Isaac Haxton: Improving your fundamental poker skills

The PokerStars pro on fundamental skills and multi-tabling with Isildur

Fundamental skills

Poker fundamentals are things like general rules for the hands you’ll play preflop in various situations, your default bet sizing and your default bluffing and bluff-catching frequencies. Online players tend to be better at this stuff than comparably successful live players are, especially at small stakes where the player pool tends to be so large that you spend a lot of time playing against unknown opposition.

In this environment, developing a strong default game plan is very important. By contrast, live games tend to have smaller player pools, and even when you are playing against a new opponent you will still have all sorts of information, such as appearance, demeanour, table talk and physical tells to influence your decisions. The two require different strategies too. Games online are rarely deeper than 100 big blinds, whereas live games are often extremely deep-stacked. The shorter-stack games demand a more aggressive approach.

If I knew someone who was just starting out playing online I would tell them to play cash games. Multi-table tournaments, and sit-and-gos especially, are relatively limited forms of poker that are less conducive to learning how to think about the game on a high level. The best cash players make the transition to tournaments much more easily than the best tournament players make the transition to cash. The best cash players also make far more money than the best tournament players.

Heads-up or six-max?

I think heads-up cash games are a great way for novice players to build good fundamental skills. In many ways heads-up is a simpler and more pure form of poker. A great aspect of heads-up is that it allows unlimited game selection. There are some mid stakes heads-up specialists out there making pretty good money, but who are still terrible poker players. They just play players who are even worse than themselves!

Playing heads-up against a much weaker opponent is one of the highest expectation/lowest variance situations you can find yourself in as a poker player. On the other hand, a match between evenly matched, highly aggressive players can produce wild swings. The same effect exists in six-max games but is less pronounced: the larger your edge, the fewer downswings you’ll go through and the lower your bankroll requirements will be.

The skills needed for heads-up are narrower, but you have to get things more precisely right. A tough heads-up opponent will identify your leaks quickly and put himself in situations where he can exploit them over and over. The relative diversity of possible situations in a six-max game forces you to be familiar with, and comfortable in, a lot of different spots, but also means you can afford to be a little sloppier. It will be harder for your opponents to identify your leaks, and even if they find something you do wrong, such as calling too many three-bets after you open the button, or folding too often to a river bet when a draw completes, they won’t necessarily be able to take advantage of it very often.

Pump up the volume

I’ve played 12 tables of $25/$50 heads-up against the same opponent before. We were timing out all over the place, but I think I was getting the best of it. Whether playing that many tables is optimal is down to the individual. If I’m playing all six-max tables, I’m comfortable playing eight and will play up to 12 or so if all the games are good enough to justify it. There’s no better way to improve your multi-tabling than practice and slowly trying to add more tables.

I’ve played Isildur heads-up on six or more tables before, and I find in that situation he tends to make fewer tricky plays and concentrate more on just sticking to a game plan. I think that’s one of my strengths, so playing lots of tables tends to be good for me.

It’s a wonderful life

I love being a professional poker player, but it’s not for everyone. I’m not a morning person and I don’t have much patience for bosses or even co-workers, so a lot of traditional careers are pretty unappealing to me. I love being able to set my own schedule and take a vacation whenever I want.

I have a lot of fun playing poker. I’ve been an obsessed gamer for as long as I can remember. I started playing chess when I was four and competing seriously when I was six. I moved on to Magic: The Gathering around 13 and poker around 18. All of the happiest, and many of the most successful poker players that I know, love the challenge and competition of the game to the point that the money is a secondary concern. It helps that I handle downswings pretty well. I’m in this for the long haul and I have a lot of confidence in my skills, so if I lose a big chunk of my bankroll I know it’s not the end of the world.

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