Kat Martin has been grinding $1/$2 in Vegas for years, and shares many nuggets of hard-earned wisdom for any poker player looking to take on the sleepless city’s live poker rooms. Making a living in a place bent on taking away your money is no easy task, but Martin has made it work by carving out his niche, and perhaps you can too, starting with his tips for doing Vegas as a visiting poker player.
Zac: Kat Martin. That’s your name right? That’s how I should say it?
Kat: That’s the name I use for poker Zac. How are you today?
Zac: I’m doing great. It’s so great to have you here. The first time which is surprising because you’ve been a member of the community for a long time and you’ve been close with the Red Chip Poker Team and today we can announce that you’re actually working with us now in a dual project manager, community manager role. Just for starters, why don’t you introduce yourself to all of our listeners who might not know you and for those who do know you from being in Red Chip.
Kat: Sure, yeah. I’m the quintessential low-limit Las Vegas grinder. As you say, I’ve been a member of the site for some time, but recently you presented me with an opportunity to do a couple of things. The first, on the production side, our users are only going to notice this if I screw up. If you wake up one morning guys and everything’s gone turquoise and instead of the usual font, it’s in 36 point, my bad. I’ll fix it as soon as I can, I promise.
The area where you’re going to see more of me is both in the forum and on the social media side. I’ve basically taken over moderating the forums, I guess and I intend to do that with a feather light touch. Partly because it doesn’t need a great deal of moderation which is awesome. I think this is best poker forum around and I don’t say that because I’m on the team. It’s one of the reasons I joined the site in the first place.
You will see me a bit more there. I have some plans for expanding its use and hopefully expanding activity on it, but yeah, that’s where you’re likely to see me the most and as I say, if anything else goes wrong, I’ll try and fix it as soon as possible.
Zac: Awesome, definitely if you guys see Kat out there, say hi to him and introduce yourself. For our listeners, I know that what we’ve been working on recently is, among many, many other things, is your new article series. Why don’t you tell us about that and give us a little back story on how you arrived at where you are, because that’s what you’re writing about, your day to day grind here.
Kat: Yeah, I think I give a little bit of a bio in the first article in this series. Basically, I decided when I was 43 that I didn’t want to be a university professor anymore and was quite happy being an online poker player, until the US Senate made me redundant. I sold up my house in Kansas and moved out to Vegas and I’ve basically been playing out here for the last six years.
Part of the article series is just about that. I mean there are some anecdotes about what happens out here and what it’s like to actually be a Vegas grinder and do that for a living, but I think the motivation for writing, it was actually a little different. I came to Red Chip via initially reading Ed Miller’s books and being on his mailing list and when I heard about this site, I thought since it came out at about the same time I was transitioning to playing no limited hold ’em, because I’m … historically I’m more of tournament and Omaha player.
I thought, “Well this is exactly what I need.” Red chips, that’s what we’re using here. Sounds perfect and in my opinion the tone for the site, was initially at least, it was set by Ed’s book, The Course and the accompanying video series, and obviously the site’s expanded way beyond that now and we have tournaments and other forms of poker and a whole load of stuff going on, but I think that that initial purpose, The Course, it’s stated aim is to first make sure that you’re winning at $1/$2, and then giving you all the skills you need to move up through $2/$5 to $5/$10 to the sky’s the limit and I think that’s great. I think that’s what training sites are supposed to do. That’s generally the goal is to allow people to move up to whatever their ceiling is.
I also think it can leave a bit of a gap for what may in fact be the largest number of poker players. What I mean by that is that there’s going to be a large number of people who never actually play anything other than $1/$2. Now they might be recreational players who don’t have the time or the desire to put in enough work to really move up in limits, or they may be playing in home games. They may be in parts of the country where $1/$2 is the only game that is offered in their casino.
Another thing that occurred to me, which this struck me a few weeks ago. I was talking to one of the poker room managers here in Vegas and I asked him what percentage of people he thought were actually winning in the $1/$2 game and my motivation for asking this was actually because the rake had just gone up, which of course as a Vegas grinder, this is the sort of thing that you’re overly aware of, but anyway he told me that about 10% of players he figures are actually making money in his $1/$2 game.
At some level, I’m not sure that this is the sort of information that should be getting out.
Kat: But it made sense to me, because I know just from when I was playing online cash, that I had a huge database of hands and there are about 30% winners. When you up the rake to the level it is in live play and throw in toking the dealer, 10% sounded about right, which as I say is a little bit horrifying and I’m not sure that recreational players should dwell on this. Just keep coming to Vegas and keep playing, but what it means is that to make money … this isn’t mathematically rigorous, but in a very loose sense to make money at $1/$2, you need to be the best player at the table that you’re sitting at.
Well I think that you can become the best player at the table through the material that’s here at Red Chip Poker and obviously in The Course, Ed starts off with explaining how you beat $1/$2 and I think that that advice is some of the best that’s out there, but I mean equally a lot of the information here is at a much higher level. I felt that there was a need at that bottom part of the spectrum if you like.
There’s one other technical point which I think can often be overlooked. The $1/$2 limit is unique for multiple reasons, but in the modern way that we talk about poker, $1/$2 has the widest range of rangers. You’re going to be playing against super nits that are playing less than 10% of hands. You’re going to be playing against people that play virtually every hand. That is a very different game from the ones that are typically analyzed both in the forum and in quite a large chunk of the other resources that we have here.
The series is really trying to fill that gap and to be warm and fuzzy to my fellow $1/$2 players and hopefully those that aren’t yet beating the game, who aren’t yet the best player at their table, might get a little closer to that by reading the series.
Zac: Lots of nuggets of wisdom to talk about in what you just said and in your article. The thing that struck me, I’ve always wondered that. What percentage of people in the poker room are actually making money playing this game $1/$2 and I bet if we tell our audience as we did, it’s 10%, they’re still going to imagine that they’re in that 10% already or will be very soon. The kind of gap that you fill here is in a solid reality check.
A lot of people listening to this who know a little bit about your history, I mean you’ve been out there in Vegas grinding for how long now?
Kat: Six years.
Zac: That’s a solid investment in doing this. You’re pretty much full time and it’s fascinating to me the balance of games you play, because it’s not just cash games. You also have a freeroll angle. Tell me about how you’re actually putting this poker career together so to speak?
Kat: You want to hear about the Las Vegas welfare system? If only 10% are actually beating the cash games, how are there so many grinders in this town? Well, of course, there’s an awful lot of people here who claim that their sole source of income is playing poker and I don’t believe a lot of them. I haven’t had a job since you and the site hired me, since 2007.
Zac: Sorry about that.
Kat: I’ll get used to it Zac, it’s all right man, but no. I mean I think it was Tommy Angelo who said it’s the easiest thing in the world to become a professional poker player, you just quit your job and there are a lot of people who I regard more as currently unemployed, then actually professional poker players. Of course, some of them have got pensions from previous jobs and some of them have got other sources of income. Then some of them are just well-heeled retirees who retired early like I did. I mean I wasn’t well-heeled, just an early retiree. And they’ll tell you that this is what they do for a living, but they don’t actually need to do anything for a living.
All that said, there are ways where you can play poker for ridiculous hours, 40, 50 hours a week some of them play without making any money in the cash games and still actually pay rent. I think a better way of thinking of these people is just that they’re Vegas pros who know how to work the casino system.
What you actually find is that a lot of them, you’ll see them scurrying off at strange times because they’ve got a free slot tournament somewhere or there’s a drawing for something, or there’s a black jack tournament. They’re working every angle that they can figure out.
Well the way that this works specifically in poker and the reason that it’s possible to have a large number of people who probably are breaking even in these cash games, but are still making money is that we have the weekly welfare check and we also have food stamps. Now, the welfare check is that in a lot of the center strip rooms, by playing a sufficient number of cash hours, you get into a freeroll tournament and some of these are weekly, and some of these are monthly, and some of them are over even longer spans than that. Again, you might wonder how this actually benefits grinders because the money for these free rolls is coming out of the promo slot. It’s all our money it should just be getting recycled.
In fact, I think it’s one of the last articles in my series, I talk about this explicitly, how this works. What’s actually going is that tourist money is providing an overlay in these freerolls. Now again, I wonder if I should be mentioning things like that, but I think that tourists are either aware of this and don’t care or they’re not aware of it and they’re never going to figure it out, so that’s all fine.
Again, if tourists are going to be tipping dealers five bucks on a thirty dollar pot and I encourage them to keep doing so because many of my friends are dealers, they’re probably not worried about losing forty cents on the promo drop, but anyway, you get into these free tournaments. Some of us are better at tournaments than others and can actually make quite a bit of money through this particular avenue. In fact, I’ve estimated that freerolls allow me to play rake-free poker in the rooms that offer them, which is actually a huge deal. It’s a significant part of the money that’s coming in over every month. That’s the welfare check.
The food stamps come in to some extent in that you’re getting a so-called paid a dollar an hour to play, so you get the comps, but at the Caesar’s rooms in Vegas, the huge deal is to get a diamond card so you can get into the diamond lounge to eat your free meal every day.
When I first moved here, I had a few life fiascos in the process of moving out to Vegas including a disastrous real estate issue that cost me a lot of money. I didn’t have the funds that I was expecting when I arrived here. When I found out that there was a way of making sure that I could feed myself every day by getting this diamond card, I realized that 50% of my worries had just been solved. Yeah, it takes a lot of playing hours to get that diamond card, but this is something that I would say nearly every one of the Vegas grinders … probably 90% of Vegas grinders play enough in Caesar’s rooms so they get this diamond card and so they get fed.
Zac: That must be quite the scene walking into that room. Is it just dozens of people talking poker, eating free food? Is it a little more bleak than that?
Kat: It depends on which diamond lounge to be honest with you. The very odd thing about it Zac is that the other way you get the diamond card is by having loads of money and putting a huge amount of coin through slot machines, so in fact there’s this … you get a very bimodal population. I think that probably the Flamingo Diamond Lounge has the highest fraction of poker players in it. You go in there and you see a lot of people. They’re all hunched shouldered because they spend way too much time sitting down folding and they’re loading up with extra bottles of water from the servers and they’re rushing their food down because they’ve got chips on the table and they want to get back before the blinds hit them and this kind of crap.
Then you see these people that have clearly got a lot more money, with their feet kicking back with a glass of wine. I mean it’s quite a sight to behold. Frankly, when I eat the last thing I want to do is talk to one of my fellow grinders about how bad they’re running. When I first uncovered all this, I found it absolutely fascinating and as I’ve pointed out in my articles, the one thing it is not, is glamorous. This is very down to earth, it’s not for everybody.
Frankly, it can be quite boring at times, but I think that having burned myself out on an academic career, this complete change has actually been very positive for me. People don’t understand this, but I find myself to have a lot less stress in my life than I did when I was basically doing a job which didn’t require me to turn up more than a couple of days a week if I didn’t want to.
Zac: That’s the beauty about poker is if you’re really studying it and playing it on a professional level, the things that a recreational player might find stressful like losing a few big pots, big binds, bad beats, I’m sure you take that stuff in stride and it’s actually an opportunity for you to improve. Is that something that you still do or are you just picking up patterns at this point? You know what you’re doing and it’s like punch in, punch out?
Kat: Well I mean there’s two questions there. I’m certainly constantly trying to get better, but in terms of the emotional highs and lows, it’s funny. I actually have discovered that I react to wins and losses not only at a much lower level than I used to, but less than other people who are doing this for a living. I’m not sure why that is, it may just be the length of time doing it.
Every now and then I panic. Losing sessions happen and they can be a little disturbing particularly when you don’t have a huge wad of cash that’s sitting behind you to fall back on, but Doug actually has great advice for this. Whenever I start pulling my hair out because I’ve lost five out of six sessions and the line on the graph is going downward, he just says, “Look at the long-term graph” and that one’s going upwards in a very healthy looking fashion. I mean ultimately I feel that I’m constantly improving. Not as rapidly as I’d like but I mean I’m incrementally getting better at playing poker. Incrementally getting better emotional control and I think that I would not have survived this six years or the several years before that when I was also playing for a living if the emotional swings were too high. Whether that is something that everybody can train themselves to do or whether that’s something intrinsic to me, I’m not sure.
Zac: The question arises then, six years at $1/$2. Why not move up to $2/$5? Is it a bankroll thing? Is it you’re just comfortable at $1/$2? You can make more profit at that level? Why did you decide to focus solely on $1/$2.
Kat: Yeah, I got that question in the comments of I think my first article and it’s a perfectly reasonable one. I do think that there is a kind of $1/$2 poverty trap in the sense that the rooms where you have these freeroll promotions where it’s … and with the exception of Caesar’s Palace where you can actually qualify for getting the diamond card, they very rarely spread $2/$5. On occasion, I’ll play $2/$3 which they do sometimes spread, but $2/$5 just isn’t there, so playing $2/$5 as my main game would involve a complete dislocation of what I’ve got used to and frankly, that’s a little intimidating.
Do I think I have the skills to beat $2/$5? Yeah, I think so. I talked to Doug and Ross Glover who appears in my comedic pieces as Comrade Vape. They both play $2/$5 regularly. We have a study group together. I do sometimes feel like the dim cousin, but I don’t feel completely out of my depth, so that’s one metric for figuring out where I am with that.
That said, I’m not sure that I would make more at $2/$5 and you know, the funny thing is people assume that there are all these great $2/$5 games all over Vegas. At Caesar’s Palace, for example, the $2/$5 game is not going to start frequently, certainly on the weekdays until the evening. When it does start, because when I play $1/$2 over there, I’ll look at it, sometimes it just looks like a dreadful game. I don’t think I would make more money in that game, despite the higher limit than I can make in the $1/$2 there.
Equally at other times, I see people that I smash up at $1/$2 sitting and I think, “Wow, maybe I really should be over there.” But the other thing is that as I’ve mentioned, I’ve come from a tournament, sit-n-go, Omaha background, and so when I do want to play higher limits or take shots, it’s usually in one of those forms of poker.
Zac: Right, you mentioned game selection. Going in, scoping out the set up and who’s sitting at what table. Is that a big part of profiting in $1/$2, being able to select the right table, the one that you can make the most profit on?
Kat: Yeah, sure and of course there are well-known contributors at our forum that will tell you that that’s the worst thing you can possibly do to get better at poker because you get better by challenging yourself. You don’t switch seats, you have the lag to your left and you learn how to beat the lag on your left and you don’t switch tables, you learn how to beat that line-up.
I probably agree with them. I think that that is a faster route to getting better. I’m more comfortable making money and so I look for a good seat at a good table.
Zac: Yeah, I’ve mulled that one over a lot myself. It seems like both are correct. You always actually want to maximize your profit. It makes you feel good. It builds confidence, but at the same time you shouldn’t be scared when you sit down and there are better players. That’s an opportunity to get better. They’re just two sides of the same coin.
Kat: Yeah, I mean whenever play any form of poker, but in this context the cash game, it’s an opportunity to get better and I pointed out in the forums once, I think a lot of grinders are very bad at actually paying attention and practicing the skills. You can definitely get too comfortable playing $1/$2 and if you don’t use that seat time as a form of study, as a form of practice, then you’re doing yourself a disservice.
It’s a question of balance, right. If there’s a player on my left that’s causing me trouble, I’m going to move. There may well come a time where I decide that what I’m going to do today is to look for a game where there’s a really good, aggressive player. I’m going to get the seat change button. I’m going to move to their right, and for five hours I’m going to try and figure this out. Honestly, it just doesn’t really appeal to me right now, but I totally understand that that is a way to get better at poker.
Zac: Gotcha. This is something I wonder about, game selection, because when I go to the casino, I talk to the floor staff. I say I want a seat at $1/$2 and they sit me down at the next available seat. Then I start thinking, “Well, okay. How would I actually go about game selecting?” How do you do it? Do you just sit there staring at people until you find the table you want to play and then you wait until a seat becomes available? How does it work logistically?
Kat: Because I play in a limited number of rooms and play a lot of hours there, I mean firstly if there’s a choice, I’ll typically ask floor where they recommend, at least if it’s a floor person that I’m comfortable with and who will actually give me a sensible answer.
If I’m assigned a seat usually with an orbit or two I will look around at the other tables, and for me a big factor is I’ll look for how much money there is on the table. I mean at $1/$2 I do figure that I’m probably going to be able to find a table where I am the best player and one of the things I like to avoid is a lot of short stacks because they mess up how I approach $1/$2. I’m not looking around saying, “Is that guy drunk? Is this woman super fishy? I’m really looking for money.”
Zac: Gotcha, that’s good to know. Now in terms of money and buy-in size, are you always buying in for the max in these games?
Kat: No, I typically buy in a for 100 big blinds, so in Vegas, the cap at $1/$2 is usually $300. I typically buy in for $200. If there are big stacks at the table who are not very good, I will then, after a couple of orbits, I’ll add on to $300. I have green chips with me all the time so I can slide them on the table and not make it all too obvious, but I like to start at 100 big blinds. Part of the reason is that if there is a strong player whose sitting deep and everybody else who’s short stacked and sitting shallow, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense to buy in for the max, at least to me. Again, I’m sure that some of our butcher forum members would disagree with that assessment, but that’s the way I see it.
Zac: That makes me feel good about doing the same thing. I want to pry open your brain and ask you the questions that I get all the time from the Red Chip community that only a Vegas grinder can answer. One of those that comes up probably the most frequently, especially for people traveling to the WSOP is where should I go to play cash games? Obviously Rio is there, but it’s not aesthetically pleasing to a certain extent. I mean they’ve got a great spread of games and they’ve got a ton of people dealing and I think everyone who visits the tournaments ends up at least checking out the cash games, but soon that wanderlust takes over. You want to explore the strip, you want to look at the other rooms. Where do you recommend people who are coming in for a week or two play in a tournament, where should they go to find the juiciest low-stakes cash games?
Kat: Well of course Vegas changes completely during the series, just because of this enormous influx of people in all the tournament series that are going on. I think that it really depends what you want. If you happen to have a diamond card, you should play at a Caesar’s room for the simple fact that the diamond card gets you up to the top of the wait list. One of the things that I find very frustrating about Vegas during the series is that sometimes you have to wait for two hours to get a seat at some of the rooms. I mean this often happens when you’re trying to play at a casino that also has a tournament series going on.
Diamond card members head straight for a Caesar’s room. It probably doesn’t matter too much which one it is. To me, it really depends on … I love playing in the old what some regard, as trashier casinos, and I won’t list them off because I don’t want to insult my friends working there by describing their properties as trashier, but I think we probably know. The smaller rooms where they are typically fairly tourist-heavy that do admittedly have a lot of people like me who are getting their welfare checks and their food stamps. If it’s your only trip to Vegas, I think the best advice I could give is try a lot of them. I mean there are so many beautiful rooms.
My favorite room in terms of appearance and comfort is the one that’s the Wynn room that is now actually at the Encore. It’s absolutely staggering. It’s very well run and the games there are actually really tough. The entry level games is $1/$3 with a $500 cap. It can be one of the greatest games in town at the weekends when you’ve got a lot of people who are staying at the property, who therefore have loads and loads of money, because sometimes they’ll just sit down and they keep on pulling $500 out of their pocket every time they bust.
In the middle of the week it can be really tough because you’ve got the Wynn regulars grinding out their comps and enjoying the cocktail service and the beautiful ambiance.
If you’ve never been to there. If you’ve never been to the Venetian or the Bellagio, or all these rooms, check them out. I personally haven’t played in the Bellagio since 2006, because whenever I go in there, there’s somebody who works there that looks at me with this appearance on the face like they want me to get a haircut. Maybe I’m just unlucky. I’ve heard from others that the customer service there has improved, and again it’s a spectacular room and you get to poke your head around a little closed off area and you see Doyle Brunson’s hat. I mean if this is your first time to Vegas, that is really, really neat. I know. I had a first time visiting Vegas.
Beyond that, I mean honestly it’s not even that predictable during the series. Great cash games can pop up anywhere. I like to use it more than anything else for playing a little bit of low-limit PLO, which can be a hoot during the series, particularly at rooms that don’t usually spread it.
Zac: Yeah, anytime I sit down to play PLO it’s a hoot for everyone else that plays and it’s always at the Red Chip Poker Meet Up, so if you’re planning on coming out there, you want to have a hoot-
Kat: Let me put that on my calendar. It’s June seventh isn’t it? I’ll make sure I sit at the same table as you Zac, thank you.
Zac: I was going to ask you that before. When you’re game selecting do you … you know everyone in town that’s grinding I assume, so you know who to avoid. You know how people play when you actually have to sit down with them. How familiar are you with the other professionals out there?
Kat: Zac now you’re asking me to give away some of my secrets. I have fairly deep book on many of the people that I play against regularly.
Zac: One would imagine that’s the right thing to do, right?
Kat: One would imagine so. It’s incredible how many people don’t, but I mean, in fact that’s one of the ways of figuring out who’s actually working on their game and who’s potentially dangerous. I put a play on one of the local regulars the other day. It turned out it backfired, but that’s not particularly relevant. I noticed immediately afterwards that he gave me this funny look and pulled a notebook out of his pocket. Okay, so now I know that this particular opponent of mine is doing what I’m doing and that’s useful information.
In terms of avoiding people, I don’t like playing at the same table as Doug, who sometimes plays $1/$2, not because I don’t know what he’s up to, but because he just disrupts everything. I mean in other words, here’s the guy that’s … when you have someone who is targeting the weaker players more frequently and more effectively than what you’re trying to do, it just messes up the dynamic, but outside of … I mean again, this may sound a little arrogant, but I’m typically quite happy to see regulars at my table and you talked about seat selection. One of the nice things now is that there are some regulars that will, when I sit down, they’ll try to move to my left. This is actually perfect, because most of them play way too tight, so I often end up getting an extra button or two per lap, because others are seat jockeying me, so again, this is one of the benefits of having I think studied the game to some extent to being one of the better $1/$2 players in Vegas. I mean there aren’t really people that I need to avoid.
Zac: That’s why your articles and all your work is so valuable. I hope that all of our listeners check it out. We’ll put the links in the show notes. I just have one more question related to strategy and $1/$2 in Vegas. I know a lot of our listeners are going to be coming to the meet up. Going out for the WSOP or just visiting at some point. What are some useful population exploits you can share in terms of these people I guess a lot of them are going to be tourists, but let’s assume that they’re thinking players, how do you execute your population exploits on tourists? How do you think about it that way because I imagine you know everyone so when someone sits down you’re profiling them and they’re going to fit into a category that you’ve seen before most times.
Kat: Yeah, I mean it’s pretty basic to be honest with you. Vegas regulars have the reputation of over folding and because of this it’s quite common to talk about these Vegas nits that you can never make any money out of them. The beautiful thing about a sub-population of the regulars is that they enter way too many pots and then over fold. This is just the easiest thing to exploit in the world. Particularly the ones that will limp call and then play fit or fold post flop. It’s a license to print money. In fact, sometimes, and I’m not the only one who does this, you need to slow down a bit because you don’t want to teach them to play better, the regulars at least.
The tourists, you get such a wide range. Some of these people are really very good and again, it’s this sort of a population thing. If you identify someone that’s just come in from LA, they’re going to play way different than someone who’s just come in who’s a regular at Foxwoods for example. You make those kinds of adjustments, but typically tourists, obviously they tend to be more … they’re recreation-heavy, if you want to put it like that and with them, I’m really looking for what they’re showing down and whether they are calling down too light and if that’s the case you just quit bluffing them and start value betting them.
Zac: Common sense advice even I understood most of that. I’m looking forward to … Oh, go ahead.
Kat: Yeah, I mean I was just going to say Zac, it’s not rocket science and maybe this is why I’m not moving up from $1/$2 because I employ extremely straightforward, simple strategies, but they work.
Zac: You’ve been out there for six years doing this and it’s always a pleasure to come out and visit you, see you face-to-face and who cares if the Wynn doesn’t like your style, there’s always going to be hater.
Kat: Oh no, the Wynn thinks I’m fine. They actually-
Zac: Oh, who was telling you to cut your hair?
Kat: It’s the Bellagio, but they figure they’ve earned the right and who am I to disagree.
Zac: Beautiful poker room there. I went around filming the outside of the poker rooms when I was there last and they were the one place that were very much on top of not allowing that to happen, but the action in that room and just seeing the stacks at the higher limit tables, I mean just to walk through that room is incredible. To sit down and play, I think I’m going to do that this year. I think I’m going to take your advice and just play an hour here an hour there, because last time I was there, I hit the trashy rooms. I wanted the soft action and yeah, I made money but it wasn’t as fun as going and seeing these new rooms, new players, new experiences, new atmospheres. You’ve evoked that all for us today and given us a lot of great value and I’m really looking forward to working with you and also having you back on to talk more $1/$2 grinding.
Kat: Sounds great Zac. I look forward to seeing you out here in June.
Zac: See you then Kat and appreciate you coming on.
Kat: Pleasure, bye now.