Death and Rebirth at the Poker Table

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
–Nelson Mandela
Watching the games on the first Sunday of the NFL season, I can’t help but think back to all the time I spent on the field and how much I miss the game. After 17 years of football, this is the second season that I’ve watched the game as a fan and not a player.
I was also reminded earlier in the week of my football days, when I lost a monster pot in the big Pot Limit game at Hollywood Park. I broke my own rule of not going broke with top pair, and a loose aggressive player slowplayed his Aces to perfection, breaking me in the process. Driving home, the feeling in my stomach was almost identical to the feeling I got when I dropped a big pass or couldn’t come up with the big play in a big game. It’s not that I hate losing so much– what I really don’t like is the feeling that I didn’t play my best.
I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell, who writes about the way myth and archetype affects the narrative of our life. One of my favorite archetypes is the deity who is reborn after a death-like experience and subsequent journey through the underworld. In the attempt to make mythology of my life, I could only see this 6 weeks of running bad as some kind of poker death, a journey through the Hades of bad beats and bad luck. And maybe this big loss in the pot limit game represented the final trial, the last obstacle in the underworld journey before I could return to the winning world of poker.
A couple days later, after I’d licked my wounds, Mrs. Double and I played a heads-up NL Tourney. Of course she hit a 3 outer on the river after we were both all in to knock me out, and my luck continued. After the tourney, Mrs. Double suggested we play a Party Sit-N-Go, so I logged on and fired it up. The cards were unkind early, and we found ourselves slightly shortstacked with the blinds at 50-100. In middle position with pocket 6s, a guy who had been limping with Ace-rag limped again from early position. We threw in a raise, and everyone folded back to the limper. The limper came to life and pushed all in (he had us covered easily), and we were faced with a tough decision. Leave ourselves 400 chips, enough to survive two orbits, or call and hope for the best.
Me: “Do you think he’s got a pair?”
Mrs. Double: “No way!”
Me: “I think he’s got us.”
Mrs. Double: “I want to call…”
Me: “Alright…”
She clicked the call button and as my luck (or unluck) continued, he did in fact have a higher pair: pocket tens. I hated being right, and watched sadly as the first card came the 6s! Joy in Mudville, but only for a second, as the second card out was the Ts. Ah well… the third card was the As, and for a moment I thought we were actually going to be on the side of lady luck. The turn was a fourth spade, and I stood up to get ready for bed. But the river was the 5th spade, putting a flush on the board. The pot was split and we survived, catching a little bit of luck after all. I sat back down, breathing a sigh of relief, and noting just how lucky we really were. It had been a while since I had gotten a break, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I hoped that this was some sort of turning point.
We soon doubled up, catching the limper when we flopped a set. With a little bit of room to work with, we stole our way to the chip lead, and quickly demolished the table, winning the tourney easily after the 5 spades had given us new life. I went to bed hoping that the tide had turned, and maybe the cards would relent on the merciless beating they’d been administering to me on a repeated basis.
And they did. Yes, the occasional river card did kill me, but most of my big hands held up while 4 tabling $3-6, and I ended up with a decent week. So I’m hoping that the poker underworld is behind me (for a while, anyway), and I can get back to winning.
But then again, results don’t really matter anyway.
Enough mythology. A couple links to share, including an excellent article from my favorite CardPlayer writer, Daniel Kimberg. Kimberg breaks down the reason for playing multiple tables:
“Is playing multiple small tables really a good idea? Some experienced players believe it’s too difficult to play well in multiple games simultaneously. If they’re right, your win rate suffers much more than it would appear from the table above. I personally believe that many winning players, especially those who are generally able to make quick decisions in their regular game, should also be able to beat multiple games. And they should be able to realize winning rates comparable to what they earn in larger games.”
And more Sergeant Rock, explaining the most basic requirement for beating any game:
“The most basic thing you gotta do to beat a poker game is…
“Play Differently Than the Other 9 Guys.”
…and I like to call this the Delta Factor. May sound silly, or
too elementary, but basic truths are sometimes like that.
Suppose that you play *real well* but are in a game where
everyone else plays EXACTLY like you do. If there were no rake,
then everyone would break even. Since there generally IS a
rake, then everyone would lose in such a game.”

Of course, in most low-limit games, you do this by playing tight. This “Delta Factor” concept isn’t discussed in any 2+2 book, and seems relatively obvious. But as you go up in limits and the players start to resemble the prototypical “solid” player, you’ve got to find ways to outplay them (or better yet, stay out of their way and attack the fish). Remembering this simple rule will aslo help you find a beatable game, although if you’re playing on Party/Empire, it shouldn’t be too hard.
A while back I promised a review of Ed Miller’s new book, “Small Stakes Hold ‘Em”, so here it is.
In general, I’m not a fan of the 2+2 books, as I find them to be poorly written and usually full of conjectures lacking in statistical/empirical evidence. Small Stakes Hold ‘Em (SSH) is short on statistics, although it’s pretty clear that MIT grad Miller has done some simulation work in the past. SSH offers a very thorough, recipe-like explanation for how to beat loose low-limit games. His advice is excellent, and writing style much clearer than good old Sklansky and Malmuth. For those players that understand the game and are looking for a solid conceptual foundation in Hold ‘Em, Miller’s book is the best out there.
1. Focus on pot size and Expected Value
Throughout the book, Miller’s repeated focus on Expected Value stresses the importance of understanding gambling theory. Loose games are all about getting your money in when you’ll win more than your fair share of the pot, even though you’re an underdog the majority of the time. This concept is difficult to understand for new players.
2. Pot equity
A concept tied to Expected Value, Miller’s book is the first that offers a clear explanation of this difficult concept. Postflop play in loose games is dictated by Pot Equity, and I believe that understanding this concept is crucial for success in loose games.
3. Playing aggressively with marginal hands
Raising with middle pair is a dicey proposition, but Miller does a good job of explaining how to play marginal hands. However, I think it’s easy to take this concept too far, and I see many players throwing in raises when they’re drawing to 4 or 5 outs.
4. Hidden Outs
Miller’s section on hidden outs addresses a subject I’ve yet to see in any other book. In games where the pots are huge, it’s often worth hanging on to your hand and hoping that the board can save you. Knowing these situations can end up winning you lots of big bets.
1. Lack of general theoretical concepts
SSH is more like a manual than a teaching book. Miller tells you how to play, but is usually short on why a certain play is correct. Unlike Gary Carson’s “The Complete Book of Hold ‘Em Poker”, which offers a variety of theoretical approaches to Hold ‘Em, Miller’s scope is restricted to specific concepts of play.
2. Ramming and Jamming
In his section on “Protecting Draws and Buying Outs,” Miller recommends raising to knock out players when holding big draws, such as the nut flush draw. This was about the only thing I disagreed with in the book– I think that we give up a lot of Expected Value by driving away customers when we hold a big draw. With a monster draw, I think it’s a better play to go for the monster pot, keeping everyone in and raising when we’ve already suckered them into the pot. Even if you hit your ace in a big pot (and miss your flush draw), it’s unlikely your top pair will be best in a big field anyway, so I don’t like Miller’s advice here. I suppose we can look at Abdul’s simulations to get an empirical answer on this issue.
In short, Miller’s book is a great book and I recommend it to everyone. Combined with Carson’s theoretical approach, SSH is an excellent resource for improving your play.
Alright that’s enough for today. If you don’t have an Empire account, sign up through this link using bonus code HDOUBLE and you’ll get a 20% bonus up to $100. I may need it to survive my next bad run…

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