Even successful poker players make a lot of huge mistakes, both on and off the poker table. Ross Jarvis lists some of the biggest leaks that serious players make – and how you can fix them…
To be a successful professional poker player it’s not enough just to be good at playing poker. There are a multitude of other aspects that go into being a successful pro – from protecting your bankroll to having a solid work ethic and many more in between. If you have aspirations of being a pro – or even just want to take your poker to the next level – then it’s important to try and avoid as many of these traps as possible.
I have played professionally for three years and even now I’m still learning about the job and making big mistakes that can only be fixed with experience. Here are five of the costliest errors pros make, from a $100NL rakeback grinder all the way up to a multi-millionaire like Viktor Blom, and how you can avoid the same pitfalls in your poker career.
Bank on it
If you’re going to be a professional or serious poker player you must have a professional bankroll to go along with it. If poker is your sole income you want a minimum of 50 cash game buy-ins (for your most regular stake) and even more for tournaments and sit-and-gos, as they have higher variance. If poker is just a profitable pastime for you then you still should have at least 30 buy-ins backing you up in case of a bad run.
When everything is going great it’s impossible to forecast a big downswing on the horizon. The only problem is that everyone eventually has a huge downswing! Phil Ivey, Chip Reese and every other legend has had them, and so will you. The best thing you can do is to be prepared for it by having a large enough bankroll. In my own career, I got cocky with my bankroll and after consistent success only left 20-30 buy-ins online with which to play $2/$4. It was a disaster waiting to happen and, sure enough, it did – decimating my bankroll and leaving me the options of depositing real life money or grinding back up from the small stakes. Don’t be a bankroll idiot like me. Prepare for the worst by being over-bankrolled and, in theory, you should never go broke.
The one problem is that some players get carried away and never take shots at bigger games. So long as there is value in the higher stakes, failing to give it a shot can be just as much of an error as gambling too much in games you are not fully bankrolled for. Make sure you are always pushing yourself and don’t just be content at the stakes you are beating, whether that is $0.05/$0.10 or $2/$4. Assuming you have 50+ buy-ins at your usual stake you must have the confidence to give the level above a go – especially if the game has fishy players in it. If you win you can keep mixing in higher stakes games until you feel fully comfortable playing. The great thing about having a large bankroll is that even if you lose three or four buy-ins you can just drop down to your usual game and still have a huge cushion to fall back on.
The best pros have mastered the fine line between being professional with their bankroll and still retaining that inner gamble. Try to keep your poker mindset on that same track.
Poker players must always be rational when it comes to coping with bad beats and being aware of the long-term expected value from their decisions. It doesn’t make much sense then how poker players can often be so irrational when it comes to evaluating their own skill level in the games they choose to play. Time and again serious pros will overestimate their edge (or lack of) and get into situations that are bound to cost them money. This could be anything from refusing to quit a difficult heads-up match online against a superior opponent to playing in a tough live tournament where, with expenses added on, they are not likely to be a favourite to win any money.
Always be aware of where your edge is coming from in any poker situation. If you sit down at a live cash table, actively look at the other players and make a mental note of who you can win money from and how. If you can’t verbalise where your edge is coming from then the value isn’t there and you should get up and leave. You are never forced to play!
Another example of poker players letting their ego run wild is in the controversial subject of selling percentages in tournaments at a mark-up. It used to be that if you wanted to sell 50% of yourself to a friend in a £100 tournament with 1,000 runners they would pay you £50. Nowadays many players – especially pros – will still sell shares in a tournament but at a price that they feel reflects their edge on the field.
So, say you want to buy that same 50% but from an online Triple Crown winner who believes he is the second coming of Phil Galfond. He may charge you 1.4 meaning that you now have to pay £70 for that same percentage. In a tournament like this, with a ton of runners, that price will almost always be too much. Avoid being taken advantage of in similar situations if you are staking – and if it’s you selling then charge a fair price instead of trying to exploit every small edge you can. Your good name is worth more than a few extra quid. Always try to be aware of where your edge is coming from in any poker situation.
Complacency is a poker player’s worst enemy. To get to a position where you are making good money, or even turning pro, takes a lot of hard work and effort. Unfortunately, once you reach that point it’s all too easy to stop watching training videos, stop analysing hand histories and stop learning new tricks altogether. Winning breeds laziness in a lot of players, and it’s very dangerous.
To stay on top you must retain the enthusiasm, desire and willingness to learn that you once had, otherwise you will be overtaken by players that work harder than you. Make sure you set aside some of your ‘poker time’ to do the boring work that nobody likes. Even if it’s just watching one training video a week, do it religiously. And do it right – take notes as you watch and actively think of ways that you can incorporate the advice listed in the video into your own poker game.
It’s crucial that you also challenge yourself while playing. When you’ve played hundreds of thousands of hands and are comfortable multi-tabling it’s all too easy to play every hand the same way. This could be anything from always four-betting A-A to checkcalling two streets with top pair but always folding to a river bet. In a vacuum these plays will show a profit but they might not be the best decision for that very moment. If you are no longer actively thinking at the tables, or challenging yourself, you seriously restrict your ability to improve as a player. You also become a very predictable player to perceptive opponents who will be able to consistantly exploit you.
Experiment with different lines in hands to confuse your opponents and reinvigorate the way that you play. For example, instead of continuation betting A-K on a A-5-2 flop after three-betting, just check-call. You may be able to induce aggressive opponents to run a multi-street bluff because they put you on a hand like pocket Queens that can’t call down. Hundreds of other opportunities to mix up your game exist, but if your poker eyes aren’t open you will never see them.
By definition, poker players are generally lazy people. We’re lazy at getting out of bed, lazy at cleaning the dishes and some are even lazy at putting on actual clothes. The one place where poker players can’t afford to be lazy is when they are working. It’s strange then that so many are content to take frequent days off or only play very short sessions once a day instead of grinding as many hours at the table as possible. As the edges in poker today – especially online – are so small you really have to work hard to make good money, no matter how talented you are.
If you take poker seriously set yourself regular goals that revolve around the amount of time you spend at the tables and not your results. For example, aim to play 10,000 hands online in a month – this is a reachable, tangible goal that should motivate you to play. If you play well, the results will follow. A goal such as this has more value than just saying, ‘I want to win £500 in July’. If you went down this route you may restrict your winnings (if you reach £500 early on and then quit) or let variance get the better of you if you get off to a poor start and stop playing.
All of the great players – such as Ivey, Dwan and Doyle – are well known for the excruciatingly long hours of poker they have played. They know that if you have an edge you can’t exploit it by sitting watching TV at home. You have to play! While we are not suggesting you play poker at the expense of everything else in your life, it’s key to remember that hard work is usually rewarded with good results.
It may sound obvious but in order to play your best poker you must be able to concentrate on what you are doing. That means reducing the amount of distractions to a minimum and focusing on playing your best game at all times. It’s easier said than done. In online poker especially there are so many distracting elements – Skype, Facebook, naked internet ladies – that inhibit your ability to play your A-game. Your play at the table will be much better if you shut these off.
That’s not to say there isn’t a place for programs like Skype which, if used correctly, can help improve your game hugely. Most top pros regularly chat strategy with their poker mates online and review hand histories – but never at the expense of being able to concentrate on playing. The smart pros, like MTT wizard Sam Grafton, keep the outside clutter to a minimum until they are deep in tournaments and only playing a few tables at once, where they can get valuable advice. The human brain just isn’t cut out to multi-table, surf the internet and chat to multiple people all at the same time to a high level.
The same is true in live poker. Go to any casino and, whether it’s a tournament or cash game, you’ll see half the field fiddling away on Twitter or watching Game Of Thrones on their iPads – while playing poker! If poker really bores you so much that you can’t give it your full concentration then just go home. Or – and this may sound radical – why not talk at the tables instead? You never know, you might learn something.