I’ve been at a plateau for a while in my poker career. I felt I just couldn’t get past a certain level of play, and the only way I could get any better was to play a very tight game, and even then I felt like I was being slung around by the statistics of the game. Get good cards, I win money. Get poor cards, lose money. I have studied the techniques of drawing, and identified betting patterns in a hand to try and tell if I was beat when I didn’t have the nuts. However I felt like I really was strongest in my hand selection. I knew this wasn’t enough.
Right about the time I was struggling with this, I received Matt Matros book, the Making Of A Poker Player as a Father’s Day gift. Something clicked as I read it, and I knew that my game had topped out. Somehow I knew that what I needed was to establish long-term profiles of players I was playing against, and to use that knowledge against them. I think it was Matros’ repeated use of the player profile in his play. "He could raise with anything down to 88 here" and other profile phrases really drove the point home that this gave him an edge.
I suddenly realized that this is where I was. I had reached that level of my poker education where I couldn’t advance without learning the skill of player profiling. I don’t mean simple things like, "is he aggressive?" or "is he passive?", but observations like, "He bets second pair on the flop in late position."
I put down the book and fired up the computer, bringing up one of the many online sites where I had a few hundred dollars deposited. I sat down at $100 buyin no limit hold’em table and opened a notepad window for each of the 5 other players at my table. I watched them play, noted which players seemed to check too much, which players seemed to call me down with anything, and which players would bet anything.
My table had 4 players who were passive in various ways. I made three kinds of notes about each of them.
- With what hands do they raise? Ace with what kind of kicker? Pairs of Aces, sure, but 88?
- When the flop comes, what do they bet with? Some players only bet top pair, and fold if they have second. Some players call down with second pair. Some players call when they hit any part of the flop.
- What can’t they fold? Some players can’t fold top pair. Some players can’t fold an ace that hits the flop. Knowing that makes me feel better when they keep calling me down.
I studied my opponents and then put my plan into action. I picked the weakest player that I had the best read on. I also marked one that I’d concluded was tricky and made a note to stay away from him.
The weak player was exactly to my left, the worst possible position for me. However it didn’t matter, I had an excellent read on him. He called a raise with any pair, or an Ace with a kicker of Ten or better. He checked the flop unless he had top pair. When he bet the flop, conversely, I knew that he had top pair, an overpair, or possibly a significantly better hand. I could easily and quickly compute the odds based upon the narrow range of hands I considered he could have.
It was like I could see his cards. He played every hand exactly the same, and so I knew when he deviated from his pattern. I played 75% of the hands I was dealt because he and the other passive players were so transparent in the way they played. I also played very aggressively. I made $50 in an hour, but I was damn busy. Every hand the players played I was frantically going through the hand history. Even if there wasn’t a showdown, I gleaned useful information. If there was a showdown I had a goldmine of information to process. I was typing notes like a madman.
I was afraid this was a fluke, so I picked another 6 seat table and tried it again. I wanted to play a 6 seated table because making notes on 9 people was too hectic. I found the passive players and punished them while avoiding the tricky ones. I made another $50.
I sat down at another 6 seater table at random. I planned and executed the same strategy and won $95.
Ok, this is probably not a fluke, but that doesn’t mean I’m playing perfectly. In fact I specifically made a bet that shouldn’t have been called unless I was beat….and I was called by someone with a weak hand. If I was having this discussion on 2+2 or the Poker Tracker Forum, they’d say, "Come back when you’ve got 50,000 hands and tell us how it went." I’m not so flawed that I would consider an afternoon a statistically relevant sample. But like Neo in the Matrix, I felt like I could really see the numbers that made up everything. All this data is always there, and I’ve actually seen it, but subsequently discarded all except the most obvious parts of it.
Now I have proof that even the smallest bits of information have tremendous use. This was something that Matros said in a chapter on the classic "Ferguson problem": Poker is a game of information, not cards. Your cards are irrelevant.
I really feel like I have opened up an entirely new avenue in poker. This is why I love this game, it’s possibilities are as endless as the human mind, because at the end of the day, humans play the cards.
Experienced poker players will say all this is all incredibly obvious, but it was new to me. Poker is often a solitary journey, since when you’re dealt a hand, it’s only you that plays it. I have a pretty supportive peer group that can analyze hands post-mortem, but when you’re playing a hand, only you are playing the hand.
I’m excited, this is like rediscovering poker. I also love this game because it keeps one humble. No matter how much you think you know, there’s always more to learn, and people better than you to learn from/about.