One of the most difficult things for any poker player to do is to analyze his or her own weaknesses. Most of us have been raised to believe that any show of weakness, any acknowledgement of weakness, is a mistake that will lead to being taken advantage of. A smidgeon of doubt at the wrong moment can sink the sturdiest of ships.
This is even more true for poker players, who are constantly being lectured by poker authors and other experts about the importance of "controlling" a hand or a particular opponent or an entire table.
Many top players -- Phil Ivey, Ted Forrest, Howard Lederer, Dewey Tomko, and Barry Greenstein come to mind -- are known for never, ever showing weakness of any kind, let alone publicly acknowledging that they might have a weak spot in their poker armor that they might be wise to shore up.
Of course, in the loneliness of their own hotel rooms, they might realize the need to understand and deal with a weakness. Ivey, for example, has often been quoted about how his game is still improving -- a scary thought -- and others have said that the minute you stop improving your game is the same minute your game goes into the toilet.
But actually admitting weakness -- well, that's another story, kind of like admitting to your wife you were wrong when you chose to watch yet another meaningless NFL game instead of taking her to the movies on her birthday. Hey, it's just a bad precedent to be setting.
Nonetheless, when things are going bad, it's wise to look in the mirror. Bad luck can account for a lot of things in poker -- but losing $4,000 in six weeks while playing relatively small stakes poker online is probably not one of those things.
So, after trying to blame the aforementioned bad luck -- as well as exploring the possibility of being cheated (see my last three columns) -- I belatedly came to the conclusion that, as the cartoonist Walt Kelly once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
I had a little help in this endeavor, as my faithful readers were only too eager to point out the weaknesses in my play, my attitude, even my writing.
Here's what they had to say:
(1) I'm paranoid.
(2) I'm guilty of over-estimating my opposition.
(3) I raise with inadequate starting cards, especially under the gun.
(4) I haven't sufficiently thought about the differences between the brick-and-mortar games I'm used to, and the online games I am now trying to conquer (or, at least, to break even at).
(5) I'm lazy. As Lucas of Denver put it, "After making the poker-writing faux pas of writing about your bad beats in the previous column, this time you made it even worse by publishing other people's bad beat stories. Please get back to writing a column that is worth reading. I know you can do it, because I used to enjoy reading your column. P.S. Can you think of another poker "writer" who writes about his bad beats? I can -- Phil Hellmuth." (Ouch, Lucas. You really know how to wound a guy.)
Here are my responses to the five criticisms:
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(2) I'll take your word for it, and, as a consequence, have already stopped doing that.
(3) You are right. I probably got carried away by two things -- my desire to make my game more aggressive, and my lack of understanding of how much judgment is required to play crap after the flop (answer: more than I've got).
(4) I'm doing that even as we speak -- see the column, below.
(5) Sue me.
I'M NOT GETTING OLDER, I'M GETTING BETTER
As has become my habit when under some form of poker duress, I turned to my young mentor, Matt Matros, for advice. (One clarifying note: In my discussions with Matt, one of our basic underlying assumptions was that I am a better player than most of the people I am likely to meet online. As I said in a recent column -- in which many readers claimed my problem was that I was giving too much credit to inferior players -- this is a pretty flattering way to frame the problem, but, hey, there's a limit to how far I can go with this whole "acknowledging weakness" thing. I don't want the other macho guys at ESPN taking advantage of me.)
Matt claimed to be "busy with Christmas stuff" -- how lame an excuse is that, especially at this time of year? -- but he did take a few minutes out from his crowded schedule to fire off the following e-mail:
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1. Play better starting cards.
Bad players are bad (usually) because they play too many hands. If you consistently have a better hand than your overly loose opponents when you're getting money in before the flop, you almost can't help but beat them up over the long run.
2. Get value from your hands.
Bad players call till the river with just about anything. So when you have that second or third pair on board and the bad player has been checking the whole way, go ahead and bet for value on the river. If you don't, you'll regret all those times you beat your bad opponent's ace-high and neglect to extract that extra bet from him on the end.
3. Use your position.
Bad players are also bad because they make poor decisions after the flop. Therefore, when you have position on bad players, you should be taking advantage of it, especially when they limp in front of you. If you're on the button and a particularly atrocious player has limped, you should probably limp behind him with hands as weak as 54s, K2s, 65o, and A2o. You should show a profit in position against whatever junk the bad player has.
4. Don't bluff too often.
Bad players love to call. Don't make it correct for them to do so.
5. Let maniacs bet their hands for you.
There is a certain bad opponent who will bet every street with nothing, but fold at the first sign of strength from his opponent. Against this player, it is vital that you play a passive strategy to get value from your hands. You'll lose a lot of bets playing aggressively, because he'll play back at you when he has a hand and fold when he doesn't. But if you just call and let him do the betting for you, you'll extract far more bets from your good and even your mediocre holdings than you would by playing aggressively.
I had already introduced -- or gone back to -- 1, 4 and 5. I'm working on 2 and 3. My difficulty with value betting -- though I know Matt is right -- is that I'm a bit traumatized by what feels like a long, uninterrupted series of bad beats. My problem with maximizing position by calling with marginal hands is the high degree of volatility I'd have to face, something made psychologically difficult by the fact that I was down an embarrassing $4,000 playing online poker when I received Matt's e-mail.
But I'm trying. I'm trying. And, so far, the results are good -- or, at least, better than they were. (See the end of the column for latest results.)
THE READERS KNOW BEST
Despite the evidence of Toxic Mailbags, my readers can be smart, compassionate, even helpful. There were hundreds of e-mails larded with advice. Here are excerpts from the e-mails that seemed most promising.
An anonymous reader from Allentown, Penn., sent in his "Ten Commandments" of online poker:
(1) A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, A-K, A-Q suited only!!! Believe me, you will still get sufficient action. If not, change tables.
(2) Thou shall not bluff.
(3) Do not slowplay!
(4) After the flop, do not play without top pair (or better), a flush draw, or a straight draw to the nuts.
(5) Getting raised on the turn/river demonstrates a huge hand. Folding is often correct.
(6) Just because you raised before the flop doesn't mean you need to continue to raise after it.
(7) Do not check-raise for effect. No one gives the check-raise the respect it deserves.
(8) Do not call with just overcards.
(9) Consider playing two games at once. Say you want to play $20-40 limit. Two $10-20 games are easier to beat, and that also helps with the variance.
(10) Always take advantage of the bonuses.
Anonymous, my gut feeling is that, if one followed your advice to a T, it would probably lead to winning money -- especially at the lower levels. However, I wonder how much fun it would be. If poker is no fun, why not just become an accountant or a real estate agent, two of many jobs that provide a much larger and steadier source of income?
Play lower stakes online than you do live. This is because more hands are dealt online. Also, the play at the lower-stakes tables isn't as good.
-- Drew, Milwaukee
I've always found that the best time to play is during the day. At night, you run into all sorts of bad beats, because that's usually when all the kids sneak on.
-- Ian, Beverly, Mass.
You wouldn't have so many bad beats if you played correctly. Raising A-5 suited from UTG+1 is not a correct play, as your hand will be the best less than the percentage that you contribute to the pot (i.e. your pot equity). Moreover, it is unclear from your article whether you check-raised when you hit top and bottom pair. If you check-called, then that is clearly incorrect. Betting out probably would have been best, as you would have been raised by a better ace, allowing you to 3-bet and maximize your equity. If you check-called, however, I am not surprised that your opponent called down with middle pair. It is not clear that you have an ace by check-calling. He might assume his middle pair is best. My final advice? Pick up a copy of "Small Stakes Hold 'Em," by Ed Miller. From reading your articles it is clear that you will benefit immensely if you spend quality time with the book. Good luck (you need it).
-- John, Atlanta
John, I hear you. (By the way, I check-raised.)
You are a freaking moron. Get with it. Read Ed Miller, Sklansky, Malmuth. Start to learn how to play limit hold 'em. Maybe then you won't think that the Foxwoods 20-40 hold 'em game is the toughest in the country. Considering you don't have any clue what you are talking about, you are just going to sound stupid. I guess that is what ESPN wanted. It appears that stupid sells.
-- Danny, Las Vegas
Danny of Las Vegas, meet John of Atlanta. I'm glad I could bring two such patient and understanding gentlemen together. That alone, no matter how much I wind up losing, will have made my year as Page 2's poker "pro" worthwhile.
Want a good online game? Try Omaha or Omaha hi-lo. The similarity to hold 'em draws a lot of fish, but the differences make the fish easier to beat. Converting from the pop-crowd friendly hold 'em to Omaha is a daunting task, one that keeps the lucky fish out of the water and, more importantly, out of your pots.
-- Shawn, San Antonio
The "handle" of the players you're up against can tip you off to their age and/or maturity level. Anyone named after a current popular band (i.e., limpbizkit420 or slipknotrulz) is probably playing at an amateur level. Also, keep an eye on players who play their hand in advance, meaning they've "checked" the box to fold or call before the play gets to them. You can usually see who is playing only their own hand, without considering the possible plays of the players ahead of them.
-- Sean, San Diego
Sean, the other day, despite a raise and a re-raise and a capping re-raise, BingCrosby666 in the big blind called with a 5-3 unsuited, ultimately cracking my aces when a 2 came on the river, giving him an inside straight. How do you interpret that, handle-wise?
Try some large (200+ person) tournaments where short-term luck is not as much of a factor.
-- Dave, St. Louis
You are making a fundamental error in playing no-limit online instead of limit. A negative swing in no-limit can cripple you; in limit, if you have 30 big bets -- or more -- the suck outs you describe don't set you back too much. I also follow Lederer's dictum to never lose more than 30 big bets in a session.
-- Tim M., Portland, Oregon
Make sure you use the notes feature as you can type in some situations and how they bet. The bad players tend to do the same things. They will keep calling you with two overcards or the low pair on the flop. You will win in the long run.
-- Paul, Minneapolis
Your articles give you the flavor of a person who is not so much paranoid as a person who craves order and logic -- hey, guess what, life isn't always like that.
-- John, Denver
Seriously, among the best pieces of advice I've ever received.
Dear Jay: Did you ever consider that perhaps you suck as a no-limit player? Perhaps people keep calling you down because you regularly make pre-flop raises with garbage hands. Tone it down and only do this once in a while. In no limit, you typically want your opponents to respect your bets -- especially your bets after the flop -- but you acknowledge in your article that your opponents in that game did not respect your bets. When you have too many callers, you obviously will have more people draw out on you. If you take down a pot by forcing everyone to fold, you won't see any bad beats. Obviously, there are times and ways to use a lack of respect at the table to make you money. But that means you have to tighten up once you have lost the table's respect. From your article, you don't seem to ever do that. In any event, with the play you described I am not surprised at all that you have lost a bundle online.
-- Donald P.
See more flops and avoid anything, ANYTHING that looks dangerous. I put people on everything -- inside straight draws, any flush draw regardless of size, small pairs, big pairs. I try to make all my money on guaranteed hands, hands I know can't be beat, because the glory of online poker is that when you hit your HUGE hands there is always some drooling, google-eyed jerk holding 9-2 suited, and more than willing to call any raise.
-- Chris, Beaverton, Oregon
"The problem is, if you are sitting there with A-A, and six guys with 7-2 or the equivalent are calling you, at least one of them is bound to outdraw you more than half the time. And for better or worse, that's exactly what happens quite often in online poker games, especially below the high limits." What exactly is the problem if six guys call you and you win about 50 percent of the time? That's exactly why many good poker players are minting money online.
-- Bobby Hoff, Commerce, Calif.
Bobby, I didn't mean to say that having six people call you when you were holding pocket aces was a losing situation -- just that it leads to a lot of memorable bad beats.
Seriously, get offline. Part of the allure of your column -- which I usually enjoy greatly -- are the personalities you meet and, to varying degrees, analyze. Online, you aren't getting to do that and your writing seems to be the worse for it. Your personal touch seems off without direct contact. And can you tell your editor that there are those of us who want to read you more than once a week and are looking forward to your book?
-- Joel, Los Angeles
Excellent advice, Joel. I'm planning to get back into circulation soon. On the more-than-once-a-week thing, from your mouth to God's ears (in this case, God is Michael Knisley, the editor of Page 2).
MARRIAGE-PRESERVING LAST WORDS
More amazing, perhaps, than the fact that Jackpot Jay is still ahead for the year (see below) is the fact that he is still married. In order to preserve that precarious state of affairs, I am giving Mrs. Jackpot Jay the last word:
"Let me see if I've got this straight -- almost everybody who plays online is a maniac, there is definitely collusion and chip-dumping going on, and there is a chance, however small, that some people have been able to hack into the online site's random card-distribution programs? And you're trying to figure out how to improve your chances of winning? Have you ever considered ... DON'T PLAY ANYMORE ONLINE?"
Hmm. Interesting notion.
HEY, IRS: HOW JAY IS DOING IN HIS NEW CAREER
Online results from last week: plus $400
Overall online results: minus $3,600
Career-to-date: plus $15,589
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins.