Killer Poker No Limit! A Winning Strategy for Cash Games and Tournaments
by John Vorhaus
Introduction: Most Fun Wins
I’m just sitting here this morning musing on the nature of addiction. I certainly have my share of addictions spread out around me. At my left hand is a mug filled with hot coffee, to which I am addicted. It’s not just any mug, either, but my Comic Toolbox promotional mug, from which I’ve been addicted to drinking ever since I wrote the book of the same name. I know it’s just subjective reality, but I swear the coffee tastes better in that mug. At my right hand is the sudoku from this morning’s paper. Sudoku has lately replaced crosswords as my number one puzzle addiction. And puzzles are a sick addiction for me. I swear I could do life behind bars if I had enough acrostics and scanagrams. My mind hates to be idle. Believe me when I tell you that I can’t even stand to stand in a supermarket checkout line without something to read, even if it’s only a National Enquirer headline. (“Angry Trucker Fires Five Shots Into UFO!”) Among other things, I am addicted to the written word.
Among other things. So many other things. Before me sits my computer screen, which pushes addictions like email, blogs, weather maps, baseball stats, information streams of all sorts. Music is playing on the radio. Jazz. Lately I’ve been addicted to jazz. Looking out my window, I see the postman approaching, so I know that now I have to drop everything and go collect the mail, because I’m addicted to the mail and its promise of exciting personal correspondence or expected or unexpected paychecks — though I know I’ll probably just be disappointed by the usual deluge of catalogs, coupon books and come-ons for credit cards. Now my dog trots into the room. He’s addicted to having his head scratched, and I’m addicted to scratching it. We’re co-dependents in this. Since he’s also addicted to chasing squirrels, he will gladly join me later when I go out to run in the park. I’m not addicted to running, but I am addicted to endorphins and you get those by running, so that’s that with that.
I could easily continue listing my addictions (for I’m also addicted to lists) but I think you get the point. I’m hooked on many things. Nor am I alone in this. We all have our hooking points: favorite sports team; favorite food or drink; hobbies; shops; friends; lovers; family; philosophy; and on and on and on. In a moment I’m going to ask you what you’re hooked on, but before I do, let me tell you why I raise the subject in the first place. You see, I just finished writing a book on poker, Killer Poker Online/2. Having delivered the manuscript, I told myself that I should knock off for a while and let my batteries recharge before I started my next book on poker, this book on poker. I told myself I deserved a vacation, and I do. But what is a workaholic’s holiday except more work? If I’m addicted to anything, I’m addicted to writing, and so my resolve to just… not… write… lasted a grand total of three days. I got antsy. I got the sweats. I washed the windows, and then I washed them again. I even watched daytime TV. It was not pretty. So I withdrew from withdrawal and got back to work… back to my number one hooking point. I couldn’t stay away, and I can’t stay away, and this is not a good thing or a bad thing, but just a thing I own.
What can’t you stay away from? Setting aside the question of whether these are good things or bad things, for value judgments are not the point of this exercise, please list your top ten pastimes, passions, or obsessions — your hooking points, if you will. I assume that poker is somewhere on that list, because otherwise why would you have fallen into this book? But where on the list do you place it? Above or below family? Above or below exercise? Above or below (or alongside) that smoky Laphroaig single malt? If poker is number one, that’s fine. If it’s number ten, that’s fine, too. Again, this isn’t about value judgments. I’m just interested in knowing — well, in having you know — the main activities that float your boat.
(Those who know my books know that the >> symbol means write your answer here or elsewhere. Those who didn’t know that before know it now.)
I don’t ask this question in order to pry into your private life, but rather to invite you to pry into your private life, because in poker as in, say, piloting a helicopter, what you don’t know can hurt you.
Consider Sugar Dave.
Sugar Dave is a no limit hold’em player I know and let me tell you, he’s the real deal: He’s aggressive, fearless and canny, and he senses weakness the way sharks smell blood. He’s especially gifted in tournaments, where these days he does quite well. Such wasn’t always the case, though. See, Dave was hooked on sweets (hence the nickname) and you often found him hitting the snack bar or gift shop during tournament breaks, loading up on doughnuts or Dove bars or candy. Trouble was, sugar made him nuts. Jacked up on the stuff, he’d return to the tournament table, bet himself way out ahead of his hands, and bust out explosively. It sounds far fetched I know, but it’s true, and it wasn’t until Sugar Dave changed his diet (and his name to Aspartame Dave) that he became the tournament stud he nowadays is.
Sugar Dave, then, had a hooking point that worked at cross purposes to profit in poker. Such hooking points abound. Drinking is a notorious example. Drugs are another. Many top players are known to leak their winnings away through other forms of gambling like blackjack or craps. Being a sucker for sudoku, I used to try to multitask — multirecreate? — at the poker table by working a sudoku between hands. Of course this slayed my attention and killed my prospects for profit, so I broke myself of the habit. How about you? Revisiting your list of hooking points above, can you see any that might hurt your poker play?
If you have trouble frankly admitting these things, trust me you’re in abundant company. But consider that the more honest you are, the better your poker play will become; therefore you can use self-interest (the goal of winning more money) to defeat self-protection (the fear of facing facts) and let your passion for profit trump your natural reluctance to tell the truth about you to you. This is a practical path to self-awareness, one with no loftier ambition than to play better poker. Studying ourselves, then, examining ourselves in the unflinching light of reality, we discover a tangled web of connections between our hooking points and our poker play. Nor is this news, for poker performance is affected by everything from eating habits and physical health to philosophical bent and family relationships. We also discover — we, the writer and the readers of this book — that one of our greatest hooking points is, hey, poker itself. Again, not news. I’m hooked on poker. You’re hooked on poker. Pretty much everyone who plays the game gets hooked to one degree or another. It’s that compelling.
Seriously, do you know anyone who started playing poker and then stopped playing poker?
Personally, I find poker to be a pretty positive addiction. It provides me with a social framework, keeps my mind sharp, (gives me something to write about), and — if I’m doing it right — puts money in my pocket. I could certainly see someone arguing the other side, though, that poker is a dangerous degeneracy that smart people would hold at arm’s length. And some smart people do hold it at arm’s length. I have one friend who’s so keenly interested in poker that he goes out of his way to avoid learning anything about it. “I can get addicted to anything I become aware of,” he says, and so keeps himself unschooled in the game.
It is, of course, increasingly hard to stay unschooled about poker, since poker thrusts itself these days upon even the most casual channel surfer, magazine rack browser, or cocktail party conversationalist. Billboards for online poker sites abound. Poker chip sets are sold everywhere from Home Depot to Pottery Barn. I’ve seen my own books for sale in airport bookstores and the back racks at Costco. Poker is huge, poker is hot, and poker is here to stay.
Once again, not news. So not news.
So what do we do with it? What do we do with the teeming multitudes of newly minted poker players chasing their newfound buzz across the fuzzy green felt of Las Vegas casinos, traipsing into local cardrooms in record numbers, or clogging the lobbies of online poker sites? Why, take their money, of course. Not that they’ll give it up without a fight. The poker population is trending new, true, but it’s not a completely clueless parade. There are plenty of quick learners out there, plus tested veterans who were poker when poker wasn’t cool. And they all have their eye on our money as much as we have our eye on theirs. So we take their measure. Devise strategies to beat them. Pit our skills against their skills, our guts against theirs. We match our ability to solve the puzzle of them against their ability to solve the puzzle of us. We avoid the strong ones, attack the weak ones and, if all goes according to plan, leave with our bankrolls choked with their Franklins and our throats choked with the satisfaction of a job well done.
And we do this all in the context of virtually the only poker game that anybody plays these days: no limit Texas hold’em. “The Cadillac of poker,” as famously described by Doyle Brunson, it was a Cadillac almost no one cared to drive during the gradual growth of poker’s popularity from 1987, when flop games became legal in California, until 2003 and the WPT/Moneymaker revolution. Limit hold’em was long the structure of choice because even the worst players went broke slowly enough to stay in action and keep the games going. No limit hold’em, the purview of leather assed rounders with fat wallets and long experience, tended to bust new players too quickly, like a maladaptive virus that prematurely kills the host body. Not to put too fine a point on it, no limit hold’em was too expensive a game to play badly, and almost everyone plays badly at first.
But now here comes the World Poker Tour and here comes internet poker, with the former provoking the itch to play no limit and the latter providing a place to scratch. On the level playing field of we’re all figuring this out as we go along, low buy in no limit hold’em games quickly began to flourish online. From there they backdoored into the realworld cardrooms, putting the squeeze on such formerly popular poker variants as limit hold’em, seven-card stud, and Omaha. The cardrooms, good adaptors not at all interested in killing the host body, spread the game with low blinds and, crucially, capped buy ins. These conventions proved an effective brake on new players’ losses, as did the advent of low buy in no limit hold’em tournaments. Mostly, though, it was the flood tide of new players, all equally (in)experienced, whose overwhelming numbers guaranteed that money put in play would stay in play, in the hands of players not particularly adept at holding on to it. NLHE, the former purview of leather assed rounders, had become the game of choice for entry level players. And the rush, as they say, was on.
It’s a funny thing about no limit hold’em, a thing that sets it apart from limit. No matter how small their stacks are, most players are quite passionate about defending them. You can be playing NLHE for $25 or $5 or even no dollars at all, and you still want to win. To go all in and double up is a thrill beyond words. To go all in and lose is a chilling nightmare. And this steep roller coaster ride, from elation to desolation and back, is a thrill that limit poker just can’t match. Play $1-2 limit hold’em, where an unraised pot will cost you just six bucks between here and the river, and it’s hard to give a rat’s ass. Play no limit hold’em with $1-2 blinds, where one wrong move can take them (or you) off the stack they (or you) have worked for hours to build, and it’s hard to keep the shakes at bay. That’s the buzz of poker, distilled down to its purest form and mainlined every day by millions of NLHE aficionados worldwide. That’s why everyone these days plays no limit.
That’s why you and I probably play, too, if we’re honest enough to admit it. Sure we want profit. Sure we want to dominate and crush. We may even have dreams of playing poker professionally, or scaling the heights of televised poker stardom, but — again, if we’re honest — we have to admit that our passion for poker begins with the buzz. Many people fight against this admission. They claim to approach the game with dispassionate detachment, denying that the highs (and lows) of poker affect them in any way. I consider this to be a useful fiction, a bit of propaganda they lay upon themselves to maintain an even keel. There’s nothing wrong with such self-manipulation, for a fiction may be fiction but useful just the same. Also, though, it’s fiction… a lie, and no poker player can hope to prosper with lies flying around in her head.
(Author’s note: In my last book when third person pronouns were called for, I used the male: he/him/his. This time, in the name of fairness and all, I’m going to mix it up. While most poker players are yet male, it’s a changing world and a changing poker demographic, so I would ask you to cut me some slack on this. In the name of fairness and all.)
Why don’t we all just admit that we love to play poker? We can call it a hobby or a pastime or a passion if that soothes us. Or we can call it an obsession or addiction if we’re strong enough to own the truth. But whatever we call it, let’s recognize it for what it is: a delight that trumps many other delights in our lives.
Go to the movies or go play poker?
Go to a party or go to Party Poker?
Well, the games are pretty good there now.
Go to the gym or go to the club?
Can’t make money at the gym!
And so it goes, and so we all go, in relentless pursuit of poker profit but poker pleasure, too. Can you see how these two fundamental hooking points might clash? Can you think of poker mistakes you might make if you thought you were only in it for the money but were actually in it for the fun as well?
I can think of a few. Absent pure clarity of purpose, I’d likely…
· Play poker when I’m not mentally prepared
· Play too many hands
· Make self-indulgent tricky plays
· Get involved in reckless adventures
· Get in games I can’t beat
So how do we achieve clarity of purpose? Through staunch denial of poker’s buzz? That’s an approach, I suppose. With a schoolmarm’s sternness we could admonish ourselves, “You’re here to make money, not here to have fun!” And every time we catch ourselves having fun we could whap our own knuckles with a ruler. Would that work? Would that trend us toward perfect poker, or just leave us stuck in a joyless exercise where, yeah, we might make money, but to what end and at what cost? Turning ourselves into poker automatons, we might very well triumph but could never relish the win.
We might try going the other way. We might say, “Screw the money, I’m just here to have fun.” Following that line of logic, we’d play more hands, see more flops, take more draws, make more bets, and have a really good time playing really bad poker. Of course, the inevitable consequence of playing bad poker is losing lots of money. Maybe so much money that we can no longer afford to stay in the game. Fun over. Next case.
I propose a third path, one that neither kills the kick of poker nor moves us off appropriate discipline. I propose that we simply redefine fun in no limit hold’em as knowing what’s the right thing to do and then doing it. Let’s just let performing well be our biggest kick and gauge our enjoyment according to this handy math:
GOOD PLAY = GOOD FUN
BETTER PLAY = MORE FUN
BEST PLAY = MOST FUN
AND MOST FUN WINS
Lay down pocket kings when there’s an ace on board and much betting? Fun. Fold pocket jacks preflop in the face of a raise, a reraise and a call? Fun. Bet a scare card on the turn and get ’em to fold? Fun. Pick off a bluff from a crazy raiser? Fun! Fold J-3, T-2, K-4, 6-9, 7-2, 7-4, 8-5? Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, FUN!
This strategy starts by acknowledging the truth: that we want to play winning poker but we also want to relish the rush. Then it simply redefines fun, and in so doing gives us a way to link these two hooking points in a powerful common cause. Now we get to have all the fun we want. By playing perfect poker. It’s not a goal we’re likely to achieve any time soon. Hell, it’s not a goal we’re likely to achieve any time ever. But if poker is your joy, as it is mine, you want to leverage your skill as far as possible in pursuit of that joy. Every time you find yourself making the right move for the right reason against the right foe — whether you get the right result or not — you get to reward yourself with the deep and profound satisfaction of a job well done. And that, if you let it, will be the biggest buzz of all.
So what do you say, folks? Shall we all go have some fun?
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