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Win at (Poker) Life: Five Tips for the Novice Poker Player

Win at (Poker) Life: Five Tips for the Novice Poker Player

by M. Vincent Hernandez
Sharks, the people in poker who sit at a table and rake the cash in, get all the help they want. It’s impolite, perhaps even rude, to speak of those who rank right below them, the little fish , the poker world’s Salieris to the talented Mozarts who will always be second best.  These tips are for the little fish who’d like a mouthful of the banquet sharks feast on daily. You won’t be winning hundreds of thousands of dollars  using my tips.  But you will be earning a decent bankroll, a steady income to supplement whatever humdrum job you may already have.

In the early 2000s, at the beginning of the national poker boom, I cut my teeth playing no-limit hold ‘em in the big room at Commerce Casino. I played cash games and tournaments, talked shop with other Moneymaker wannabes, and paid close attention to every move on the felt.

At first, I lost constantly. The swings of winning and losing allowed me to continue to show up every day, but I was two thousand dollars in the hole before I had three winning sessions in a row. Eventually, three sessions turned into five, and soon I was in the black.

I got used to playing with a thousand chips in front of me, but any time I moved to a higher limit beyond the standard $100 buy-in game, I ran into trouble: Better poker players. I had read all of the books and I had learned as many tricks as I could, but the players at the upper levels seemed to always come out on top in the long run, and I wasn’t one of those players. I wanted so badly to move away from the guppy tables and to swim with the sharks that I didn’t consider that I was simply a fish. A talented fish, but a fish.

Eventually, after I accepted that my natural skill would only take me so far,   I took a regular gig and reduced my poker playing to a part time job.  I am a grinder, a well-built fish, not a phenom.   My goal is to win a thousand bucks a week. To do so, I’ve developed different ways a player at my level can maintain a decent bankroll and a steady, supplemental income. Being a fish is not a handle any player wants to carry, but that is the ego working. Poker is about perspective. The fish player might designed such because his skill is not that of a shark, but the lowest player in the poker feeding pool is the guppy. Guppies are the true suckers, players with no skill, players who look for any longshot hand, players without a cause.

These are my five easy steps to maximize your profit potential in the rich money pool of the many card rooms available. A top player would laugh at its simplicity, but this isn’t for top players. It’s for the good ones. This isn’t for the sharks. Its for the fish that feed on the guppies. Be a good fish.

 One: Find The Right Card Room For Your Game

Location is important. You’ll find professionals at nearly every table in every casino, regardless of the money level. Although there are plenty of places to find a good game in California, the easiest money is at the low level tables in Las Vegas, Nevada. Just as all of the big money and best talent plays at the highest levels in the world at Las Vegas, so does the lowest talent with the most money. There are many excellent games to get into with low level players all over the strip.

 You’re a fish, not a shark. Don’t forget that, and remember there are always plenty of guppies. Choose a card room at a high end casino filled with guests of a certain income.  The Wynn or The Venetian come to mind. Most people who are willing to pay $400-$1000 a night for a room have plenty more money at the poker tables and they expect to lose it. Another reason why Las Vegas is a wonderful place to make the slow grind: Most people come expecting to lose their money. They think it is part of the experience of visiting Sin City.

All good casinos welcome everyone, but the game selection keeps most of the tiny bankrolls out of the regular play. When the only pot limit Omaha game running is 25/25, the limit is much higher than any small bankroll can handle. Hold ‘em tables that are no limit or have limit games that start at 3/6 and higher will also impede smaller bankrolls. Tables at these type of casinos are filled with a specific type of player: the person with more money than talent and an ego too big to acknowledge it. You can spot these characters easily. They have enough money to wear designer everything, but aren’t very rich in self-control, unable to hide their naked emotions. This type of guy reacts to every hand he plays like an animated high roller on television, shouting out the most popular catchphrases and holding onto their cards long after we all know they are giving up the pot. They are often willing to call in order to save face rather than keep their chips. They seem to prefer to play loose with their money without a strategy or a real chance to win. These types of players will take all kinds of risks to catch a gut-shot straight or some other longshot hand and you can get paid handsomely in one or two hands against these players.  TPoker players with a lack of self control and more money than sense are our best friends in the poker world. They show up at every limit of play depending on their disposal money, not their poker success. I seem to find a healthy population of them in the card rooms of Las Vegas. Taking all of the money from every player at the table is always the goal of poker, but the players who learned their game from television are consistently some of the easiest to beat. The biggest guppies are the people who only play cards at a Wednesday night poker game in their neighbor’s garage or an annual outing to Las Vegas.

Two: Find The Right Game At The Right Limit

Avoid tiny buy-ins. You won’t find many in Las Vegas, but there are $20 and $40 games in many brick and mortars. With one dollar blinds these games are a crapshoot. No one has enough money to bluff or to push another player off their hand and a small pair can get a player busted in their first or second hand. Besides, showing up when one or two players at the table has already made ten times their money is a pointless investment.

The Wynn offers my favorite no limit game, the $100-$300 buy-in. The play in these games can get very serious, but the novices are easy to spot because they’ll buy in for the minimum. Anything less than a maximum buy in is either a novice with scared money, or a shark swimming down at the lowest limits to rebuild their bankroll.  Figuring out which one is fairly easy. Scared money is a player that only has one or two minimum buy-ins. They play with extreme caution until they catch a good hand or else they get blinded, eaten up by the minimum bets and multiple folds. The scared money double checks their stack three times and brings nervous excitement to the felt. The shark is usually on the verge of yawning. Sharks buy in for any random amount already certain that they will win. Their superior play puts everyone at the table in danger.

Buy in for the full $300 because you want as big of an advantage as you  can have whether bullying scared money or threatening a larger stack with a deep cut.

3: Start Playing Your Game Before You Even Get To The Table

This is the three-legged strategy of your pre-game prep.

Leg one: Go to bed early and no drinking. 

This means going to bed early and no drinking.

Leg two: Play at the right time. 

 High limit poker is 24/7 in Las Vegas, but games at the lower limits are harder to find in the wee hours. Most casinos will keep at least one low limit table going, but even those games usually break up between 5-7 am. This is important to your start time. Maximize your chances by going to bed before 9 pm and waking up just after 1 am. After a quick shower and a cab ride, you should be walking into the poker room between 2-3 am. This is my favorite time to start playing. Most of the players are drunk or tired and are much easier to outplay. Drunk and tired players are prone to misreading the table, displaying obvious tells, and making bigger errors more often. When you show up to the card table at two in the morning on a weekend in Las Vegas with a decent nap and a clear head the potential advantages are at their peak.

Leg three: Don't drink while you play.

You don’t drink when you work, but let’s not spread this around. Be sure to have a drink in your hand for appearance’s sake.

4: Pick the Right Table. Then, Attack

Attack. Don’t show up at the table waiting to see where everyone stands. Attack. A better player would advise at getting a nice read of the players, but that isn’t my bag. Attack. Not blindly. With reason. With malice. With bluffing. Sounds like a quick way to lose your money, yes? The strategy works for me when applied properly and it illustrates why choosing the correct table is so important.

 If there is more than one table to choose from, pick the one with the least amount of action happening. Sit down and begin engaging with all of the players immediately, addressing each one with a greeting. Look for any of the common signs that tell you what kind of player they might be. The tight players usually have everything around them in its place, neatly stacked chips, guarded cards, stoic. The loose players have messy stacks and are usually more animated. The scared money is usually the shortest stack. Confident hands are relaxed in posture while the bluffers lean forward as if they’re constipated.

Next, start playing loose and fast, getting into as many pots as possible. Call, raise, and bluff as often as needed to win as many small pots as possible. Early on, fire at every small pot that you can win or steal. The point of this strategy is to take as much small money off the table as possible for as long as you can. If no one stops you, then continue to do it all night or until the game breaks up. It’s a nice way to slowly turn $300 into $1000 and quietly escape. The reality is that the other players are going to play back at you. They are going to defend their money and fight back, that’s poker! Be selective. Attack the pot, but mind your targets. When it isn’t yours, let it go. Then, attack!

More than likely, the other players will catch onto the repeated theft and will start defending their pots vigorously. At this point it is time to check your money. If you have added at least $150 dollars to your $300 buy-in, then stop firing at every pot and wait for a big hand in order to trap a player who thinks you are stealing again. If you are still lingering near your original buy-in when you’re challenged, then bluff heavy and try to steal more. If it works, take the pot and immediately tighten up the game so that you can lay the same trap for the players who realize you’re still bluffing. If it doesn’t work and you get called on your bluff, then show the bluff to confirm the suspicions at the table. You want the rest of the table to see you as someone who is betting recklessly. It will pay off later.  At this point, continue to fire at any pot you think you can win until you have $150 dollars left in your stack. This is critical. Casino rules allow players to rebuy in cash games once half of the original buy-in is lost. This means that at $150 you can rebuy for another $300. With $450 of your own money in front of you, play only premium hands at a table that sees you as a chronic bluffer. All three of these attacks will eventually result in setting up the table to invest in bigger bets when you know you have the nuts (the best hand possible). For any fish, this is a great strategy to feed on all the guppies.

 5: Pride Yourself On Table Changes

A fish that regularly feeds on guppies can sometimes forget they’re not a shark. Take pride in recognizing a player at the table that is noticeably better than you. Can you still operate on that table? Sure, with caution. But any one superior player at your table is disaster waiting to happen, and you don’t want the disaster to include your chip stack.  Never mind the small time team players who show up to collude against the rest of the table. It happens all of the time. Teams will play soft on each other and some will even use a series of gestures or taps to communicate hands in play. Don’t fear those players, avoid them. Most of the real sharks are playing against richer fish at the higher tables. But the water is warm near the guppies and the eating is good. Pride yourself on calling for a table change if you see a shark in your water. Its simple, really. Get out of that pool and step into another one.

That’s all I have for you. Now, get out there and win some.