Thursday, August 20, 2009

The benefits of (nearly) going broke

Some time last year my poker results started declining. My tournament ROI dropped and I stopped making significant money in cash games. In April of this year I had enough stats to know that unless there was a sudden upswing in my earn I was going to go broke.

I still haven't completely figured out what happened. The number of hands and tournaments is too great to attribute the downswing to variance, although I think it played a part. My current guess is I started playing bad as a result of running bad. Not stupid "let's try and get back a chunk of the roll at once by playing limits I can't afford," but that creeping disease of semi-tilt.

The situation led to considerable reflection and some tough decisions. First, I realized that I didn't quit a well-paying job to "become" a poker player. I was already a poker player and to make my living in any other manner was going to make me unhappy. I also concluded that five winning years provided convincing evidence that fundamentally I am a winning player provided I play my best and keep working on improving my game. This optimism was aided by a former poker student telling me "you're too good to not be making money."

None of this altered the fact that I was a few weeks away from going busto.

So I put a plan together. I got a long-term backer as well as other stakers to make sure that I could stay in the game. This also meant I had to work twice as hard for the same earn, but the alternative was unacceptable. I also started paying more attention to the small edges. Sitting out of a cash game when it got too tight to be profitable; changing my sleep schedule to target easier times of day; focusing on my strongest forms and structures of poker. And perhaps most importantly working my ass off through training sites, forums, books and other resources to make my game stronger.

I still don't know how this story is going to play out because I am still working with a worryingly thin bankroll and my house is falling down. My feeling (supported by steadily-improving results) is that I've turned the corner. One thing I know for sure is that nearly going broke has forced me to greatly improve my game and my approach to playing poker. And those of you who have accused me in the past, rightly, of being arrogant, may be pleased to know that this episode has also given me a little humility. Not a lot. But a little.


  1. Great ideas and well written. One video site I like is Bluefire Poker- top pros and top coaching.

    Almost everyone's results have deteriorated in both live play and tournament play. Internet play used to offer spectacular hourly rates (without playing like Superman) and getting into the long run was easy. Now, players play better, fewer fish, more multi-tabling pros, and so on.

    I have several friends who used to play 3-6 LH for a living during the Party Days who stopped. During that time I beat the highest limit games on the site as well. As a pro-gambler I am always learning and on the lookout- not only in poker. Sometimes casinos offer promotions in which they unwittingly gave away too much. Years ago I played on blackjack teams, etc.

    The TOUGHEST TECHNIQUE, that few can make work, is beating tough players for a large hourly plus fading increased variance. My skill set of being able to play many games against weak players on Party allowed me to produce a high hourly playing 80 to 100 hours a week. Now, however, I would be unable to play strong poker 200 hours a week for a much smaller hourly. Sometimes there are diminishing returns on new knowledge- once in awhile not.

    I hear stories of players making good money based on different ideas. In the past there were cycles of big-money techniques- soft LH, soft NL,. sit-goes, heads-up fish, blasting out a zillion tournaments, Omaha with PT, etc.

    In online poker, one thought I consider is whether the current games are worthwhile for me.. "Do I personally know anyone beating a given game for enough?" This question is good for me because it reinforces that a game/limit is good enough. . At higher limits this question helped me know that cheating was not going to stop me (I avoided playing high on UB, AP, and two others).

    Sometimes simple tricks help. In a live card room I look for the best seat in the best game which entails moving around. Also, I keep my tipping reasonable.

    During the Party Days there were simple tricks that I used which no longer produce the same edge. I USED POKER TRACKER AND A HUD when much of my competition did not. Transferred lots, large monitors with no overlapping games, large rake-back based on"Theoretical Rake" rather than what I had personally contributed, etc.

    Poker Tracker helped immensely...

    I was able to cycle into games where the VPI was extremely high. My friends used to play in games with 30-plus VPI's or 25-plus VPI's, unless they had great position on two horrible players. I was able to see what hands were winners for me by position using PT and the effect of the rake at each limit.. I was able to key in on my opponents tendencies as well as look for my weaknesses.

    Pros make money in ring-games by 1. playing more appropriate starting cards (and getting too much action). AND, 2. They often outplay their opponents throughout the hands they play. In the right situations pros merge Expectation, Variance, and Volume into making a living- but this is harder and harder now.

    Online pros are tough. The old rule of thumb was whatever a player could easily beat online, he could beat playing 3x as high in a casino. It seems, these days, that rule of thumb may be 5x or even higher. I see tough 10-20 LH online pros who can beat 50-100 (or higher) in a casino. I see 2-4 blind NL internet players who are strong winning players in 10-20 blind casino games.

    For me, Networking with other gamblers sometimes produces new ideas in all forms of gambling..

    Books lag internet and video info, which lag word-of-mouth. Blackjack illustrates this as the big money in shuffle-tracking, ace prediction, great games in Asia, and so on, was made years before the writers wrote. In poker, there is now a plethora of content available on PT, heads-up, sit and goes, etc. but the largest earn is now gone, except possibly for a few exceptional people.

    However, new ideas on how to make god money gambling will come along- probably less often.

  2. I meant to write "good money", not "god money".

  3. Perhaps the general downswing of the economy leeched into poker as well. This does, of course, in some sense conflict with the natural stupidity of donkies who may bet their last dime in an effort to make their fortunes, but at the same time, that would now be their last dime, and less money in the economy means less money on the sites, where hobbyists who might otherwise be entertaining themselves by losing might give up pokerstars for an extra pack of cigarettes or some other quasi-edible item or method of stress reduction.

  4. Yes jenny I'm pretty sure the recession has hit hard. Action in Vegas is definitely down.

    And thanks for those observations, tuco. Something that made me think back to the golden days of online poker was your observation that the 3x difference in a beatable limit for a player between online and B&M has risen to 5x. I'd agree. It's amazing to me how much tougher LO8 plays online. There simply isn't a limit above penny games where online LO8 plays as soft as a 4/8 or 5/10 live game in Vegas. (Except possibly Cake at the weekends - gotta love Cake.) But when I started playing online in 2002 my feeling was online games were actually SOFTER than live ones. At that time I was playing 3/6 LHE live (mostly against the same people week after to week at the KC boats) whereas online I was beating 10/20 at the same BB/100.

    The whole situation is clearly volatile particularly with UIGEA, but one thought that helps me is that there will always be people who make a decent living playing poker. I just need to make sure that I have the discipline and dedication to make sure that I'm one of them.

  5. Thank you for the tip on Cake :)!!