Path to winning poker

I was at lunch today with a couple of coworkers and we started talking about poker. More specifically we started to talk about how we learned to play. The more i thought about my personal development in poker, the more I realized that there wasn’t a gradual learning curve. Instead I think there was more of a step by step process and that each step was dependant on the previous step. I think a lot of begining poker players probably start out on the wrong step which might ruin them or cause them great difficulty in learning the previous steps. For example; if someone first learned the art of bluffing before he learned how to spot tells and betting patterns there is a good chance he would loose all of his bankroll when he bluffs someone who has the nuts.

So I decided to list out my poker schooling and document how each step influenced my current game, and how it was an important part of future learning.

I watched the movie rounders when I was probably 18 or 19. When I first saw the movie, I loved it eventhough I didn’t understand why Mike won the final hand. At that time the only poker I knew was 5 card draw, and even with that I didn’t understand strategy or sometimes what hands beat what other hands. I love movies where the protaganists has a skill that is unique but not nessisarily obvious. It’s even better if this skill is somewhat of a non-desirable proffesion or lifestyle. When I saw the movie I realized that there was no way I would ever want to mess around with poker playing. I was convinced that if I went to a card room I would get eaten alive by people who were on a completly different level than me. I was right of course. If I had gone to a cardroom at that time I would have been eaten alive.

The movie deffinatly didn’t light a fire under my feet and make me want to learn more about poker. Instead it just gave me a great amount of respect for the game and more importantly for the other players. It made me realize that it was primarily a skill game with some luck involved.

I turn 21 and win consitantly at Atlantic City
The day I turned 21 Gamble, Jervece, George, and some random chick I didn’t know watched Rounders up until the scene where they go down to AC. At that same moment we turned off the TV jumped in my car and drove down to Atlantic City. When we passed under the bridge with the blue “Welcome to Atlantic City” sign, we all started cheering. To this day I still clap and cheer when i see that sign. As soon as i went into Cesar’s i put $0.25 into a slot machine and won $5.00 on my fist spin. I cashed that out up $4.75 for the day. I was on top of the world since an extra $5 meant a lot to a college kid with only $60 in his wallet … and only $80 to his name.

Next I hit up the black jack table and win $40 playing $5 a hand. I was nervous during every hand. A year latter I wouldn’t get nervous unless it was $15 a hand. Today I doubt i’d be nervous playing $50 a hand, although I only have done that 3 or 4 times. I leave the table up $45 for the day. This was an incredible feeling especially since i knew you should go to AC expecting to loose money.

When i got home I knew i needed to learn more about the casinos and the games sine I was sure to go back down again, and wanted to be prepaired. I boght a book called gorilla gambling. The premis of the book was that there are times when you should expect to win in the long run, but only if you play at the right time. the book taught me that stuff like craps, and slots have virtually no way of giving you long term winnings, but black jack.. and sometimes roulette would.

I focused on these two chapters and over the next year consistantly made $50 to $100 everytime I went down to AC. I probably had 3 wininig sessions for every loosing session. Still the roulette system was dependant on having a biased wheel which isn’t easy to find, and blackjack only gives you a slight advantage over the casino, at most 2 percent.

Then I got greedy. I started moving away from the smart play and started to go for the big money. That’s when I lost $1000 (a grand) at the roulette table in the matter of less than 5 minutes. I won’t go into the details now, but maybe later about how that went down. At the time I had a sales job so i could make up that money in the matter of a couple weeks so I wasn’t that worried, but it did remind me that I need to play it safe if I want to be a long term winner.

WSOP 2003 Moneymaker wins it all.
I know that a lot of people credit rounders with starting the poker boom. Well i’m sure it got a lot of brash arrogant excitable college age kids into the game, but I think Moneymaker is the one who got the joe schmos into the cardrooms, online and brick and motar. Watching the WSOP 2003 telecast I was completly rooting for moneymaker the whole way. I loved his name. It was just perfect. Plus I wanted to see someone like me win it instead of some mind reading genius poker pro. Even though it sounds like a cliche, watching Moneymaker win it all made me think that anyone could have sucess… if they got lucky… and had some amount of skill.

The WSOP 2003 broadcast is also where I learned how texas holdem was played. Up until that point i really didn’t know why each person only got two cards, and what the cards in the middle meant. It doesn’t help that rounders had 3 or 4 different types of poker games shown, that really messed me up.

Poker Books
I stoped by Borders to visit Yar-Yar and asked him where the poker books were. he directed me to two of the best available. “How to play poker like the pros” by phil hellmuth and “Super Systems” by Doyle Brunson. I bought both books since I couldn’t decide which was better. When I got home I read a little of Super Systems and was instantly confused. I then read a little of Phil’s book and felt much more comfotable. Phil’s book is a great beginers guide that takes you through the fundamentals. At this point I knew that pocket Aces were good, but i didn’t know how good 88 was or how bad A9 was. This book really put a lot of what i saw on TV in perspective. Phil’s book also talked about how to get started playing, specifically start small at an online card room.

Phil’s book discussed a lot of different type of poker, but the only thing I wanted to focus on was hold’em. I read the sections on pot limit no limit and limit. From what I read i knew that limit would be the easiest to start with because it required the least risk on any given hand. Plus there seemed to be less skill involved when it came to raising , calling and folding. I also read phil’s section on Animal types. Each type of player can be catagorized into a type of player that he associates with an animal. Although this didn’t give me a lot of information on reading people it introduced me to the concept.

With a copy of Phil’s book opened up to the top 10 hold’em hands I loged into my new real money party poker account. I sat down at a $0.25 $0.50 limit table which I felt was a little steep. I started out only playing the top 10 hands, and always raising with them. If the flop looked scary I got out. If I hit a hand hard I tried to slow play, If it was in the middle I just bet. After playing low limit on party for about 3 months I built up my initial $50 deposit into a $250 bank roll.

During this time i also experimented with tournaments. The smaller tournaments were easy all though I didn’t have a firm grasp on what I was betting and how much affect the blinds played in the tournaments. i started to get good at the Sit n GOs by following advice that i read from moneymaker. Early on only play very strong hands and play them for a big raise. once people get knocked out and the blinds go up, be more agressive and try and steal the blinds. Looking back on it, I’m sure I didn’t really understand what stealing the blinds really meant but I tried any way.

After a little over 3 months of party poker had taught me how important patience was at the table, and it taught me that you had to make as much money as possible out of every winning hand in order to make money in the long run.

Atlantic City Poker (Thanks Six)
After discussing my online sucess with Six I decided I was ready to try some real live casino poker. I don’t know if I would have ever played in a casino if I hadn’t gone with six. I was really intimidated with the aspect of playing with real people who might chop me up. I was still confident though since everything I read or heard online suggested that low limit is full of amatures. On the way down to AC six informs me that he had played 3 times previously, which I already knew, and he had never won money any of those time, which I hadn’t known. If I had known I probably would have changed my mind. On the way down I read some more of hellmuth’s book on limit and tells, plus I had picked up a book by Mike Caro called the book of tells. I was hoping that the information from this book would help me spot bluffs and strong hands at the table.

Speaking of tables, Six and I were fortunate to end up at the same table. My plan was only to play the top 10 hands for a raise and fold everything else. This plan was destroyed on the third hand when I found A 5 off different suits and I called from early postition. At that time I had no Idea that if I had to act before a majority of players, that I should need a better hand than if I am one of the last people to act. Well I lost that hand, but at least got the nerves out of the way. Overall I played the table pretty tight and was up about $25 after a couple hours. That is when I went on a rush. Looking back on it, I got lucky. That’s all there was to it. On one hand I beat two flushes (one being the nut flush) when I hit a boat on the river. I had no idea how to calculate pot odds at that time but I’m sure if I had known how to calculate them.. I would have folded after the flop.

After 3 hours I was up a little over $100 and done for the night. Six didn’t fair as well as he played on for an additional 2 hours before gathering up the rest of his chips and calling it a day. What did that first trip teach me? Well it taught me not to be intimidated by a casino enviroment. It taught me that real life limit is kind of similar to online play in respect to the number of people in each pot, and the amount of drawing going on. The biggest thing this trip did was get me hooked.

Over the next year I went to atlantic city 11 or 12 times, and won between $100 and $250 each time playing only 2/4 holdem. I was averaging around $25 and hour at the table and I was starting to build my confidence. Watching all of the limit action I really started to get comfortable with sitting at a real table. Specifically I was getting used to watching how people play. You also get a good feel for the table in general. It may shock some people to hear this, but there are low limit tables that are tight, and of course those that are loose.

Another thing that I learned from watching all of these hands in person, and still some online, is how much can happen on a given hand. I saw an ace high flush get beat by quads. I saw a royal flush where everyone chased thinking the J of spades would come up on the river, when instead it was in the nervous guys hands. I saw 5 people split a pot when the board came up 6 6 6 6 A in that order. I saw so many hands where the nuts beat the 2nd nuts, or Ace high won even with 3 people in the pot.

No Limit tournament education
At this point I felt that I had mastered low limit holdem and now I wanted to start to learn more about no limit since that’s what everyone wanted to play, and that’s where bigger pay days lay ahead. I tried again to read Doyle’s book but just was unable to get into it for some reason. I mean I now understood a lot of what he was talking about, but it seemed like it had more to do with pyschology and trickery than with having the best hand. So I decided to get a new book. Championship No Limit and Pot Limit holdem by T.J Cloutier. The book helped me a ton… even if the writting style is subpar.

Reading this book cover to cover I started to realize how important betting was to the No Limit game. You really had to have a reason behind every bet. Plus I never realized how much information you can give away by the size of your bet. One of the drawbacks to the book is that T.J assumes that you are able to read an opponenet and tell when they have a good hand or a bad hand. At the time I read this book there were still times when I would have absoltly no Idea what the other person had. Another key piece of advice that T.J gave was that you should never look at your hole cards until it’s your turn to act. I had heard and read that before but the more I started to learn about no limit the more I realized that you really are playing the other person and not his cards.

Aside from internet tournaments my first exposure to a NL Holdem tounament was a charity fund raiser near Hanover that Six and I went to. I played realy tight and was able to double up several times through the tournament, and ended up making it to the final table. The tournament had started with about 150 people and I finished in 6th I think. I took home something like $250 or a $220 or so profit. This was a huge rush for me, but I really didn’t do anything spectacular in that game. I didn’ bluff, I didn’t steal blinds, I just had the best hand and held on to my chips when ever I could.

After that event I played some tournaments online and started playing with my friends, but I didn’t have as much sucess as I did with limit. In fact during this time my limit game started to suffer. The reason for this is now clear. I was trying to play both types of games the same way, when they are two entirely different types of games. Limit is about waiting for your opportunity and making a big hand, while No Limit is about being aggresive and forcing your opponent to make tough choices. I was trying to play a cross between the two. Low pocket pairs are great in limit cause if you hit a set and there are a lot of people in the pot you get enough out of the hand to cover the odds of hitting the trips. In No limit you can’t play for trips or other draws.

Once I grasped this tighter more aggressive style of play I started to play much better in the multi-table online tournaments I was playing and when I went out to Vegas I played well in several small buy in tournaments allthough I missed the money by a couple spots everytime. I now understood what Tight aggressive really meant and I was starting to get better at reading people. Especially when I was in Vegas, I really started to think about the game in terms other than the cards on the table.

Friday Night Felt
Although my friends and I had started playing small tournaments fairly often it wasn’t really organized until I came up with the name “Friday Night Felt” and started to track the play on one of my websites This is when my friends and I really got into poker and I was able to see week in and week out different styles of poker … all of which if played correctly were winning forms of poker. Haing a sounding board for discussing how hands are played really helped me become more analytical about the game. Originally I felt that it was correct to raise with AK because Hellmuth and Cloutier said so. Now I was able to discuss it and come up with reasons of my own why I thought it was a good idea.

Allthough I didn’t really win that often, and probably ended up loosing some money during the course of the year that FNF was in it’s prime, I did learn a very important skill. And that was short handed play. In all the books I read there really wasn’t a lot of discusion on short handed play out side of some remarks that you need to open up your starting hands and maybe be more aggressive. Well until now I saw several hundred.. probably several thousand hands or poker, the majority of which were 8, 9, or 10 handed… and one time 11 handed which was stupid. I never got to really participate in a 6, 5 ,4 or 3 handed game except in sit N gos. Watching theses hands played out, brought me to the conclusion that you don’t have to have top pair or the nuts to win at the show down.

Not only did I learn to change up my style depending on how the rest of the table was playing, I also learned how to play heads up. Heads up is all about aggression and after the flop play. Because so many people have no experience heads up they treat they’re hands like they would at a full sized game. These people fold way too many hands, and don’t raise enough. When I get heads up I know that I have the advantage thanks to my FNF experience.

Harrington on Hold’em and the WSOP
Dan Harrington had just come out with a book right before I went out to Vegas for the WSOP. Harrington had made it to the final table of the last two WSOP main events, which was at that time considered to be one of the biggest poker accomplishments ever. This was one of the most complexe books I had ever read. But it wasn’t complex to the point where it didn’t make sense, it was just amazing how much detail went into this book, and how thorough the strategies were discussed.

Before this book I had read “Super Systems”, “How to play poker like the pros”, “Big Deal, a year in the life of a proffesional poker player”, “Championship No Limit and Pot Limit poker”, “Poker for dummies”, “Poker Strategy”, “The Real Deal”, and “Winning at Low Limit holdem”. The more I read the more they sounded the same. Especially when it came to Hold’em tournaments. The reason for this is that most of the books are generic since they have to cover many types of poker and in a much smaller space. The Harrington books were each 500+ pages that covered stuff like postion, chip count, player types, pot odds, implied odds, with plenty of examples to back it up. The two volumes really made me think like a tournament player. Not only that but Having played short handed and full table over the past year, I started to realize why I won when I won, and why I lost when I lost.

I had originally wanted to play in the $1000 buy in limit tournament when I got to the WSOP but I didn’t have enough money so instead I played in they’re single talbe tournaments where you could win tournament chips. In the first two I played I was able to play tight and slowly build chips until we got short handed where I got ultra aggressive until we were heads up. Both times the opponenet offered to chop the pot which was fine with me. I made a little over $1000 in 4 or so hours. I could have played in a tournament with the money that I had, but I was too intimidated, so instead I played one more single table, came in 6th, and relaxed for the rest of the week.

When I got back home I started the second season of FNF which saw declining numbers because… well some people just never won. With some time off from FNF I took a shot at some of the local tournaments and have been on a roll for the last 7 weeks. My play right now is the culmination of the past two years of study and practice. I really think that if you are going to try poker you should follow a plan similar to mine.

1. Learn the basics (top hands, what beats what, types of players, when to bet and fold)
2. Play online as cheap as you can (probably start with limit and get a feel for the pace and variety of the game)
3. Play limit in a card room (Start to work on spotting tells)
4. Read up on No Limit tournament Strategy (Posision, Raising, Blinds are the big factors to understand)
5. Play some cheap sit N Gos online (use this time to look for betting patterns and learn how to switch gears in a tournament)
6. Play larger online tournaments or free larger tournaments in your area (After the first couple re-read information on tournaments so you better understand the lessons)
7. Play large tournaments for real money (Find a winning style from what you’ve learned and use it)
8. No Limit Cash Games (This is what I’ll be focusing on next)



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