It’s a Tough Game

Last weekend I played in the Tournament of Champions at Running Aces card room here in Minnesota. My table draw was awful, definitely the toughest table I have seen in the Midwest, and every time we busted someone another killer was brought in. Blake Bohn, Kou Vang, Dave Gonia, Erick Wright, myself, and a host of other very strong players, made for a very long day one. If I play with a strong player for a significant period of time, I almost always see a mistake or two, though usually less mistakes than I make myself.

This parade of inevitable mistakes sometimes makes me wonder if anyone is really any good at this game at all. It’s tough to make every adjustment correctly, constantly updating your knowledge of your opponents, tracking stack sizes, thinking three levels ahead to avoid being trapped by other strong players, all while keeping a reign on your emotions. The level of complication means that even the best players in the world make mistakes on a regular basis, though we don’t get to see most of them because they end up in the muck.

I think my career as a poker coach and the amount of study I have put into the game gives me a pretty good resume’ when it comes to assessing whether a play was correct or not. I’ve spent hundreds of hours looking for mistakes in my students play as well as tens of thousands of hours looking for mistakes in my own game and in my opponents’ games as well. In that time I’ve seen some of the best players in the world make tremendous mistakes, and I’ve won tournaments after making huge mistakes myself.

I played with Phil Hellmuth in the main event at the WSoP in 2012. There is no doubt that Phil is a world class tournament player, and the most accomplished tournament player in history. I’ve played other events with Phil and he has played very well, but he made big mistakes all day. A very loose and aggressive young player, who was raising a lot of hands, raised from the cutoff, and Phil folded Ace-Jack on the button with 15 big blinds in his stack. If you have studied tournament play, you are probably shaking your head right now. This is an automatic all-in. Shove your chips in the middle, run around the table for a round of high fives, and get ready to post your increased stack size on twitter. But Phil folded.

I’ve played with other great players, and seen tremendous mistakes from some of the best in the world, which leads me to the conclusion that the game is so tough that no one can play for a significant period of time without a few screw ups. We also don’t always see mistakes when they happen, and we also don’t always understand the method behind the madness either, which makes it tough to assess how well our opponents are really playing.

If it’s not possible to truly master the game, then how do we even measure our progress? How do I even know if I’m any good? Or if the guy across from me has any idea what he is doing?

There are a few things that we can be sure of. Game theory and simple pot odds and fold equity calculations can give us some plays that we know are correct. I used the 14 big blinds example with Phil Hellmuth because it’s as close to a certainty as we have in poker. We can prove that going all-in is the best play in that situation with reasonable certainty. That is where we start. Master the fundamentals and learn the plays that are correct almost every time you make them in certain situations, and learn to recognize when other players fail to make those plays. This will help you recognize weak opponents and it will prevent you from making some very basic mistakes.

The other way to know that you are improving is to watch your results and see how you fare against strong competition. Believe in yourself but assess your current skills fairly and be honest about how well you play. You can be confident that you will continue to learn and eventually be a great player without being cocky and believing that you are already great.

My friend Blake Bohn is a good example of a player who exploits weakness and believes that he can play a level above his opponents. He knows the fundamentals, but that isn’t why he plays well. Blake is incredibly confident at the table, and he constantly looks for situations where he can exploit the mistakes of bad players. He is willing to talk to you in the middle of a hand whether he is ahead or behind, and he believes that he can get the results he wants more often than he will give information away. Blake puts it all out there, his mind against yours, and his results seem to indicate that he’s right. That makes his huge success over the past year a disaster for the rest of us, because the more confident he becomes the harder it will be to beat him.

When you combine the two, willingness to mix it up and a perfect knowledge of the numbers and game theory, you get some of the best players in the world. Jason Mercier is a good example of this. I played with him all day a few years ago in the $10k buy-in HORSE event at the WSoP and I did not see a mistake. Not one. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any, or that Jason is perfect, but he makes very few mistakes and still wades into the fray and takes advantage of weak players when the time is right. That powerful combination of skills is why Jason has made millions and I’m still grinding out the mortgage every month.

All we can do is keep improving, because our opponents are going to keep getting better and if we don’t keep up, they will pass us by. It’s a tough game, and it’s not getting easier.

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  1. #1 by robowolfman on August 21, 2013 - 11:28 am

    One non poker question. You said on the podcast that you do not drink budlight. what are your top five beers?

    • #2 by Fox on August 22, 2013 - 8:55 pm

      Off the top of my head –

      1. Pacifico
      2. Corona
      3. StrongBow (I know, it’s cider)
      4. Belikin
      5. Landshark

  2. #3 by robowolfman on August 19, 2013 - 5:05 pm

    Seems like you guys have some of the toughest players around. Should make playing against other players from other states seem easy. Thanks for a great blog. Just a request if you could. Could you write a blog on the top five errors that you see amateurs make(cash game or tournaments) or your top five tells you see rookies making. Thanks again for the great blog. Sorry to see the podcast end.

    • #4 by Fox on August 22, 2013 - 8:57 pm

      I’ll definitely put this on the list for future blog post ideas.

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