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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: Four Signs You Are Getting Better

Miller Explains How To Tell If You Are Improving


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This is a topic I write about often, but it’s one I keep coming back to because it comes up so often in conversations with students. How do you know when (and even if) you are getting better? What measuring sticks can you use to judge your own progress? And how will you know when you are ready to take your game to the next level?

Unfortunately, most people still want to use results over short periods of time to answer this question. “Hey, I’ve won $5,000 over the last 100 hours. That must mean I’m good now, right?”

Results are generally a poor measuring stick of your progress. No, winning five thousand over one hundred hours doesn’t mean you are good. You could be. But maybe not. It’s just not even remotely enough evidence one way or the other. There’s too much luck in those numbers.

If you win over more time—say 1,000 hours—then that’s pretty good evidence you are a long-term winner. But it’s still not a great way to answer the question, “Am I getting better?” Because who knows if your results over the next thousand hours will be better or worse than these past thousand? Are you getting better? Maybe. Or are you a winning player who will continue to win at a similar (or lesser) rate going forward? Maybe that too. Numbers alone will give you poor answers to these questions.

Here are four concrete signs in the way you approach the game that you are, indeed, getting better.

Sign No 1. You have stopped playing hands out of boredom

If there’s one consistent problem that most amateurs have, it’s that they play differently when they are bored than when they’ve been in action recently. Almost every small stakes player has a boredom factor. In live poker the hands can come to you slowly, and it’s not uncommon to get pretty bad preflop hands for 20 or 30 hands in a row. In real time that can amount to an hour to an hour and a half.

After folding junk hand after hand, around the time most players realize they could have spent the last two hours at the movies instead of looking at deuces and threes, they get antsy. They start looking for a reason to play a hand. “They’ll think I’m tight so it’s a great spot to make a move.” “Sometimes you have to force the action.” “You can’t always wait for the nuts.” And so forth.

This is not a logical reason to play a hand. It’s not a profitable reason. It’s just boredom. Random cards are random, and if you get a long stretch of unplayable hands, that’s just the way it is.

There are plenty of good reasons to play marginal and sometimes even bad preflop hands. But being card dead isn’t one of them.

Sign No. 2. You have found good reasons to stay in hands postflop that you missed before

This is a big one. Many players remain aimlessly in way too many hands after the flop. They call off flop and turn bets hoping something good happens. Sometimes it does. Usually it doesn’t. This is no good—and it’s not what I’m talking about here.

Instead, I’m talking about staying in hands for the right reasons. Good players win more pots than average players, and the way they win those pots is by staying around after the flop and finding ways to win them.

This demands judgement, however, because often folding is the best course of action. You can be sure you are getting better when you are seeing clearly the types of hands you should keep on with and those you should be giving up on.

If you can say, “Six months ago I would have just folded here, but now I see something better I can do,” then you are most certainly improving.

Sign No. 3. You have clear reasoning behind many of your bet-sizing decisions

Bet-sizing is an extremely important tool in no-limit hold’em to lose less and win more. Nearly every bet or raise you make, especially on the turn and river, demands some thought as to sizing. When you are still not-so-good at the game, these decisions will feel foggy. “Should I bet big? Small? Maybe somewhere in the middle?” Your level of understanding offers you little clear direction.

When you start noticing that you have sharp, clear reasoning for your bet-sizing decisions, you will know that you are improving. This is especially true if you have fully abandoned fear as part of your decision-making process. (Most amateur players will size bets small in certain situations out of deference to a fear of losing. This is an extremely weak and exploitable tendency, yet it is also extremely common.)

So if you see yourself making bets of all different sizes on the turn and river, and you have a clear thought process that leads you to these sizes, you are definitely improving.

Sign No. 4. You are more focused on playing hands well rather than winning money

This is another very common trap amateur players fall into. They lose a big hand, and that leads them to try to think of ways they could have played it better.

Well, up to now, this is the process of every players—good or bad. But the weaker players tend to focus on the wrong thing. They ask themselves, “How could I have prevented this big loss?” “What could I have done differently to avoid losing all this money?”

Invariably they will decide they should have folded at this point in the hand or they should have just checked it down at that point. When you’re focused on figuring out how not to have lost money that you put at risk, you tend to decide you should have not put the money at risk. Which means that you conclude you should have played the hand more passively or meekly than you did. This is often not at all the right conclusion.

Stronger players know that sometimes losing a lot is the outcome when you play a hand well. This is true not just for cooler hands that you “can’t get away from,” but also other hands where you lose it all bluffing or you take a stand trying to call a bluff only to run into a big hand.

You can be sure that you are improving when you revisit the big hands you lose and instead of assuming that putting the money at risk was the problem, you ignore the results and try to figure out the best way to play the hand for next time. ♠

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

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