An Idiot's Guide To Poker: Time to get serious


It appears I'm alone, in Valencia, on some sort of bungled anti-holiday. I'll spare you the gory details. Actually, I'll give you a few of the gory details: my bank card doesn't work; strangers laugh at me in the street when I try to speak to them in this new language that I've invented which is a cartoonish Spanish-French-English hybrid; I keep getting drunk and misplacing my hotel; I'm starting to smell like ham. Happy? Good, because despite these trivialities I'm also pretty happy. 

This happiness stems from a new set of poker guidelines that I've set. After last week's breathtaking bad run of luck, I decided that I needed something in place for when the bad times strike again. This means a less slapstick approach for bankroll management: I don't play in cash games unless I have over 25 buy-ins for that level anymore; I don't play in tournaments if the buy-in is above £15, unless I satellite in. It means a minimum of one hour's study a day. It means not playing drunk.

But it also means a serious refining of my game. When bad variance hits again - and hit again it will - I need to be in a position where the cards don't matter as much as they do now. Last week, after bleakly losing flip after flip, I decided hide from all-ins wherever possible and instead win pots by: "c-betting mercilessly, three-barrelling with muck, check-raising tons on dangerous boards, min-raising turns with air when scare cards hit and then potting rivers if I thought my bluffs could squeak through."

This min-raising on the turn I particularly like. There are a couple of cash game regulars who c-bet me mercilessly. They raise the button and I call - usually with a hand - in the big blind. They pot-bet the flop. I call. They pot-bet the turn. I usually fold, sometimes call. They pot the river. If I don't have a very strong hand, I fold. They win money. I lose money. 

That's been the normal pattern. Since shaving some of the bad off my game though and adding some good, a new pattern has emerged. They raise the button and I call in the big blind. They pot-bet the flop. I call. They pot-bet the turn. I min-raise. They call, then slow down on the river and usually check. I bet two-thirds of the pot. They fold. And the next time I do the same thing and they fold. Then I baby-raise them on the flop or the river and they fold and then they stop c-betting me so much. 

Winning pots with muck or winning them very thinly feels a lot better than winning them with the nuts. Anyone can win a pot with the nuts. It takes a bit more skill and thought to win one with air. Some players, however, have seen a few Tom Dwan videos and get carried away with this notion and will pigheadedly barrel three streets out of position regardless of board texture, opponent's history, intuition, maths or any number of things important in poker. 

Play against these players. I do. In fact, I seek them out. Now, before playing any cash session I open up 5-10 tables and study the play. How are the regs playing? Who's dominating the table? What sort of hands go to showdown? Who is laying down hands to three, four, five bets pre? How are the players responding to min-raises on the flop and turn and so on and forth. 

Such a methodical approach is wildly out of character. For eighteen months now I've lurched and flapped around and managed to get somewhere but it's not as far as I'd like. I'm in Valencia, my bankcard doesn't work and I smell of ham. It's time to get serious. 

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