Secondly, happy holidays! 'Tis the season to frustrate your family - they want to spend time together and share the holiday spirit, you're taking advantage of friends in town to get a poker game together - and THIS YEAR, you're a favorite to take all of their money. (Yes, that is a picture of the No Limit Texas Dreidel game embedded at left.)
Lately I've been reflecting on my play over the course of the year, and in recent months. Two phenomena have taken place this year. First, I think my understanding of the game has continued to expand. I think about certain aspects more than I previously had, I am thinking about and applying new concepts. I've expanded the number of games that I play regularly just a bit, and it has helped me with the games that I play more frequently (i.e. the number of PLO hands I played this year has improved my No Limit Hold 'em play). Second, and conversely, after having a really strong September and early October, I got cocky, and started to neglect the many things that were contributing to my success. I began trying to outplay my opponents on every hand, trying to win every pot, stopped paying close attention to my opponents and their betting patterns, and finally, berated them (mostly in my head, I hope) for playing badly, when in fact, they were playing ME beautifully. THEY knew what I was doing wrong long before I did. That is a recipe for disaster. After playing my best poker ever, I spent two months playing some of my very worst.
In my last couple of sessions, I have changed my approach to the game, and re-adopted several tenets, which I believe are the key to any poker player's long-term success:
- Let the game come to me. Don't try to win every pot, don't try to outplay my opponents on every hand. Look for opportunities to get value on your big hands, and pick up orphaned pots. Having a winning session doesn't mean winning the most pots, it means winning the important pots, and winning them big.
In my most recent session, I employed a gimmick. I'd been playing so unruly that my opponents never believed me. What's more, when they didn't, it reinforced my behavior - "they don't believe that I'm playing good hands, why shouldn't I see every flop?" Sure, I could get equity on my big hands, however rarely they came (I literally didn't flop a set in hold 'em for 8 weeks), but I had zero bluff equity. I was winning disproportionately large pots with strong hands, but losing tons of medium pots by people calling me down with third pair and the disproportionately large number of suck outs on the turn and river, because they NEVER gave me credit for a good hand.
The gimmick? I told my opponents I was only betting with the best hand, and that I would show it to them every time I won a pot (by attrition or at showdown). And I did. I showed them, I told them that I knew second pair was good, or that I knew they were on a flush draw. After a couple hours of winning with the best hand, things returned to equilibrium. I was able to get them to fold just enough. By next session, they'll forget that I'm not a maniac 100% of the time, and I'll have to make big hands and kill them with 'em, or look for a new gimmick.
- Respect the competition. The players at your table will have varied ability, but if they've played a dozen times previously, and they're back, they have some idea of what they're doing. Apply your energy to learn what they do well, and what mistakes they make. Don't assume you'll win every, or even most, hands against them - and don't try. When you do get involved, exploit their leaks, look for value; you'll come out ahead in the long run.
- Observe, study, absorb. Remember your best sessions? Remember how you knew what your opponents held, knew when they were bluffing, knew when you had to lay down a big hand? You were observing their movements, even subconsciously. You were watching how they put their bets in, what types of hands they held, how they reacted to board cards, how they were sitting... you observed everything. It takes practice, and I was out of practice. When you observe on this level, you cannot help but win.