Climbing the Limit Poker Mountain

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”
–Abigail Adams
Over a year ago, I wrote about reaching a plateau in my knowledge of limit poker. The light-bulb moments of discovery so common during the head-first plunge into holdem had become so infrequent that I felt my knowledge had reached some sort of plateau. I knew there was much more to learn, but couldn’t figure out how to climb any higher, advancing my knowledge and reaching the peak. And here I am a year later, playing much higher limits and having a much better “feel” for the game, but I still feel like there’s a long way to go to reach the top of the mountain.
During last year’s WSOP, Jesse May investigated the freakish playing style of Ted Forrest. At the time, I hadn’t seen much of Ted’s play, but what I had seen impressed me. I can’t explain what it was, but every time I saw Ted, it looked like he knew something that his opponents didn’t know. Some sort of poker secret that gave him a little bit of an edge over the other world class players sitting at his table.
And then I read this paragraph:
“But as far as I can tell, about eight to ten years ago Ted Forrest got into running poker simulations through a computer. He got together with the Eight or Better Kid, that maniacal pudge faced infuriatingly always right paranoid control freak from the Midwest USA, and they started running simulations that nobody had thought of. Weird simulations, flexible maybes, particular situations with certain kinds of players involving percentages of things that might possibly be happening. I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I seen what it did to them. I seen strange looks on their faces and strange glints in their eyes. They don’t play like everybody else, and I seen them spin people round and round and round.”
Simulation. And hard work. Stuff that nobody’s ever done. All of these things struck a chord, and I thought I finally understood Ted Forrest’s ever-present mischevious smile.
Rewind to May of 2003. After playing 30,000 hands of Turbo Texas Hold Em on my PC, I strolled into Hollywood Park casino, ready to take on the $2-$4 game. Beating other players seemed easier than squeaking out a small edge against the house at the Blackjack tables, and I figured nobody else at the $2-$4 table even knew what Turbo Texas Hold Em was. I had to be at least even money in this game. I’d never played online, so this would be my first time playing for real money.
After figuring out how to post the blinds and act in turn, I started to look beyond my cards and observe the other players. I noticed that they played a lot worse than the computer players on Turbo Texas Hold Em. I noticed that I seemed to be the only one who folded more often than called, and that the concept of “implied odds” and “pot odds” seemed unknown to the other players. They all seemed to have one thing in common: they were there to gamble.
As I continued to gain experience at the live tables and the virtual tables, I began to see that my advantage over my opponents came mostly from two things: discipline and knowledge accumulated away from the table. Unlike my opponents, I wasn’t there to gamble. I was there to play my best poker and the discipline to throw away my cards when I didn’t have the best of it gave me an advantage over people who were happy to put their money in on a coin flip. These same opponents also weren’t interested in studying the game, putting in the long hours away from the table thinking about such fine-grained concepts as how much equity suited aces have in multi-way pots.
The only real advice I ever got about poker was excellent, and came from a fellow card-counter who had made the switch to poker. His advice: “move up in limits as fast as you can.” He didn’t specify what “you can” meant, but my interpretation was “as fast as your bankroll will allow.”
As my bankroll grew and allowed it, I moved up in limits. The players were much tougher, but still lacked discipline and had flaws in their game when it came to the mathematical side of the game. Experience is a great teacher, but most people have a hard time with probability, odds, and mathematical concepts in general. My tough opponents still seemed to make a lot of small mistakes despite the fact that they had been playing this game for years.
The stakes were getting higher, and some of the players were getting better, but still, most of my opponents came to the table to gamble. I continued to study the works of two players who seemed to understand the value of computer simulations, Abdul Jalib and Izmet Fekali. Both men had come up with strategy suggestions that differed significantly from that offered by the old-school poker theorists such as Sklansky and Malmuth, and they seemed to be right.
Every time I sat down at the table against opponents with more experience than me, I was bolstered by the confidence of countless hours of studying the game, as well as the results of millions of simulated hands that my opponents had never seen. I felt that I was a “student of the game,” and combined with discipline and focus, this made up for any disadvantage I had in experience.
At this point I was convinced that simulations seemed to hold the key to gaining and edge over my opponents. They had experience and knowledge, but if even the mighty Sklansky couldn’t figure out optimal strategy, then there was much to be learned from simulations. Experience was important too, but great poker players are not made by experience alone.
Back to Ted Forrest.
“I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I seen what it did to them. I seen strange looks on their faces and strange glints in their eyes. They don’t play like everybody else, and I seen them spin people round and round and round.”
How do you get an edge over people who have mastered this game? If all of the experts know the odds and how to exploit their tiny edges, how do you beat the experts? What is the difference between the best players in the game and the good players in the game?
The tiny percentages of Expected Value that accumulate by making the right play over and over again in the toughest situations differentiate the great from the good. I’m convinced that these tiny edges can be discovered through careful and thoughtful simulation.
Now that I’ve accumulated some experience and studied all the works of the great minds of poker, it’s time for me to make some of my own discoveries. As an undergrad, I shored up my knowledge of many subjects, carefully studying the findings and contributions of the experts to their respective fields. In graduate school, it was time to take these concepts and discover something on my own– make my own contribution to the field through new ways of applying what I’d learned as an undergrad.
So I’ve begun my ascent toward the peak of limit hold ’em knowledge. Running simulation after simulation and thinking hard about the results of each one isn’t always fun, but the end of the climb is always the hardest part. If I’m ever going to find an edge over the great players, it’s not going to be because of my experience or natural card sense. However, I do think I may be able to “out-study” them.
All simulation and no play makes HDouble a dull boy, but hopefully a dull boy who knows the game inside and out.
What are you doing to improve your game? What are your opponents doing?

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