Never lose sight of this fact: you only make money at poker when you play better than your opponents. Every single winning player has something in common. They all play against a field of players inferior to themselves.
The single most important decision you can make at a poker table is whether or not to sit. In Treat Your Poker Like A Business, Dusty referred to this as choosing a good location for your enterprise. In Way of the Poker Warrior, Paul referred to it as picking your battles. It’s so important that we’re both going to say it again in this book. Play against players that
are weaker than you and take their money.
There is a swelling collection of poker players, supposed
authorities among them, that will call you a bumhunter if you’re good at this. Ignore them. Keep finding bad players and keep taking their money.
Unless you’re playing heads up, playing with bad players doesn’t always mean not playing with good players. It’s fine to have a few good players at the table if there’s one soft spot to make up for it. In fact, most online games played at $.50/$1 and higher these days are built around a single bad player.
How do you maximize your winnings at a table with four good players and just one bad one? Try to sit in the seat to the immediate left of the bad player. Having position on anyone will help you take their money, and fish are no exception. They’ll be entering many pots ahead of you, and you’ll have an opportunity to isolate them and take the biggest share of the money they’re giving away.
So that’s the most important factor that should keep you at a table. That’s what you’re looking for. A bad player in the seat to your right.
What’s the worst condition that can exist at a table? A tough player on your immediate left. If the tough player is extremely aggressive and goes out of his way to 3-bet your open raises, this can be the worst seat in the house. It’s no fun getting re-raised every two minutes, and it’s not very profitable, either. It’s like playing a heads-up match where you’re out of position every hand. Phil Ivey says his grandmother could beat him if she always had position, and Phil Galfond doesn’t think he could make money in this position, either. Listen to these Phils.
The simplest solution here is unthinkable to those who never want to back down from a fight. Walk away. Don’t sit at that table. Unless you’re playing in a tournament, there’s another more profitable seat somewhere else. Go sit there.
Aside from tournament play, there’s one more situation where you should not abandon a seat to the right of an aggressive player. If there’s an extremely bad player to your right, you can put up with an extremely aggressive player to your left.
When faced with the best and worst of table conditions, you simply have to weigh the two factors against each other.
Is this fish big enough to make it worth dealing with the guy on my left? If so, then you stay at the table. But you need a plan for how to deal with the tough player.
You have two options.
The simplest is to play ridiculously tight when the fish has folded. You still need to get in there and fight for what’s yours when the bad player is in the hand. After all, that’s why you’re still at the table. But when he folds, you should only play hands that you’re willing to commit with. Now you’re making your commitment decision before the flop. This is a reasonable time to listen to the other Phil and focus on those top ten hands.
Your other option is the polar opposite to option number one. That was the path of least resistance. This is the path of most resistance. Fight fire with fire. You’re still going to make a big decision before the flop, but now the decision is to 4-bet every single hand that you opened with. This second option isn’t for everyone. It’s as drastic as option one, but in the opposite direction.
You don’t have to make your raises or c-bets large. You just have to make them often. If you choose this option, don’t even think about not 4-betting preflop. You’re in full court press, pull-out-all-the-stops overdrive. You’re telling your opponent that he’s not in control. He’s not going to push you around. You have to commit to it, though. You have to play top pair like it’s the nuts in these 4-bet pots. Your opponent will be getting it in light and may start shoving back at you. His range is weak, so he’ll have to decide between folding a lot or putting tons of money in the pot with some awful holdings. Most semi-rational players will back off. At that point you can resume playing your normal game and eat all the fish you want.
Option two is not for everyone! Don’t go ballistic if you’re not up for dealing with the consequences. It’s usually a better idea just to tighten up when the fish has folded. And without the fish at the table, you shouldn’t be there either.
Again, they may call you a bumhunter for this. We call it game selection. Poker is not a contest of egos. It’s a contest of intellect. Rational thought should lead you to the above conclusions.
Some players think quitting a bad table is unmanly. Who cares? It’s logical. It’s profitable! It’s the right thing to do.
Other players worry that they won’t improve if they don’t face these tough spots. You’re going to face all the tough spots you want just by playing poker and moving up when your skills and bankroll dictate. You don’t have to seek them out. They will come to you. It’s fine to play at a table with a handful of superstars. Just make sure there’s enough fish around to feed everyone.
You probably don’t seek conflict in life. Life is conflict. You don’t have to make your own. You shouldn’t do any different at the poker table.