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Head Games: Essential Tools To Improve Your Game

Three Poker Pros Share Their Different Approaches

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Nov 03, 2021

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The Pros: Michael Acevedo, Alex Rocha, and Ryan Hohner

Craig Tapscott: What are some of the tools you have used to expand your poker knowledge away from the table, and how did they benefit you?

Michael Acevedo: It really depends on what I’m trying to do. My choice for preflop study was the Monker Solver, but it is by far the most difficult Solver to use. The learning curve is very high, and even for an expert setting up a new GTO (Game Theory Optimal) simulation, it’s very hard and time consuming.

Now I only use FLOP GTO, which is a tool I personally designed and was developed in conjunction with Patrik Antonius. It covers all possible GTO situations for MTTs, Cash Games, and much more. For now, it only has preflop GTO solutions, but post-flop solutions are coming soon. You can download FLOP for free in your app store.

The idea of a tool like this is to offer instant access to any poker situation over the cloud with no need for powerful computers, or any technical knowledge at all with just a few clicks. Preflop is the backbone of poker. If you get preflop right, post-flop play becomes much easier. 

For post-flop study I use Pio Solver, and custom software I also designed (which will be commercially available soon). There are several solvers in the market. I’ve tried all of them. I also get contacted all the time by people developing new tools who want my opinion. All GTO solvers require some level of technical knowledge, powerful enough hardware, and time to run the solutions. They also have the advantage of being very flexible and allow to be able to solve almost any imaginable poker situation, but the output is only as good as the parameters entered by the user. 

There is still a long way to go in poker study tools. As it is right now, there are many things that need to be improved as most poker software looks like it was designed using windows 95 and completely ignored UX design. I do know 100 percent that poker study tools are here to stay, just the same as it happened in chess strategy over the years. They will become a key part of the learning experience for both old and new players alike. Soon people will realize that poker study has to be approached more seriously and technological advances like neural networks and cloud computing will revolutionize the way we study the game forever. 

Alex Rocha Credit: WPTAlex Rocha: Studying the game away from the table is essential if you want to be a successful professional poker player in 2021. There’s a ton of great free content on the internet as well as paid training sites. Even watching poker on tv can help your game. 

One of my favorite ways to grow my game has always been talking hands through with my friends and discussing the game and different concepts and scenarios. There really is no other greater way to improve your results and success at the tables. 

Also, it’s always a great learning experience to coach other players with less experience than you. At the moment, I coach my girlfriend and her mother. I believe that this experience has helped me immensely and I’m a better player for it. I will do hand history reviews with them and go over ranges in different spots. In turn, this helps me fine tune my own ranges and keeps me from spewing chips in spots I otherwise would have in the past.

Ryan Hohner: The vast majority of my poker knowledge is pure rote memorization. However, there are programs I have invested time and energy in. Using a HUD (Heads Up Display) is essential. If you think I’m going to shill a major software here, well I got three words, “Where’s my patch?” But seriously, the ability to replay and review every hand played is invaluable. Even more important, is HUDs allow the superpower to see my opponent’s hole cards (in the muck). Studying individuals in my player pool and general population at large has proved to be very advantageous. In addition, it’s elicited honesty in my play which has been essential to my game’s growth and progression. 

PokerGO/YouTube is another source. Watch the final tables streamed on that platform. I’ve watched many in order to consume the game at the highest level and in the most pivotal scenarios. I watch most on mute to avoid any distractions and to think deeply through the lenses of each player. My major takeaways include: ICM (Independent Chip Model), short stack play, table dynamics, and blind defense.

Preflop Solutions. Before you can build a house, you lay the foundation. Preflop is arguably the most underrated aspect of poker. Knowing what hands are profitable to open, call, three-bet etc. from various positions and stack sizes goes a long way towards simplifying the game for the next stage, post flop. The things I used to do with K-8 offsuit under-the-gun eight-handed with 50 big blinds effective should be illegal in most states. Safe to say, it’s helped my opens improve just a tad. 

Poker Training Sites and Masterclasses. I’ve invested in a couple multi-table tournament and cash training courses. But admittedly, I’ve used many of such videos and courses as a bedtime story, because I have issues engaging and focusing for extended periods of time. A few of the courses available are definitely thought-provoking, but it’s important to always take things a step further and put in the work.

Craig Tapscott: What are some of the key strategy tips you learned from your fellow professional players that took your game to the next level?

Michael AcevedoMichael Acevedo: You don’t have to play poker perfectly or be a wizard to be successful, all you need is to be better than the people you play against. The key is putting some conscious effort into studying regularly and getting better at the game. That will get you ahead of most other players in your games. 

The purpose of GTO study isn’t to try to play like a robot, but instead to learn the game mechanics so you can make better decisions at the table. Over the long run the players who make on average better decisions will be making more money. It really is just as simple as that. 

Even though poker is played individually, I believe it is in many ways a team game. I suggest that you find some poker friends whom you can study and review hands with. But don’t focus on bad beat stories, instead focus on discussing difficult spots. And if possible, get some coaching. You can hire a top coach to give your crew private lessons and raise your game. 

Finally, don’t forget that poker is a game. The most important thing is to always have fun. If you don’t enjoy it, you can’t expect to be successful or have longevity in it

Alex Rocha: The main key for me was talking through hands with my friends over the years. That has been extremely beneficial for the growth of my game and success.

I also pay attention to great players at my tables in every event. It is another way to take your game to the next level. Whether it’s a continuation bet they make or don’t make, a bet sizing they use on a particular board texture, or maybe just an aggressive stare down. There is a goldmine of information to learn at the table by simply paying attention.

My peers and fellow professionals have also helped me away from the table. They’ve helped me to learn that meditating and having a strong mental game is just as important as anything else. Also having a healthy balance between the poker life and outside of poker in my day-to-day life is always important for me and my overall wellbeing.

Ryan HohnerRyan Hohner: I was very fortunate early in my tournament poker career to be surrounded by two of my best friends and mentors, Yong Kwon and Mike Lavenburg. They provided me with confidence, honesty, and criticism that shaped my game. For several years, I was stuck in a false reality that every hand I played was perfect. It was an ugly cycle that I was only able to overcome with their guidance. They gave birth to a newfound hunger for knowledge and improvement that pushed me to breakthroughs.

Kwon and Lavenburg shifted my approach with countless hand history reviews and critiques. They taught me to increase my aggression preflop, size up wet boards post-flop, don’t check brick turns out of position, increase my three-bet frequency big blind versus the button, fold small pairs shallow in early position, and the list goes on and on.

Most notably, one of the biggest strategy tips I’ve learned from Kwon is MTT poker re-entry strategies and how to set money on fire. Literally. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” And that’s great and all but losing 15-20 buy-ins on a Sunday is one thing, and the Taco Bell drive thru at 12:53 a.m. and arguing about their closing time is another. The self-control to cut losses and remove one’s ego from the equation is important and one of my most recent improvements. Especially considering my first five-figure score took not one, not two, but seven tries! ♠

Michael Acevedo is a leading poker theorist and has racked up more than $2 million in online earnings during his seven-year poker career. The Costa Rica native has coached hundreds of players from all over the world, including superstars such as Patrik Antonius, Brandon Adams, and Jonathan Little. His book ‘Modern Poker Theory’ is available wherever books are sold. Find Acevedo on Twitter @GTOPoker.

Alex Rocha is a professional poker player with more than $2.7 million in live tournament earnings. In addition to two World Series of Poker Circuit rings, the New York native has scored wins at the Venetian DeepStack, Borgata Winter Poker Open, and Borgata Spring Poker Open. Find Rocha on Twitter @THE_ALEX_ROCHA.

Ryan Hohner is a poker pro with nearly $4 million in combined earnings between live and online play. In 2019, he was ranked no. 1 in the United States among online players on PocketFives.com. He also has two WSOP Circuit rings and earlier this year finished runner-up in a WSOP Online event, narrowly missing out on his first bracelet. Find Hohner on Twitter @RhohneR.