Chris Moorman: Playing to Win, No Matter the Stakes
We often hear advice in poker about how to approach "shot taking" — that is, how to manage taking a chance (and perhaps a bankroll risk) by playing in a higher-stakes game than we normally play.
But what about those times when we do the opposite — that is, when we drop down in stakes? What adjustments should we make then, if any?
Here's a scenario that might seem familiar.
A player logs onto his favorite online poker site to play a short session. He typically plays either NL50 or sometimes NL100. Over recent months he's gotten into a decent groove at these stakes, including having started to recognize and profile lot of the other regulars who turn up at those tables.
Today, though, all of those games are filled, so after hopping onto a couple of waiting lists he decides to kill time at a pair of NL10 tables. After a couple of orbits on both he's yet to win a hand, then on one table the button raises and he sees he has in the small blind. It's the first pocket pair he's been dealt. He eyes the 3x open to $0.30 — a steal, he decides — and chooses to three-bet to $1.
The big blind promptly reraises to $4. Then the button — having both blinds covered — shoves all in. Okay, maybe not a steal after all.
Normally he wouldn't have a problem letting go of his nines in such a spot, recognizing one of his opponents likely has him crushed. But the fact that it's only $9 more to stay in the hand inspires him to call the shove. Up against ace-king on the left and pocket queens on the right, his hand fails to improve and his session is off to a negative start.
Setting aside the particulars of this scenario, the general phenomenon likely remains something most of us have experienced at one time or another. No matter what stakes we play, when dropping down to something below our favored limits we occasionally tend to let our skills drop a notch or three as well.
We might find it difficult to be as locked in and focused at the lower stakes, thereby letting our inattentiveness negatively affect our decision-making. Or we might be prejudiced against those who play at the lower levels, incorrectly underestimating their skills to our own detriment (even if we know better than to think there's always a direct correction between stakes and skills).
While it does make sense to adjust one's strategy against different sets of opponents, it's generally a mistake to be overly loose or reckless simply because the pots aren't as big as the ones you are used to play for. Not only do you reduce your chance of winning, but even if the stakes aren't big enough to making winning or losing seem of great concern, indulging too greatly in unthinking, inattentive play does little to help you improve. (It could even harm you by introducing poor habits.)
888poker Ambassador Chris Moorman is the most successful online poker player in history, at least when it comes to tournament earnings. Our Sarah Herring spoke with him this week about this very topic of playing in games of different levels.
As Moorman notes, he approaches all events — from high rollers to low buy-in charity tournaments — with a similar mindset guided largely by his competitiveness and desire to win:
Along the same lines, there's a great line in Jesse May's 1998 poker novel, Shut Up and Deal — one of many — delivered by the book's protagonist-narrator, Mickey Dane.
It comes relatively early in the book while Mickey is playing in the "big game" in the high-limit section of the old Taj Mahal poker room. A fascinated railbird starts asking Mickey questions about the game, including about how much the chips are worth.
Mickey is polite with him for a while, hoping that he'll go away, but the fellow persists. "I'd just like to know one thing," he asks Mickey. "In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between playing 100-200 and 10-20?"
Mickey has just the answer. "The limit — this is a different limit," he says. The fellow thinks he's joking.
"No, really, I mean what's the major difference in play in these games?" he asks.
"The chips are different values — these chips are worth more money," answers Mickey. "You see if we were playing 10-20 we would be using red chips, but we're not."
The response gets a laugh from the table, but as Mickey explains to us he isn't really joking at all. He's being honest. Of course, as Mickey himself demonstrates over the course of the novel, not letting the stakes negatively affect our approach and strategy is often easier said than done.
When the pots are bigger than we're used to, it's hard not to be acutely aware of how the larger stakes are affecting our play. But when the pots are smaller than we prefer, there's a temptation to care less about our decisions and make excuses to play what is essentially bad poker (and we might not even realize it).
Better to approach the game similarly — and mindfully — no matter the stakes, and play to win regardless.
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