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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: The Two Paths To Excellence

Miller Breaks Down The Two Categories Of Elite Gamblers

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I’ve been in the gambling world for 15 years now, and I’ve met thousands of gamblers over that time. Most are recreational – they gamble for the fun of it.

Then there are the serious gamblers. They’re trying to win. Whether it’s poker or something else, every hour they put in is supposed to deliver a return on investment.

Most of these folks are grinders. They play games where they have a relatively small edge or expected hourly win, and they just put in the time. In the last decade, I probably knew hundreds of poker players who played a break-even or slightly better game, and they lived on grinding rake back deals and prop wages. I knew gamblers who milked the deposit bonuses for all they were worth. I knew people who must have covered thousands of miles a year going from casino to casino grinding video poker and slot machines for profit.

Among these hundreds of serious gamblers I’ve known, a small handful have been exceptional. These are the ones who moved past the grinder stage. Most got rich — at least the average person’s concept of rich. I know exceptional gamblers in many areas. Poker, of course, but also sports, table games, and other things as well.

I think you can break the formula of these exceptional gamblers down into two distinct paths to excellence, and I wanted to share these two with you.

The Generalist

The generalists distinguish themselves by their breadth of gambling knowledge. In poker, they don’t just play no-limit hold’em cash games. They’re good at tournaments. Satellites. Limit games. Mixed games. Pot-limit Omaha. No matter which game is the good one going tonight, they have the skills (and eventually bankroll as well) to jump in and take advantage of it.

But often the true generalists don’t limit themselves only to poker. They have numerous playable angles on table games in casinos. They find the $1,000/hour slot machine plays. They might even have a sports angle or two.

This breadth of knowledge allows them to be efficient with their gambling time. They’re not likely to waste time in the bad $10-$20 no-limit hold’em game because no-limit is their only good game and it’s marginally better than the $5-$10 game. They’re also not the ones that follow the poker tours from stop to stop to stop grinding the tournaments because that’s all they can do well.

By knowing so much about so many different gambling games, they’re rarely stuck in a bad opportunity.

I don’t mean to mislead that these folks know every gambling opportunity out there. Of course, they don’t. But they have a Swiss Army knife of skills.

I don’t know him personally, but Phil Ivey strikes me as a generalist. He has high-level knowledge of many different poker games, cash games and tournaments, live and online. He also has experience pulling off extremely high level, high-stakes plays in table games. He strikes me as a student of gambling, and his extreme success is due in large part to his extensive breadth of knowledge.

The Smoke And Mirrors Specialist

If you aren’t a generalist than almost by definition you’re a specialist. You have one or a relatively small number of games or angles that you know how to play. If you’re a specialist, then typically you would have deep knowledge of your specialty.

But there’s a big problem with being a specialist in gambling. After a while, no one wants to give you action.

If you become known as the best heads-up limit hold’em player in the world, that’s great. And sometimes people will challenge you because they want to take a shot at the best. But most serious gamblers will tend to avoid giving you action.

If you focus on games played against the house, you will get all the action you want until eventually the casino or sportsbook employees recognize your skill. From that point they will typically do what they can to avoid giving you action refusing bets, closing accounts, backing you off, and reading you the trespass act.

There are a few gambling games you can specialize in that don’t have this problem. If you want to play poker tournaments, you will also find action, though once your bankroll gets big enough you may not find tournaments with large enough buy-ins to keep you interested.

Specialists also have another problem. Once they become well-known as skilled practitioners, their strategies become the target of reverse engineering.

Do you see someone winning a lot at fantasy sports? You can be sure people will be dissecting that person’s lineups and strategy to figure out the key pieces to it. Same goes for poker.

Some of the best specialist gamblers I’ve known have developed extravagant misdirection strategies to try to conceal what they’re actually doing to win the money.

The most common misdirection strategy I’ve seen revolves around finding high variance, roughly break-even bets to make. In poker this means getting just good enough at a few other games so that you can trade action with people. You play some roughly break-even poker in games that aren’t your specialty, and then people give you action in your best game.

In other gambling games like sports, casino games, and slots, finding real edges can be hard, but finding roughly break-even bets is easier. As long as you have the bankroll to support it, you can spray out lots of roughly neutral bets. This helps you develop a reputation as a “gambler” rather than a winner, and it also makes it a lot harder for an observer to reverse engineer your actual edge.

Any time you see a successful gambler do an interview and they start to talk shop—giving details about the secret to their success—beware. In my experience these little nuggets of “wisdom” are more often than not just part of the smoke and mirrors strategy.

They’re not giving misinformation, per se, but they often talk about everything they do that’s not the actual core key to their success. They’ll stress discipline or bankroll management or table selection or finding bets that are maybe slightly profitable but play the role of a diversion in the gambler’s overall strategy. Again, none of it is misinformation—but if you follow the recipe without the key ingredient you will not duplicate the success.

Meanwhile, the actual key is a highly specialized angle that they go back to over and over again. It hides in plain sight.

Final Thoughts

I’m fascinated by both categories of elite gambler. The generalists have a stunning array of knowledge on all sorts of gambling games. The most successful misdirection specialists are often reputed to have abilities that bear little resemblance to what they’re actually good at.

Ed MillerEd’s latest 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.