Poker Is a Skill: How to Stop Losing, Part 1

  • By Paul Hoppe
  • November 20, 2013
  • Comments Off on Poker Is a Skill: How to Stop Losing, Part 1

volume1Are you happy with your poker results? If your answer is “yes,” that’s awesome. Go you! My colleagues here at The Freeroll have some articles which might help you get even better results. But if your answer is “no,” then don’t despair. You’re in the right place.

In this column, I’ll show you critical concepts that you can use to improve your results. In this first article, we’ll focus on game selection, the skill of choosing your opponents wisely. Regardless of whether you play live or online, Limit or No Limit, Holdem, Omaha, or any other form of poker, this is one of the most important skills you can learn.

Play with players weaker than you

If you hang around winning poker players, you might hear them talk about game selection. That’s because the easiest way to improve your poker results is to find weaker players to play against. The key is not how good your opponents are in an absolute sense. What matters most is that they play worse than you do.

If you were the second-best player in the world and you insisted on playing heads up (1-on-1) against the world’s best, you would lose money. You might get lucky sometimes and have a winning session. That might even happen fairly frequently. But if you played often enough and you played long enough, you would eventually lose all of your money to this opponent.

Let’s say instead that you were the world’s second-worst player. If you were lucky enough to find the world’s worst player and play that hapless fellow heads up, you would be playing with an edge. Poker is all about finding edges and exploiting them. It’s about putting your money in the middle when you have a better chance of winning than your opponent does. The first step is putting your chips down at the right table.

These are extreme examples. Odds are, you’re not the second-best or secondworst player in the world. There is a lot of middle ground here. Sometimes it’s hard to ascertain your opponent’s level of skill. It takes knowledge, experience, and observation. The better you understand how to play poker, the better you’ll be able to judge your opponents and the better you’ll be able to select your games.

So how do I find players worse than me?

“ In general, lower stakes games feature weaker opposition.”

There are a few ways to identify soft opponents, but the first thing you can do is find the games where they’re most likely to be playing. In general, lower stakes games feature weaker opposition. Some cardrooms or online sites may tend to have weaker players than others.  If you know any winning players, you might try talking to them, but not everyone likes to publicize their favorite hunting grounds.

Here’s one unfortunate truth I’ve learned about low-stakes game selection: the worse a casino or poker site is run, the worse the players are likely to be. If a site has terrible software, few professional players are likely to put up with it. If the managers of a cardroom do not understand the rules of poker, solid players will often look elsewhere. If you’re willing to put up with a little discomfort, you might have the softest games all to yourself.

Things can be different at higher stakes, where players are more selective about where they play. Even bad higher stakes players often have more knowledge about the game, and they expect a better experience for their money. They usually have more money. Some of the highest stakes games can have terrible players in them, but these are people who seem to lose on purpose. You get a lot of intelligent people who are capable of playing reasonable poker, but they enjoy gambling it up. Just because someone plays like an idiot doesn’t mean they’re actually an idiot. Good poker is a choice and a commitment.

In order to spot bad players, you need to know what they’re doing wrong. That means you need an idea of how to do it right. The more subtle points will come with time, but in general, you’d like to play against players who play way too many hands – terrible hands in bad situations – and call a lot when they’re unlikely to win. Play with people who put money in the pot against the odds. People who like to gamble.


I found a great game, where should I sit?

Getting in a great game is half the battle. If you have a choice of seats, you would like:

  • On your right: very bad players who play too many hands. When the worst players are on your right, you can play more hands when they have entered the pot.
  • On your left: tighter players who will not give you a hard time. With the tight players on your left, you will play fewer hands out of position and get reraised less often.
  • Across the table: the players who give you trouble. This includes the good players and anyone who puts you off your game. You want these guys as far away from you as possible. If they’re across the table, they won’t be able to harass you. You won’t have to play tricky blind vs. blind or button spots against them.

You can’t always have everything perfect, so these are listed by priority. Focus on getting position on the weaker players whenever you can.

I’m in a tournament and cannot pick my seat. Should I still worry about game selection?

You should think about game selection when you pick which tournaments to play. Find the tournaments which consistently have the weakest fields. It’s okay if there are some strong players out there, but you want the average level of competition to be as low as possible. In general, cheaper tournaments will have weaker fields, but there are $10,000 events like the World Series of Poker that may have shockingly weak players in them. Even once you’re stuck in a seat, you can still apply the core principle of game selection. Instead of picking your table or your seat, you’re picking which of your opponents to be involved with more often than others. Notice the weaker players at your table and be a little more liberal in entering pots with them.

Avoid the tougher players when you can. Don’t fold a great hand just because you may have to play it against a great player, and don’t play a terrible hand just because your opponent plays bad. Make your decisions on marginal hands based on who is likely to be in the pot with you.

Select my game, pick my seat, choose my opponents. Anything else?

Almost every poker game outside of someone’s home will feature an unseen and deadly opponent who never loses. The rake. The dealer (or the software) will remove money from every pot that sees a flop. This means that it’s not enough to be slightly better than your opponents unless the rake is extremely low.

Find out what the rake is in your game. The higher the rake, the larger the gap you need between your and your opponents’ skills. Be sure to take advantage of any rakeback, bonus system, free parking, food, or whatever the house offers in exchange for your loyalty. It all adds up.

And when you find a great game, keep the mood light and your worst opponents entertained. See if you can make them your best friends at the table without being condescending. If they enjoy losing to you, maybe they’ll stick around longer or come back next time. Some opponents might even play worse against you because they like you.

Finding a good game is the most important thing you can do to improve your poker results, so when you do find one, do everything you can to keep it good.

Paul Hoppe
Author of Way of the Poker Warrior
Paul Hoppe
Paul Hoppe
Categories: Freeroll Original

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