The $2,300 felt alive in my hands. I counted it twice. Three times. Twenty-three crisp $100 bills.

This was my poker bankroll to date, and it was way too small for what I was about to do: spend a week in Vegas taking shots at $1/$2 and $2/$3 vs. some of the best players at that level. One of the sessions would be livestreamed to an audience of hundreds.

Of course the bankroll money felt alive. It was about to multiply or die.

Strengths and Weaknesses

I had spent the last six weeks preparing for this trip, documenting my study and play in my monthly Strategy in Action episodes.

Every month I took a trip to the Sands casino to apply what I had been studying, and every session (except for one) I had walked away a winner.

When I realized this was not nearly enough volume to prepare for what I was in for, I started putting in more volume online at 10NL and 25NL and again walked away a winner after about 1,700 hands:


But there’s this pesky thing in poker called variance. Most experienced players scoff at anything less than 100,000 hands as an accurate portrayal of one’s poker prowess. In other words, I could still suck and poker and just be running good.

And I know I’ve been running good. Upon analysis, very few of my hands have been due to coolers or bad beats. For every one of those, there have been leaks to plug (which I outlined in the Red Chip Poker forum leak list challenge.)

  • Online vs. Live Leak: Need to play online more like live (should be more aggressive live), and vice versa (should be less aggressive online)
  • Triple barrel bluff leak: Too many (online only) & getting called too often on river
  • Mental game leak: Boredom vs. ADHD leads to getting “too creative” and also losing focus
  • VPIP leak: Playing a few too many hands (esp. online), again getting too creative
  • Live leak: Suspect best players level me & getting me to fold best hand at times
  • Hand reading: Getting better but need more focus & a better process
  • Value leak: Sometimes I lose value by playing monster flops too fast vs. crap ranges/textures

I now had a laundry list of strategic concepts and mental game aspects to study. But as the Vegas trip drew closer, I realized I totally lacked the time to address them in any systematic way. I needed strategies that focused on my strengths as much as I needed to be careful about allowing others to exploit my weaknesses.

In the past, bringing specific concepts (“Don’t Pay People Off”, “Never Limp”) brought positive results. How could I bring one or two concepts that would ensure I was playing my A-game?

Perseverance in Poker

I thought hard about what made me play my A-game. Based on the results from my online play, I came to the conclusion that adversity instantly snapped my poker mind back into focus. This was no small feat. In earlier days, my reaction was to rage quit after making a big and costly mistake. I realized that there was a huge lesson to be learned in playing myself out of the hole during my first online session, when I dropped several hundred big blinds before pulling out the win over a three-hour session.

The feeling I had after bending the graph back upwards like that was better than dragging a big pot. I was really proud of myself for persevering through adversity, and really encouraged by how it snapped my back into my A-game.

The only problem was I didn’t want to have to lose in order to then win.

I thought about it some more. I didn’t have to lose to persevere. Just playing was persevering.

Hell, I should be really proud of where I am today. I had taken shot after shot at a game I was under-rolled for, and almost universally succeeded. While variance tempered the pride, I had somehow managed to put myself in a bucket-list position: playing the biggest game of my life with challenging opponents, livestreamed to a worldwide audience.

Just showing up would not allow me to check the box next to ‘epic poker adventure’, though. I had work to do.

I would draw on my history, standing tall and confident with the understanding that I deserve to be in this position. My A-game wins. My only goal for this Vegas trip is to play it.

Of course, the dictionary definition of perseverance is “steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success”. That “doing something” wasn’t just playing poker. It was playing my A-game. So what exactly is A-game.

Upon further introspection, I came to the conclusion that while A-game is a hybrid of many different things, it’s best summed up in one word: Process.

What’s My Poker Process?

It was studying James “SplitSuit” Sweeney’s Hand Reading Lab that I realized process is the source of A-game.

Every poker player has process at the heart of their game, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. For many, it’s just the process of selecting which hand to play from which position. It can be thinking about what the player to your left might do if you open-raise. It’s about hand reading, bet sizing, hand planning and contingency planning. It’s about when you look at your cards, how you hide your tells or create false tells. It’s in how you talk (or don’t) during a poker hand, what you buy in for, how many bullets you fire.

It’s absolutely overwhelming.

We think about chips on the table as a limited resource, but I started thinking I as a poker player should pay more attention to what I’m doing with the other limited resource — time.

On a river decision for all our chips, who wouldn’t want to press pause and go back to their hotel room for 30 minutes to study the situation and then make the decision?

The thing is, the decision we make pre-flop, or after the flop, is often the reason we win or lose that pot, and often determines how much or how little we win or lose. I realized each decision needed more careful thought and planning.

Process is constrained by time. I wasn’t going to be that player that tanked 5 minutes on a preflop decision. But I needed to pace myself, discover and detail exactly what my process was now, and where I could make improvements. I needed to codify a process, and be perseverant in following it.

  • Approach – In my life tilt episode, I talked about the importance of approaching the table feeling excited and ready to play. If I ever didn’t feel up to it, I wouldn’t play. Period. I had already learned this lesson. It only cost $300.
  • Buy-In – What I had been doing in these $1/$2 games was to buy in for $250 (125 BB). I didn’t really have a rationale other than I wanted to buy in for the maximum, but my bankroll was too small to weather losing too many buy-ins, so I minimized the risk a bit. It didn’t seem to be particularly rooted in logic, so I decided to always buy in for the maximum at $1/$2 and under, at least until some other factor caused me to change my mind. In the $2/$3 game, I might still hedge my buy-in a little for bankroll management, because I knew I was only firing one bullet, and an above-average aggressive game would mean I was playing in low-SPR situations a lot anyway.
  • Sitting Down – I try to make brief eye contact with everyone as I sit down, and if anyone returns it, say a friendly “How’s it going?” I just don’t want to sit down like a silent killer.
  • Looking at Cards – This is where I realized I needed to make a BIG change. Up until now, I was doing the WSOP-style “only look at your cards after the action is on you” to avoid giving away any information about whether I might play the hand or not. I would either look and fold, or place a $1 chip on my cards and then cut out a call or raise. After playing online for a while, I realized this was really stupid. For one, nobody’s paying that much attention. But more importantly, I was robbing myself of precious seconds to plan how I was going to play my hand. Being able to see my JJ on the button before the EP player has even looked at their cards means that by the time action’s on me, I already know what I’m going to do vs. a raise, a bunch of limpers, or if it folds to me. From here on out I would look at my cards right away and maintain my best poker face.
  • Pre-Flop Planning – I wanted to develop an actual process or flow chart for pre-flop play. Something like: (1) Play the hand: Y/N? (2) Play the hand vs. a raise: Y/N?, and so on. I realized that might be too ambitious in general, and certainly too ambitious with the limited time I had. I thought the important thing was that I was planning every hand. If my brain jumped from planning to hand ranging to paying attention to tells, that was fine. As long as I was focused and always planning my next move, I’d be playing the A-game I was capable of.
  • Post-Flop Planning – The thought casserole of post-flop planning needed to be a little more disciplined. I had been studying SplitSuit’s Hand Reading Lab, and learning to put people on a range comprised of one or more of four types of hands, and then winnowing down that range throughout the hand. I decided that at the end of action at each street, I would make an effort to range each player. If there were more than two players and it became hard to keep track of, I would focus on the biggest threat, starting first with the initial raiser, and then jumping to anyone who might have position on me. This was probably the most complex process adjustment, and the one I would have to constantly remind myself. It would also probably be the most profitable, because until now, I really wasn’t putting players on ranges with anything near this level of accuracy or sophistication.
  • Turn and River Decisions – I had nothing much to add here except to stick with the hand ranging first concept, and take my time. I would need to take my time consistently, with the nuts or air.
  • Post-Hand Reflection – Often at the table, if I lose a hand or know I’ve made a mistake, I won’t kick myself over it, but I will mull it over in my head before deciding if it is worthy of later off-table analysis. Only then will I take notes on my phone, and later transcribe these notes to SplitSuit’s Live Poker Player Journal. I realized this was probably interfering with my play, and I should make every effort to jump right to taking notes after any hand that was a significant loser.
  • Hands I Don’t Play – I had been pretty good at paying attention to the other players when I was out of a hand, but I was looking for red flags that a player was bad in a certain way and could be exploited. This was great for identifying targets, but against the many better players, it didn’t work. There were no red flags. That’s where hand ranging came in. Now I could add to my out-of-the-hand observation process the same kind of hand-reading-first mentality I was going to approach the hands I did play with. This kind of info would allow me to start building a Live HUD, although I would need to play longer sessions and develop even greater focus that I have right now to really make that work.
  • Have Fun – If the process was running smooth, every other ounce of my attention should be focused on enjoying the game and having fun. When I realized I was long overdue to look back on my “poker career” and appreciate what I had already accomplished, I also realized I needed to make a conscious effort to enjoy myself a bit more. “Recreational grinder” is an oxymoron, but that’s the title I gave myself at the beginning of this adventure, and I’m going to live up to it on this trip!

Viva Las Vegas

We’re all trying to tell a good story with our lives. Win or lose, I was about to write a hell of a story. With perseverance and process leading me to play my A-game, I would truly earn the title of ‘Hero’, and have a great story to share with my fellow Red Chippers, and my friends and family back home (who still might not exactly understand what exactly I’m doing, but such is the plight of the strategic gambler.)

I realized the fear I felt facing a week of shot-taking in Vegas was more nervous excitement than anything else. My only fear was that I would not play my A-game, and hopefully now I had the tools to do so.

The proof is in the poker. See you in Vegas.

Showing 2 comments
  • Barbara

    Run good, Zac! Vegas is so much fun.

    • Zac Shaw

      Thanks Barbara. I did run good, ended the trip up $400! And most importantly, had a lot of fun.