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Playing The Course

by Ed Miller |  Published: Mar 30, 2016

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Ed MillerI opened my most recent book, The Course, with an analogy to golf. In a golf tournament (stroke play), you’re competing against a large field. There’s two ways to think about this. The first is to think about it as you against everyone else. To win the tournament, you have to beat every single other player, no matter how well they do.

The second way is to ignore that and focus on two things: the course and yourself. You aren’t competing against all those other golfers. You’re just competing against the course. Your goal is not to beat them. Your goal is to master the course. To throw your energy into coming up with the best strategy to navigate the course’s peculiarities. And then to execute.

The idea is that if you ignore distractions, focus on what matters, and give it your absolute best effort, the winning takes care of itself. You just put up your number. And some days you’ll find that not one of your opponents can match it.

In many ways, poker is like this. There is a lot of noise in a poker room environment. Literal noise, but also the figurative noise of irrelevant events and gossip. “Did you hear so-and-so is on a massive heater? She’s been stomping the game all month!” Or, “That guy is running over the table and has a massive stack. I gotta figure out what he’s doing.”

It’s easy to lose focus. Throw in the inevitable self-doubt that comes with the downswings in this game, and it’s hard not to get caught up in all this. Countless students have come to me with questions like, “I know you say I should play tight preflop, but there’s this guy at my cardroom who limps into every pot and he’s killing it. Am I missing something? What can I do to be more like him?”

Here’s the short answer. Don’t look at the short- or medium-term results of your opponents. Just don’t do it. Ignore it as much as possible. It’s noise. That guy who limps into every pot and is killing it is on a massive heater. He’s hitting 45 percent of his flush draws instead of 35. He’s flopping sets 17 percent of the time instead of 12. And so on.

And more importantly, there’s a hundred guys at the cardroom who play just like him and limp into every pot and who are getting crushed. You’re focused on the one guy who is (temporarily) bucking the trend, rather than the multitudes who are performing exactly as poorly as one would expect.

Okay. So it’s important to ignore the ups and downs of your opponents and focus on your own game. But isn’t poker a game of people? Isn’t the key to success to play your opponents rather than the cards?

It is. And I think this seeming contradiction trips a lot of people up.

In some ways you want to completely ignore what your opponents are doing. In other ways, what they’re doing is vitally important. Let’s sort this out.

The important way to pay attention to your opponents is to break them down strategically. Every poker player makes errors. You need to figure out which sort of errors your opponent is prone to make. Does he fold too frequently on the river? Does she continuation bet too frequently on the flop? Does he get tripped up on monochrome flops, perhaps folding too frequently early in the hand, but paying off too much on the river with hands like two pair?

In the sense of my analogy, however, this sort of analysis counts as playing the course. A golf course designer builds holes and places hazards in a particular way. This design will then tend to favor one playing strategy over another. Perhaps on one type of course it’s more important to try to hit the ball very hard because the holes are long, but the downside to missing shots is less than usual due to the nature and placement of hazards. On another course, accuracy is favored over distance. It’s all down to the conditions of the course.

When you sit at a poker table, you have nine opponents, and they represent the course. Their strategic strengths and weaknesses all combine together to create a unique game design. Your job is to analyze the lay of the land and come up with a strategy that is likely to optimize your risk-to-reward ratio. This strategy is dependent intimately upon the strategies you expect your opponents to play.

But it doesn’t depend much at all based on who is winning and who isn’t. It doesn’t depend on what sorts of hands are hitting and what aren’t. It doesn’t even depend on who is on a hot streak this month or year and who isn’t.

Poker—particularly cash game poker—isn’t like other games. You don’t have to “beat” your opponents to win. You don’t have to get the best score. Just a positive one. If one of your opponents wins $1,500, another wins $700, and you win $200, you haven’t lost. You’ve won. The fact that those two other players won more is (or should be) utterly irrelevant to you. Maybe next time around they’ll lose. Or maybe they’ll win again. Who cares?

If one of your opponents beats you in a big pot, it’s easy to take it personally. “He sucked out on me.” Or, worse, “She bluffed me!” It’s natural to want to try to turn the tables next time. But you should try to resist the urge. You have nothing to gain by focusing on that one player at the exclusion of others. Money won from your nemesis spends the same as any other money.

Yes, I know, it can feel great to get back at someone. But recognize that if you play for that feeling, you’re often doing so to the detriment of your long-term results.

Final Thoughts

The key to poker is to follow two seemingly contradictory mantras. First, you need to play the player. Second, you need to ignore your opponents and play the course.

You play the player by analyzing opponent strategies and identifying and executing potent counterstrategies. A table full of opponents provides you with a course to analyze and strategize against.

But once you’ve done that, you should ignore all the other stuff. If one guy builds a massive stack in an hour, so what. It doesn’t affect you—except that you can identify the errors he makes, build a counterstrategy, and hopefully win some of the money. You don’t have to compare your results to his. You don’t have to beat his score to win. You just have to beat zero. (And you don’t have to beat zero that day, either. Just by the time you decide to quit playing poker. You’ve got time.)

If you learn to play the course, eventually the winning will take care of itself. ♠

Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.