Welcome to another episode of Strategy in Action.

My trip to Vegas and its many revelations have been well-chronicled in the live blog I wrote while there and the podcast I recorded all about the trip. So with the story well-told, I wanted to diverge a bit from pure strategy and share my thoughts having now had a month to process the experience.

Goal Check-In & Results So Far

I started with a $1500 bankroll about 7 months ago. I had given myself until November 9 of WSOP 2017 to achieve my $6,000 goal. This will seem like an eternity for regs and grinders, but I am a recreational player with a 5-hour round-trip drive to the nearest poker room, and I can only make that trip about once a month.

My trip to Vegas was good for a net result of $387 over 5 sessions totaling eight hours. I played far less poker that I imagined I’d play. I could not deprogram myself from waking up early, and regularly found myself up at 6am or 7am, and not in the fun, up-all-night Vegas way. By the time I had taken care of other work, there was a whole day of Red Chip activities, and most of the poker I played was during those activities. I did manage to slip away for a few games in my hotel, but the action was sloppy and wild, and it was hard to adjust from the challenge of playing with coaches and pros to playing with tourists taking full advantage of free drinks.

Here’s a session-by-session breakdown:

Session #1 – $1/$3 at The Rio (-$264) – Lost a stack to set over set. Got my money in good on the flop, opponent turned top set. Nonetheless this ended up being an interesting hand that I discussed in the forum and got some great insight about. This was also a good opportunity to tilt-manage, and I felt like I deserved it after writing my previous article on persistence in poker.

13445710_10153913072164261_247285547948062627_nSession #2 – $2/$3 at Caesar’s (+336) – Played for two hours at the Red Chip Poker meetup. Managed to stack James “SplitSuit” Sweeney, who then insta-coached me as to why my play and my plan was actually pretty bad, to which I had to agree. I raised pre with AK of diamonds and SplitSuit called me on the button. The flop was Q J 4 with two diamonds and I bet out, SplitSuit raised me up over $100. I called. I ended up turning the diamond, checked, and SplitSuit shoved for value. I called and was immediately asked, “why didn’t you shove?” It didn’t take much thought to realize that I had made a huge mistake planning to fold to any non-diamond, but in addition to getting his chips, I got some invaluable advice. Way to turn a mistake into a profit!

Session #3 – $1/$2 at the Flamingo (+$152)- This was my longest session of the trip at just under four hours, I had a lot of fun loosening up and hanging out with the table. I kind of went up and down for a while until I stacked a tipsy tourist with a better two pair when he made a worse two pair on the river. That was my cue to hang for a few more orbits and excuse myself for a profit.

Session #4 – $1/2 at the Flamingo (+$1) – This was my first ever break-even live session. I was card dead and running all sorts of bluffs to pick up small pots. It was a great way to experiment with more aggressive play, but when I pushed too far with a double-barrel bluff, I found myself back to even and decided I was getting a bit too creative to keep playing. I walked away up $1. It was fun to reflect on the psychological difference between walking away with -$1 and +$1.

Session #5 – $2/$3 at the Bicycle Casino (+$162) – Words cannot describe how much fun it was to play poker on Live at the Bike, and then watch the whole episode immediately afterwards on the way back, with other Red Chippers and coach Christian Soto. It was even more fun because I did not lose chips, although I definitely watched myself lose some value. What I learned from this session and the resulting analysis will stay with me for as long as I play poker. I have already talked a lot about it in articles and podcasts, so if you missed the details, make sure you catch the upcoming PRO video where our coaches will analyze the session.

In the last 7 months since I began Strategy in Action, I am up $1,143 over 12 sessions. I played 28 hours of live poker, an average of 2:20 per session. I am currently netting $41/hour. From what I’ve been told, $20/hour is a respectable hourly rate for a professional $1/$2 player, so that means I have to be running hot. At the same time, I have to be doing something right strategically to be getting these results, even over the short term.

Assuming I make a more realistic $20/hour and I can expand my average session to 3 hours, I can expect to make $60 per session on average. If I play one session on average per month, with 14 more months until my goal deadline, I will have a bankroll of approximately $3500 by November 2017. That’s $2500 short of my goal. Even if I perform at my current ridiculous rate of profit, I will still be significantly short of my goal.

Bankroll Goals

It’s time to ask some important questions. Why is my goal to build a $6,000 bankroll?

Back when I set this goal, my reasoning was that $6,000 is the minimum ‘proper’ bankroll to play $1/$2 NL. In the games I play in the northeast, $6,000 is 20 max buy-ins at $1/$2.

With 20 buyins, I should be fully free to make the right poker decision without worrying about losing money. But the more I put that idea under the microscope, the more I see flaws:

• Shouldn’t I be able to make the right poker decisions regardless of the size of my bankroll? I get that if I’m playing on my last buyin, it’s going to be hard not to play far too conservatively. But with 8 or 9 buyins right now, I definitely don’t feel like losing one or even two bullets is going to change my mindset that much. I already play too conservatively! If I artificially added $3K to my bankroll tomorrow, that wouldn’t change. I’m just not buying that a bigger bankroll will lead to better poker decisions for me. I feel like I should be able to make the right decisions regardless of my bankroll. Perhaps that is idealistic and ignores the psychological reality, but from a purely logical standpoint, nothing changes whether I have $300 or $30,000 in my bankroll.

• I can’t “drop down in stakes” if my bankroll shrinks. There are no live games smaller than $1/$2 available. I mean, I can try to revive the .25/.50 home game I was hosting, but the way that game plays bears no resemblance to live poker in a casino, it’s almost pointless to play it in the context of this challenge. There are really only three possible outcomes: (1) Reach my goal; (2) fall short of my goal but stay in the black; (3) lose my entire bankroll and go back to taking the occasional shot at $1/$2 NL for fun.

Driving home these flaws in the bankroll plan was the feedback I got while in Vegas. I was told multiple times I was under-rolled for $1/$2 (I’ve been very public with the size of my bankroll), while other times I was told that bankroll size really doesn’t matter because it’s an arbitrary line one draws around money earmarked to spend on poker. The separation between bankroll and liferoll is imaginary, so why should the size of my bankroll be my guiding goal?

It’s been important for me to draw that artificial line for purely psychological purposes. Having an envelope hidden away with 24 crisp $100 bills gives me satisfaction that I can physically hold the fruits of my labor (fun?) during many hours studying and playing poker. It ensures that I don’t think about that money as part of my liquidity when it comes to other expenditures and investments. Having my bankroll exist as real cash that I’ve drawn an arbitrary ‘don’t spend’ line around makes it feel like I’m working to build something, and not just paying the electric bill with my poker profits.

The deep questions about bankroll eventually drill down to liferoll. I realized this when I contemplated what would happen if I somehow managed to go on a sick run and build up a $6K bankroll before the end of the year. Or, perish the thought, I had a financial emergency that required me to liquidate a bunch of my liferoll. In either circumstance, am I really going to keep an artificial line around my poker bankroll? Of course not. With a fat roll, I would certainly want to start investing some of it. With a financial emergency, the poker bankroll is going to be some of the first cash thrown into the fire.

I’ve been thinking deeply on bankroll because it’s the cornerstone of my goal. And all this thinking leads me to believe it’s arbitrary, imaginary, and a really bad thing to base a poker goal around.

Maybe the key is thinking less about quantity (of money, or time) and more about quality — what I’m buying for my financial and time investment.

Why Do I Play Poker?

I’ve come to the conclusion that answering the question “Why do I play poker?” is the most important question any poker player can do to improve the quality game. It’s easy to ask and at first seems easy enough to answer. I’m sure you’ll share many of my top reasons:

  • Poker is a fun and challenging game
  • Unlike most games, every player has the opportunity to make money
  • A lot of the lessons you learn in poker are applicable to real life
  • It’s an opportunity to be social and enjoy the company of others

This is my list, at least. This is the order I would rank my reasons, you might have a different order. But generally speaking, we all play poker because it’s fun and challenging, we can win money, we learn about ourselves and get to enjoy the social aspect.

Perhaps the goal is simply to play?

That would make a lot of sense. In that context, the goals I set initially are just a means to an end: Playing more poker. The $6,000 bankroll is just an arbitrary star to shoot for, an excuse to spend more hours in the poker room doing what I love.

Digging deeper, I figure it wouldn’t be fair to only focus on what I love about the game. If I’m really going to be honest with myself, I need to play devil’s advocate about what I don’t like about poker:

  • Sure, it’s fun, but it also takes an entire day of expensive travel and waiting on the list for 30 minutes just to play one session
  • Sure, I can make money, but if $20/hour is considered a good result, there are just so many more ways I can be spending my time making more
  • Sure, a lot of the lessons in poker are applicable to life, but the same is true of many things, including life itself
  • Sure, the social aspect is fun, but it usually revolves around strangers making small talk about sports and poker, which is boring to me

These issues are far less universal than my reasons for playing — I’m sure there are plenty of players out there with easy access to a poker room, no concern whatsoever for making money at the game, no desire to learn deep life lessons and no problem small talking it up with sports fans. But I think everyone can find a couple things about their games that they could do without. Whether it’s the poor personal hygiene of other players, a really high rake, or whatever. It’s worth considering the downside of your experience in order to make changes to your approach and improve the quality of your game play.

I need to find a way to refine my goal around the reasons I play poker, while at the same time mitigating the things I don’t enjoy. This has led to a new game plan and goal set for Strategy in Action.

The Goal is Quality Play

Considering all of the above, what does “quality poker play” look like? It’s certainly not just playing one’s A game, though that is arguably at the core. In my quest for bankroll results, I cannot ignore the other reasons I play poker: to have fun, to learn life lessons, to enjoy the social aspect.

Quality poker doesn’t necessarily get you to the cage to cash out. You can play your A game, have fun, enjoy the camaraderie, and still stack off to set-over-set. Setting an arbitrary bankroll goal just seems sillier and sillier the more I think it through. If I’m playing my A game, it’s just a measure of how variance is affecting my results. And if I’m not playing my A game, I’m going to see the failures clearly in the results and post-game analysis. Tracking my results is important, but at the same time, I don’t need a bankroll to tell me how I’m doing.

No, the goal from here on out should be maximizing the quality of the time I spend playing and pursuing poker as a serious recreational player.

The problem with this goal is that it’s not a goal. We need to get SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time-bound) about it:

Specific:

  • I will only play poker if I will have fun and will be challenged
  • I will plan my poker sessions around social opportunities I enjoy, existing and new
  • I will plan my poker sessions in ways that mitigate the time and financial expense of traveling
  • I will play my A game (many components go into this)

Measurable:

  • After every poker trip/session, I will journal my experience, noting highlights as well as opportunities for improving quality in the future:
  • Did I play my A game? What contributed to or detracted from it?
  • Did I have fun? How could it be more fun?
  • Was it socially enjoyable? How could it be more enjoyable?
  • Was the expense and travel time worth it? How could it be more worth it?

Actionable:

  • On a monthly basis, I will plan the best possible poker experience I can.

Realistic:

  • All I am doing is being more conscientious about the overall quality of my sessions, that’s easy.

Time-Bound:

  • Effective immediately.

This new goal rationalizes traveling across the country to play 8 hours of poker in Vegas. Those were high-quality hours, as were the hours around them. I learned so much about poker and life, and had so much fun. I got to socialize with a great group of folks that were inspiring and engaging. So what if I didn’t sit down and grind out an 8-hour session? That might have tanked the quality of the experience.

This new goal frees me from the “going through the motions” feeling that had been creeping up on me during my sessions at Sands. I realized that a major winning session I had alone was not as enjoyable as a slight winning session I had where I got to hang out with a good friend after the session and didn’t have to rush back home. I wasn’t getting burnt out on poker, but I could see getting burnt out on making the trip.

The more I go over this “quality play” goal, the more it clicks with everything I’ve been doing, and everything I want to do in the game.

The Plan

Luckily, I made a few good East Coast poker buddies on the Vegas trip, and we still haven’t had a chance to hang out much outside the game. So I’m looking forward to getting that opportunity — if not sooner, than for sure at the next unofficial Red Chip meetup which I hear ChipXTractor is organizing.

I also have a longtime friend and poker buddy who lives near Sands, so I will make plans to hang with him when he gets back from following Phish around the country.

The social aspect helps make the travel time and expense worth it. I do enjoy having the time in the car to do nothing but think and take notes, and when that’s get boring, I can always load up an audio book to keep the trip productive. Feeling like the trip itself was not a waste is paramount to making the trip work.

But a few poker buddies and a zen 5-hour round trip is only going to get me so far in my quest for quality. It’s unrealistic to think that I will be able to triangulate all those social vectors every month. So let’s do a bit more dreaming in search of a goal — What does the perfect poker game look like to me?

The Perfect Poker Game

I organized a home game that ran for over 10 years until it collapsed around the same time I started Strategy in Action, late last year.

The home game started as dealer’s choice played with quarters. Then a few of us caught the Moneymaker craze and began dealing only hold ‘em. Eventually we turned the game into a shortstacked .25/.50 game where the typical buyin was $20. The better players (and bigger gamblers) immediately began to buy in for $40 or $60. When the worse players followed suit, we started to lose people because they felt they were losing too much. So we changed the blinds to .10/.20 to tailor the game to $20 buyins. The better players enjoyed playing deeper, and it was common to see 500BB+ battles at the end of the night. At the very end, we changed things back to .25/.50 and $50 became the default buy-in.

In the beginning — and I think this is true of most players — poker was 100% about social enjoyment for us. Over time, some of us began to take the game more seriously than others, though no one did more than me. Ultimately, that was one of the things that killed the game. Our last session was 6-handed, and I walked away up 8 buyins (+$400). I had run good, played well, and stacked several players several times over. I remember I stacked one of my poker buddies in back-to-back hands where we both got it all in pre, with me holding AA each time to his KK respectively. It was one of those statistical anomalies you never forget. The subsequent games I tried to organize had 2-3 players RSVP (to his credit, the guy I multi-stacked continued to RSVP.)

There are a million reasons why the home game died, and better players exploiting worse players was honestly a short-term impact. People would come back. One of the biggest challenges was that, as the home game became more regularly scheduled, people felt less obligated to show up. The idea that everyone had to show up in order for a game to form was lost, and 6-handed games were something universally hated by the recreational players. Only the best players were showing up for every game, so the worse players rightfully felt they had a better chance of winning with a full table.

It got to the point where I realized we’d need a list of 30+ players to invite to fill up the average table. This led to me reaching out constantly, trying to network with other poker players to introduce new players who fit the social scene. But that put us in the position of often having 11 or 12 players, necessitating two 6-max tables, which as I mentioned, nobody was too fond of. We tried invite-only, but it was hard to get firm commitments for what most people viewed as a casual social occasion. And I couldn’t invite ‘real’ poker players from other games because that would require more formality: security, bookkeeping, etc.

Then I changed as a poker player. My time with Red Chip Poker led me to chase the other thing I love about poker: the fun and the challenge. The home game was like shooting fish in a barrel. In a way, isn’t that what all of our perfect poker games look like? My skill edge was so massive, and the players were so unaware of it (even if it was staring them in the face), that I could play my C game and still win.

With the home game in the rear view, I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of studying to beat $1/2 live. I had always taken one or two shots at $1/$2 per year, and I was a break-even player at the casino. The idea of having to travel so far to play was daunting, but otherwise I relished the challenge in trying to ‘beat’ the game over the long-term. Each new strategy I unlocked enticed me to approach the game with renewed interest and vigor.

Somehow I ended up playing against pros and coaches in Vegas a few weeks ago and walking away a winner. It could have easily gone either way, but I think the quality of that experience would exist regardless of results.

And now here I am, fully in the “fun challenge” world, now trying to reconnect with the social aspect that made the game so enjoyable through-and-through. I’m lucky to have some East Coast poker buddies that frequent the casino I play at. But if my goal is to play the highest quality poker, and maximizing social enjoyment is a cornerstone of quality, one thing is clear: I need to bring back the home game, stronger than ever.

I need to keep the stakes serious enough to attract players of a caliber high enough to be challenging. But let’s face, I won’t mind having an edge over everyone and using the game as my strategic playground. I think enough of the recreational players in my social network will return, and I look forward to expanding my social network to include new players, both poker noobs and folks playing other home games in the area.

It won’t be easy. And it won’t happen overnight. But, hey, it will be a fun challenge, and should provide for some more interesting Strategy in Action fodder. I already have some irons in the fire and interest is starting to return.

What Does Quality Poker Have to Do With Strategy?

I started this series with the intention of covering specific strategic tips that other “serious recreational players” like myself could become better players: Never limp, don’t pay people off, keep notes of live poker hands, etc.

I still intend to share my specific strategic insights with you, but if I picked up one thing from hanging with the pros and coaches, it is that I will likely never put enough time into the game (as in, full-time) to be in a position to dispense with anything but the most basic strategic advice. That is not a slight — I actually think my main purpose in this space is to be a bridge for recreational players looking to get more enjoyment from the game by getting into studying it on a more strategic level.

That said, I’d be ignoring my audience if I ignored the social aspect of the game that so many of us come to poker for. I hope this episode has inspired you to ask the question, “Why do I play poker?” and set goals to maximize the quality of your poker playing time. I shared my plans not as a template for you to follow, but an illustration that the enjoyment we get out of poker is not limited to strategy and how we apply it.

I believe getting more quality out of our poker play lifts all boats, strategic and otherwise. It can certainly be said that engaging in the social aspect of the game can distract from the strategic aspect. But in practice, is that really the case? I know that whenever I am involved in a hand, I either stop being social and just focus on playing the hand, or if I’m continuing to be social, it is in the context of the hand — my speech and mannerisms are calculated to tell the story I want my opponents to believe. The fact that these expressions were built off of the previous social interaction was why they were so often successful (developing rapport is one thing I think a lot of people miss about live tells and false tells).

The social dynamic in poker is integral to strategy — just think about how you are typing players based on their appearance and mannerisms, before they even play a hand. Or how a read on someone’s personality sometimes give you more information on how to exploit them than an hour of hand histories?

Having a higher-quality social experience at the table should put any poker player in a positive mindset that is highly attuned to other players’ actions. While socializing can distract from deep strategic thought and planning, on net balance, it attunes you to other players and producers a deeper awareness of where they’re at in a hand. I think it should be easy enough to turn off the socializing and turn on the strategizing during each hand I decide to play.

Socializing also plugs boredom leaks. It gives you something to do while you’re folding, and keeps you disciplined in your opening ranges and spots.

And really, there are two different kinds of poker socializing we’re talking about. The first is at home games, with friends or poker buddies, or other regs in the poker room. Some folks love meeting new people and socializing, but almost all of us enjoy spending time with people with whom we are acquainted. There is a shared history and understanding, a mutual trust and respect.

The second type of socializing is done with strangers. Poker is an extremely social game in that if you’re at the table, you’re part of the conversation. You can choose not to participate, but sooner or later someone will engage you. You’ll mostly be left alone if you choose to stay quiet, but there’s not a whole lot of fun in that. At worst, you’ll get ridiculed for acting like a mouse an alpha-male environment. Like I said, poker room culture is not really my cup of tea. Which isn’t to say I’m antisocial and avoid acquainting myself with strangers at the table. I just frequently feel like my limited time would be better spent with friends and people with whom I’m already acquainted. Given the choice, I’d rather play with those people any day of the week.

Maybe you’re a social butterfly, or maybe you’re more like me and want to hang with the core crew. Either way, if you’re getting what you want from the social aspect of the game, it stands to reason that your poker quality overall is much greater.

The Pro Caveat

The realization above is actually a fairly major one. Up until recently, I had been focused on more of a “pro” mentality in setting and pursuing my goals as a “recreational grinder”. Which is to say, I was trying to squeeze the most profit possible out of every minute of poker play and study time I invested. This is a fine goal for the professional, full-time poker player. The social aspect doesn’t factor as much. Certainly, pros tend to become regulars and socialize as such, even make friends at the table. But they are operating with a profit-first mentality, as they should be.

I am not a pro, nor do I aspire to be one. When I got back from Vegas, I took a month off poker. I didn’t feel the burning desire to play. I spent plenty of time thinking about the game until I came to the conclusions above by completely reassessing why I play poker, from the ground up. And I think more than any strategic concept I can exploit at the table, knowing exactly why I play poker and working toward the ideal poker experience will produce more meaning and enjoyment from the game than any bankroll goal could.

If I were to pursue poker professionally, my lifestyle, goals and plans would be completely different. And that’s been the shortcoming of so much poker training material over the years. It’s great for folks who want to be pros. But for the majority of us — the recreational players — it’s teaching professional poker to folks that will never be professionals. Maybe we really need to teach recreational players how to have more fun playing poker, and strategy is just a part (albeit a huge part) of that. Every poker player should understand what GTO play is, but for the vast majority, whether their play was game theory optimal will not make or break their poker experience.

For me, the losses always sting. They always hurt. I always wake up the next day with a poker hangover, like “What the hell did I do?” Sometimes it’s a suck-out, I got my money in good, and I quickly forget the loss. But if I made a mistake, it works itself into my brain and I think about it over and over again. I still approach the game from the pro standpoint in that my top goal is to play as perfectly as possible and make money. But more and more, I have to temper that with the social aspect, or else I risk losing the passion I’ve had for the game for so much of my life.

My run-good has extended past the game and into my life of meeting so many great people in the Red Chip community, and learning so much about life in the process of studying and playing poker —- something I only briefly touched on here. With the home game restart, I will make closer connections with acquaintances and welcome in new friends. But I’m most excited to continue to deepen my connections with Red Chippers and the amazing poker scene we have here up on the east coast.

I still care to my core whether I win or lose. But I am letting go of that mentality as the sole basis of my poker value system. From here on out, I will factor in the social aspect and the non-financial value I derive, and strive for all-around quality in my poker life.

Perhaps this is not the biggest strategic insight I can offer to my readers, but I hope it gets you thinking about how you can squeeze max value from your poker time.

Postscript

To be clear, I am not abandoning my goal to make $6,000 by November 2017. It has simply become a secondary goal. I’m serious about finding more time to play poker with the east coast Red Chippers. And the home game should afford me opportunities to play more often, not just when I host, but when I visit other games to recruit players. This should open up a whole new world of adventures to be chronicled in this series.

Nor am I abandoning my serious study plan to just hang out at the table. I remain committed to sharing with my readers and viewers all the strategic insights I glean from studying Red Chip training material, and how it applies to the everyman and everywoman beating $1/$2.

Life, like poker, is dynamic. Who knows if my goals will change again between now and November 2017? Will I decide to move beyond using online poker as a training tool and try to take shots at 50NL and 100NL? Will I stop dabbling in poker tournaments and try to train for a big score? Will focusing on the social aspect lead a circuitous route back to being profit-focused once again? Will I try to move up to $2/$5? Anything is possible. I just feel lucky to have found something that brings my life so much value, and lucky to maybe give a little bit of that value back to you all.

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Showing 6 comments
  • Mr. Don't
    Reply

    Made me re-read several times, great job. If you’re get burnt out by traveling, any shuttle bus to Sands?

    • Zac Shaw
      Reply

      Thanks!

      The bus from where I’m at would be 7 hours and 2 transfers so I’ll take the drive.

      Luckily, there is a casino opening up about an hour away from me. Unfortunately it opens in early 2017. But you can bet I will be there on opening night playing poker!

  • ChipXtractor
    Reply

    Man you are really good at these videos. I very much like the combination video/written material approach to the episodes. It personally only took me 20+ years to finally understand that poker is just a small part of a much larger ‘social game’ that I wanted to be involved in. I am not surprised you figured it out much faster than I did. Well done Zac. See you at the tables.

    cXt

    • Zac Shaw
      Reply

      Thanks buddy! This episode was very much based on our interview for the podcast. I could have never figured it out so fast if you hadn’t done all the legwork for me. Still took over a decade 🙂

  • Jin
    Reply

    Hello, nice postings, good luck with your journey.
    I live in central NJ., Used to play at Sands a lot when I lived in North Jersey, but now go to Parx more often than sands.
    Now, I am stuck with online 20NL, but if you open home game that suits my bankroll, I’d be interested in. 🙂

    Thank you for your articles !

    • Zac Shaw
      Reply

      Thanks, I really appreciate the comment. I can’t wait to get this home game up and running and will definitely reach out to all my fellow Chippers in the area when it does. In the meantime, good luck with the 20NL and stay tuned for more small-bankroll adventures!

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