen. I’m not going to give you $60, and you don’t have any guarantee that you would have saved exactly $60 if you’d played properly. It’s just an estimate. But you get the point, right?
Another thing: If you want to start winning today, then stop letting your losses bother you. If you play your best game, losses won’t bother you, because you won’t have yourself to blame. It’s easy to shrug off a loss if you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do. It’s not so easy to shrug off if you caused it or added to it.
3. Make it a new poker lifestyle.
I want you to win, and there are only two things I’m asking you to do for me:
- Make game selection your top priority, starting now – and remember, you don’t have to play today;
- Don’t let losing bother you – and it probably won’t, unless you neglectfully add to your own losses.
If you’re anywhere along the main part of the poker path – not a novice and not a pro – these two things can bring you profit quite suddenly. You’ll see.