Poker lore has been built on the irresistible idea of a lone hero taking a shot against top competition, combining skill and serendipity to get the better of the best in the world. From Chris Moneymaker beating out Phil Ivey, Dan Harrington, and the game’s greats to take down poker’s premier prize to the fictional Mike McDermott taking a shot in the big game with his entire bankroll against Russian cardsharp Teddy KGB, poker is full of such stories of players looking to play against — and defeat — the toughest competition.
Leveraging risk is fundamental to success in the game of poker, and the biggest risks often reap the greatest rewards. For the recreational player, however, risk can be the enemy. The simple fact that new players possess a deficit in experience means that they must endure an increased risk of losing, and this is merely one part of the learning process. Even so, there are definitely steps you can take to reduce the role of risk while still improving your live poker game.
Big Fish in a Little Pond
A recent trip to Las Vegas confirmed to me the importance of game selection for ensuring a profitable and productive trip to the poker room.
I arrived at the Orleans Hotel and Casino on a Saturday night, and after encountering a steady stream of cowboy boots and custom belt buckles, I began to suspect that my visit had coincided with a major non-poker event. Sure enough, the National Finals Rodeo competition was being held at the adjacent arena.
Originally I had made my way to Sin City expecting to try my hand in the lucrative cash games sure to be springing up throughout the Bellagio poker room, as a major tournament series was underway at that very location. While I consider myself to be a competent player — earning a decent profit in low-stakes cash games throughout the last few years — risking my bankroll against the caliber of players likely to be in attendance at Bellagio this particular weekend was admittedly a somewhat Quixotic quest.
That had been the working plan, anyway, until that travelling troupe of rodeo-loving tourists from Texas tore through town, which seemed to me to offer a choice opportunity to select a game in which my risk would be less and my chance for profit more favorable.
Roping in the Recreational Player
Before delving into my actual experience on the felt, let me begin by explaining the reasons for my excitement at the time. I don’t mean to suggest that rodeo fans or Texans are inordinately unskilled at hold’em. In fact I’d suspect that percentage-wise they are more familiar with the game than are a random assortment of tourists. But they are tourists all the same. The same premise regarding game selection would hold true if the newcomers had been in town for a concert. The fact is people visiting a casino on unrelated business invariably find themselves drawn to the poker room. (For such a likelihood we have both Moneymaker and Mike McD partly to thank.)
Whenever an opportunity arises to play against opponents with less experience than your own, you must seize this chance to sharpen your own skills. Although playing against great players obviously provides an entirely different set of benefits, for novice players trying to build the foundations of a profitable game, the potential for practice offered by purely recreational players is simply too juicy to pass up. My colleague Josh Cahlik expounds on this theory in his own take on exploiting new players, and I recommend reading his commentary on the subject.
Occasions will arise when we are presented with a choice whether to play against experienced players or those who are less so, as represented by my decision between playing at the Bellagio or at the Orleans.
Ride ‘Em Cowboy
After altering my previous plans, I made my way to the Orleans poker room, which as I expected was crowded with cowboys trying to catch cards. Taking my seat at a $1/$3 no-limit hold’em table, I immediately began to examine my opponents, quickly identifying no less than three rodeo fans in town for the finals.
A cursory investigation such as this may seem like it might provide unreliable information, and the tourists might have been tough players in disguise. But with their gazes fixed to the rodeo reruns being televised on a screen above, I was confident that poker was nothing more than a pleasant way to pass the time for these players.
With the tourists now targeted, it was now my responsibility to relieve them of their disposable income, and this is where your growing base of poker knowledge will serve you well. In my case, knowing that untrained players become extremely attached to top pair with a high kicker allowed me to turn a relatively straightforward hand into a decisive double-up.
After looking down to find in the hole, I watched as one of the rodeo fans opened the pot with a raise to $12, or four times the big blind. Against one of the regular players at the table who might be capable of outplaying me on many potential flops, I would likely respond with a reraise as a show of strength, but tangling with a tourist meant trapping was the right play and I flatted instead.
The rainbow flop of was picture perfect, and with the tourist first to act in this heads-up pot, I was licking my chops. Inexperienced players are very often unable to fold when they connect with the board, and with my ace-kicker looming large I was hoping we both had flopped a piece.
His bet of $40 into a pot containing only $25 signaled the start of a stampede, and by the river he had bet every chip in his stack. I smooth-called the whole way, confident my ace-kicker was the key, and when the cards were finally tabled I saw my opponent had tried to wrangle me with . The sizable pot was shipped my way, and the cowboy was off to ride the roulette tables.
The session turned out to be a successful one for me, and ultimately I had to point back to the decision to play against what seemed a lesser-experienced crowd as having had a lot to do with how the night had gone.
The next time you visit the local poker room intent on saddling up with serious players, take a moment and scan the scene. You never know when a herd of hold’em greenhorns will mosey on by, but when they do, practicing smart game selection will increase your chances of profit.