Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What I've Learned

I’ve been trying to write this post for a very long time. I’m not really sure why I haven’t, other than perhaps the fact that I figure it’s going to be pretty hard. But what better time to do it than on a flight. I’ve learned a ton over the past 12 months, and I’m going to try to pick out as many things as I can and write them down here, most likely in a completely random and rambling fashion. Here goes. I hope it’s interesting.

Being able to get into games is huge. It’s very important as a professional that you can consistently and reliably get into the game you want to play without wasting a lot of time. Bay 101 (and to a lesser extent, Garden City) provide this. I can’t remember the last time I waited more than 30 minutes for a 20/40 seat at Bay. I once went to The Oaks and spent 90 minutes waiting around for the 30/60 to start. Not only did I waste 90 minutes (during which I made no money), but I got frustrated and agitated, which certainly hurt my play during the ensuing session. If you can’t reliably get into games big enough to support yourself with little waiting, doing this would be very difficult. Moving up to 40/80 has been hard for me for a number of reasons, but this fact is near the top of the list. It often takes several hours to get a 40/80 seat at Bay 101.

As a corralary to this, having multiple casinos in which you can play is great. Relying on a single location would be dangerous and boring. What if the games dried up a little? What if you couldn’t stand some of the regulars? I’ll talk about this more later also.

It is important to play in soft games. Specifically, the ratio of your win rate to standard deviation must be high. I have heard countless horror stories of (winning) online players having massive (500 big bet) downswings. I have also heard tales of live players, in big, aggressive games, going on horrible streaks. In 10 months and 1800 hours of play, the worst dive I’ve taken has been around 125 big bets ($5,000 in 20/40). Now I’m not saying that I haven’t been lucky, but at the same time I have done a little bit of number crunching and what I’ve experienced isn’t that unlikely. I haven’t run my standard deviation in a few hundred hours, but in the past it’s been somewhere in the low ~$400s per hour. My winrate in the low ~$50s means my ratio is somewhere around 8. In his book, Mason Malmuth suggests that anything under 10 is easy to deal with, where as something as high as 15 brings about murderous swings. What this means is that while moving up is great, if you double your stakes and increase your win rate by only 50%, your swings are going to much, much bigger. Be ready for it.

I get sick more often. I used to work in a large office building with a decent ventilation system. I got sick a fair amount. Now, I get sick a lot more. I’ve had 4 bad colds in 10 months, two of them just 6 months apart. It sucks, but sitting in a tight circle with 9 other people passing around plastic discs is just not conducive to avoiding colds. Consequently I’ve started taking vitimins and redoubled my efforts at personal hygiene (washing my hands as often as possible and taking advantage of the hand wipes provided at Bay 101 and the Oaks).

An important distinction to make is a division of your opponents into 2 groups; those who figure out your strategy and make adjustments against you, and those who don’t. There will be far more of the latter, but missing the former will cost you a lot of money. For example, I used to think that Phil the prop was a weak tight old nit, until I recently played a session with him and Pete. Phil the prop is in fact a weak tight old nit, unless he’s playing against me, Pete, or anyone else he labels as a YIP (Young Internet Punk). Then he becomes an aggressive, almost manical, showdown monkey. Perhaps it’s because Pete check/raised him with 76o on a board of K32, but whatever. For opponents who adjust to you, it’s important not to be lulled into a state of perpetual unawareness by watching them play against other people. You must evaluate how they play against you. The famous WTK is another example. Against most players he’s very aggressive, but against me he plays differently. He doesn’t try to bluff me as much because he’s seen me call him down with as little as queen high, but he also raises my big blind with nearly 100% accuracy. Are these adjustments correct on his part? Who knows. The important part for me is to realize that he plays differently against me than he does against the average player in the game.

If a fish thinks you’re following him from table to table or attempting to seat change to constantly have position on him, you should cut it out. Making him aware that you are trying to play with him and take his money will likely cause him to play his best possible game against you. Now maybe he’s incapable of playing well post-flop, but at the bare minimum he might play fewer hands in the first place, and this would be bad. Basically don’t tap the glass…repeatedly. Once or twice is fine, but even the dullest opponents catch on eventually.

At the same time…seat selection is critical. Having a good seat at the table means having loose players on your right. The logic for this is pretty simple. For the math to be easy, let’s assume you have an 10-handed table. Suppose you had 5 opponents who played 50% of their hands and 4 more who only played 25%. Let’s sit them in order around the table:

a b c d e Hero f g h i

Assuming that b sits to the left of a and so forth. You are Hero, sitting between e and f. In ten hands, you have post-flop position on each player the following number of times:

f, 1
g, 2
h, 3
i, 4
a, 5
b, 6
c, 7
d, 8
e, 9

You only have position on the player on your left when you have the button, and so forth. Now suppose the a-e players are the 50% guys, while the f-i guys are the 25 percenters. That means that on average 3.5 of them will see the flop (4*.25 + 5*.5). But how many of those 3.5 players will you have position on? For that, we just add up the following:

f, .1*.25 = .025
g, .2*.25 = .05
h, .3*.25 = .075
i, .4*.25 = .1
a, .5*.5 = .25
b, .6*.5 = .3
c, .7*.5 = .35
d, .8*.5 = .4
e, .9*.5 = .45

The sum of those numbers is 2. So in the average hand that you enter (ouch…supposing you play the same number of hands from every position, which is of course wrong…left as an exercise to the reader), 2 players will act in front of you and only 1.5 will act after you. I’m not going to work out the math for the other case, but it should be easy to see that if you switch seats you’ll get something like the reverse, with more players acting after you and fewer acting before.

It’s also very important to have aggressive players on your right and passive players on your left. Aggressive players are less predictable than passive ones, so knowing what they are going to do before you act provides more information. Ideally you want the loose and aggressive players tucked on your right and the tight passive ones on your left.

Commuting sucks. Even doing non-peak traffic times. If you haven’t done it before, don’t assume that you can. If you have done it before, remember that it sucks and doesn’t really get better. I spend over an hour a day, every day, in my car, driving to and from casinos. That time could be better spent in practically countless ways. Also, burning almost 2 gallons of gas a day and putting over 50 miles on your car really isn’t great for your pocket or the Earth.

Working out is critical. I used to work out a lot, primarily because my gym was at work and I wasn’t really thrilled with my job. Going to the gym for lunch was a valid excuse to do less work. Now that I like what I do, and that I get “paid” by the hour, it has become much, much easier for me to put off the gym. Now if you haven’t worked out in 5 years, this probably isn’t a big deal. If you’re like me and used to work out 4+ days a week, it’s a huge problem. I’m currently in my 3rd straight month of swearing I’ll get to the gym more often. So far, it’s not working out. The key here is to make sure you still make time for things that are important to you. For me a second key seems to be that I am only capable of “doing something” if I make time for it every single day. Saying “I’ll go to the gym 3 days a week” doesn’t cut it, because 2 is a lot like 3. Saying I’ll go every day makes it binary. You either succeed or fail, and that’s all there is to it.

It is important to have someone or something that expects/needs you to come home at a specified time. If you, like many poker players, are prone to playing long sessions when “stuck” to try to “get even”, it’s critical that your dog’s bladder or dinner with your girlfriend set an upper bound on how long you can play. At the same time, since commuting sucks, it is important that your sessions be of substantial length and that you never get into situations where you “have to stay until X”, where X is really more than 30 minutes in the future. I suggest never relying on somebody to pick you up from the casino if you can avoid it, and having a window of departure times set in advance of your session. Ideally this window should be about 2 hours wide. If at the beginning you’re up and happy with your accomplishments, or the game isn’t very good anymore, leave. If you’re stuck or having fun and the game is good, stick around, but only for a few more hours. Try (hard) to avoid situations where you planned to come home at 7 and are still in the game at 10. It’s bad for you and it’s horrible for your relationships with other things that breath.

In general it is difficult and unimportant to determine exactly how long you will play each day. Game conditions change, as does your mental state and playing ability. If you get to the casino and feel you’re about to go on tilt after 5 hours of play, it’s important that you go home. At the same time, if you’re playing well and the games are good, it’s important that you’re able stay until the aforementioned someone or something expects or needs you to be home (or at least nearly). Cutting sessions short because you’ve won, or extending them because you haven’t, creates an artificial situation in which you’re playing stuck a higher percentage of the time than you should. While this may not affect your play, it will affect your emotional state, and that’s not good for business.

Having a cover story that is vague and uninteresting is helpful. People ask me all the time what I do, and I have decided to tell them I am trying to get into the computer science Ph.D program at Stanford. I claim to be a research assistant working for a professor on hand writing recognition software. Very few people know anything about this, and therefore I don’t get many followup questions. It’s also moderately important here that I be consistent, as the same person hearing different stories would be at best not a good thing and at worst likely to cause suspicion or (gasp) a discussion about me after I left the table.

Having friends is the nuts. If you decide to play full time you will invariably locate a few other people doing the same thing as you. I’ve made a group of 4 friends since I started that have been tremendously helpful to me. Talking about hands, making fun of villains, and in general having somebody to goof off with at the table makes the days and weeks a lot more enjoyable. Mason states in his book that gambling for a living is inherently lonely, and while (and since) he has a point, I think making every effort to offset this lonliness is very important.

You will tilt. Everyone tilts. Some people tilt hard, some people tilt soft. Some people tilt often, some people tilt rarely. But everytime I think someone is unflappable, eventually I see them get flapped. Pete got flapped just last week when some asshat grabbed his cards and mucked them before he had a chance to even look at them. Sure, that’s a rare occurrence, but you know what? Rare occurences happen. That’s why they’re rare and not impossible. No matter how zen-like you are, no matter how easy it is for you to just let shit go, there is some asshole out there capable of doing something stupid enough to make you lose your cool. If you are me…there are 2 or 3 at every table. If you’re Pete, there might only be 1 in the entire casino. What’s important, however, is that you are capable of doing 2 things: First, over time, you have to tilt less. Second, you have to recognize when you are on the tilt train and either get off it or leave the casino.

The bulk of the above text was written 3 or 4 months ago, before variance and tilt smacked me in the face to the point that I’m still trying to get back to a high water mark that was set in late May. Now for some more things, starting with my stats.

In my first 12 months at a pro I logged 1829 hours of play. At first this sounds pretty darn good, somewhere in the mid 30s of hours per week, a nice and easy schedule, in line with my predicted playing time. However, there are issues. First of all, something like 50-100 of these hours were spent in either “small” (8/16 or 6/12 primarily) games or in home games. This drops my actual play time down substantially. Also, as mentioned above, I spend a lot of time commuting and sitting around waiting to get into games. Particularly now that I’ve taken to playing at the Oaks it’s not uncommon for my drive home to take 45 minutes or more thanks to traffic on the Bay Bridge. There also is the matter of posting on two plus two, which is something I try to keep up with because to be honest it’s where I learned 90% of what I know about poker. The long and short of it is that playing 40 hours a week in your flagship games is a serious challenge, and not something you should expect to accomplish. It’s important to keep your life efficient by planning your playing time around games (the Oaks 30, for example, goes at precisely 1pm two days a week. This is great, as I can roll up at 12:55 and be guaranteed a seat) and minimizing wasted effort and time. Back when I worked at Oracle, it was easy for me to spend 10 hours a week playing poker. Now that I play poker full time, it would be very hard for me to find 10 hours a week for a hobby. In short, I think I spend more time working now than I did before by a substantial margin.

Moving up is hard. It can be soul crushingly hard. Playing different games is hard. The average and correct play at a 20/40 table might hemmorhage cash in the 40/80 game or vice versa. A recent discovery of mine (and a less recent one of Pete’s) is that playing in the same game and player pool consistently gives you a huge edge. Of late I’ve been scattered all over the place, logging hours in the Oaks 15/30 and 30/60, but still playing a fair amount of 20/40 at Bay 101 and even Garden City. I’m going to try to focus on the Oaks 30 for the near future and hopefully get back to my winning ways.

You can lose. For a very long time. Right now I am still $4000 off a high water mark I set back in May. This has come basically in the form of losing $3000 the last few days of May, posting a slight losing June, a break even July, and so far a break even August. I used to believe that such a streak was an unlikely event. I suppose I still do, but now that I’ve hit it I think I need to reassess it’s likelihood.

Losing is soul crushing. Coming home every day stuck 2 racks or up 1 instead of up 2 or down one is just awful. You are tired and grouchy. Your girlfriend will notice. Your relationships will suffer. You will in general be an asshat, and if you’re not careful something awful can start to happen. I used to be a very nice person, a people person if you will. I used to find people interesting and was dead set on giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. I liked people. Over the course of the last 13 months spent attempting trying to take their money, and specifically the last 3 months having them take mine, I’ve started to lose these (admirable) qualities. I don’t like people anymore. There are regulars in the Bay 20/40 game that I absolutely dispise. When they sit down at my game my blood rises a little and I get angry, even before they open their mouths or call 3 bets cold with Queen Ten off to crack my pocket 9s or whatever. This is a very disturbing trend, one I need to get a handle on and quick.

Have a safety deposit box, or 3. Give yourself access to truly ridiculous sums of cash for the games you’re playing, so ridiculous that a truly massive loss goes almost unnoticed. If you only have access to 4 or 5 thousand dollars and manage to blow off 3 or 4 racks in the 20/40 game your brain will spend precious cycles worried about how much cash you have. God forbid you sit in the 40 and dust off 3 racks, or get yourself 8 racks into the 20. If you have $15,000 sitting in your box your only concern will be walking over to it to procure your next six rack buy in. Keep as much of your bankroll in chips as you can, as it’s easier to buy in with chips than cash. If you play at 3 casinos like I do, this can be difficult. If you only play at one, keep tons of big chips in your box. There is nothing more comforting than holding $10,000 in the palm of your hand.

You will lose respect for money. Everything thinks they are above this and that it won’t happen to them. I thought I was above this and that it wouldn’t happen to me, and I was wrong. I used to enjoy playing black jack for $5 a hand with my friends and having a frew drinks, making jokes, and in general having a good time. No more. Now if I sit down at a small black jack table it won’t be long before I’m betting green chips. I used to balk at small expenses ($20 here, $40 there) and was in general a cheap bastard. No more. Now some of these changes are actually for the best and were worth going through. Not haggling with Danielle over tens of dollars in joint expenses is much more relaxing. But in some cases, such as the black jack example, I need to be careful. It’s simply hard to continue to think about money the same way when you’re good and bad days see $4000 leaving or entering your life. I mean, what does it really matter if you spend $14 on lunch instead of $8? Well, it still kind of does matter a little, at least as much as it used to, and the change in perception is something you need to keep in check.

Play both online and live. If you play live primarily, playing online allows you to work on some facets of your game that likely would remain poor otherwise. Also, it allows you to go on trips to places with no casinos (these places do exist) and still get in some hands and hopefully make some coin. If you play online primarily obviously getting out of your house and interacting with other human beings is a good idea.

Read. Re-read the books that helped you learn the game. Read new books. Read good books and read bad books. Think about what you read. Read two plus two. Post on two plus two. Post hands. In short, do the things that helped you get to where you are. If you ever stop learning you’ll eventually stop winning. Discuss hands with friends. This is just huge. Do hand reviews of online sessions and talk about hands with friends that play in the same live games as you.

At the same time…play in fun home games with your friends from time to time, or horse around with them online. Literally. I’ve taken to play 1-2 HORSE online once a week with my friends, and it’s a blast. The most fun I’ve had playing poker the last few years have been:

6/12 HORSE at the Venetian with Pete, The CEO, and 3 Australian dudes from Poker News. We played for 6 or 7 hours before we realized we should probably get to sleep.

2/4 Dealer’s choice at Professor Ben’s house where I learned how to play Baduci. Ben said “you should lock up the badugi, then free roll the ace to 5 hand”. I took this too far, standing pat with like a King high badugi after the first draw, and promptly went to show down for a million bets against Ben and Yodaman. Our realization of the actually correct way to play baduci as bakku chopped up the massive point, apportioning half to my stack and half to Bens? Chop up the Yoda!

It has to still be fun. If it’s not fun and you don’t enjoy it you’re never gonna make it, no matter (almost) how much money you’re winning. Of course if you’re winning it’ll probably stay fun for quite a bit longer, but you’ll be tested when you have that losing month (or 3) and trust me, if you aren’t having fun you’ll question everything, as I’m starting to just now. Someone asked me recently if I was going to keep at this, and my response was scary. I said “Yes, because if I quit now I’ll feel liked I failed.” And it’s true. If I gave up right now, in the middle of this mess, I’d feel like a quitter. So for the immediate future I’m gonna keep at it, and I’ll keep you all updated here.


ExMember said...

Table selection is the most important decision you make as a professional poker player.

I mean that. There is nothing more important.

Table selection is deciding who you are playing with, what game, and at what stakes.

If you are playing with players who are better than you, you will lose. If you are playing a game that your opponents play better than you, you will lose.

If you are playing too high, when you have a downstreak it will be too much and you will go broke. If you are playing too low, you will not cover your expenses and you will go broke.

I like to play the 8-game mix online. I learn a lot and that's always fun. Plus one day it'll be important that I can play other games well.

Captain R said...

Post of the MF year. Both literally, and content-wise. Fuggin' gold.

Greg said...

I think you're misusing literally.

Dave said...

Jesse, I gotta say, it's been fun following this adventure of yours, and living vicariously through you. Thanks for entertaining me over the past year.

I don't know much about poker, but it seems to me that your self-awareness and continual reassessment will serve you well in the long run. I'm pretty damn sure you'll succeed at this in the long run, and look forward to reading your posts along the way.

Dan said...

All very well said. You and I have solidified our games to the point that the difference maker isn't going from very good to excellent or expert. The difference is really being master of your own domain, recognizing your shortcomings (both as a poker player and a person), and plugging said leaks. If poker becomes more soul sucking than a real job, then really, what's the point? :)

Captain R said...

I may have misused literally, I'm not sure. I mean literally in that it's his "One year in review" post since he started, so basically "Post of the Year" in a chronological sense as well as in a "this post is awesome" sense.

DK said...

Amazing post! Makes me think weather I have the mental aptitude or fortitude to try the poker profession... Keep up the great content.

Alan Bostick said...

Great post, and it jibes with a lot of what I've learned.

TiocfaidhArLa said...

Did you fail at IT or did you choose a different career because it got boring? Assuming that you changed career again, you'd want one that ... [you'll need to fill in the blanks].

Can poker provide some or all of that? Maybe augment your income with freelance journalism, or God forbid, a little technology consulting. Basically just get balance back into your life and fill that deposit box so you don't need to worry about the downswings.

Use Online and 2+2 (which you enjoy) to learn all of the games and become a true Poker player, as opposed ot Limit grinder.

Your live and online experience at significant stakes has you positioned way ahead of the field.

You've proven that you can make a living out of the game ... you just need to solve the challenge of how to make a healthy rewarding living out of it. It's been done before and your continual re-assessment of the situation will ensure that if it is what you want, it is what you'll get.

PS If you wrote a book, I'd buy it!

parttimebonuschaser said...

nice post. I think the most interesting, and probably most important point you raise is on it changing your mood and no longer being such a 'people person'. and the potential impact on the people around you.

i dont think any job should have a significantly adverse effect on your relationships, so I agree you need to be really careful here as your relationships are always more important than a job (or poker!)