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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: Are You Running Bad Or Playing Bad?

Ed Miller Helps You Figure Out How To Tell The Difference


Ed MillerYou’re on a downswing. Nothing is working. Every time you get the money in good, they suck out. Every time you bet the turn, you get raised. Every time you bluff, they call.

We all know there’s a lot of short-term luck in no-limit hold’em, but when you can’t put a winning session together to save your life, it’s demoralizing. Runs like these are enough to shake even elite players with years and years of success.

Then comes the natural question. Are you running bad or playing bad? Will this misery end all by itself? Or are you creating your own misery through bad play.

My short answer is that it’s both — it’s always both. Whenever things go so bad for so long that you are asking yourself this question, you have certainly run bad. But I don’t know a single person who can run so bad for so long and not start playing worse. I think it’s not humanly possible to get crushed day after day and still play your A plus game every time out.

And there’s always the unfortunate possibility that even your A plus game could use a fair bit of work.

Here’s how I would try to right the ship.

Explain Your Edge

The first thing to do if you are worried that you’re playing bad is to step back and think about your gameplan. No-limit hold’em isn’t just a series of hands going by. It’s something bigger. There’s an overall strategy to it. If you are playing to win, you need to tailor your strategy to those of your opponents such that your strategy will prevail over time.

When you’re running bad, it’s time to revisit your strategy. What are you trying to accomplish? What mistakes are your opponents making? How does your strategy take advantage of those errors? And does your strategy present weaknesses that your opponents are taking advantage of?

When people ask me if they are running bad or playing bad, the first thing I ask them is what they did to make money before the bad run. As often as not, the answer is something like, “Make big hands and get paid on them.”

That answer isn’t good enough. It’s a great way to make money when you’re running good and hitting hands left and right. But it’s not a strategy. It doesn’t take advantage of any edge you might have. And if that’s all you’ve got, then as soon as the cards turn you’ll do nothing but lose.

A real strategy is something different. Here’s an example of a strategy I commonly employ in $2-$5 Vegas games.

“I’m going to play appropriately tight preflop while nearly everyone else is playing way too many hands. I’m going to build pots early with frequent preflop raises and reraises. Then I’m going to take hands to the turn and river. Because my opponents play too many hands preflop, they will have too many weak hands by the final two streets. I will attempt to sniff out when my opponents are weak and steal these pots. Because I play stronger hands to begin with, and because I’m building my strategy around bluffing, I will steal more pots from my opponents than they steal from me. This will be my main edge.”

This is a strategy. I have clearly articulated what my plan is to gain a lasting, long-term edge against my opponents.

But now I lose eight sessions straight and nearly ten buy-ins over that time. Am I running bad or playing bad? Let’s focus on my strategy.

Obviously my strategy isn’t working, because I can’t win a session. But why isn’t it working? Is it not working because unlucky things are happening, or is it not working because it’s a bogus strategy?

Say I bluff the turn and get called. The river comes, and my opponent bets into me. I fold, and he shows a rivered gutshot. This is bad luck — my strategy would have worked fine had he missed his gutshot.

Say my opponent bets the flop and I call. He checks the turn and I bluff. He calls. He checks the river, I bluff again, and he calls. He shows a flopped two pair. This may be a sign my strategy needs a tweak — this player may have reacted to my strategy by checking strong hands to induce bluffs from me.

A player raises, I reraise on the button with 10Heart Suit 8Heart Suit. He reraises me, and I fold. He shows ADiamond Suit AHeart Suit. This is bad luck — people get dealt aces, and you can’t assume someone has aces just because they opened a pot.

A player raises, I reraise on the button with QHeart Suit QSpade Suit. He reraises me, and I call. He flops trip nines with 9Spade Suit 6Spade Suit and wins a big pot. My strategy may need a tweak. It’s not that I lost money with a big pair against an oddball trips. That part was bad luck. It’s that I’m getting four-bet light — this player may be trying to counter my reraising strategy. I should think about how to change my reraising strategy given that my opponent is trying to counter it.

Often you won’t get complete feedback because you won’t see an opponent’s hand. You have to make guesses about whether you’re getting unlucky or if you need to tweak something based on frequencies. If you bluff the turn and get raised three times in a row against three different players, it could be that you ran into three big hands. If the same opponent has raised you five out of the last ten turns, however, then there’s a good chance you need to rethink your strategy.

Don’t Pretend You Can Play Your Best

“Oh, I’m playing great,” the on-a-huge-downswing guy says. “I wouldn’t change a single play I made. They just keep sucking out left and right no matter what I do.”

Don’t be this guy. If you are losing day after day, you are not playing your best. You just aren’t. You’re not a robot.

Even if you go into each session in a clear, positive emotional state (and after a while, who can do that?), you still aren’t playing your best. That’s because constant losing begins to shade your poker intuition. Your internal calculator begins to think that your flush draws come in a little less often and your opponents’ come in a little more often. Your brain is using a temporarily skewed data set when you make decisions.

In my opinion, you can’t prevent this. You can’t hack your brain to work differently from every other human being. You aren’t going to play your A plus game again until you’ve got some wins under your belt.

My suggestion is, first, don’t delude yourself. You aren’t at your sharpest. Start there, and do what you can to fix it. Focus like a laser on your strategy. Think about where your edge comes from and hammer that. Don’t get fancy. Don’t try new things that don’t tie in with your core strategy. Keep your sessions short. Analyze hands after every session. Keep things simple. Eventually the tide will turn. ♠

Ed’s newest book, Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players On Top is available now at his website You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the brand new site