Poker is a peculiar game. There’s no score. If you’re playing a cash game, there’s no winner. If you’re playing a tournament, there’s one winner and a zillion losers. Your opponents can play terribly and win a bundle. You can play great and crash and burn. All of this peculiarity has left more than one player completely frustrated, groveling to the poker gods for a break. Clearly, if you’ve been reduced to begging for better luck, you probably haven’t succeeded. But what is success at poker? And how it is measured?
First, I’ll tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t a win rate. If you poke around on the internet, you’re bound to find dozens of people who will gladly tell you that if you don’t win $20 on average for every 100 hands you play at game X, then you must suck. Or they’ll tell you that they win $20 for every 100 hands, but they don’t expect a lowly mortal such as yourself to win that much, so maybe you should win $10 for every 100 hands. And if you don’t, you suck.
Please ignore these people. Most of them are full of it. They don’t win nearly as much as they say they do. In fact, you should take it for granted that any poker player telling you how much money they make is bending the truth at least a little bit. Most bend a lot. Don’t compare your real results to someone else’s fantasy. You can’t possibly live up to it.
If you’re good at poker, you can definitely win money. But unless you’re uncommon and outstanding, you won’t be retiring to a tropical paradise with your winnings any time soon. Your long-term wins will likely be modest. That’s reflected in the sheer numbers. There are lots of good poker players around, and they can’t all win fortunes. The money just isn’t there.
For example, I’ve been lucky enough to sell over 250,000 copies of my poker books. I believe that most people who buy and study my books will become better players. But most of them won’t be $100,000-plus winners at poker. They can’t be. Multiply 250 thousand by 100 thousand and you get a figure that would impress even the Department of Defense.
So, what does it mean? As a player, you have to develop non- monetary metrics for poker success. Success isn’t necessarily winning as much money as some internet braggart says you should win. Success at poker for you might mean getting something meaningful back from the game in exchange for the time and effort you put into it.
For many players, it’s as simple as enjoying your time at the table. If playing poker lifts your mood and exercises your brain, then that alone might constitute success. While it may seem a low bar, I have seen enough temper tantrums at the table to know that a lot of people clearly don’t enjoy themselves when they play.
The only way I know how to enjoy the game is to work at becoming a better player. I find my joy when I win an extra bet or an extra pot using newly-acquired skills and knowledge. One of my favorite plays is stealing a big river pot all-in that I know, based on my reads, my opponent simply can’t call. Another one I like is value-betting the river, knowing my opponent likely has ace-high and will be too suspicious of my aggressive style to find a fold. Each time I run these plays well, I feel a twinge of success. These are plays I never made early in my career because my hand reading wasn’t as refined. Over time, I learned which opponents couldn’t call a shove, while my style at the start wasn’t aggressive enough to induce ace-high call-downs. These moments are concrete successes in my never-ending journey to poker mastery.
I like to focus on particular hands and sessions to measure my success. Other players focus on numbers. Instead of setting money goals, they try to play a certain number of hands a month. Reaching that goal is success. Or some online players will adjust their play so their statistics hit certain targets. The closer they get, the more they’ve succeeded. These particular criteria don’t mean much to me, but I think they can be reasonable ways to measure poker achievement.
Yet, if you’re trying to measure your own success, you should avoid a money focus for two reasons. One, of all the things you can control when you play, how much you win is the one thing you control the least. If you focus on financial goals, you’re bound to disappoint yourself. That’s because of card variance, plain and simple. Second, if you repeatedly miss your monetary goals, you may become a little desperate. Every day desperate poker players make bad decisions. They play bigger than they should. They hit friends up for loans they likely won’t be able to repay. Or they become prey for others looking to make a buck. If you keep your focus on the mechanics of the game, and on things you can control like your own education, you’re more likely to keep your wits about you and also appreciate how you grow as a player and what you accomplish.
Above all, when you’re trying to measure poker success, the yardstick has to be personal. You can’t use someone else’s benchmark. Win rates on anonymous forums don’t apply to you, and the numbers are likely a figment of a player’s overactive imagination. Every player respects the game for different reasons and gauges progress uniquely. No matter what you choose, if you evaluate yourself in a reasonable way, hopefully you’ll conclude that all the hours you’ve invested, and all the ups and downs you’ve experienced, have been worth it.
If your goal is long-term, sustained success at 2-5 or higher, you must learn to tackle the emotions that come with the game. From my perspective, this means learning to steel yourself to the game’s day-to-day, week-to-week results. After a week’s worth of play, you can be up $5,000, or down the same amount. This number by itself says little to nothing about whether you’re playing with a long-term advantage that will create an expected positive win rate going forward.
Don’t get hung-up on your results. After every session, remind yourself that results don’t matter. What matters is how you’re learning. And how you’re mastering the skills in this and other books. How you’re analyzing your hands away from the game. Studying your betting patterns. Talking to other players you trust.
After reading about bet-sizing tells for instance, how did you integrate that skill? Did you notice someone make a small bet, then peg it as a weak hand and raise to win a pot? Did you fire a river barrel for the first time? If it didn’t work—and that’s the reason you lost—that could be a good thing. Analyze the hand. Did you follow barreling principles in this book? Did you bet into a weak range, but your opponent happened to have one of his best possible hands? If so, that’s bad luck. But perhaps overall you played well for the day. But if you didn’t—say you picked a bad spot to bluff—that’s part of the learning process, too. Once you’ve analyzed a hand you’ve learned from it. And you’ve turned a negative into a positive going forward.
Furthermore, make sure you’re well-bankrolled for the level you’re playing. If you’re thinking, “Gee, a few more days like this, and I won’t be able to play at all,” it’s a sign you’re in trouble. Even if the math says you should be fine, this line of thinking is almost guaranteed to taint your decisions. You’re much better off feeling like you can play and lose, and it won’t affect your ability to play the next day.
Also consider different buy-in options as a first step. Instead of buying in for $500, try $300. You might feel you’re less at risk as you learn. Failing that, move down a level. You’re better off feeling confident at 1-2 than jittery at 2-5.
Figuring out your level and how to create a comfortable playing schedule is hard for every player at the start. You’re not alone. Some of your peace of mind comes from making sure you bring enough money when you play. I know I feel self-conscious if I only arrive with two buy-ins. If I get stacked in one hand, all of a sudden I realize I have my last dollar (for the day at least) on the table. I don’t like the feeling—I find it distracting. So I try to avoid it.
One final, but important, point about this game. When you play 1-2, a big part of strong, defensive poker at this level is learning how not to get stacked. You don’t want to pay other players off. And you want to value hands correctly so you’re more likely to get action from worse hands, and less likely to overplay and get stacked against the nuts. It’s fine at 1-2 to avoid getting stacked when it’s imposed on you.
Once you move up to 2-5 and higher, that’s no longer your goal. Getting stacked at these levels is an essential part of a winning strategy. For the most part, you’re playing with people who have already mastered not getting stacked at 1-2. If you play like them, you won’t create any edge. So while you won’t often get stacked, you also won’t win much over the long term.
Winning at 2-5 requires a counter-strategy that often takes advantage of your opponents’ unwillingness to get stacked. You take advantage of this unwillingness by putting stacks in play with large turn and river bets (and bluffs). The math is with you, since your opponents will back down to this pressure often enough for you to show a profit. But sometimes you’ll run into a big hand and, well, you’ll get stacked.
Many players find this embarrassing. You run a big bluff on the river, and your opponent snap calls and slams quads down. You just shoved into quads. Don’t you feel dumb?
But you shouldn’t feel dumb. In fact, quads is exactly the hand I want to be shown when my bluff fails. It’s a rare hand that people play in funky ways, and obviously it’s a hand players will never fold. In other words, on nearly any bluff, there’s some threat your opponent will show up with quads (or some similar nutted hand). But obviously because these hands are so rare, if you tend to get snapped off by these big hands, it means your bluffs are working like they should against all the lesser hands. You’re doing something very right.
It’s when people snap off my all-in bluff with one pair, or even ace-high, that I feel a little sheepish. These hands cause me to reevaluate my strategy. But, I’m never embarrassed. Maybe I made a mistake. But every single player at every single table makes lots of mistakes. Most players usually don’t go down in flames for everyone to see. But that’s because they’re timid, unimaginative players who will never do what’s necessary to really get good at the game and take big chances that sometime fail. And that’s the bottom line.
If your goal is to master 2-5 and move higher, you have to embrace the occasional massive train wreck. You’ll think a hand through, commit your stack, and then have it blow up in your face. Learn to wear these moments like a badge of honor. It’s a horrible cliché, but utterly true in poker: no pain, no gain. You take risks and build essential strategic muscle for the next time.
Vanessa Selbst, for instance, is notorious for “blowing up.” She runs huge, daring plays for all the money. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it looks really dumb. But look at her success. The occasional blow up is an integral part of her winning equation.
As much as humanly possible, your decisions should be based on logic. If you feel emotions creeping in, you’re likely to make errors. Quit the table for at least an hour to recompose yourself. If you’re frustrated from running bad, you’ll make errors. If you’re elated from running good, you’ll make errors. If you’re embarrassed or too anxious to try certain plays due to social pressures, you’ll make errors. Above all, your goal is to play numb, and reduce your emotional reaction to an absolute minimum. If you do that, and develop the other skills we’ve covered so far in this book, you’ll have what it takes to win solidly at 2-5 and move up as you desire.
To learn more about tilt and hard feelings that rise as you play, I recommend the work of Tommy Angelo. He was a professional mid-stakes player for years, and his greatest strength was how he controlled the emotional aspects of the game. Over the last decade, he’s tackled the topic in an original, whimsical way that’s sure to make you think. I recommend his book Elements Of Poker as an introduction to his work.