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Running Bad

Key winning adjustments to turn losing strategies into profitable ones.

There is a difference between losing and being a loser. I might lose a hand, or have a losing session, or even have a losing weekend, but I still wouldn’t be a loser. Losing is something that happens every time we play—no one has ever played a meaningful session of poker and won every hand. Losers are people who lose not just once in a while, but whose bankrolls are steadily, inexorably depleted by the game.

From the time I started playing poker seriously until early 2002, I had never experienced a long losing streak. I had never been a loser. When I booked nine winning sessions in my first nine tries online in 2002, I thought I had guaranteed another winning year. But by the end of January, I gave it all back and then some. By the end of February, I doubled those losses. At that point, I still wasn’t worried. But by March, I was. I was stuck and was digging deeper into the red. I was losing, but more than that, I was a loser.

I told myself that such an extended bad run was possible. Other good players warned me it would happen, and on a purely intellectual level I believed it would happen. If you play long enough, it’s inevitable. I knew these facts but didn’t know how to react when it happened to me.

At some point in March, after a truly disastrous session, I decided I had enough. I wasn’t going to quit poker and I wasn’t going to whine that I kept getting unlucky. Instead I decided to completely reconstruct my game from the bottom up. I would question every aspect of my strategy—what hands to play, when to open-raise, how aggressive to be after the flop, how often to pay off on the end—everything. I was losing too much money to not ask these questions and still live with myself. If I was going down, I was going down confident that I was playing a solid strategy and following that strategy at the table.

Most people don’t bother to work on their games when they’re winning. They think, “Man, I’m running great! I’m going to sit in the biggest game I can afford and mop the floor with the tourists there. Then I’ll go smoke a cigar.” While it’s a serious detriment to bring a losing image to the table, a losing streak can be the best thing that happens to a player.

I can say that I was cocky when I was winning. Whenever I sat at the table, I was confident I’d take everyone’s chips. I played like a winner—bold aggressive and tough to read. Most of my opponents didn’t want to mess with me, which, of course, led to more winning. But I don’t remember ever opening a poker book during a winning streak. Only twice do I remember having a winning session and then analysing hands from it when I got home. A winning image is a powerful image to bring to the table, but a winning player is at great risk of becoming complacent.

Not only that, it’s easy for a winner to go overboard with what he thinks are winning techniques. I was winning with razor-thin value bets in the five-handed games on Paradise Poker at the beginning of 2002. As I started reconstructing my game, one of the first things I noticed was that my value bets got thinner and thinner until they weren’t value bets anymore, just stone bluffs.

More specifically, I adopted a strategy of following through with my preflop raises by betting the flop, turn and the river virtually every time, in heads-up and even three-way pots. Betting the flop after raising preflop is generally correct, and you need to follow through with your semi-bluffs on the flop by betting the turn. But although betting the river with something like king-high will usually not have positive expected value, I was betting even then. I did this so my opponents wouldn’t think they could call the turn and get a free river card. If this play increased the chances my opponents would muck the turn on future hands, then I would improve my overall expected value at the expense of this particular hand.

The logic seemed sound, but here’s why it was wrong.

While it’s important to bet the flop after raising preflop, it shouldn’t always be done. If I bet every time, then my opponent might as well check to me every time—he’ll be able to check-raise whenever he pleases. But betting the flop too often was probably the smallest leak in my play. Far more problematic was my strategy on the turn and river. It’s important to follow through on a lot of flop bets with bets on the turn, especially with marginal hands that may still be best, like an unimproved A-K, A-Q, A-J, small pair or even KQ. But continuing to bet my weakest holdings here was a serious mistake. Once my opponent calls the flop bet, I should need at least a draw to continue firing. And playing sub-optimally on the river in the hopes of having a better overall strategy only works if done occasionally.

I was also aggressive preflop. I never open-limped as I think any good player should raise when he’s first into the pot. But I had a policy of never limping on the button, even when people limped in front of me. I was open-raising but destroying my own implied odds when I raised three limpers with hands like 6-5 and Q-9. My logic? I never wanted to let the blinds see a flop for free. The problem was I had to beat all the other hands as well. I wasn’t increasing my chances of winning much and I was putting more money in the pot when I didn’t have positive equity if the action ended. Not a good combination. The reason to play the “speculative” hands on the button is to see a flop cheap and make up the equity through superior postflop play. There is little reason to force the issue by raising preflop. After thinking through this logic, I started limping more and raising less, and things improved.

Toning down my aggression in appropriate places was the most noticeable adjustment I made. And I had to play tighter preflop starting strategy. I added hands one by one and didn’t add another until I felt comfortable. Eventually, I reached the point I’m at now—loose for a good player, but much tighter than all the fish.

The last adjustment I made was mostly psychological. I simply had to execute my strategy better. Sometimes I’d know the right play but play something else. So I lost confidence in myself and my strategy. Losing blinded me from making an honest analysis. Eventually, I learned to always have reasons for my plays before I made them. It may sound obvious but it’s easy to fall back into routine reactions. So question every play as it’s made. It worked for me. But don’t expect things to happen overnight.

I didn’t finish a winner in 2002, but I did recover everything from that difficult period. The thing is I didn’t find the leaks in my game until I started losing and now I constantly assess my game instead of waiting to lose money first, and it has showed in my results.
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