How do you beat a player that’s much better than you? The answer is: Run good. But seriously, there are some winning strategies to taking on tough opponents, and one of the toughest is James ‘SplitSuit’ Sweeney, who joins us to talk about how you can beat players like… well, like him. Since host Zac Shaw is about to head out and play with Sweeney and the other coaches at the 4th Annual Vegas meetup, he needs all the help he can get in this department. The duo signs off with news on the future of the podcast and discusses the PRO and CORE membership as Red Chip Poker heads into its 5th year of helping poker players of all walks of life improve their games and their lives.

Featuring: Zac Shaw and James SplitSuit Sweeney

Zac: Hello, James. Welcome back. It’s so good to be talking to you again.

James: You too, sir. Thank you so much for having me back.

Zac: And to be fair, we do talk a lot, all things Red Chip, but today we’re going to talk about a topic that is very present in my mind. We’re both getting ready to go out to Vegas, meet up with our lovely community, and of course, play some poker. I’ve been doing this, and we’ve been doing this for a few years now, and one thing that always is on my mind is that I am going to be playing poker with some of the best poker players out there, coaches, and just people in our community who are pros and very serious players. So, it begs the question, how do I prepare for this? I’m asking the person who is going to be sitting in front of the table trying to beat me here, but I can’t think of a better place to start. What’s your advice? What should I be thinking about going into a game, and I think a lot of people can relate where there are better players than you.

James: So, there are always going to be players that are better than you. I don’t care who you are. There is only going to be one absolute best poker player in the world, and I highly, highly, highly doubt that they are going to be the best person in all formats at all times. So because of that, let’s just assume that you’re always going to have people that are better than you, and occasionally are going to have to play against them, and when you start moving up or you start playing in new games, or you start playing in tougher environments, you might be playing against multiple of those opponents at the same table. So, let’s just understand it’s going to happen. It’s not an if this is going to happen, it’s a when is this going to happen? I mean, clearly when you’re playing against pros, and this is always kind of an interesting game, the Red Chip game at the meet up. It’s just gonna happen.

So, get comfortable with that, and I think that’s kind of the first major point that I would make here is don’t psych yourself out about it. It’s still poker at the end of the day. We’re still dealt the same number of cards that you are. We’re in the same constraints and game parameters that you are. So, it is the same exact game. We’re still playing poker. We’re just thinking on a slightly different level. We’re not playing as fishy as some of the people that you’re used to playing against, and the game gets to get really, really creative, especially when everyone is kind of on the same thinking level, which is definitely a rarity in poker games, unless you’re playing against really, really, tough, tough line-ups. It’s just a really, really fun game. So first and foremost, just don’t psych yourself out about it. On a related note to that, I think that’s something you’ve done in the past, kind of psych yourself up a little bit, but talk to me about what you’re doing to prepare for this kind of game, if anything at all.

Zac: Well, I’ve been lucky enough, as our listeners know, to be talking to a few really great coaches from our community and working on aspects of my game that were long neglected, really coming down to a lot of range work, I think. I’ve been poking around in CORE as time permits, but generally speaking, I’m trying to look at the strengths in my game, and focus on relying on those strengths, and also look at the weaknesses in my game, and sort of like, I don’t want to say avoid those spots because I’m trying to get better, but I am confronting them and at least trying to be aware of them if I maybe acknowledge that my skill level is not so high, then perhaps I could turn that part of my game around in two weeks before I head to Vegas, you know what I mean?

James: Sure, 100%. Well, I’ll expand on that a little bit and talk about some of the weaknesses that I’ve seen in your game, ’cause we have played for a couple years now. When you play in tougher games, and I haven’t seen you play in normal games yet, but one of the big things that I see you do is tightening up and playing really, really straight-forward and very, very protective. That’s a very, very common reaction when you’re playing in tougher games ’cause you don’t want to really step out of line. You don’t want to get hammered by these really solid players, so you just say, “You know what? I’m gonna tighten up, I’m gonna play really straight forward, and I’m gonna really play protective overall.” I’d say that’s one of the worst things you can do because what you’re gonna do is you’re essentially gonna erase yourself from the game, and I’m not saying that you need to be LAGgiest person in that game by any stretch, but if you are the person who only plays when you have the absolute nuts and you’re playing super, super tight, why even play in the first place? You might as well just sit out of the game, watch it from the corner, and you’ll probably have more fun ’cause you’ll be far less stressed out.

That would be kind of my first major thing, is like, don’t think that you’re gonna nit it up and hide from this game. You have to just be, again, mentally be prepared to say, okay, I’m gonna play against better players. Maybe I don’t have the edge that I’m used to playing, but you know what? I’m gonna get in here. I’m gonna learn something. I am not just gonna tighten up and erase myself, and I’m gonna fight for pots. I think if you take that first and foremost, again, don’t go ultra, ultra laggy and play something you’ve never played before against players that will crush you for it and don’t play super, super nitty. I think that’s kind of the first thing you really have to focus on once you get away from the mental aspect and start thinking about the strategy part.

Zac: Yeah. My strength to the extent that I would have any strength, or if you could call it that, is being able to pick out the low-hanging fruit at a low stakes poker game. I feel like I’m well-trained at identifying some of the most common population exploits in the worst players, let’s say, at $1/$2.

James: Sure.

Zac: I guess that’s, you know, you gotta start somewhere, but I run into a lot of trouble in these games because I realize, wow, this is where, for example, balancing my range becomes important. It’s a funny thing because someone contacted on social. They said, “Oh, yeah, like you really have to worry about balancing your range at $1/$2.” I get what they’re saying. There’s plenty of players who maybe aren’t tuned into that, but for me, it was just so much better to have a thought process that took that into account. Maybe I’m not literally using that in every circumstance, but it helped me to see that if I’m gonna be able to, for example, pull off more bluffs or play more aggressively against these people who aren’t gonna give me those opportunities that worse players will, that I really do need to think of things holistically on a higher level in order to really understand when I’m supposed to pull these tactics out, versus just identifying spots and then applying tactics to those spots.

James: Yeah, sure, 100%. That’s actually a really important thing is, like you said, range balancing, not something you’re going to use in every $1/$2 game but, when you need it, you would much rather have it than not have it. That’s one of those things that’s gonna come up when you’re playing against better players, but I’ll kind of expand on that a little bit and one of the major things that I think people overlook in these games is hand reading becomes really, really important, and understanding what you represent becomes infinitely important, because when you’re playing in a normal $1/$2 game, or a normal soft game, or whatever the heck you’re playing, most of the time, your opponents aren’t really doing much hand reading. If they are, they’re not doing it particularly well.

One of the big things that separates really, really strong players from the rest of the pack is that they can put people on a range really, really well, and they know what to do against that range really, really well. When you’re playing against better players, you need to be thinking, okay, what do they probably think I have here, right? ‘Cause if they think, say you’re playing against a really strong player and you’re like, you know what? They probably think that I have like a bluff-catcher range here. Well, if you check, chances are, they think you have a bluff catcher and they’re just gonna fire relentlessly at you and they might be over-betting at you just to try to get you to fold out, right?

So, you need to be thinking about that and already be steps ahead saying, okay, I know that I look really bluff catchy. I’m probably gonna induce a lot of bluffs here. As such, I need to be prepared to bluff-catch even harder. Now, I’m not saying that that’s like global universal advice, nor something you should do in every single game, but when you’re playing against players who are thinking at that level, they are thinking about what you have, and they are thinking about how to exploit that, you need to be prepared for that and you need to be thinking ahead. You can not get reactive in this game. Yes, things are gonna happen you’re gonna be unprepared for. Yes, good players are gonna do some creative stuff, and sizing, and aggression that’s gonna kind of confuse you ’cause you’ve probably never seen it before. Yeah, it’s gonna be a little reactive in that sense, but you need to be very, very proactive in what do I represent? What is that likely gonna do from their strategy? What’s that gonna get from them? And then how am I going to play and react against that?

Does that make sense?

Zac: Yeah. I mean, that’s really good to hear because I’ve been thinking a lot, like I said, about ranges. I mean, let me just give you an example. We were at Live at the Bike. That was an unforgettable experience. That’s picture perfect. I mean, we’re on TV. We’re playing in front of all these people. I’m playing against people who are much better than me, and I’m getting hit over the head with the deck. I’m getting queens, aces, and one of the things that I think when I look back on that footage is I left so much money on the table because, essentially when I made those aggressive pre-flop raises and flop raises, everyone was putting me on just a very powerful value range. They knew that I didn’t have a lot of bluffs in me and I wasn’t going to do that without premium hands.

One of the things I’m thinking of is, I’m expecting now, if I were to just play my normal game going into Vegas in a few weeks, that everyone would be thinking that, and so maybe there’s an opportunity there to balance my range, let’s say my pre-flop three betting range and adding some hands that aren’t those aces, and kings, and queens, and that would be just hugely deceptive to everyone who is expecting me to play like a nit, basically.

James: 100%. You see how that bridge is both of the things we’ve already talked about. One, your first idea of being, I should tighten up, and then two, what that means in terms of range perception and how people are going to play against you. You’re 100% right. If everyone thinks that you’re gonna be super nitty, it would definitely behoove you to not play super nitty, but one of the toughest things is people play really nitty the entire session and then try to pull one play, and sure, they get away with it, but they make 14 big blinds. Who the heck cares?

Again, I’d rather not fight and play that way, not adjust in that way, and I don’t want to see you overdo it, but I definitely don’t want to see you under-do it, either. Again, if you start feeling yourself nitting up, I want you to really ask yourself why you’re nitting up. Is nitting up here the correct strategy? Yes or no? Probably not, and then if not, okay, what adjustments should I be making in my strategy as a whole? What edges are available, and where can I fight for some pots and win some stuff, rather than just waiting for aces, or kings, or whatever it is?

Zac: Right. I mean, the other major change that I’ve made in my game is really just trying to focus on each hand one at a time and just playing it the best I can, and paying very close attention to what’s going on. I don’t mean to paint a picture like this is a nightmare situation. It’s actually more fun, in a lot of ways, to play with players who are better than you because, just, if you have that focus on the game, every moment, every hand, even if you’re not in it is fascinating to see people pulling these things off, but I still feel so out of my depth. I mean, I gotta start somewhere, so I mean starting pre-flop, the last time that you were sitting behind me watching me play, there was a lot of sighing going on pre-flop because you saw plenty of opportunities for me to be aggressive. I guess, again, there’s no you should do this all the time, but the most general thing I’m feeling from you is that I need to be opening more hands more aggressively pre-flop, particularly when I’m in position versus opponents that I can make moves on post-flop.

James: All right. There’s a couple different elements of this, but one that I really want to focus on for just a moment is let’s just be honest here. Unless you’re playing really, really tough games normally, this is probably a very, very atypical game to jump into. A lot of people will avoid it because it is atypical. It doesn’t represent the normal game they play in. They don’t see enough value in playing it, and they certainly don’t want to take a losing hourly, so they just say, you know what? F it, I’ll watch this, or I won’t jump in, whatever it is. This is a grand opportunity to learn something. If that costs you a little bit of money, that’s what you have a bankroll for, but learning something here is gonna be infinitely more valuable than hiding, okay?

That’s one of the major things that I’ve always seen you do over the past years. I hope you don’t do it again this year, but that’s just what you’ve done in the past, and I don’t want to see you make that mistake, and I’ve seen other people make that exact same mistake, so you’re not alone there. But, this is an opportunity to learn something. It’s the same reason why I don’t suggest people look for the seat change button as soon as a good player takes their left. Sit there and learn something. You will go much, much further by saying, you know what? This is not a great spot, but then understanding, okay, why isn’t this a great spot? Okay, it’s uncomfortable ’cause this guy three bets a little bit. So? That’s gonna happen. If it’s not happening today, it might happen when you move up. If it’s not happening then, it might happen when you play online. If it’s not happening then, it might happen insert whatever parameter there.

Get used to playing being uncomfortable, maybe not having the absolute biggest edge in the world and digging yourself out of spots. Get your shovel. Learn how to dig out of spots. One of the things I’ve seen you do in the past in these games is you’ve played really straightforward, but you’ve also used really, really normalized bet sizing, right? You’ve never gotten out of it and said, when could I be creative here? What size would be better here? You’ve just tried to be really, really straightforward. Straightforward will win against dumb players. Straightforward is not necessarily what I would suggest when you’re playing against really good players. There’s a lot more creative stuff that can and will happen, and rather than hiding from it by being nitty, or rather by playing super straightforward and turning all of your ranges face up, there are some other things you can be doing.

That’s what I would really spend the time focused on, is not fearing the fact that maybe you’re taking a negative hourly. Who the heck cares? If you learn one thing that you can then globally apply, this is worth everything. Let’s just be honest. The Red Chip game that we’re gonna play in a couple of weeks, this is a rare game. You don’t get this game hardly ever. This is a great learning experience, not something to shy away from, just something to say, you know what? This is really cool. Everyone’s clearly thinking. Everyone’s thinking on slightly different levels, but everyone is thinking in this game. That’s oftentimes a rarity. Enjoy that. See what you can pull away from players who are thinking. You will find edges in different ways than you would against your normal brain-dead opponent, but there’s edges, nonetheless. Get used to looking for those. That’s gonna help prepare you for moving up, as well. Again, use this as a training grounds. Use this as the gauntlet that it’s supposed to be.

Zac: Yeah. I mean, I’m wholly convinced of the value of investing in improving your own skills, whether that be in poker, or in life, or anywhere. I think that’s a really useful mindset thing for me, particularly. I’m probably certainly compared to the other players on the end of the spectrum where my bankroll is small. The money matters to me. I’m not playing with my rent money, but I don’t have the kind of bankroll that the pros do and the coaches do, people who have been playing lots of poker for lots of time. If I go into it with the mindset of, well, these buy-ins are kind of like purchasing a college course or something. I mean, ’cause again, I’m also wholly convinced of the value as you pointed it out. Even when I was playing mixed games or PLO at the meetup, I was learning at light speed because I was seeing players who have done this a lot, you know, demonstrate their skills and you can definitely pick up on that if you’re paying attention.
The other thing, though, specifically when you talked about my bet sizing, and I would agree. I’ve been stuck in pre-Black Friday two thirds pot bet sizing for my entire life. I finally feel like I’m starting to break out of that connecting bet sizing to ranges because in the past, I would be like, well, if I would do a quarter pot bet here or an overbet, I feel like if I’m not balancing my ranges, that’s just completely transparent and now I can see, oh, I could be making this underbet with, both, value hands and semi-bluffs and bluffs. Now, I haven’t mastered it by any means, but the picture is there. I’m aware of it now.

James: Yeah, exactly right. And then again, taking that scale side of understanding range perception, what do they likely think that this bet size means? What do they likely think I have when I do this? That becomes vital. The question then becomes, okay, at least the question that I ask myself in those kind of situations is, would I realistically have enough value combos when I make this size or when I fire here with this exact size? Do I have enough value here? Now, most people ask themselves the opposite question, do I have enough bluffs here? I’d say ask yourself it the other way around because oftentimes, it’s super easy to find bluffs. It’s more, do you have enough value combos that can actually justify that? If yes, cool, or maybe you fork your range a little bit. Don’t get super stuck in playing super straightforward. This is a creative game. People are thinking on a different level. There’s massive opportunity. The opportunity is just different than what you are normally used to. That’s all.

Zac: Yeah. I mean, that actually triggered something that I’ve heard from a few of the pros, like Kris and Fausto. When they talk about analyzing hands and other players and thinking about what they have, their hand reading, they often times say, like, he’s not supposed to have this, or they’re not supposed to have this much value in their range. That really got me thinking in that thought process of, like, what are they supposed to have? I know that’s kind of straightforward for a lot of people, but for me, it was just an eye-opener to not only be loading up, let’s say, a visual range in my head where I’m visualizing the Flopzilla range matrix lighting up, but now I have two of those and one for myself, and one for my opponent, and even if they’re not worried about what I have, at least I’m thinking about it two different ranges and also thinking about it two ways, thinking about the range that I actually know that I’m representing and the range that I think they think I’m representing.

That’s probably getting too deep into it for my skill level, but that’s the thing. It’s like, where do you stop going down the rabbit hole and just rely on your game, versus… I’m not expecting you to give me some silver bullet to improve my game in the next two weeks, you’re kind of like picking out these areas where I need to improve and I can spend some time working on those things. But I mean, ultimately, how do I play a different game that is better matched to these better players?

James: Why do you feel you need to play a different game?

Zac: Well, I mean, a lot of these things that you brought up, such as relying back on a tight style that isn’t gonna really get anything done and just as a hiding style, I feel like I need to change my game to a more in-the-mix style where maybe I’m gambling more comfortable with the risk of a little bit more.

James: Why do you feel like your hiding game is the best strategy in the games you normally play? I’m just gonna turn this into a coaching session. Whenever I get these kind of questions, it’s like, I know … And I’ve gotten this feedback before. Someone asked me a question and I answer with another question. I’m not doing that because I’m trying to be a pain. I’m not trying to do that ’cause I don’t know the answer. I’m doing that because getting you to dig the answer out is infinitely more valuable. Why do you feel like you’re really straightforward? Let’s just say straightforward. Let’s just say straightforward and fairly tight strategy is best in the games you normally play.

Zac: I think if I were to play a lot of poker, then it would be much more part of my mindset that, whatever, things are gonna happen, but I tend to play short sessions. I tend to have to travel a lot. I just don’t have a lot of time to play. I think a lot of people can relate to that. When I do play, I’m very cognizant of wanting to get good results out of that. Even if that doesn’t mean winning money, I want to play the big hands, the important hands that I play really well. I also have the aspect of having to report to a whole audience on it, which at first I thought was kind of a challenge, but now I realize is actually a boon because it helps me focus on these things. Hiding is the best opportunity for me to play a hand right, let’s say, because I’m not opening myself up to the mistakes that I might make if I identify a spot and deploy a tactic. It’s easier for me when it’s something like the turn stab technique.

Those situations come up, and I can see them, and I’ve deployed those successfully, and I also know that you can’t just do that every single time that comes up. But in terms of what one single adjustment do I make in order to play a more in-the-mix style, it seems to me that that is just balancing my pre-flop range and putting some bluff, or not bluffs, but putting some suited connectors and that sort of stuff along with the premium hands that I would be raising pre-flop, and also just trying to get in the mix more and play the other side of aggression. I assume that everyone is gonna be very aggressive, so I’m going to need to call down and show down some hands in that regard, too.

James: Okay. Don’t assume that. That’s a really, really dangerous assumption. Let the game prove that first. Everyone is not going to jump in this game and say, “Yeah, I’m gonna play nutty. I’m gonna play really aggressive and then we’ll see what happens.” Most of the time, people enter this game very, very timid, I’ll see what the game does and then I’ll adjust my strategy. That is typically the way that they’re gonna approach it. You can go one way or the other. You can go that style, or you can go, you know what? I’m gonna set the pace for this game and I’ll adjust as the table adjusts to me. You can go one or the other, but I think it’s far easier to control it than it is to let the table dictate how you have to play.

Zac: It would be much more entertaining for our listeners if I’m talking about it, and for me, too, if I just say, hey, you know what? What better, crazier thing to do than try and be table captain at a full ring of people who are way better than me?

James: Yeah, what are they gonna do? Out-gamble you?

Zac: Yeah.

James: Okay. Are you mentally prepared for that? Because this is a game where, again, you can’t come in and say, “I’m gonna nit it up and I’m gonna win this game.” That’s not a strategy here. You have to get it in your head that you’re gonna have to play some big pots. You’re gonna have to play in some situations that maybe you’re not super comfortable with or used to, but you can’t hide from it. If you try to hide from it, you’re gonna get run over.

What you were saying earlier, there’s a little bit that I want to say to just ’cause I think it’s important. You were talking about your big hands and when you’re playing in your normal game and thinking a little bit about turn stabbing and all that kind of stuff. Let’s just get it straight out there. It’s easy to play big hands. Okay, sure, ace, king is gonna throw up some confusing spots sometimes Sure, you’re gonna have kings and the ace is gonna pop on the turn sometimes. But ultimately, your big hands are fairly straightforward. They’re easy moneymakers. Fine, but there aren’t that many big hands in this game, very, very few, which means the rest of your win rate is either gonna come from making better more disciplined folds than your opponents, or eking out win rate in spots where people wouldn’t be able to eek out the same kind of win rate. That’s where I think you’re leaving money on the table, and even more so when you don’t have a lot of time to play. It’s very important that you get the most value out of every single session.

For a lot of players that are very dedicated and want to learn a lot and they don’t have a tremendous amount of time to play, I would not say go to a session, play straightforward, book up a small win, and then go home. I would say get in there and learn as much as you possibly can. Clearly when you’re playing against really, really strong players, you’re gonna learn a ton. You’re forced to. But even when you’re playing in your normal games, get in there and exercise your win rate. You’ve been studying between sessions. Flex your muscles a little bit. Learn something. Worse comes to worse, you lose a buy-in. That’s why you have a bankroll. You come home. You study that spot really, really well. You could ask coaches on the podcast. You could post on the forum, whatever you want to do, but learn something. Just play in the same old ranges, the same old style, the same old bet size, the same old spots time and time again. That’s important, but there’s other win rate potential. You’re leaving hourly out there. When you’re not being able to play very much, you can’t leave hourly out there. You have to fight for every bit of hourly.

Zac: Yeah.

James: At least that’s the way I look at it.

Zac: Well, no, I mean it’s a good point. I’m very cognizant of the fact that when I have big sessions, big hands are usually the primary reason. I mean, every once in a while, I’ll get a bluff through or feel like I made a really clever play, but I’m really just like everyone else relying on making hands. When I run well, I do well. When I run bad, I do poorly. I guess one of the struggles with the Red Chip game and playing with the better players is I feel like at a typical $1/$2 table, it’s like a safe space. Maybe there’s a pro sitting down and I’m gonna have to tango with them, but I feel like completely in my element. When I’m playing against these better players, we can have all these conversations and I can study, and I feel like it just flies out the window.

It’s more than just being anxious or scared because I’m actually enjoying it and having fun. It’s more than just the pressure of the situation because I wouldn’t be walking into it if I weren’t, at least to some degree, comfortable with that pressure. It’s more about the trigger, pulling the trigger, having that feeling in your head of, hey, this is a spot where I might be able to get a bluff through here. I feel like 9 times out of 10 when I have that thought, I say, but, the less risky option is just to check. I feel like that has got to be connected to why I’m leaving money on the table.

James: 100%, and you’re not alone there. I mean, that’s where the average person leaves money on the table. That’s actually something that you need to be cognizant of in this Red Chip game, as well. There is a big difference between knowing the right answer and pulling the trigger and actually making that play. There are a lot of people in this game, in any thinking game, that can come up with the right answer and probably know what they should do. They’re like, you know what? Guarantee you’re too bluffy here. I should definitely be hero-calling more, but then they still muck their hand. There’s a big difference between knowing what to do and actually pulling that trigger.

Don’t get it in your head and think they know what to do and they’re gonna make the right play time and time again. Understand where your edge lays. Understand where their defaults and downfalls are, and then apply pressure and go forward from there. Don’t think twice about it. Just do it, ’cause you know it’s right. That’s what the study time off table is for, right, is to develop that confidence and say, okay, I know what to look for. I know when this is good versus when this is bad, and I know when to pull the trigger. Don’t fall into the same mindset that the other people are doing of knowing what to do, but not actually doing it.

Zac: That’s really interesting. It seems to be less about risk and more about uncertainty because, like you said, I want to connect pulling the trigger with knowing I’m right. I want to say I’m 100% right that this decision is going to be the right one, so even if I’m unlucky and they have the better part of the range and I lose, I made the right decision, but poker is a game of incomplete information. We’re never gonna have certainty about anything. It’s more just building that confidence that you are certain enough, and that’s kind of the gap that I’m trying to fill in those spots, I never feel certain enough that what I am doing, or what I would be doing pulling that trigger, is the correct move. I guess I just gotta believe in myself sometimes, maybe pick the spots where I feel more certain than completely uncertain to start.

James: Yeah, for sure. Again, this is the balance of your pre-flop strategy, right? I’m not suggesting nit it up and I’m not suggesting play looser than you’ve ever played before. Play your normal game and then go from there. Then say, okay, is this the best idea? Are these the best ranges? Is this the best strategy? Or, should I play a little bit looser ’cause there’s extra edge I can find? Should I play a little bit tighter because I’m not being able to get into certain situations profitably? Do I have a really bad dynamic? Do I have a really bad situation right this moment, but it could change in the next 30 minutes? The confidence comes from your off-table exploration and being able to get in the spot and say, you know what? I think this is good enough, and you’re exactly right.

It’s about managing uncertainty. Most people, when they try to manage uncertainty, do so in a very nitty, predictable way because it’s comfortable. They would rather say, you know what? I’m not going to lose $200 on a bluff, then actually fire it, even though that fire is profitable and sometimes they’re gonna lose $200. That’s baked into an EV equation. But if you haven’t messed with that stuff enough off table, you have no idea of that and you just say, you know what? I’m gonna take the safer route ’cause your brain is pre-wired to do that. It’s protecting you. It’s saying, you know what? That’s a dangerous situation. Sit back here. Stay up in this tree. Don’t go down there.

Zac: Right.

James: There’s opportunity down there. So, think about that.

Zac: It’s almost like in poker, there are just so many variables weighing on your reasoning and giving you all sorts of reasons, to fold, call, raise, size it up, size it down. One of the things that I’m trying to do is at least filter that through one aspect of poker at a time and ranges plus betting, I guess, so there’s two aspects, but that’s where I’m trying to think about it. I feel like now if I add in post-flop lines, and pre-flop lines, and all this other stuff, well, what reason do I pick? But if I can sort of say, well, ranges are kind of important. Hand reading is kind of important. It’s a decent place to start, and then maybe if I can balance that a little bit and start to think about adding in the bluff part of my range, which just is not existent, maybe I can start taking baby steps toward a more profitable style. At least an improved approach to the game, in general, not that I’m gonna have a snowball’s chance in hell at this game, but I guess if I triumph, then all glory to you, and to me, and to the community because it wasn’t me.

James: No, and that’s all good, but there is one major important thing to get out of that. What you just described, I don’t think, is unique to just you. I think there’s a lot of people that feel that way, but when you start feeling like I’m looking to look and focus on certain elements in my game, and I’m looking to say, okay, when should I add this extra element in? Whenever you start looking at the game like that, chances are, it’s because you don’t have a pure strategy. You have tactics and you have this staple-stitched glued-together playbook and you don’t have a legitimate strategy. That’s when I would say more time in CORE, that way you can glue all the pieces together. It’s not this disjointed mishmash of concepts.

What you just described perfectly described someone who doesn’t have a coherent strategy. I’d say that’s where you need to be spending your time because if you don’t have a strategy, this game is gonna eat you alive, just because everyone else there has at least some resemblance of a strategy, maybe a little bit better, maybe a lot better, but they have some part of a strategy. Just trying to approach this game tactically won’t work because it’s not a tactical game. This is a strategy game. Everyone is thinking on some level. It’s pitting strategy against strategy. If you just try to pit tactics against strategy against strategy, that’s not gonna work. It’s gonna get really, really brutal. I think that’s where you failed in previous years is trying to look at this game from a nitty range and with tactics. I want you to really rethink that over the next few weeks while you prepare for this game. Think about how and what your strategy actually is. Where is your edge actually coming from? If you can’t verbalize it, spend some time or call me up and we can chitchat about it, but either way, you have to start thinking about your strategy and where your edge derives from. Strategically, what changes can you make in your game in order to exercise more edge and make sure you degrade loss? That would be my focus.

Zac: Right, I do appreciate it. I mean, in a lot of ways, I’ve been lucky to have been a breakeven/small winner over my lifetime without that kind of holistic strategy. It’s because I have typically played in games where I am the best player, whether it’s a home game, whether it was pre Black Friday when everyone was horrible, and even today when I’m playing in these much softer $1/$2 live games at local casinos, it’s a very closed kind of environment. These games with really tough people bring out all of those sore spots in the game, but I do appreciate that players who are winning come to the game with lots of different strategies that they can adjust between, depending on the circumstance, and that is a product of study and hard work. There’s no shortcut around spending the time to do that.

James: Definitely not, definitely not. One other thing about that, and just ’cause I think it’s important, I say this and I don’t want to defeat you and I don’t want anyone listening to this to feel defeated ’cause they’re like, I don’t have a strategy, either. The point is not to make anyone feel bad. The point is to say this, when you are playing against players that don’t think very well or don’t think at a very deep level at all, tactics will beat them. That’s why you can win in a $1/$2 game very easily, why you can beat micro online very easily. Tactics will beat nothing, for sure, or very, very weak strategies, tactics will beat that. But when it comes to tactics versus strategy, strategy will always crush tactics, as long as the strategy doesn’t completely suck. More often than not, it won’t. Just keep that in mind. It’s not to say that you have to have this ultra strong really nitty gritty strategy in order to beat $1/$2 or some sort of soft game. That’s not the case.

But if your game right now is very, very tactical focused, very, very playbook and memorization focused, then I would say your next step is really starting to glue it all together, actually meld together a strategy. Even if the strategy isn’t pure, it’s not complete, it’s not perfect, that’s okay. Getting to the point where you have a legitimate strategy and understand how everything ties together, understanding when and why to adjust certain things within that strategy, that’s gonna be huge. Again, it’s not to defeat you and say if you don’t have a perfect strategy today, you’re an idiot. That is not the point in the slightest. It’s understanding when you need what. In a game like this when you’re playing against solid players, be it Red Chippers, or be it coaches, or be it just really, really tough $10/$25 games or $5/$10 live games, that kind of stuff, it really just boils down to having a legitimate strategy, and you’re gonna need it there.

Zac: That’s ringing alarm bells because the key word, I think, is legitimate. Even players who aren’t coming to the table with a strategy, or even if it’s just your first time and you have some sort of strategy, like the worst players that are, for example, trying to fit or fold, or just get lucky.

James: Sure.

Zac: That’s their strategy and that’s one thing that the coaches have taught me. Those players are super easy to exploit because their strategy is one-dimensional. I, at least, maybe have an extra dimension. I’m not just fit-or-folding, so I feel good about that, but I’m still only like one step away from that and to take the further steps, like the big takeaway is just … I almost feel like the beauty of CORE is that it’s all organized in this linear fashion. You can poke around and you can get at certain things to improve your game, but moving through it linearly, there’s nothing like that building block approach. I feel like I gotta go back through it and do more of a better job connecting the dots in my own brain and just saying, okay, as I build this knowledge cumulatively, instead of stitching together these random things, everything is being put into place of a holistic strategy.

James: Exactly right. Here’s kind of a litmus test you can use, and you or anyone listening, is when you’re thinking about what to do in a spot, say you’re facing a pre-flop raise and you’re like, okay, should I three-bet this? Yes or no? If the only question you ask yourself is, should I three bet this and you’re not also thinking about, okay, what should I call here with? What should I three-bet here with? What is my strategy if I three-bet/get called and have to go post-flop? When you start thinking about it with all those pieces staple-stitched together into, okay, what decision should I make here, that’s how you know you’re starting to think strategically. If the only question you ask yourself when you face a pre-flop raise is should I three-bet, I’d say that’s probably an alarm bell that you’re not thinking about this spot holistically. You can find that spot everywhere.

One other piece to kind of throw out there, ’cause you mentioned it, I think it’s really worth at least making a comment on is even when you’re playing in a game like this, you’re playing against people that are thinking at some strategic level, there are points in their game when they are completely out of their element. They might be really comfortable being a pre-flop aggressor. They might be really comfortable three betting. They might be really comfortable barreling, but are they comfortable facing turn check raises? Are they comfortable facing four bets, five bets, six bets? Are they comfortable facing check-call check-call check-raise river? Are they comfortable with check-call check-call pot big on river?

There are lines that they are totally unaccustomed to seeing, and that is one way that you can start breaking apart a really fixed strategy or a strategy that has its natural limitation. Be very aware of that when you’re playing in tougher games. It’s easy to say, okay, we’re just gonna get into a lot of three-bet wars pre-flop, or we’re just gonna get into a lot of barrel wars, but the conversation shouldn’t end there. Again, when you’re starting to say, okay, this is what their strategy is and here’s how I am going to adjust mine in order to maximize profit, then you are, again, thinking at a very, very deep strategic level. All of a sudden, lines become very, very straightforward and very easy to spot, rather than just falling under the same trap as everyone else and saying, oh, well, they’re aggressively three-betting, so I’m just gonna play nitty pre-flop. Again, that’s not where I want to be. That’s just strategic limitation. Don’t get there.

Zac: Yeah. One of the best pieces of advice you gave was figure out what other people do to make your life hell on the table, and then figure out how they do it.

James: Exactly, yep, easy.

Zac: Well, yeah, so it’s easy. I’m ready to go to Vegas and win everybody’s money and talk all about it on the podcast, and on YouTube, and everywhere else. We gotta mention that at the end here, we’re going on a little bit of a break on the podcast, right?

James: Yeah, gotta take a few weeks off. You’re gonna be out in Vegas with us. I know Curly, we’re all gonna be all out there, as well. We’re gonna take, I’m not sure exactly how long, but we’ll be back in the summer at some point. I know throughout the summer, especially when I’m in Vegas, we are planning on doing some YouTube kind of stuff and I’ll let you kind of expand more on that, but we’re gonna be trying to document the process, at least a little bit, some of the plans stuff we’re doing, some of the things we’re doing, especially at the red chip event. I’ll let you expand more on that, but yeah. The podcast, we’re gonna take a few weeks off, at least, and then kind of get back to it once Zac is back in the office and ready to rock and roll again.

Zac: Yeah, and break is probably the wrong word because we’re going to be doing so much more. During June, we’re gonna be out in Vegas, like you said. We’re going to be trying to share as much of what we’re up to as possible, and that includes coming back with the podcast and coming back with lots of new exciting stuff because we’ve been listening to, really, like thousands of poker players over the years have told us what they want. With CORE and with its popularity, it’s clear that we got something right and we’re gonna build off of that, and we have a lot of stuff in the works that is really based off the things that people have been asking us for for years, for months, and it’s really exciting to be in a position now to get that out to everyone. I can’t wait to share what we do in Vegas and what we do for the foreseeable future because, I mean, poker is still a really exciting place to be. It feels like the excitement, the enthusiasm is growing. We’re seeing small steps in growth in online and live. So, I mean, let’s just keep that enthusiasm going. Let’s keep growing the game, growing the Red Chip community, and come back with an even better podcast than ever before.

James: Indeed. I love it.

Zac: Awesome. Well, James, I’ll be seeing you out in Vegas. Have a great trip, and I look forward to felting you.

James: And I invite you to try. We will have some serious fun in this game, young man.

Zac: See you then, brother.

James: Take care, sir.