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Why Do Sharks Eat Other Sharks?

Two different types of professional poker players

by Daniel Negreanu |  Published: Aug 29, 2007

I am asked the following question probably more than any other poker-related question: Why do the players in the "big game" play against each other when they all could crush smaller games against weaker opponents? The line of thinking, I imagine, is that poker is supposed to be a game in which you look to maximize your edge by playing against the weakest possible opponents for maximum earnings.

While there is some truth to that, there are also some flaws with that way of thinking. Let's look at a little story about two completely different types of professional poker players, and how their careers evolve based on the choices they make. We'll call them "Larry" and "Johnny."

Now, Larry is an excellent no-limit hold'em cash-game player and often plays in a berry patch of a game, a $5-$10 no-limit hold'em game with drunken tourists in Las Vegas. In the games he plays, there are virtually no other professionals and he is usually the best player by a good margin. Larry is happy with this game and has no aspirations to really improve his game or move up in limits, which would mean facing other professional players. He's happy to win a couple of thousand a week and figures that he needs to have a $20,000 bankroll set aside just for this game.

Now let's take a look at Johnny. Larry is a better player than Johnny, and Johnny plays in the same game that Larry does. Since the game is so extremely soft, Johnny also makes a steady income and is usually the second-best player in the game. However, the difference between Johnny and Larry is that Johnny does want to make more money per hour so that he can eventually play less poker and spend more time enjoying his life. Johnny knows that he'll never really be able to earn more than a couple of grand a week in this game, and he is looking for more. Johnny, too, is comfortable with a bankroll of $20,000 for this game.

After a couple of months of steady play, Larry has his working bankroll up to $34,000, while Johnny has built up his bankroll to $29,000. Larry has been at it for years, and he isn't about to change anything. "Why fix it if it ain't broke?"

Johnny is more of a risk-taker, though, and has set higher, or different, goals for himself. So, he heads down the street to the other casino that has a $10-$20 no-limit hold'em game that's much tougher than his regular game. Several pros are at the table, and even the tourists are a little bit tougher. Johnny decides to make his run and sets aside $14,000 of his $29,000 bankroll to play in this game. If he loses the $14,000, he'll go back to his regular game, and hopefully will have learned a few things along the way.

Well, that's exactly what happens. Johnny is outclassed in the bigger game, and after three weeks and $11,000, he heads back down the street to the $5-$10 game. Meanwhile, while Johnny has only $18,000 in his bankroll, Larry is holding steady, paying his bills and grinding it out, with a bankroll of $41,000.

This pattern continues until, finally, Johnny's game improves enough to the point where he is a winning player in the $10-$20 game. Now, instead of making the couple of grand a week that he used to make, he's making closer to $10,000 a week, while Larry is still working his $5-$10 game and not really challenging his skills against better players.

A few years go by and Johnny finds himself sitting in the $100-$200 no-limit hold'em game. By this point, he's become a much better player than Larry and is also making a lot more money per week. Larry and Johnny are two completely different types of people, obviously. Both are professional poker players, but they have very different approaches to being a professional. Larry won't go broke, and Johnny probably will several times. Larry will never find himself in games in which he is a losing player, and Johnny will. There are lots of poker players who can do what Larry does, but few will be successful following Johnny's path. For every Johnny, there are a hundred guys out there playing in games they can't beat, and won't ever beat, simply because their skill level isn't up to par. The only way that a "wannabe" Johnny can ever be successful is to find out where his "Larry level" is and stick with it. That is, he eventually needs to find the highest limit he can beat and be satisfied with that. In fact, a lot of Johnny wannabes will actually become winning players in the $10-$20 no-limit hold'em game, but losers in bigger games. It takes a lot of introspection to come to that realization, and the reason there are so many failed Johnnys is that it's an extremely difficult pill to swallow for that type of personality. For a confident player who is also a risk-taker, it can be very tricky if his skill level doesn't match his own perceived level of skill.

As for Larry, he's still paying his bills, and maybe even wondering what might have been. "I was a great player when I was younger, but I never messed with the bigger games. I'm happy to make my living here." There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, in theory, but if Larry was good enough to make the next jump, or even the bigger jump to $100-$200 games, but didn't even try, he cost himself a ton of money lifetime by not taking any risks.

Ideally, Johnny and Larry would make for two interesting friends - Johnny always prodding Larry to step it up and get into some bigger games, and Larry, always the cooler head, warning Johnny to make sure that he doesn't get too risky with his bankroll. Of course, Johnny doesn't really listen, and Larry has to stake him from time to time in the $5-$10 game to get him back on his feet, but Larry doesn't mind. In some twisted way, Larry actually lives vicariously through Johnny, admiring that no-fear attitude, that confident bravado. Deep down, Larry actually wishes that he had a little more gamble in him.

Every winning high-limit poker player is a Johnny - every single one of them. You'll find the odd Larry in the $80-$160 limit games, or maybe even the $25-$50 no-limit games, but you won't see a single Larry playing with Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Phil Ivey, and the other poker greats who regularly play in Bobby's Room.

So, after whom should we pattern ourselves in our poker careers? Well, that, my friends, is entirely up to you. There is no right or wrong answer. Larry's approach works for Larry, and he probably couldn't deal with the idea of going broke. For Johnny, that's just part of the learning process. He'll either figure it all out along the way or he won't. I don't think it's much of a secret which path I followed!