Liberate your game and get it out of a rut

Don’t be afraid to take a break from the old routine, says Nick Wealthall, and play poker with a bit more freedom

How often do you break your patterns? Not often, I bet. We humans like our patterns, our reliable ways of doing things. Our neural pathways form, strengthen with repeated use, and don’t like to be broken or changed. Yet we only learn when we have new inputs. Little things like getting off the tube one stop earlier on the way to work or saying hello to a stranger in a coffee shop can break your patterns, give you new experiences, and lead to learning. Maybe you’ll see a beautiful sculpture you never knew existed on your longer walk to work or perhaps you’ll meet a new lover or friend in the coffee shop.

In poker, it’s very easy to get into a rut, especially if you regularly play the same games. This is even truer now that there are countless books, DVDs and training sites that have demystified the game and effectively stifled creative thought. Playing by rote is an easy trap to fall into: ‘I have T-T – if it’s folded to me I’ll open, if it’s raised in front I’ll three-bet,’ and so on. However, it’s vitally important to think for yourself and experiment to grow your understanding of the game. This is especially true in an age of players multi-tabling and playing ‘the standard way’. Finding ways to exploit weak regulars who do this is critical to surviving in cash games.

Weird buttons

In the spirit of breaking patterns and trying to learn I decided to go a little crazy and play a session with a different rule. The rule I imposed upon myself was that if the action folded to me on the button I would never raise as normal, but always limp. This is not a completely outlandish idea and is one some players use in aggressive games and heads-up, but for most low and mid-stakes cash grinders it’s unthinkable.

The first thing that happened was that it woke me up. It was like leaving the house without my watch on – I felt strange and very, very naked. The cold wind of change blew through the nether regions of my poker mind. I had to think about situations I’d never had to ponder before, and synapses I didn’t know I had were suddenly firing. I immediately felt uncomfortable not having the lead in pots. I play a reasonably straightforward style of poker that involves me opening or three-betting and generally having the lead in hands. Now, suddenly, I was the one being dictated to as I called the inevitable raise from the blinds. I felt a little out of my depth as putting players on hands became more difficult. When you raise the button as standard you can usually get a good range for their hands depending on whether they call or three-bet. But in this situation they could be attacking my limp with a whole bunch of stuff.

Flip-reverse it

Then I realised I wasn’t thinking about the situation properly. As hard as it was for me to read their hands I could make it really hard for them to read mine. As I was limping everything, my range was very wide, so I could start to represent all kinds of hands. I started limp-reraising a lot, focusing on stronger hands and bluffs. I also started bluff-raising flops a lot more than I would have in normal play. I’m certain this completely threw several of the players, especially the regulars who had played with me before and knew I was a ‘standard TAG’.

Several times I was check-called down with hands that should have either been value-betting me or folding – a sure sign they were off balance and in defensive mode. Suddenly, it felt good to be naked.

Of course, if you’re a good player you’ll already be thinking about the problems and errors with limping the button and how it can be easily exploited. And it was no surprise to me that one of the best players quickly started four-betting my limp-reraises. However, there’s no doubt that throwing this wrinkle into my game confused opponents and made me some short-term money. It also woke up my dormant poker brain, which must be a good thing. So try breaking your patterns for a while. Cast off your shackles and run naked through your poker sessions!

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