We get a lot of questions here at Red Chip Poker. From long-time members of our community to players who have just discovered our content, one question keeps coming up time and time again. Naturally, we had to dedicate an entire podcast to this topic: Game and table selection.
When should you change tables? When should you ask for the seat change button? How to you influence the dynamic at your table instead of getting caught up in the dynamic set by other players? We tackle these questions and more in this week’s podcast, hosted by James “SplitSuit” Sweeney and Doug Hull.
Hull first points out that table selection depends on your local poker environment. For example, if you play in a home game, table selection is simply whether you go or not. But in a casino or poker room, you have considerably more choice. Depending on your market, the player pool might be small enough such that you know many of the players if you’re a regular in those games. And in well-populated gambling cities like Las Vegas or Los Angeles, you will find a huge selection of games, often with players that are not “regs”. So, bottom line, table selection first depends on just how many tables you have to select from.
In the Portland, OR area where SplitSuit plays these days, and at Mohegan Sun where Hull used to play before he moved to Vegas, they pegged the number of players they knew at around 50%. Every time they sat down, they’d have player profiles on roughly half their opponents, and big question marks around the others.
However, in Vegas where Hull plays now, he almost never recognizes any of the players. There’s not as much social pressure to stick around a bad table in Vegas, particularly at $1/$2 and $2/$5, because an entirely new player pool is literally less than a block away in most cases. There’s no excuse for sitting at a bad table in Vegas.
What to Look For When Selecting a Table
So, Hull asks, “What are we looking for when we sit down at the table?”
SplitSuit answers that we’re going to be looking for the tables where we have maximum edge. Obviously, if you know who the other players in your pool are and how they play, you can more easily identify which are the softer tables. But in many cases, you won’t quite know who the fish are in order to swim with them, or who the nits are in order to avoid sitting next to them. One thing you can look for is stack depth — typically, you want to avoid short-stacked games assuming your skill level dominates those at the table. The short stacks minimize your edge, and skilled players are better off searching the room for deep stacks.
Hull uses a more “scientific-esque” approach he calls “Heat Death of the Universe”. This is in relation to the scientific theory that the universe will expand forever, eventually reaching ‘heat death’ in the sense of thermodynamic equilibrium, or maximum entropy. How does this relate to poker? Hull gives the example of a table full of nits as being the “Chip Death of the Universe”, where money is essentially being passed back and forth or held on to, with very little entropy for the skilled player to exploit.
The opposite of this scenario is a high entropy game. Energy, alcohol, animation, excitement — it looks more like a craps game where people are winning — that is the game Hull is looking for. When he hears boisterous laughter or animated conversation at a table nearby, he doesn’t even wander over to see what’s going on. He yells, “Floor” and asks for the table change immediately.
Another thing he looks for is folks with really huge stacks. This may seem counterintuitive, but in Hull’s mind, the easiest way to get a huge stack is to play bad and run hot. He’s going to go out of his way to play with these people.
Straddling is another thing Hull keeps an eye out for. Even though straddling is almost never strategically advised, Hull makes an exception to join a social game at a table he has selected for its softness.
When the alcohol is flowing, that’s usually a good game to be in. Like many serious players, Hull avoids drinking at the table, but if the whole table is participating, he’ll again make an exception to lubricate the action.
SplitSuit similarly looks out for more social games. When a game is more social, it tends to be more active. SplitSuit is not a big fan of aggro games with players engaged in open alpha-male fighting. Even if it is profitable to sit there, it’s not a whole lot of fun. But the ideal game is where the players are more focused on having fun and enjoying themselves that the cards they’re holding, or what they believe their opponents to be holding.
SplitSuit points out that he doesn’t really look at tables as being intrinsically good or bad, but more as canvases where a good game can be created if handled properly. Hull concurs. Unlike WSOP televised tournaments where players are statuesque and quiet, cash games are supposed to be juicy, juicy starts with fun, and fun starts with social.
Table Dynamics are Within Your Control
But you don’t have to just be social to change the table dynamic — SpitSuit is more a fan of changing things strategically vs. socially, and Hull concurs. Social always comes into play, but many poker players are introverts, and don’t want to necessarily “Negreanu” the table.
SplitSuit points out that amping up the aggression through 3-bets and limp-re-raising, as well as bigger bet sizes, will stimulate action. He references fellow Red Chip Poker co-founder and coach Christian Soto, who like him shares the strategy of making an outlandishly large iso raise during the first few orbits to stimulate action and get a sense of how the table is going to play. This induces other players to make mistakes versus superior skill sets.
Hull is a fan of a concept he calls ‘image transfer’, and tells a related story set at Will Bill’s Gambling Saloon (RIP). Several tequilas in, Hull and his buddy decided to play a .50/$1 game (the only one in town). His buddy Joe’s strategy was to go all-in preflop during every hand he played. Hull played more normally, but most of the time he sized his bets abnormally large. Here’s where it gets interesting: Even though Hull wasn’t getting too out of line with his cards, because he was socializing with Joe the maniac, Joe’s image transferred onto Hull. The rest of the table thought, “They’re both crazy,” even though they were different kinds of crazy.
Hull also talks about a poker buddy he knew from Mohegan Sun who talked all the time, and loudly at that. But he was a total nit. Yet he could talk people into calls because of his maniac table presence, despite his nitty play. Hull’s friend Randall is much the same way. And because Hull socializes with these folks at the table, their image transfers to him, to a great strategic advantage.
When Should You Request a Table Change or Seat Change Button?
Hull says that at first he was diligent about getting the best position at the table with a seat change button. However, since he’s almost always the best player at the table, he’s since stopped worrying about it. SplitSuit backs him up, saying that to get better as a player, one must be comfortable exploiting any type of situation. The exception might be to sit to the left of a big stack, purely to get the most out of that stack.
The only time SplitSuit gets a seat change button (other than if his nearby opponent smells awful) is to get out of a bad short stack situation. This can prevent him from stealing, because shoving is always a threat. But he reiterates: If you’re playing poker to become the best player you can be, you do yourself a disservice constantly asking for the seat change button. Learning to dig yourself out of tough spots is much more valuable to him than changing seats or tables for value.
Of course, if you’re at a nitty, short-stacked, reg-filled table, by all means, get out. There are more profitable games elsewhere, and there’s an opportunity cost of sticking around. Don’t be afraid of getting outplayed.