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Planning for 2015 WSOP-Part II

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: May 19, 2015


Steve ZolotowIn the previous column, I dealt with some specific preparations (like setting a loss limit) to help you avoid disaster. In this column, I will focus on ways to improve yourself and your playing ability. All of this takes work, but no one ever improves at a discipline that is both physical and mental without doing some work.

Improve Yourself Physically: Since you may spend as nearly two months playing poker 10 to 14 hours a day, it is essential to be in good physical shape. To maintain or increase my strength and stamina, I try to get to the gym at least four times a week. Two workouts focus on cardio (treadmill, recumbent bike, or elliptical) and two on strength training (weights and weight machines.) It is also useful to do some stretching or yoga.

Improve Yourself Mentally: Before I discuss poker-specific training, I want to recommend doing a variety of mental exercises designed to sharpen your memory, speed, problem solving ability, and so forth. There is a website I like called, which provides a number of brain training games. Amazon lists a huge number of books with puzzles and exercises for improving cognition and memory. My current favorite is Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. I combine reading chapters of the book with reading various Sherlock Holmes stories. This book makes reference to a number of modern psychological studies, which naturally leads me to my next topic.

Improve Yourself Psychologically: Modern psychology has started to revolutionize economic theory and decision-making theory. There was a long-standing economic assumption that people behave rationally. As a poker player, you have long been aware that isn’t the case. People don’t always try to maximize their equity. Behavioral psychology and behavioral economics try to find out how and why people actually make decisions. For example, people generally will try harder to avoid losing $100 than they will to win $100. Try to gain some insight into behavior. It may help you catch some of your own irrational behaviors or find ways to take advantage of those of your opponents. It is not necessary to delve through weighty scientific papers to learn the results of this research. Several enjoyable books cover the important topics. I’ll recommend two. They are Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

Improve Your Poker Skills: This is obviously a huge topic, but I will begin by suggesting you study starting hands. There is no more important skill than choosing the right starting hands. Poker has evolved over the last ten years very dramatically. The typical under the gun (UTG) opening range used to be high pairs and high cards. This was not game-theory optimal (GTO), but it worked against the majority of opponents who played weak-loose. Modern players have learned to exploit these starting requirements. If you know your opponent doesn’t have low cards in his range, you can bluff whenever the flop is all low cards or a low pair. Game theory teaches us that we must have balanced (unexploitable) ranges for every action we take. Our UTG range must include some low pairs and/or suited connectors to balance the high pairs and high cards. Online players must have a well-balanced GTO strategy. Tracking software enables opponents to spot and take advantage of any unbalanced strategic areas. In live games this is less important, since players are unlikely to see and remember how often you take any action in a situation that occurs infrequently. Over the course of a few sessions, how often will you see an opponent bet on the river and then face a pot-sized raise? If this situation occurs four times and he folds all four times, can you really be sure he folds to frequently in this spot? It could easily be a random statistical fluctuation. In fact, will you even remember what happened two weeks ago and what that particular opponent did?
My initial advice still holds. Review your starting hands. Decide what hands you will play and develop specific strategies for how to play them. Do you ever limp in early position? If you do, make sure you do it with a range of hands. If your opponent raises, you should have some hands in your range that fold (A-7 suited), some that call (a pair of sevens), and some that reraise (a pair of aces).

I also have a couple of book recommendations for improving your poker. First is Philip Newall’s The Intelligent Poker Player, which focuses on limit hold’em, but has a lot of good stuff on game theory and balancing ranges. It also contains an excellent introduction to behavioral psychology and economic theory within a poker context. The other is Harrington on Modern Tournament Poker by the redoubtable team of Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie. This focuses on modern no-limit hold’em tournament poker, and it will help you refine your starting ranges and strategic options. There are a number of websites that offer discussion and training. I haven’t spent enough time with them to make a recommendation, but they might help those of you who hate to read. Another study device is to watch actual poker cash games and tournaments such as Poker After Dark, World Poker Tour, High Stakes Poker, and World Series of Pokers. A lot of these are available on ♠

Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 35 years. With two WSOP bracelets and few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at some major tournaments and playing in cash games in Vegas. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A in New York City -The Library near Houston and Doc Holliday’s on 9th St. are his favorites.