Shadow boxing: Use the problems you face on the poker table against your opponents

CardRunners pro Ed Miller on the importance of outsmarting yourself at the poker table…

In order to get the most from this article I’m going to have to make some assumptions about the standard of your poker game. I’m going to assume that you are a regular NLHE player, that is settled at whatever stakes you play. I’m also assuming you are no worse than a small long-term loser (and may be a small to medium winner). And, finally, that your surface stats, such as VPIP, are within reason for the games you play – you don’t play a completely different style from the other decent players in your game.
If all of these apply to you then the other regulars in your games will often think about many situations in a similar way to the way you think. This is ‘standard’ regs I am referring to, not regular players who have a very distinct style, or fish. If this is true then one of the easiest ways to get better is to play against your shadow. You need to seek out plays that, if the roles were reversed, would make life difficult for you in the way you tend to play. If you can learn to beat yourself then you can also likely beat the other regs at your level!

Step-by-step process to improve

STEP 1 – Play poker at your regular level.
STEP 2 – Pay attention to the hands that you play against regulars. If you want to move up in stakes and maximise your win rate then you have to beat the regular players at your level. You cannot just avoid these players and only play against fish – there simply aren’t enough for you to do that. But the good news is that the regs at lower stakes are certainly very beatable. They play at a level that is fairly predictable. If you can just figure out what they are doing then you will beat them, grow a bigger bankroll and move up.
STEP 3 – Whenever you find that you have an easy decision against a reg, stop and take a note. An example of an easy decision might be when a certain opponent makes a big bet on the river and you know it is an easy fold, or your opponent bets flop and turn but checks the river and you just know it’s an obvious spot to jam the river as he never has a strong hand. You don’t have to think about these at all and you know there is not much danger of things going wrong. These are the type of things you must take note of.
Most decisions in poker should not be easy (but some are). If someone is playing correctly then there should be serious uncertainty at almost every juncture in a hand. For example, if I raise, will I get reraised, called or get a fold? If I get reraised will it sometimes be for value and sometimes as a bluff? And so on and so forth… in other words, as soon as you take an action there are a tree of actions that your opponent can take. If they are good at poker it will be a well-balanced, confusing tree too! Whenever you have a decision there is no easy, clear-cut path to a positive result against an opponent that plays well.

Some points for good play

When you’re facing a bet you should always be significantly unsure whether the bet is for value or as a bluff. This is on all streets. The amount of times an opponent is bluffing or betting for value should be close enough in percentage that there is genuine uncertainty how you should proceed. Similarly, if an opponent checks the flop instead they should be good enough that you don’t know if they are sandbagging a huge hand, planning to call with a medium hand or just check-folding.
Any time that you can categorically say, ‘he’s never bluffing here’, or ‘he can’t call this bet’, you’ve found an exploitable error in your opponent’s play – and likely also an error in your own play as well, if the chairs were reversed. This is especially true if it is a significant point in the hand (not just a preflop raise). As you are roughly at the same level as this opponent – if there is a leak in his game then there is also one in yours.

Step-by-step part two

STEP 4 – Gather your list of hands where the regs made your life easy. Go over them after you play.
STEP 5 – For each hand figure out what made your life easy. Usually it’s an unbalanced hand range. Say he bet the flop, turn and checked the river and you know it’s an easy bluff bet. Why is that? Is it because he takes this line only with hands he is planning to give up? Identify the reason why this decision was easy.
STEP 6 – Think about how you would play the hand with the chairs reversed. Be honest with yourself. The chances are you would probably play it the same way a good percentage of the time. That might make you easy to play against.
STEP 7 – Identify the strategy changes needed to make yourself harder to play against. Going to the same example of betting twice and checking the river – a good way to counteract this is by checkraising the river, or check-calling with more value hands. Or stop betting the turn too often and showing up on the river with hands you can’t bet a third time. The key here is that this does not have to be optimised – all you have to do is make yourself better by giving yourself more options on the river. Turn hands that are not good enough to value bet a third time into a bluff by check-raising, for example.
This example hand is from a $5/$10 live NLHE game in Las Vegas. Assume $1k stacks for all at the table. I open to $30 with Ah-Qh, a loose player calls behind and a reg calls in the big blind. The flop comes Ac-5s-2s rainbow. The big blind checks, I bet $60 into a $90 pot, the loose player folds, and the big blind calls. The turn is the 3h. The big blind checks a second time, I bet $110 into $210 and the big blind min-raises to $220. I call. The river is 9h. The big blind bets $600 into $650 and I fold.
In a game like this the river is a no-brainer fold. Regs in a live $5/$10 game simply aren’t bluffing like this nearly often enough to think about calling with one pair. It’s nearly a pot-sized bet on the end and is not often going to be a bluff – certainly not enough of the time for us to make the call.
The problem is that if I have an easy fold our opponent is not playing well. Taking the line of min-raising the turn before bombing the river will, in general, not be a bluff. You can fold to this line every time and it will usually be the right decision.
It’s important to take away from this hand a few things. Look for spots where your opponent is likely value betting/protecting a medium strength hand. I did this on the turn with A-Q – the board was getting a little scary but I bet both to protect my hand and also to get value from worse. As we’ve seen how strongly we viewed our opponent’s line of min-raising turn and betting river we should now consider using this play to our own advantage but as a bluff. As regs in your games don’t often do this they should fold, just as we did. It’s a different line to what they are used to seeing. In a vacuum, taking mixed lines makes you a better player and in this context it is especially true because nobody is expecting you to do it.
This is the process of finding an easy decision and working through why it was a mistake on your opponent’s behalf. You can then use this to your advantage by refusing to make the same mistakes.

Final thought

If you’re a reg and they’re a reg, the chances are that they play more like you than you might imagine. If you’re a $50NL player then my experience is that many of the regs at this stake all tend to be at roughly the same level in skill and they tend to think about situations in roughly the same way. You can use this to your advantage by playing against your shadow. Flip around what is making life easy for you, to make life difficult for your opponents.
Many regs will make the same ‘easy’ folds that you make. The chances are that you have become pretty decent at folding – that’s the first skill a lot of players really learn in poker to separate themselves from the fish. You learn to fold preflop, know when you are beat and so forth. Everyone else knows this too. A bad player may make a donkey call but bad players can fold – give them credit for making the same folds you make. Try to find spots that can get them to call instead!
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