How I Learned Pokering

Part 1: The Early years

I have been playing poker since the mid 1970s, but had little idea of what i was doing. We played draw and 7 stud in the military, often with wild cards, and nobody I played with (including me) had any idea of the math behind the game. Poker was just something we did while getting drunk, and good times were had by all, win or lose.

Once I got out if the military, i got involved in a rotating home game. This week at my house, next week at someone else’s house, and so on. We played fixed limit, dealer’s choice, and played a wide range of silly variants. Occasionally, arguments broke out over rules, and since most of us were well armed and usually drunk, this was a bad thing.

In about 1980, I picked up a copy of Ainslie’s Complete Hoyle, which I intended to make our official rule book. Having printed “official” rules helped a lot. In fact, that home game lasted in one form or another for almost 20 years, and in all that time only 1 person got shot.

Actually, he shot himself trying to show us the muzzle safety feature of his new 1911. “Press on the muzzle,” he said, " and the gun can’t go off. BAM!! He blew a hole through his hand. We packed it and wrapped it, and let him drive himself to the hospital, and he was fine after some time. We all thought this was the funniest thing we had seen, and still laugh about it to this day.

Anyway, the book also had lists of odds on various situations, and that was my first clue that there was more to the game than I had imagined. I memorized the charts, and started doing a little better, but I was still mostly unaware of the deeper aspects of the game.

In time, we all got married and more or less grew up, and the game dissolved. The main thing I learned during this time was that one should unload the weapon before pointing it at their hand and pulling the trigger.

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And now you’ve passed on this wisdom! Thank you. My hands are safer now.

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Part 2: The Moneymaker Effect

In 2003, Chris Moneymaker turned a $40 satellite buying into a $2.5 million WSOP win, and that caught my attention. This started my love affair with No Limit, with Holdem, and with tournaments. I decided that i would look into this silly game, and found a copy of Brunson’s “Supersystem.”

Wow, it sort of blew me away. It wasn’t that it was that technical, but it first exposed me to the sheer terror of big bet poker. I was hooked!

There weren’t a lot of books available, but I bought and tried to digest everything i could find. The most notable of these were those written by David Sklansky. His "Theory of Poker, " and “Hold’em Poker for Advanced Players” were especially eye opening.

Armed with the most advanced theoretical knowledge of the time, I was armed and ready to enter the fray!

I didn’t know of any good free sites back then, so I did the logical thing and deposited a few hundred into an online real money site. I was on my way to fame and glory, or so I though.

Only not so much. I played some micro stakes NL games, and, to my horror, nobody else was playing anything like the were supposed to. I think i won a little, but something was seriously amiss, so I withdrew and pondered the situation. Hmmmmm, ponder ponder ponder.

I eventually decided that the books written by top professional players were based on their experiences playing other top professional players, and a lot of that simply didn’t apply to the games I was playing. I used this to plot out a course of development, and set out to become a poker player.

My first step was to switch to fixed limit games until I had the basic math “bones” of the game down pat. I spent months studying and playing, refining my game until I knew the math part of the game without having to think about it. The basics of pot odds, implied odds, and odds of improving your hand are simple, but you have to get to the point where this stuff is automatic.

So that’s the first piece of advice I can give new players: do the math until you don’t have to do the math. Work it out every hand, whether you are in the hand or not, and keep at it until it becomes second nature.

Fixed limit is good for this. There’s less bluffing, the math is clear-cut and simple, and I think this is the best way to learn the basic concepts. Don’t play until you can do it right, play until you can’t do it wrong.

more later…

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Cool stuff! Might be very useful to others, including me !

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Part 3: Let’s Get Serious

I consider the 6 or 7 months i spent in fixed limit rings as my “basic training,” and I don’t regret the time spent there. I gradually moved up in stakes, and, when I got to $1/$2, I made 2 important discoveries.

The first of these was that these games were full of bots, each grinding out a few BBs an hour. I studied these, and eventually got to the point that i could usually beat them. They were playing almost perfectly within the limitations of the information they had, so the counter was to provide them with false information. Relentless aggression was the key.

I also discovered a piece of software called PokerTracker, which saved every hand I played (or even watched) to a database. It had a set of analytical tools that rated every player based on that player’s tendencies. It gave me detailed statistics on players and how they played from each position, This was very helpful.

I eventually moved to no limit rings, and gradually worked my way up the stakes. The lowest stakes were a zoo. Again, nobody was playing anything like how they were supposed to play, and it got to be a little frustrating. And, when I moved up in stakes, i started to run into teamers.

Most of the team players I encountered weren’t very good, even playing as a team, but they were irritating. If you know what to look for, it’s not hard to spot them, and i would report them to support as soon as I did. For every team i took out, it seemed like 2 more took its place. There had to be a better way to learn this stupid game!

I withdrew again and pondered some more. Hmmmm, ponder, ponder, ponder.

I eventually decided that, if I was going to play the kind of poker I had read about, i would have to play with the kind of players that wrote books. If I was going to improve my game, i would have to play against the best professional players in the world. No sweat, right?

mor e later

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Part 4: The Next Steps

So after over a year of study and practice, i felt I was ready for the next step. I felt I had a decent grasp on the theoretical side of the game, but lacked the experience at the higher levels of play. The problem was that gaining this experience would be expensive… really expensive. I had no illusions about sitting down and being able to hold my own against the best players, but that’s what I felt I needed to do.

This problem was solved with the discovery of software called Poker Academy. Developed by the University of Alberta’s Computer Poker Research Group, it featured advanced adaptive AI poker bots that were (some of them) modeled after the top players in the world. I could sit down and play extended sessions with David Sklansky, Chip Reese, and others, and do so without going broke.

The program had a side panel that displayed all the stats, so it was easy to check if my “instinctive” approximations of the math were on point or not. It also let you look “under the hood” to see each player’s starting ranges for each position, their betting and bluffing tendencies, and so on.

Rather than just looking, i would try to predict these numbers first, then see how close I was to the actual numbers.This greatly helped my reading ability, or what the AI guys call “opponent modeling.” This is a crucial part of the game, so it pays to work on this aspect.

PA had other bots too. Bots like PsOpti, which was a brutal heads up bot that used GTO strategies centered on a Nash equilibrium approach. Another was Vexbot, that took that concept further by adding regret minimization and especially counterfactual regret minimization. I don’t want to type forever, so I’ll just link some papers on this stuff at the bottom.

I spent almost another year working with this software. The great thing about these bots is that none of them played bingo. They played a mean game, to be sure, and they adapted to your own play as you went.

Another cool aspect of this software is that you could make your own bots and let them play the others. This was very useful, to say the least. Anyway, after almost a year of this, i was ready to play some tournaments!

More later…

The accountans might be interested in some of this stuff…

Opponent Modelling and Search in Poker
Regret Minimization in Games with Incomplete Information
Approximating Game-Theoretic Optimal Strategies for Full-scale Poker

More can be found here: University of Alberta Computer Poker Research Group

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Interesting info at the links. I doubt I understand more than 5% of it, LOL. Thanks for this.

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Part 5 - Tourney Time

So after about 2 years of study and play, I was ready to play some tournaments, which was the goal all along. There was actually some overlap here. I was playing a few freerolls and $2 buyin tournies just to get a feel for the flow of this new (to me) format, while still messing with the training software

I felt that I had a pretty good handle on the pokering part of it, but there’s more to tournament play than that. This is where I started to develop my tournament strategy. One of the first things i noticed was that strategies that were effective early on tended to fail later in the game.

I eventually decided that this was mostly due to the fact that the average skill level changed throughout the tournament, with the lowest average skills at the start and the highest average skills at the end. This suggested that I needed to employ different strategies, each tailored to a specific stage of the tournament. This eventually morphed into the 7 stage approach i use to this day.

I soon found that my “sweet spot” were the $10 and $20 buyin tournies, which were capped at 1,100 seats. I sometimes played smaller ones, and sometime bigger, but this is where I concentrated my efforts. It became a matter of practice, analyze, then play some more. The tournies I liked usually filled in 5 to 15 minutes, which left me time to kill, so I played rings to pass the time, warm up, and tried to at least win my buyin back.

As i gained experiance and developed my strategies, I started hitting the money more and more. I eventually got to the point where my monthly cash rates were between 40% - 60%, which isn’t as hard to do as it sounds.

In 2006, the site ran a series of freerolls for seats to the WSOP main event. Even though I had grown to hate freerolls by then, i decided to give them a try. They had 72 of these a week, each with 3,500 seats, and the top 50 from each met on Saturday to play for the seats. That’s 252,000 players a week, with the finals having 3,600.

I made the finals, and made the final table. That week, 1st place was a $50k seat to the first HORSE tourney, and nobody at the table wanted it! We all went crazy and I went out 6th, winning the Main Event seat. They also paid for the hotel.

The next week, i again qualified for the finals. My plan was to sell the second seat if I won it. Late in the tournament, I was in a great position to do just that, but I had a nagging feeling. i called support during a break, and they told me the seats were “no transfer.” Oops!

This time, there was no HORSE seat, so the top 15 won main event seats, and I think the next 15 won what they called a “preliminary package.” This was $2k cash that was intended to let you enter one of the smaller WSOP events. I hate to admit it, but I dumped chips and ended up winning one of these 2K packages. Hey, it more than covered the airfare, so eh.

The actual main event was intimidating. i was in no way, shape, or form ready for it. 2.000 players on 200 tables, with lights, cameras, and more noise than you can imagine. I sat for the first 2 hours like a deer in headlights, afraid to do anything. I totally forgot the game that got me there, and it cost me.

I did get into the swing of things, but never got any real traction. I was the session closer on my day 1, so i guess I went out 3200-ish out of a field of almost 8,800. I managed to hold my own for 15 hours straight, against some of the top players in the world, so there’s that. I could have done better, should have done better, but i just wasn’t mentally prepared for the reality of the event.

Not long after that was Black Friday, when the US Gov clamped down on online poker, and that was that. I still love to play tournament poker, so here I am.

So here’s what you should take away from all this, if anything…

Have a plan.
Master the basics.
Don’t expect it to happen over night
Put in the work if you want the rewards
Play as much as you can, but play mindfully
Don’t be afraid to try new things, and develop a strategy that works for you
Have fun, these chips are fake, the people are real.

Thanks for reading this, which went much much longer than I expected. I guess I’m just a chatty guy!

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'Really enjoyed your article, SunPowerGuru. Your advice is intelligent and
crystal clear. I think I’ll try to find Doyle’s book.
Tessduville

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