How to Improve Your Game and Play Better Poker
So what are the best ways to make sure you get out of your comfort zone and keep improving your poker?
First Tip: Read books
This may seem like obvious advice, but it bears repeating for perhaps different reasons than might have been applicable a few years ago. Back then, the poker literati were in the minority and the edge afforded by absorbing Sklansky’s nuggets was relatively huge.
This is not the case today, though. The fact that the classics are being read more widely does mean the edge they give you is diminishing. But their increasing popularity is still a huge reason which could help plug the gaps in your knowledge.
One well-regarded online player recently asked a forum to explain what a continuation bet was, which makes you wonder how he had managed to play against it so successfully. Know your enemy, as Sun Tzu wrote. The advice, patterns and moves discussed within the poker canon are becoming part of the arsenals of more and more players, and you need to know how to defend against them. Bjorn Borg’s attempted Wimbledon comeback a few years ago was stymied thanks, in part, to his insistence on using a wooden racket – and dismissing the literature in poker can be similarly bad news for seasoned players.
If you only read one book, it should be one of the Harrington series. Many of his ideas have fully entered the language. Continuation and probe bets, for example, have become part of what is sometimes dismissed as ABC poker. The bar keeps rising – and you need to stay with it.
Join online forums
Online forums have existed for almost long as the web. And, coupled with the fact that playing online actually necessitates sitting there with mouse, modem and keyboard to hand means they are perfectly suited to discussing poker.
Every variant and level is catered for somewhere, and there are plenty of good players happy to comment on hand histories and the finer points of the game. For example, the 2+2 site (forumserver. twoplustwo.com) represents the accumulated knowledge of a lot of very experienced players. Pocketfives is lighter in tone, but just as strong on advice.
Whichever one is for you, make sure you lurk for a few days to get a feel for the place before diving straight in. New members voicing their opinions without an appreciation of the rules and etiquette are rarely welcomed. But it’s worth the effort. Imagine suddenly having thousands of experienced poker playing mates to discuss the game with. The best bit is you don’t have to listen to their bad beat stories in return. Awesome!
Take a break
Take a break. If you are too busy playing poker to read a ‘10 ways to tell if you gamble online too much’ email, then this definitely applies. There is a theory of learning based around clarities and obscurities. A learning curve isn’t a smooth line; it has plateaus and the occasional dip, and could more reasonably be called a learning stock chart. Periods of clarity are the bull market – you understand what you’re doing and all the pieces come together. Obscurities are part of the learning process too, however; the jigsaw of poker knowledge inside your head has to rearrange itself to assimilate the new pieces.
As a side note, this is a reason not to get too disheartened by a string of bad results. You will be improving, and when you consider how much of a part the subconscious plays when making decisions, it’s not surprising that it needs to pause for breath every once in a while. If you feel off-form, leave the poker and focus on something else for a few days.
Use tracking software
Keeping accurate records is the only objective way of knowing if you are improving your game – but using a pen and a notebook in the online age is like using an abacus to do your accounts. Instead, you could, and should, get the computer to do all the hard work for you.
There are several programs out there that will track your game, with the most used being Poker Tracker. Both are available to try for free and if they are used properly the positive impact on your game can be huge. Most sites will have hand histories available to you, but the ability to present that data in a graphical and easily manipulated format is what makes the difference. For example, you can analyse how your play alters based on position, see how frequently you raise pre-flop and replay games or tournaments with the click of a mouse.
Numbers don’t lie and once you get to grips with concepts such as VPIP (voluntary put in pot) and ‘aggression factor’ you will start seeing new ways to fine tune your game. Equally valuable is the facility to track your opponents to see who you are making money from.
Change how you play
A change scenery is never a bad thing. If you play predominately online, try playing at your local casino. The games are slower with more of an emphasis on table image, forcing you to alter your approach to the game. Conversely, if you mostly play live then fire up the PC. Facing a lighting blitz of 100 hands an hour is going to sharpen your game more than you can imagine.
If you’re already an online player then now might be a good time to try a new site, with the misguided legislation in the US causing major changes to the big online poker rooms. Some sites have seen a major outflow of US online sharks making the European fish easier to find. The US players are also easier to track down when drinkers are arriving home from the pub, but getting up at 5am to find them can hurt. Incidentally, there is a growing movement to replace the word ‘donk’ with ‘Frist’ (the Senator behind the new law). It should be supported as ‘I got Fristed’ is an oddly satisfying phrase.
It’s also a good value decision to try a new game. Super System is a huge doorstopper of a book, yet only around 20% is dedicated to nolimit hold’em. The rest of it covers poker’s more esoteric manifestations. Most players will know little about games such as Razz, and anywhere there is a knowledge gap between the skilled players and the masses, there is money to be made. Good for you, good for the bank balance.
Play more poker
Ultimately nothing will improve your game more than simply playing as much as your work and home life allows. Look behind the back-story of every top pro and there is a good chunk of time where they did little but play poker day in day out for low stakes. Even the online whizzkids you’re no doubt sick of hearing about have put the hours in at the lower limits before taking their shot at the big time.
There is simply no substitute for practice. Ditch the hit and run sessions, and try to put aside a solid block of time where all you are going to do is play. If you’re playing four hours of no-limit cash games every day, then you are only going to be a better player as a result. The hard work will get you there. But remember, don’t chase losing sessions – set a loss limit.
Go back to school
There are a million sites that offer get-rich-quick advice. While it is safe to ignore 99.9% of them, there are a few that should bear closer inspection.
PokerXFactor, for example, is run by Cliff Josephy (above) and Eric Haber, two legendary online players. What’s more, it uses nifty software to show replays of tournaments with analysis from the two pros. The site also offers a hand history analyser, which turns your text into flash animations complete with statistics. The only bad news is it’s not cheap at $25 a month.
For cash game players it’s also worth checking out Cardrunners, which includes dozens of instructional videos. And for the live game junky there are always poker boot camps. You may think they are full of donks, but if you can’t learn something from some of the best pros in the world, then your ego needs downsizing.