The Day to Day Mindset of a Professional Poker Player

Being a professional gambler means you lead a strange and unconventional existence, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve done the corporate grind and I find it wonderful to not have to such freedom from middle managers trying to make sure I understand the full extent of their limited authority. Still, the day to day existence of a poker player has it’s own interesting trials and tribulations. I think the biggest challenge I face is just keeping my moral up.

Because the game is all about trying to beat eight other people at the table with you, you win most of the time you’re there. In fact, even if all you did was win your fair share of pots, that means you’d only be a “winner” 1/8th of the time or so. I kept track of my daily wins and losses because that’s what we’re supposed to do as good poker players, but I developed a habit that I was just leave the book in the car at the end of the day. Entering a failing day always felt so negative to me that I figured I’d just wait till a big up day, but when that came, I typically didn’t feel like entering all that data either. I just wanted to celebrate in my glow and I feared that entering all of the losses the book contained would just bring me back down again.

As the weeks turned into months, I began to wonder just how bad the data would be when I finally entered it into my spreadsheet. I was sure it would tell me I was a loser at the game of poker, but I wasn’t sure how much of one. Really, since I’m paid by the house, being a loser isn’t such a bad thing. I don’t get to chose my own game as most professionals do, and the game I’m typically sitting in isn’t the one most professionals would chose. Furthermore, at $25 an hour, I can afford to lose, oh $5 or so an hour and still be ahead of most people’s jobs. Let’s face it, $20 an hour to gamble all day isn’t all that rough an existence. So I finally got off my ass and entered the data and discovered… I was actually a winner at the game of poker. I was truly surprised but even with the games I was being put in, I managed to add to, and not subtract from, my hourly rate.

To me this reveals a startling truth about poker: everybody feels like a loser most of the time, even the winners. I now see how people just stop caring if they’re playing correctly over time because they figure they’re just going to lose anyway, so why bother trying to do what’s correct. They allow their previously good and profitable play degenerate over time until they are losing players who have no hopes of anything but a brief flash of temporary good luck.

I remember when I first started learning about poker, Mike Caro lectured that you as a poker player needed to envision that you were being hired by someone else and playing with someone else’s money. That the wins and loses that you were taking were all someone else’s responsibility, and instead that person was paying you a flat rate per hour simply to make the best decisions possible. The point of this exercise is that poker is not about winning pots, but instead about making the correct decision as best you are able. If you simply keep making the best decisions you can, the pots should take care of themselves.

I think Mike is one to something here, because it takes the pressure off of feeling like you have to win everyday. You don’t have any real control over whether you win or loss a given session at poker, but instead need to just focus on making the best decisions you can. “Let success take care of itself,” is what Mike would say.

It feels great to have the data saying that I’m doing something that many people find rather difficult. I feel very secure that I can continue to make a living and provide for my loved ones if I just aim to keep improving everyday. I love my job and I love the influx of new faces everyday. This is a great country, and poker is a great game. To borrow an ending from Jerry Maguire, I love my life, I love my fiance, and, I wish all the rest of you my kind of success.

Ethics and Professional Poker

The poker authors I read, Mike Caro, Doyle Brunson, and Bob Ciaffone tell me not to “soft play” anybody. That means that when you’re at the table, you take advantage of whatever opportunities for profit come your way regardless of who you’re taking this profit from. As the poker expression goes, “I’d check raise my own mother out of a pot.” If you really feel that bad about taking money from a someone, just give them their money back when the game is over.

Of course, these are the tactics and attitudes of a professional poker player. I’m learning that house players, despite technically being professional poker players, have a different set of attitudes. They are more akin to union workers: they’re all drawing a paycheck from the boss, so they are all content to try to do their best to look out for each other and continue to cash their checks every two weeks. Consequentially, house players by and large go out of their way to not take advantage of each other. It’s not an uncommon thing to witness a house player raise preflop, have another house player call in the blind, and then both of then check it all the way to the showdown.

As a house player who has come from a actual professional poker background, I don’t fit in with my peers. I have the attitudes of a professional card player. That is to say that I don’t soft-play anyone. If I’ve got an opportunity to make money at your expense, well, sorry about your luck. Eventually an opportunity will come along and you can make profit at my expense. Over a sufficiently long time horizon, who made the most from who over time is going to be determined purely by our comparative skill level. Which brings us back to our the most basic of poker truisms: good players make their profit from bad players.

I didn’t expect that these attitudes would make me the most popular guy amongst my peers. They realize that over time I’m taking their money and there’s little that they can do about it other than try to get better. Human nature being what it is, making an effort to improve one’s game seems almost as painful as asking a smoker to give up smoking. This allows me to rest easy at night knowing that most people are simply not capable of making the necessary adjustments to playing a better game of poker. Instead I’ve started to get some rather overt peer pressure from my fellow players to lay off.

Surprisingly, this message isn’t coming from the worst of the house players, but rather the better of them. I’ve been asked directly and in clear language by no less than two of the better house players to go back to chopping the blinds in the $15-30 game and to stop adjusting my seat choice so that I can sit next to the weaker of the available house players to better maximize the hands I play when the blinds don’t chop. In other words, stop being such a card shark and stop trying to work over your peers.

This is a bizarre message for me because it goes against everything I believe in. Yes, I do realize that the absolute worst house player there seems to have to little concept of how to play the game other than to play a very weak-tight game: she gives up way too many hands and if she’s playing back at you, you should throw your hand away because you can rest assured she’s got the nuts. I also realize that she’s a single mother who has two children to support. To the other players this means she should be coddled, but that’s just not how I see things.

There are other jobs out there that she could take. Hostess at a restaurant or, if she really wanted to stay in the casino business, she could just become a dealer. Both management and myself have had conversations with her where we’ve counseled her to seek a different vocation, but she’s having none of that. So we’re are left with this awkward situation whereby we are thrown together in a competitive game with someone who does not have the skills to compete. A lot of people are conflicted about this, but I just refer back to my basic poker training: don’t softplay anybody. If I felt bad enough for her at the end of the night, I could just give her some of her money back.

But the truth is that I don’t feel bad enough for her. No one forced her to be a house player. No one forced her to play as badly as she does. No one is forcing her to stay in that profession. And she also has the nasty habit of a lot of other bad house players and that’s that she disappears for rather long periods of time in the bathroom to avoid being called to a game. We get paid the same amount per hour, so in some ways I just look at it as a pay raise to myself for my good performance at her expense.

Another situation that came up was that I sat in our $15-30 game for a free round towards the end of my shift with no intention of playing on once the blinds got to me. The house adopted the policy that new players don’t need to post, so I saw no problem with “abusing” (as the other players put it) the policy. I did not expect to find so many damn Eagle Scouts in a poker room, but it seems that they spend their time polishing their halos when they are not in a hand. I asked management and was told that, in order to avoid the “appearance of impropriety” that I should go ahead and take one more round after the free one, which I’m fine with. The other players feel that this still reflects some ethical abuses on my behalf, but long ago I decided that I wasn’t playing my game to make them happy.

Defending the Merits of K2 suited

As I mentioned previously, Normandie now has as $15-30 game, and I’m very happy to see that. In order to improve my game, I started reading Bob Ciaffone and Jim Brier’s book, Middle Limit Poker. I like some sections of the book and I feel it is helping me to improve my game, but some of Bob Ciaffone’s ideas regarding hand selection just don’t seem to stand up to close scrutiny.

He doesn’t believe in playing KJ suited if the pot is raised at all, even if there are multiple callers, which is different advice than Jennifer Harmon gives in Super System 2. Of course it comes down to play style, but I think I have to go with Jennifer Harmon on that one. KJ suited seems like an excellent volume hand and why not put it into a volume pot. Of course, one of the early limpers may reraise and you’re suddenly forced to play in a capped pot, but that doesn’t happen to often. In most games, if players are limping early, they have a calling hand. If you are playing against a table of tricky or deceptive opponents, then laying down suited cards in the face of one raise seems like sound policy, but to say that you should play all games that way just seems way too nitty to me.

In regards to hand selection on the button when there have been four or so limpers in front of you, Bob Ciaffone seems to fall into the line of thinking made popular by David Skalansky that undervalues suited hands in comparison to small pairs. Specifically he recommends calling with any pair on the button in that situation, and suited hands such as 10-9 or K9, but nothing lower than that. According to him, “We do not recommend limping in with King little suited or worse. The problem with limping in with any just any suited King, Queen, or Jack is that, against a lot of opponents, drawing to the nut flush becomes increasingly important. Contrary to what many players believe, when many players take a flop, it is common for one flush to lose to another flush.”

Well, sure, but its also common for one set to lose to another set when many players take a flop, but he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that. Let’s take a look at the basic mathematics of Holdem starting hands. Since you get two cards out of 52, the number of possible combinations of starting hands are 52 multiplied by 51 divided by 2 or 1326 possible two card combinations. Now, if you already have a two-card hand, and are interested in the likelihood of other hands people might be holding, then the number of possible combinations are 50×49/2 or 1225. So, if we hold pocket deuces, let’s examine the likelihood of other people holding over pairs: there are six different combinations of each possible pair, and there are twelve ranks that are higher than yours, so that’s 12 x 6, or 72 different combinations of pairs that are higher than deuces. Divide that by 1225 or 5.8% likelihood than another players two card hard contains a pair higher than yours. Given that there are eight other players at the table (or nine in a Las Vegas setting) there that’s eight times 5.8%, or 46.4% likelihood that at least one of the other players present has a pair higher than yours when you have deuces.

Mike Caro has been advocating for a while that people steer away from the lower pairs of deuces through fives and I feel that’s sound advice- flopping a set when someone flops a higher set is very expensive. Now Bob Ciaffone does have a point that making a flush when someone has a higher flush is also very expensive, but he shouldn’t turn around and then advocate playing all your pairs in a multiway un-raised pot on the button. If one holds a hand such as King little suited, what is the likelihood that someone else holds a suited Ace of the same suit- the only hand that you really fear when you make a flush.

If you have a King and a deuce of a given suit, the is only one Ace of that suit and ten other cards of that suit (because you have two yourself). So that would be 11 combinations of a suited Ace higher than yours, and there are, again, 1225 possible combinations. 11/1225 is .00897, or .9% or so per player. Since there are eight other players present, the total likelihood of another player holding a higher suited Ace is 7%. Furthermore, unlike a pair of deuces, this hand has other ways to win rather than just hitting the flop hard. You could flop top pair, which is a dubious holding because of your weak kicker, but keep in mind that you are also in last position. If everyone checks to you, and then do not check raise you when you bet, then you are almost assured of having an uncontested top pair for that particular hand.

A Funny Thing Happened When I Decided Not to Chop My Blinds

Normandie Casino, where I work, has been under new management in the past few months, and our new manager has really done an excellent job of turning the place around. Part of that has been bringing a yellow chip game (that’s a game with $5 chips for those of you who don’t play in LA much) to the Normandie. This week was the first week I got paid to play $15-30 at the Normandie as part of my regular schedule, and the difference between it and the lower games were striking. The players were, in general, far more aggressive regarding their involvement in a hand and would by a bit more reactive to your actions in this hand given the context of how you’ve acted previously. A reactive opponent is certainly something that takes a little getting used to when you’ve been paid to play blue chip games.

For instance, a player raised my big blind and I had Ah 7h. I am the most liberal defender of the blinds that I know of, a habit I picked up from Mike Caro. It’s served me well, and I feel other players are relatively easy prey when they give up their blind money so easily, but I’ll get more into that in a bit. At any rate, this player and I took the flop heads up. The flop was all rags, with two hearts. I check raised the flop, bet on the turn when the board paired, and then on the river when in paired again. My opponent called me all the way down with AK. My flush draw didn’t make it, but the two pair allowed me to get half the pot back. In a later pot, this player raised my blind again with pocket 10s. I called out of the big blind with Kc 10c. The flop brought a K and two suited rags that were not clubs. I check raised the flop and my opponent, figuring I was raising on the flush draw three bet the 10s, then proceeded to bet into me on the turn and river. I called all the way to win the maximum amount with my pair of Kings, because I feel he might have folded his 10s to me anywhere along the line had I ever put in any more action.

One of the ways that my new manager has managed to bring players in to play $15-30 at the Normandie is to offer the lowest house rake in town- $3. Things brings up something that I usually don’t give much thought to, and that’s chopping the blinds. In most forms of limit Hold’em, there are at least two blinds. If the actions folds down to just the blinds, it’s traditional that the blinds will simply “chop” or take their money back. The logic goes that it just doesn’t make sense for two players to play more or less random hands against each other when the house is going to take out a fair portion of the pot. For instance, in an $8-16 game, where the drop is $5 plus a $1 jackpot drop, if both of the blinds chose to play, then they will both start by putting $8 or so into the pot, and the house will take out $6. So you would have to outplay your opponent by quite a large margin to show a profit from this maneuver. Therefore, chopping the blinds makes sense.

However, in $15-30, where both blinds are putting in $15 and the house is only taking out $3 plus a $1 jackpot, you would only have to outplay your opponent by 10% or so to show a profit from this maneuver, and the amount you have to outplay your opponent decreases when you add more money to the pot in later betting rounds. I decided to take a very unusual path (particularly for a house player who are mainly concerned only with limiting their risk as much as possible) and not chop my blinds in the $15-30 game. Strangely, the first few days of my trying it, I’ve profited quite handsomely from it. I didn’t keep exact records, but I want to say that I seem to be winning a staggering number of blind pots- something akin to 90%.

I do this by positioning myself to the immediate left of players who are not comfortable playing short handed and who are too tight in defending their blinds. Their tendency is to just fold the small blind to me and allow me to win their $9 ($10 minus the houses take of $1 preflop) without a contest. I then have only to break even against the player to my left when I just call out of the small blind. I also try to make sure that the player to my left is not very aggressive in raising my blind when I just call out of the small blind. As strange as it may seem, these circumstances are not hard to arrange in the game I’m playing in. It seems as though most players are so conditioned to chop their blinds that they simply aren’t used to playing the hands out and fold when I put any action on them at all. This fundamental error on their part appears to be a huge potential windfall profit for me.

Losing my Stack on the Way Out

So I’m working a bit of overtime and I’m on the last round of card before I leave. I’m playing $40 NL and I’m in for around $80 when I pick up As Qc in the big blind. I get three limpers to me and I raise it to $10. Two players call the $8 raise. The flop is 4d 7d 10c and I bet $12. The small blind calls. The turn is the Qh, and I bet $20. The small blind check raises me all in for $60 more. I instinctively throw in my $60 and he turns over Q4 of spades for 2-pair. The river is no help.

Since there was $60 in the pot already, I was getting 2 to 1 pot odds on my money with top pair Ace kicker. That was going to be a difficult hand to get away from, but I think there may be a lesson here about unsophisticated players. He knew I had a hand when he check raised me, so I’m trying to decide if I might want to start making more laydowns when unsophisticated players seem to be willing to go all-in. Laying down pairs, even overpairs, might be a good general policy.

My First 1000 Hours of Poker

I moved out to Los Angeles in March of last year to be closer to my daughter. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted. Our relationship has grown much closer over that time and I’ve found that having more of her in my life has really made me a happier person. In terms of employment, I made an unusual decision in my move; I decided that I would stay involved with my mother’s Dallas-based business (at half my Dallas salary) and use poker to make up the difference. This was a controversial decision a number of people in my life, but its one my mother has always supported.

I just finished my first 1000 hours of poker. I had hoped to knock out my first 1000 hours in the first six months or so, but two things happened to delay this: Continue reading My First 1000 Hours of Poker