Game Selection

Game selection is very important in poker and this is especially true as the number of players decreases at a table. At a full table if there is one really bad player the benefits of his lack of skill will be shared by the entire table. At the other end of the spectrum is heads up play where 100% of the equity an opponent gives up will go straight to you.

Additionally, at a full table it will take more time to reap the benefits of playing against a bad player because everyone plays so many fewer hands with more people at a table, and thus there are fewer occasions when you and the bad player are in the pot together where you are earning money because of his mistakes. Of course, the opposite is true and if you are the inferior player in a heads‐up match you will lose your money faster. Therefore, especially in heads‐up play, it is important to find the good tables and to leave the bad ones alone.

Just how important this is, is obscured by the idea of win rates. Take the amount of money won and divide by hours played and this is your hourly rate. It is helpful information but it is an aggregate of other information, and thus misrepresents what really happened. It can be used productively, but must also be used carefully. This is because the notion of “hourly rate” makes it look like for every hour played the expected value was the stated amount, and that for any given hour in the future the same expected win rate holds true.

However many factors affect expected win rate in different situa‐ tions. Maybe your opponents were worse than average in certain games, or maybe your opponents were a lot better than normal. Maybe your opponents were average but you were playing particu‐ larly good poker or maybe they went on tilt for fifteen minutes. All of these factors are very important to consider since when playing poker vague thinking is a killer. In the middle of a session, being mindful of your opponents will pay dividends. Constantly evaluate the game you are in. Ask yourself questions such as “Does this op‐ ponent have a tendency to go on tilt?” and “Am I a lot better than him or just a little better?”. And then perhaps say “If I’m just a little better maybe it’s not worth it to play him because I can simply choose a different game versus an even worse opponent”, and so on.

Part of game selection cannot be controlled. For instance, without sitting in a game it’s often hard to tell whether someone is playing very poorly, whether someone is tilting, or whether a new player you are unfamiliar with is bad or good. Also as far as tilt goes, in a HU match people generally don’t start out on tilt. It takes some time until something happens that will set them off and you can’t control that – it just happens and you have to wait for it. What can be con‐ trolled is what level of effort you put into evaluating how good the game is for you. The more effort you put in the sooner you can de‐ cide whether it’s a good game or bad game, and by what degree – and then you can make good game selection decisions and do any number of things, such as change tables, play a longer session than normal or leave immediately. These are all opportunities to exercise good game selection, and consequently increase your win rate.

Putting numbers on this will illustrate just how important good game selection is. Playing a table of $5/$10 NLHE might yield Player X $200 an hour on average. However, if he has a tilt problem and every now and then tilts in a very serious way for 10 minutes, dur‐ ing that time period he might average ‐$2,500 an hour. Also, some‐ times he plays heads up but only versus players he knows are bad and here he averages $1,000 an hour.

These numbers are made up but they are plausible, since there is a huge range in what is possible for individual win rates, which will average out over time to an hourly rate. The key is to make the aver‐ age turn out as high as possible by acting on the information seen in the individual win rates. What Player X needs to do is stop tilting, but if he can’t he needs to exercise good game selection and just leave a table when he is tilting. Note that ‐$2,500 an hour comes out to ‐$416.66 for every 10 minutes. If normally he tilts for 10 minutes, maybe he could raise his level of discipline and awareness so that after 5 minutes he realizes what is happening, and at that point ex‐ ercises good game selection and leaves. That would save him $208.33, which is a full hour of work for him according to his hourly rate. By doing that little thing he saves himself a full hour of work in the future – that is how important game selection is.

Another option suggested by this information is that player X only plays HU matches since he earns so much more in them compared to his normal $200 an hour yield. Unless the HU games are both rare and he really needs all the money he can get his hands on and/or he enjoys playing his normal game that earns $200 an hour, it makes a lot more sense to just wait for HU matches, since he only needs to play one hour of a good HU match to make what would have taken five hours of the normal game.

Another advantage of good game selection is that it reduces the im‐ portance of variance. Say Player X plays someone at a win rate of $1,000 an hour, someone else at a win rate of $0 an hour, and a third player at a win rate of ‐$1,000 an hour. During five hours of play vs. each of those people Player X gets very unlucky and loses $4,000 in expected value vs. the first player, which means $5,000 – $4,000 = $1,000 won. Versus the second player it is $0 won, so –$4,000 = $4,000 lost. And finally vs. the last opponent Player X lost $5,000 in expected value and then another $4,000, which comes out to a $9,000 loss.

Note that the variance was the same in each of these matches. How‐ ever, even when Player X got unlucky versus the bad player he still won overall. To the outside spectator this can be confusing. If Player X only plays bad people he will always win (unless he either gets especially unlucky, or as the time period gets shortened it becomes more and more likely for Player X to lose). To the outsider it appears as if Player X is really lucky, but that’s not the case – he experiences the same variance as everyone but is so much better than his oppo‐ nent that he still manages to win even when unlucky. Note also how being a really good player and exercising good game selection are effectively the same thing, since skill in poker is always relative.

Versus the better player the session was a disaster. Even if the vari‐ ance had been completely reversed so it was in Player X’s favor and he won $4,000 more than he should have he still would lose $5,000 according to his win rate and come out down $1,000. What Player X should have done is play for as many hours as possible versus the bad player, and quit versus the other two players as soon as he had played enough hands to evaluate them as skilled opponents.

This point about relativity in poker is very important and the only thing that matters is how someone matches up against you. A player could be good, but relative to you (since you are a very good player) you would consider them bad. Similarly, in the many hand exam‐ ples that follow in this book a constant refrain when describing the opponent is “he is bad” or “he is easy to read”. These opponents really aren’t that bad, and if they simply played against a different opponent at the same stakes they could be favorites, or if they moved down in stakes then once again they would probably do fine. They are not bad opponents per se – simply worse than me. Most of the hands are examples of good game selection by me and bad game selection by my opponents, and for the most part my opponents suf‐ fer for it.

Game selection is also relevant in terms of your general poker schedule. Some people like to log a certain amount of time per day and quit. Others will play and then quit to lock up a win, or if they lose keep playing until they get even. Others will do the opposite and if they are winning keep playing and if losing stop. The right course of action is certainly to play longer when you are winning and quit earlier when you are losing rather than set specific times for yourself to play, which makes you inflexible. If you are winning this increases the chances that the game is good so you should keep playing. If you are losing it increases the chances that the game is bad and you should quit. Similarly, if you are winning it probably means you are playing well and now your confidence is especially high so you should keep playing, and if you are losing you are probably playing badly and now your confidence is low so you should quit.

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