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Winner’s Circle

by David Downing |  Published: Jan 01, 2010

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I’ve been doing this for a long time now. In many respects I am unusual in that I have remained (mostly) an amateur over such a long period, without going bust or turning into just a break-even player. I have never been a superstar, neither have I been cannon fodder. But what has changed over this period, quite dramatically, is what it means to be a winning player.

Gunfighters
Back in the day, being a good player was simple. You sat in a cash game, week in and week out, and if you won more than you lost over a long period, you earned your spurs. It was that easy. And in actual fact, it was quite easy. If you were a good money manager, did not froth with tilt and were mostly tight, no more was really required. The standard wasn’t high, and meta-game skills like finding the right games and how you behaved in these games were more important than understanding three-betting ranges and how to play the big blind.

Russian Roulette Experts
The proliferation of tournaments changed the view of what a winning player looked like. There was, as there still is, a snobbery around cash-game players. But it became a truism that with volume and commitment, tournament poker could be a form of winning poker. This was especially true at lower levels where play was just ghastly. For a long time in the nineties, people were just so weak-tight in small tournies in the UK that just having a bit of speed to your style could turn a profit. Looking back, I almost never saw the now ubiquitous squeeze-play, and loose three-betting was non-existent. Players used to literally try and ante themselves into the money.

Winning Without Winning
The Internet changed all this. For the first time, ways of making a profit appeared which could not exist in “the real world”. A classic example of this is rakeback grinders. There are a whole class of players, some of which are making six-figure profits, who are not actually winning money at the tables they play. Either sit ‘n’ go specialists, or sometimes cash game experts, they massively multitable, 20 tables and up. They break-even at the table, but make nice profit by the rakeback — the money given back to the player from the poker site as a contribution to the rake they have taken.
To old timers, this is more than strange. For the first time, making a profit is not about beating others. Not only do these players not win in the conventional sense, but they cannot even exist in a conventional sense.

A Series of Unfortunate Events
The last unique style I want to comment on is kind of related to that of the rakeback grinders. If you see adding additional tables of play as a continuum, from profit to break-even to ultimately making a loss, then there are a whole group of players who make profit at the tables but rely on volume to magnify the figures. If you can play 100,000 hands a month, then you do not need to be hugely profitable on a per hand basis to turn this into a hugely exciting number.

The strange thing then becomes how this group of players tend to play. Uniformly, they become very tight and very aggressive. This is simple pragmatism. If you have to make a lot of decisions a second, then crystallizing them to fold or raise speeds things up greatly. However, despite being tight, the style can become conversely high variance. If you three-bet a lot, you then start to have to call four-bets more weakly, otherwise strong, observant players will just keep raising again to make you fold. Moreover, in general you will end up stacking on flops much lighter, because the structure of online games, with 100 big blind stacks, mean you do not have much more of a meaningful decision to make and almost never get to see a turn with money in your stack. Coupled with trying to get some fold equity, if you practice this style you positively encourage flop-stacking as turn decision-making becomes too difficult, and importantly, too time-consuming. In the end, you fashion an effective style which is often quite ugly and not so much relying on outplaying an opponent, as contriving decisionless poker where both your edge, and your lack of one, are small but occur in vast numbers.

Return of the Gunfighters … Sorta
In general, I’m a big fan of whatever takes the money down. There is, however, a big problem with the last two styles, which I have touched upon in previous articles. These styles are not “scaleable”. Basically if you rely on great volume — as a marginal winner — to grind rakeback, the problems occur when you move up in stakes. Naturally, the number of games diminish and you reach a plateau where your style is too exploitable and there simply are not enough games to make up for it. The games are more gunfighter-ish and you need to earn your spurs the old-fashioned way — beating the other guys at the table. Spade Suit

David has played poker all over the UK for the better part of a decade. Originally a tournament player, now focused on cash play and almost entirely on the Internet for the last three years, he makes a healthy second income playing a wide range of games. David is also an Omaha instructor for CardRunners.com, a leading source of online poker instructional videos.