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Capture the Flag: Aaron Massey

by Brian Pempus |  Published: Sep 04, 2013

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Aaron MasseyPoker pro Aaron Massey is one of the game’s up-and-coming players. Last year was a career year for the Chicago-area grinder, as he won more than $830,000 in tournaments. He now has $1.3 million worth of scores to his name, which include eight wins amongst nearly 60 cashes.

He also just cashed an impressive five times at the 2013 World Series of Poker.
When he isn’t traveling the circuit, Massey spends the majority of his time playing $5-$10 no-limit hold’em, and he has managed to carve out a sustainable existence on the cash game felt.

Massey is largely a feel player, one who relies on his instincts and a strong ability to read an opponent — or at the very least, quickly ascertain what he or she might be capable of doing.

Card Player had the chance to speak with the full-time grinder to get a sense of why cash games are so important in order to maintain a steady income, as well as what mistakes people are still making.

Brian Pempus: How have you used cash games to finance your successful tournament career?

Aaron Massey: Early in my career I didn’t have a significant bankroll in order to play tournaments. Tournaments are high variance, as you know. You need a sustainable number of buy-ins. Back in the day, I’d play in these $1-$2 and $2-$5 games, starting with only having a few hundred bucks and running it up to a few thousand in order to take some shots in tournaments. I could afford to take a couple of shots because of grinding cash games. This was obviously years and years ago.

Eventually, after settling into $2-$5 at one point, I was able to grind and earn an hourly wage instead of taking a high variance line in tournaments. I would sit there at the cash game tables for 12-to-14 hours a day and just pad my bankroll little by little and being able to get up whenever I wanted to take a break. I could stop if I was having a bad session or if I was up a decent amount and wanted to book a win.

It did take me a long time to build up what is actually a necessary bankroll to play for a living and be comfortable with it. For me…when I was playing a lot of cash it was when I was on my own. I wasn’t swapping or selling action and wasn’t staked. Even though I was on my own, I was doing it wrong by taking shots in tournaments with my cash game bankroll. However, the cash games allowed me to get a lot of hands in during this period. I learned a lot of concepts along the way. I did end up getting a backing deal eventually for tournaments because I wanted to play bigger ones, but it’s really the cash games that sustain you as a poker player. They are just more consistent.

BP: Is it important to calculate an hourly wage in order to get a good sense of your performance?

AM: Definitely. Keeping records of your hours and results is important especially in cash games because you are able to have a more consistent type of result, and when you are grinding out an hourly wage it’s more like a real job. It’s important to view it this way. You need to be playing cash games and sustaining a winrate instead of chasing the huge scores and glory in tournaments. You can make a living without having to chance the high variance scenarios. Seeing it all on paper and seeing it compared to a normal job in a different field is important to get a sense of how much better or worse your poker career is.

BP: What are some of the mistakes you made early on?

AM: It was really over-valuing hands. When I was first playing $1-$2 and $2-$5 there were so many mistakes I was making due to lack of experience. The reason I have gotten better is because I saw enough hands. Back then, I would look for spots that were really just poor, instead of waiting for hands to come to me and let people make mistakes. I would go after the pots that were just really not mine to win. This impatience combined with over-valuing certain hands was a big problem for awhile. You need to let things organically open up, and just sit back and observe, waiting for opportunities to win money, instead of trying to force things and create these opportunities. When you are playing cash, it’s real money coming out of your pocket. It’s really important to avoid big mistakes. I was also just letting my ego get in the way, thinking that I was a lot better than I was and trying to outplay people all the time. These days, I can laugh at how I was playing back then.

BP: So you would advise not trying to run over people at the lower stakes?

AM: Yeah, people just don’t fold that often. Don’t be aggressive in stupid spots where it’s clear someone is likely just going to call everything. It’s really an ego thing. You can give away tons of buy-ins by trying to run over people. Don’t ever just look down at your cards and decide that this hand is going to be yours to win. You end up doubling people up with that mindset or getting stacked. Don’t be too stubborn. If you play well all night and then end up doing that, it can cost you your entire session.
It is about game management, too. We spend a lot of time trying to tell ourselves that we aren’t going to make that blowup again, because it has happened so many times; and it still happens. We still screw ourselves over by going for broke in a spot or two. You just have to be aware of these tendencies and do everything in your power to avoid these situations. With that said, the learning process never stops.

BP: What considerations do you take into account when you think about ending a cash game session?

AM: There are a lot of things that go into play. It’s the amount of hours I have been playing, how I am running, what my opponents are like and how they are playing. If it’s a tight game with no action and I have money then I probably won’t want to play. If it’s the same game and I’m stuck I might want to stay (laughing). Everything is situational, and there are so many things to consider every single time. However, it’s always going to be a mix of the stack sizes, the players, the game flow and my personal evaluation of how I am playing. The great thing about cash games is that if there is something happening in your social life that you want to attend, you can always pick up and go. That balance is important.

With that said, if you are winning it might mean that the game is really good and you have to capitalize on those opportunities when they arise. It’s important to stay and earn.

BP: Is that getting unstuck mentality a problem for a lot of poker players?

AM: It is a horrible thing. The way you should look at it is your career or poker hobby being one long session. But we are human, and at the end of the day we don’t like being stuck, and we are gamblers at heart too. It is obviously a bad value to try to get unstuck before you leave a game, but it will never stop us from doing it. At the highest level, you will have good control over it, but once in awhile you are going to just stick it out. It is not the best strategy by any means.

BP: What are some of the mistakes you see people making these days in the cash games you play?

AM: People are playing too aggressive in position; trying to squeeze too much without a hand. It’s pretty transparent a lot of the time. Transparent to me though because I have been put through the ringer. Your normal cash-game player might not pick up on these things. They are doing that, and it’s really an ego thing. Well, ego and emotion, and not really fundamentals anymore. People just can’t handle what happens at the table — the results of the hand, or they just don’t like someone’s face. At the end of the day, the mistakes I am seeing are due to the intangibles. People get too hot and frazzled after a mistake or a bad beat. Then they get steamrolled in a hand and they don’t even realize it.

BP: Are there any tricks you deploy to get people to sort of melt down in spots against you?

AM: I have a whole arsenal. I will do things from saying things to them, observing them really intensely to the point of them noticing that I am watching them, make a comment about something totally unrelated to the game, and so on. It’s all psychological warfare stuff to manipulate the opponent in any way. You might want to make them happy, uncertain or even angry. You might want to make them think you are making fun of them, or make them think you are agreeing with them. It’s all situational, but I am always trying to be inside the mind of my opponents as much as possible. I am trying to get any and all information I can get from them. Profiling people at the table is huge. ♠