Game selection: give yourself an edge at the tables

Table selection is a very important skill and can make the difference between being a winning and losing player

Take a second and answer this simple question. What is the most important skill a winning poker player has?

Some would say the ability to read opponents well is the number one skill. Some would argue that strong analytical or mathematical skills are the key factor, while others would vote for discipline and solid fundamentals. However, all of these answers are utterly wrong.

The most important skill a winning player has, without a shred of doubt, is the ability to choose games in which they have an edge. No other skill has as profound an effect on a player’s long-term results. A well-worn anecdote tells the story of the ninth-best poker player in the world. He’s good enough to beat almost any foe, but because he sits in a game with the top eight players in the world, he’s a long-term loser! Since most of us cannot reasonably expect to be among the top nine, it follows that good game selection is going to be very important to our results.

This article will focus on game selection in ring games and single-table sit-and-gos. Game selection for multi-table tournaments is more complex (partly because you can’t choose your seat or table) and won’t be covered here.

Live game selection

Game selection simply means attempting to choose a game in which you have an edge. Finding a good game that suits your style means it’s more likely that you’ll make a profit (and enjoy the session). Imagine, if you will, the following two tables at your local poker room:

Table A is a $2/$5 no-limit hold’em game with eight tough opponents. Most of the players at the table are young. Some players are wearing headphones and most look to be concentrating. Nobody is drinking alcohol.

Table B
is a $1/$2 mixed game with five opponents of varying age. It’s a lively game with lots of chatting and smiling, and there are several beers dotted around the table.

Which table would you choose and why?

Some players would be put off by the small stakes of Table B, or perhaps they don’t know how to play any game except no-limit hold’em, so they would choose Table A. We would choose Table B every time, for the following reasons…

  1. In the mixed game format, you’re more likely to come across weak play, as it’s rare for a player to be good at every variant being played.
  2. Young players are usually tougher opponents than older players, who may not have as much time to dedicate to the game, or who may think they have nothing left to learn. A table with players of different ages is likely to be easier than a table full of young players.
  3. Players chatting and smiling are not only more fun to play with but they are also less likely to be concentrating. Also, players who are enjoying themselves are more likely to stay at the table when they go broke, which means the game is less likely to break up. Lastly, alcohol is the great loosener! A player who is drinking alcohol is unlikely to be taking the game very seriously, and is probably playing for recreation. Alcohol impairs the decision-making process, causing more mistakes and resulting in more profit for me.

It wouldn’t be unusual for Table B to be a more profitable game, despite the stakes being significantly smaller. When you play live, try to scout the tables briefly, looking for big stacks, big pots, tough players to avoid, smiling faces and players who aren’t taking the game seriously. You may have different motivations for playing poker, and so might look for different things. Perhaps you want to challenge yourself against tough opponents, so you would choose Table A. In that case, good luck to you!

Online table selection

Online, you can’t look at players and tell whether they’re smiling, drinking or having a good time. Conversely, you have some information available to you that you don’t have in a live poker room. Different poker sites publish different information in their lobbies and calculate the information in varying ways, but the following three stats are almost ubiquitous:

Players to flop:

The general idea is that the higher the number, the more players saw the flop in recent hands at that table. A high value suggests that opponents are entering the pot with substandard hands or that the table is somewhat passive. If you’re looking for a game with lots of loose opponents, a game with a high ‘Players to flop’ value might be good. Some sites are now starting to offer the ‘Voluntarily Put Money In Pot’ (VP$IP) statistic instead of ‘Players to flop’ and this is a more useful indication of the looseness of the table.

Average pot:

If the average pot size is large but the ‘Players to flop’ is low, it suggests that the table is aggressive, with lots of betting and raising. Conversely, if the average pot is large but ‘Players to flop’ is high, this suggests that there are players who continue too long with weak hands, calling or raising bets that they shouldn’t. In any case, a high value means the table is full of action, which is usually a good thing.

Hands per hour:

If you’re a winning player and are earning a certain number of big blinds per 100 hands, then it is in your interest to play as many hands as you can per hour in order to maximise your hourly rate. You can do this by choosing tables with a high ‘hands per hour’ value, which tend to have fewer multi-tablers and more players making quick decisions.

It’s usually also possible to get an idea of the average stack size at the table. The deeper the stacks, the more complex the game, and the more opportunity you have to make a profit if you have an edge. Another option available to you online is to take notes on your opponents. You can colour-code these notes, for example by assigning one colour to strong players and another to weak players. You can then quickly scan the tables, looking for one with a lot of weak players. It’s usually difficult to find a game with only weak players in it, but if you can identify which opponents are weak, which are strong, and which are predictable and unlikely to get in your way, you’re already one step ahead of the game.

Game selection in online sit-and-gos

If you’re a sit-and-go player, you won’t have statistics like ‘Players to flop’ available to you, so you must take excellent notes on opponents you’ve encountered in the past, and use them effectively. Pay close attention to the games you are registering for, which means NOT using the ‘register to any tournament’ feature available on some sites, and not blindly registering for as many games as you can handle. If you are first to register in a game you should monitor which opponents join after you, and be prepared to unregister if there are too many tough players. Better still, you can monitor the tournament lobbies looking for games with weak opponents, and join only the least tough games.

This strategy is particularly effective in heads-up sit-and-gos, where you can look out for a clueless opponent and then face them one-on-one.

Don’t be too stubborn to simply avoid a game if it looks like it’s full of good players. Find a better spot to invest your entry fee, even if it means ending your session early and coming back later.

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