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Specialize Your Game

by Ed Miller |  Published: May 09, 2018


How often have you seen someone bust out of a tournament and, after a 15-minute break to tell a few people the bad beat story, they hop right into a cash game. Completely normal, right?

Sure. Poker tournaments were conceived originally as marketing tools to get poker players into the cardroom. The goal was to blow through the relatively unprofitable (for the room) tournament quickly and capture those players for hours or days playing cash games.

So it’s very natural. You bust out of the tournament and you go play cash games. But in one way of thinking about it, it’s actually not natural at all. Because tournament poker and tournament strategy are very different from cash game poker and cash game strategy.

This is especially true with the lower buy-in tournaments where stacks are short and levels are relatively quick, which naturally are the tournaments most people tend to play. You can write out a pretty good strategy for those sorts of tournaments in a few lookup charts. Most of the decisions are preflop decisions—at least most of the high leverage decisions.

Cash games are almost opposite in terms of strategy. Charts work poorly and instead the strategy is mostly about understanding how and when to apply big picture concepts. The most important decisions tend to be on the turn and river.

If you’re good at tournaments, there’s really no reason to think you will also be good at cash games. And vice versa. And yet in poker culture, switching freely between the two game types seems perfectly natural to most players.

The Generalization Conceit

I’ve found this sort of thing to be true in other areas of gambling also. In fantasy sports, for example, it seems perfectly normal for players to play both basketball cash games and baseball tournaments. While in truth the skills to be good at these two different types of contests have almost nothing in common with one another. Nothing except the most basic ability to think logically and do some basic arithmetic (skills that fantasy sports obviously also has in common with poker).

My experience that this willingness to overgeneralize your skillset and switch between ostensibly similar games (cash games and tournaments, basketball and baseball) can be a gambler’s fatal flaw. I know many cases of players who are profitable and successful in one area, but give all their profits back and more by insisting upon playing other games with surface similarity but strategic dissimilarity.

I’m not really talking about people who put the effort in to be good at both. If you study tournaments 20 hours a week and cash games 20 hours a week, and you can consistently improve at both, then obviously that just makes you a more well-rounded player.

The issue is more with people who casually assume that the skill they have will transfer freely between games.

Now if you play recreationally and being in action is more important to you than making sure your skills apply well to the game you’re playing, then naturally it’s reasonable to swap games back and forth.

But if you would say that making money is one of your top two priorities when you play poker or any other gambling game, then it’s critical to specialize and, more or less, stick to your specialties.

How To Specialize

Specializing doesn’t necessarily mean playing only a single type of game like $1-$2 no-limit cash games with a $300 buy-in or playing only at a certain cardroom.

Specializing is more about developing and exploiting specific skills and sticking to the games where your skills best apply.

In my book, The Course, I approach teaching no-limit hold’em cash games as a series of increasingly advanced skills. For example, the first three skills are to play a simple and effective preflop strategy, to not pay people off, and to learn to assess your hand value correctly.

Let’s say that’s as far as your poker experience has taken you for the moment, and those are your main skills. You can play appropriately tight preflop, you can avoid paying people off on the river, and you can bet your good hands appropriately for value.

If these are your main skills, you should try to specialize the games you choose to play to be ones where these skills are most valuable. These would be games where people play loose preflop, where they don’t bluff a whole lot, and where they will pay off perhaps more than they should.

Now no game will be perfect, but you should easily be able to find small stakes games that have these characteristics.

“Well, of course, Ed,” you say. “Those things are just what makes a good game in general. You’re just saying in a convoluted way to game select well.”

Yes and no. Sure, many good games do look like that. But be honest. What if you saw a game with huge stacks and seven players in each hand? What if you saw bets flying into pots right and left? Would you check your list of skills and see how well your specialization fits that situation? Or would you get excited and jump right in?

Of course wild games with chips flying everywhere can be very good games, but you have to have the skills to exploit a game like that. If you don’t have those skills, you will almost certainly feel uncomfortable in the game. And in the end you may not even be able to make it profitable. A juicy opportunity is only truly juicy for you if you have well-developed skills to exploit it.

Just to make my point in an extreme way, what if you are playing in a good (for your skills) poker game, and everyone at the table can’t stop talking about this guy named “Coach” who is coming to town. Coach, you hear, is the biggest golf gambling fish on the planet. Do you start getting excited ready to win Coach’s money on the course?

What if you’ve never played a round of golf in your life? What if you’ve never even watched a round of golf? Coach may represent a juicy opportunity, but you don’t have developed skills to exploit it. It’s probably better to let this one pass—though it might make sense to try to develop your golf skill in meantime hoping Coach will someday return.

Final Thoughts

It’s a simple concept. Be aware of the skills you have to exploit gambling situations and then stick to games where you can apply those skills successfully.

It’s simple, but most poker players I know ignore it regularly. I’m not saying you have to be a gambling robot playing only the exact games you’re best suited for. But also don’t be conceited. If you’re a tournament player, don’t assume you’ll crush the cash games too. Maybe play a little here and there. But if you want to make money, mostly be aware of your specialties and stick to them. It’s the best way to keep your bankroll healthy. ♠

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