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Taking On The Pros

by Ed Miller |  Published: Feb 01, 2017

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I’m doing a series of companion articles to my most recent book, The Course: Serious Hold ’Em Strategy For Smart Players. It’s a step-by-step guide to mastering the live no-limit hold’em games that you will find in most cardrooms around the world.

This article is paired with the final chapter in the book, and therefore will be the final article in the series. I want to cover a few central ideas that will help you rise far above the typical player to become a player who wins and, more importantly, who never stops improving.

Avoid Groupthink Like The Plague

Perhaps the single biggest force that holds live no-limit players back is groupthink. What tends to happen is that most regulars in most cardrooms tend to play the game mostly the same way. They raise the same hands preflop. They call the same hands on the flop. They bet the same hands on the river.

The reason this happens is because poker is a very social game, and there are innumerable forces — some obvious and some quite subtle — that work to keep other players “in line.”
That regular who berates everyone who plays a way he doesn’t like?

“Why the heck did you bet that on river? What were you thinking he could have? You gotta check that down!”

“How are you going to call that gutshot to the river like that? You can’t call on the turn when I bet there.”

“What the heck are you doing playing 5-3? Keep playing those hands, donkey. Keep playing them.”

Surely there’s one in your cardroom — there’s one in every cardroom. He’s a force of groupthink. He exists to beat players into line. If you play a hand in a way that substantially diverges from accepted practice, you will get a mouthful from this gem.

Of course, if you start playing the game his way it doesn’t benefit you, it only benefits him. There’s absolutely no reason you should ever listen to this guy, but sometimes it’s hard not to. Even if you know to take him with a grain of salt, you can’t un-hear the words, and the ideas may creep into your thinking even without your explicit knowledge.

The more subtle ways that groupthink seeps in is that often it actually makes sense to play the way everyone else is playing—precisely because everyone else is playing that way.

For example, say everyone in your game will fold most hands to a big river bet. They do this because most people only make a big river bet with the goods. Well, you shouldn’t start calling these bets just to be different! You should fold just like everyone else does.

But you’re not folding because everyone else folds. You’re folding because they’ve made a correct adjustment to the way everyone else plays a different situation—how they bet the river.

But it’s easy to blur this distinction and to start folding because everyone else does, or because it’s “correct” or “solid” or because it’s “better to live to fight another day than to give it all away.”

When you start making plays because they’re “good poker,” rather than because you’ve evaluated the situation independently, you’re in groupthink land.

The single most important thing you can do to improve at poker is to realize that you cannot learn from the people you play with. You can’t learn from the loudmouth table captain. You can’t learn to beat the game by copying the plays that others in the game make. You must explicitly reject all this groupthink at every opportunity.

You aren’t doing it right unless the table captain is screaming at you sometimes.

Eliminate Fear

Fear is a huge motivator for small- and medium-stakes live no-limit players. Fear of losing. Fear of looking bad. Fear of getting outplayed.

If you are afraid at the table, it is easy to play to avoid the fear. Just fold. No matter what you’re afraid of, folding usually takes care of it. You can fold to avoid looking bad. You can fold to avoid losing a big pot. (But you lose a smaller pot, naturally.) When you fold, the game just moves on, and you are out of the spotlight.

These fear-motivated plays are extremely costly over time. A good chunk of my live no-limit game is designed to exploit the fear-based plays I know my opponents are likely to make. Sure, folding keeps you out of the spotlight, but it also keeps chips from going into your stack.

Sure, I fold all the time. But I do it only when I think that there’s no other way I can play my hand that will add value to it. Folding is the play I make when I can’t make the math work on anything else. That’s it.

If you are folding for other reasons—or you are making other fear-based plays like checking down likely winners to avoid getting check-raised—you are limiting yourself in a way you cannot overcome.

Study Every Day

Once you have broken out of the groupthink- and fear-based paradigms that most regular live players find themselves in, you have to replace it with something. This is where study comes in. Study can take many forms. You can read books—like mine, naturally. You can watch videos—like those we produce at our training site Red Chip Poker. You can read articles. You can work with software. You can analyze hands you’ve played or find friends to analyze hands with together.

The important thing about study is that you are consistently engaging with new ideas. Your study will have been successful if you are playing slightly differently two weeks from now than you play today.

Not every change you make will be great. You will make some mistakes along the way. But you want to be putting in the effort and making consistent changes to your thought process. If you engage with new ideas honestly and make changes, the balance of those changes will likely improve your game. And you will get better.

Final Thoughts

Improving at live no-limit hold’em is a great project. It’s a challenge, but learning to become break-even and then winning at $1-$2 and $2-$5 is very achievable if you use the right formula and put in the work. And it’s very satisfying when you feel like you’ve had a breakthrough and now have mastery when before you did not. ♠

Ed MillerEd’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.