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Head Games: How Important is Table and Seat Selection in Cash Games

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Feb 01, 2014

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The Pros: Reid Young, Jeremy Ausmus, and Eric Meissner

Craig Tapscott: In live cash games, do you scope out which table you want to sit at and why?

Reid Young: If I have the option of a few tables, I think it is absolutely worth a look. Recreational players are several factors worse than even a mediocre player with some experience. A few important criteria for live game selection should be big stacks at the table (increasing your potential winnings) and talkative and fun loving players. This matters so you keep your soul and people are actually playing hands other than A-K. And look for players over 50 years old; because it is a quick and most likely way to weed out the more experienced online guys. That’s not to say all older players are not solid, but it is more likely they are less experienced.

Jeremy Ausmus: I’m solely looking for the most profitable game, that usually means one standout very bad player or two or more weakish players. That’s really my only criteria when deciding which table to play at. Rarely, if there was someone famous who I liked and wanted to meet, I might choose a game they were in instead. I’m never going to sit with players I like more, like friends, over the bad players. Most of my friends in poker play for a living so a game filled with them is likely going to be a tougher game, meaning less money for me. While it is nice to see and talk with friends and even new people I meet, the main reason I’m there is to work.

Eric Meissner: As a poker player, you always want to be aware of your surroundings. However, scoping out which table has the softest players, or the biggest “fish” or “whales,” depends on how familiar you are with that particular casino and its player pool. If you are playing at a casino for the first time, you are not going to know who the “good,” “bad,” “loose,” or “tight,” players are until you actually sit down and play with them for 30 minutes to an hour. If you do not know the style of play of every player at your table after 30 minutes to an hour, you are not paying enough attention to the game and you need to really concentrate on every pot played, not just the ones that you are playing. Some people select tables based on profiling of certain players; however I do not necessarily recommend that because it can be risky. Other players select tables based on the stack sizes of certain players, however that can be risky too because the players with a lot of chips are not necessarily loose players that will splash around those chips. They might be tight players who have their big stacks on “lockdown” and it will be extremely hard to get any chips out of them. Now, with casinos where you play regularly and are familiar with a good portion of the player pool, I would definitely scope out which table I would most like to play at and which table I would least like to play at, and then fill in the rest in between from best to worst, depending on how many games are going. I usually try to stay away from tables that have more than one or two professionals at them. This is because they are the least profitable players to play against because they are usually very smart and rarely get their money in when they are behind.

Craig Tapscott: In regards to seat selection, are you always choosing to gain position on the fish or an aggressive player at the table? What determines how you jockey to get the seat you want?

Reid Young: Exploiting any metagame dynamic comes with a price. Most notably, the player(s) whom you attempt to exploit notice your behavior after a number of exploitative-seeming actions from you. So if someone is seat jumping every orbit and playing musical chairs with a weaker player, then you can be sure that weaker player is likely to leave the game. Finding the right seat in a game can have a large impact on your game, but only if that game is running. A similar idea applies to hyper-game selection, affectionately called “bum-hunting.” If you quit a game the exact moment a weaker player loses his stack, then why would he subject himself to such predatory behavior and come back to play again? That type of behavior is a pestilence that has lasting effects on the game in question and on the poker economy.

Jeremy Ausmus: Seat selection is very important in all poker games but even more so in big bet games. A player’s win rate can be drastically affected by where they are sitting relative to the other players. The main thing I try to avoid is having one or two of the best players to my left. The best big bet players are often loose and aggressive. If they are on your left they will be calling your opens and three-betting you a lot which is bad enough, but, on top of that, they will have position on you almost all of the time. This will put you in a lot of tough and unprofitable spots. The position of the fish is less important, but I still usually prefer to have them on my right. Many of them aren’t going to put you in a lot of tough spots, so if they are on your left it’s not going to be as big of a deal, but you might not be maximizing your value. If they are on your right, you can put pressure on and punish them all day. This actually depends on the kind of fish they are though. In the example just given, I was referring to the most common type of fish, the loose-passive one. But, if it’s a fish that’s very, very loose and aggressive and the game is getting really wild, there are some benefits to having them on your left instead. A player like this can change the dynamic at the table so much, you really have to think outside the box, and the game becomes very different than the typical one. If you are to his left, reraising is still a good option but flatting becomes much less attractive. This is because he is playing nearly every hand and everyone else will be in there with him trying to win his money. This puts you in very bad relative position postflop in a multiway pot. Very often he will bet the flop and you will be next to act with several players left to act after you. But if you are on his right in these spots, he will have position on you every hand but you have the best relative position at the table. When you do flop strong, he will likely be betting the flop and a couple of players with the bad relative position will call him (often with marginal holdings) leaving a lot of extra dead money in the pot for you to pick up.

Eric Meissner: Seat selection is probably more important than table selection. I once heard a great poker player say that he’d rather play at the best seat in a mediocre game than the worst seat in a great game. I don’t really look to jockey for position against “fishy” or “bad” players, because I think that I can outplay them postflop even if they have position on me. I will usually always try to jockey for position against “thinking” players, especially “thinking” players who are familiar with how I play. I want to have all the advantage I can get against these types of players and having position on them is a great advantage. These players are usually very good players because they not only focus on their hand, but they also focus on your range, among many other things. Just because a player is an aggressive player, doesn’t mean that I want to play on his left side. It depends what type of aggressive player he is. If he is the type of player that raises five times the big blind seven out of ten hands, then I’m going to try to jockey myself to his left for multiple reasons, but mainly because if he is a sporadic big preflop raiser, then I want to know when I have to pay big to see a flop before limping and then getting the surprise of a big raise behind me. Also, these players usually continuation-bet a lot, and I like to have position on players like this. There is actually another type of aggressive player that I prefer to play out of position. This is the type of aggressive player who has the type of ego where he has to bet every time he is checked to. This is easily exploitable because it is extremely predictable and that’s why I like to give them the advantage of position. I always find it funny when people choose a seat because the last person who just played in it left with a “monster” stack and they say something like “wow, that seat is really lucky right now, I’m going to move there,” thinking that it really is the seat that is lucky and nothing to do with the player who was just there. Whenever I see this situation, I know right away that this player is not a winning player because every winning player knows that this way of thinking is just ludicrous. So to sum seat selection up, you should choose your seat based upon the players at your table (for example, their skill level and their type of aggression). Do not select your seat because you think it is “hot.” ♠

Reid Young is high-stakes cash game professional. He is the lead poker video instructor at TransformPoker.com. For more detailed information on game selection and other poker strategy, visit blog.transformpoker.com.

Jeremy Ausmus is a WSOP bracelet winner and made the main event final table in 2010. For the last nine years his sole income has been from poker. Ausmus has more than $3.6 million in career tournament winnings, but he is primarily a high-stakes cash game pro. He can be reached through www.jeremyausmuspoker.com.

Eric Meissner started playing poker seriously when he turned 21, spreading his time between live poker, online poker, tournaments, and cash games. He graduated from UCSB with a B.A. and went on to graduate from Whittier Law School to obtain his J.D. Eric has been an extremely successful mid-stakes cash game player for the past seven years.