You need to experiment with your game if you want to be one of the best

CardRunners pro [vital]Myth explains why you need to mix things up if you want to mix it with the best

Over time the greatest players have been those that experiment with their game and strive to be even better despite already reaching a high level of skill. You should, like many of those stars before you, experiment with the things that you do and observe so you can figure out how to become a better player.

The players that have taught me the most tend to try things out. High-stakes legend Cole South is a great example. In an old CardRunners video he pointed out that he used to watch the high-stakes games when he was playing $100NL, just to see what they would do differently to him. He would get some ideas from the patterns winning players would exhibit. In seeing those things he tried them out in his own game. The interesting thing is that these were never crazy big pot 300BB insane bluffs that he was learning – instead he would talk about simple mechanics like basic preflop moves and small pot stuff – moves that would happen several times per hour and not once per month. This allowed South to think about things that he could actually apply instead of highly situation, player-dependent spots. 

Noticing basic patterns and simple changes is where you will make the biggest improvements to your poker game. You are going to have some slight leaks in your continuation-betting strategy, or three- and four-betting game and if you can improve those you will quickly see dramatic increases in your win rate. Here are two examples that South noticed from the higher stakes that he started experimenting with:

Crazy stealing

In certain high-stakes games some players will open the button every single time it is folded to them. When South saw this he realised that those players must sometimes be sitting with absolute junk like 9-3 offsuit! South thought he’d try to emulate them. He moved down in stakes and tried stealing with literally any two in every single situation to see what happened. It was a new form of playing so almost a new game. Through that experimentation he really improved his button play.

Preflop gameflow

South is known for pioneering some moves we take for granted now, like double barrelling on scare cards. He saw that you can develop a sense for the preflop gameflow. If you have three-bet one player a lot preflop you must adjust because they will now be ready to four-bet you back. South would move to call them preflop with a very wide range and play aggressively postflop instead. The sense of timing for making this adjustment was something he got from deliberately experimenting.

experiment2How to experiment

When I say you need to experiment I don’t want you to change your style completely. I mean being inquisitive, scientific and trying something out to see if it works for you and confuses your opponents. I’m not talking about a huge paradigm shift in your game. This is a short-term gathering of data and here’s how to do it: 

You should make small investments

When Cole South would experiment with things like stealing every single button or three-betting a huge amount he would move down in stakes substantially. Don’t dump 12 buy-ins trying to figure out if something new is working. If you play $5/$10 then you can probably move all the way down to $1/$2 because there are still a bunch of regs in those games and the games won’t be so different that you can’t learn anything from experimenting. 

Data collection

The point of experimenting is to collect data and see what it says. Approach this to see what happens and then make a judgement call. It takes a long time and a lot of data to make a real decision. In NLHE we are looking for small edges. For example, let’s say you are experimenting with a new bluff line to win a small pot. This could be leading into the preflop raiser with an overbet. Don’t try it out just five times and then make a decision about it. Don’t be all giddy if it works the first few times. And it’s also important not to overdo it with a move that seems to be losing over and over again. It’s probably better not to give yourself the stress of losing a ton of money right now, even if the new move may be profitable long-term. Be scientific about this and manage your stress level.

experiment2When to experiment

Its important to manage your stress level and make investments into changing your game wisely. You should experiment more in low stress situations, like when you have just come off a good winning month, or have a good day job. As long as you’re happy it’s appropriate to experiment. But if you’re under lots of stress, like when you are losing, I don’t advocate experimenting. Yes, you should try and tweak your game but you can do this through free means like forum discussions, talking to people and using software like Hold’em Manager. 

If you have your life straightened out then experiment and try to improve your game. Even if you fail its not going to drive you crazy. For example, you could try bluff shoving rivers on scare cards when you think your opponent only has a one pair type hand. That’s a common experiment. The problem, though, is that it’s also an experiment that guarantees a lot of risk and a really big pot. I wouldn’t recommend doing that when you’re coming off a month running 20 buy-ins below EV – it wouldn’t be good for your stress level! 

In typical games

I think you should experiment in games that are normal for you. You shouldn’t always move down in stakes to do so. If you are going to do something once per hour to work out a new line or tactic then just try it in your usual game. But if you’re trying very volatile, high risk moves then move down in stakes. 

Know when to stop

When you are happy with the results of your experiments you don’t need to continue mixing it up. For example, you feel that your preflop game just isn’t that good and you can’t see why you would have a preflop edge over your opponents. Your general feeling is that everyone is
so good preflop that you don’t have an edge. Now, I promise you that’s not true – the edges are still there but you just have to find them. You have to experiment to do this. Over time you will improve to the point that you do feel you have a preflop edge. At that point you no longer need to keep experimenting. Don’t keep pushing it if the problem no longer exists. Instead look for something else that you can work on.

experiment2Why to experiment

Watch the high-stakes games to try and figure out why those players are better than you. Then use that to experiment with their moves in your game. Watching can be very healthy because when you are involved in the playing of hands it can be easy to judge them wrong or feel too financially invested. But when you watch someone else you can look at the action objectively and learn. Emulating better players is behaviour that is a hallmark of the best players in the world.

Learn about players 

Learning about how people play and the way they think is important. How do people adjust to their opponents or react to something that is happening at the table? You’ll never learn how the regulars in your games tend to react to bonkers, crazy play unless you put them in a situation where they are forced to confront this. This learning process can give you some really good insight into other people in general, not just your opponents. 

This process also helps you learn about yourself. For example, you experiment with an overbet bluff but you’ve never done it before because you always assumed that the move looks stupid, bluffy and very suspicious. You think everyone will call. However then you try it and find out that actually most people just fold. Suddenly you’ve learned not only that most people fold to overbets – which is useful information – but also that you yourself are quite a bit more suspicious, and apt to look for bluff spots than many of your opponents are. It’s a simple example of how experiments can help teach you more about your opponents and yourself at the same time. You can now adjust your own poker game to get correct assumptions in future.

Round out your game

A lot of people only have ten standard lines that they take, or less. The best players I have ever seen will occasionally deviate from these at a frequency of twice per hour and do something very different from what mid-stakes players always do because they have a good sense of when the mould is broken and a situation is different. 

Those standard lines such as c-betting two thirds of the pot, or three-betting light from the big blind versus button are sometimes no longer appropriate and the best players recognise this.

Look out for part two of this piece where we show you some unusual lines you can take when experimenting. 

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