This week, coaches and authors Ed Miller and Doug Hull have a great conversation about how to spot professional poker players at your table. Straight out of Las Vegas, the dynamic duo go in depth as to the methods they use to quickly identify any players that might challenge their dominance at the table. The discussion is centered around spotting Vegas pros, but surely applies to any card room.
Hull and Miller tackle three major topics in this podcast:
1. Does it matter if a pro sits down at your table?
2. How can you spot a pro?
3. What can you do about it when a pro shows up at your table?
Low Stakes Pros
Hull talks about arriving in Vegas one year ago to grind full time. He quickly realized that low-stakes poker “pros” are often really “unemployed and not looking” players. Miller (who’s been living in Vegas since 2003) concurs. At best, these are decent players who can eke out rent but little else. Often, they’re players that are “trying out” the poker pro thing, but don’t come equipped for the long haul with a proper bankroll or study plan. Or maybe they’ve been playing a while, are good enough to be profitable, but not profitable enough to make a living. Some are great players who are just burnt out.
As Miller says, “The faces always change, but the archetype is always there.”
So, to answer the question “Does it matter if a pro sits down at your table?” you must first answer “What is the definition of ‘pro’ at these stakes?” In the low stakes, ‘pro’ is used liberally, when in reality, most of these people won’t be playing poker two years from now.
Another type of low-stakes ‘pro’ you’ll see is the retiree reg. This kind of player has enough retirement money to maintain a comfortable bankroll, and nearly unlimited time to play. The better retiree players can enter the ‘pro’ realm, and Hull sees this type of player as much more sustainable than the other ‘pro’ archetypes. They don’t need to win to pay their rent, they want free coffee, a social atmosphere, and a game that stimulates their mind and gets the blood pumping.
An offshoot of the ‘retiree reg’ concept is the ‘buffet pro’, as Hull likes to call them. At the time of this podcast, Caesar’s Palace offers a free buffet comp for just 90 minutes of play. Hull says the retirees set their watches, play exactly 90 minutes, and hurry off to shovel as much food onto their buffet trays as they can fit.
Miller and Hull run down a thorough list of the biggest “tells” that the player sitting at your table is a pro:
Backpacks – One of the strongest tells you’re dealing with a pro is that they came with a backpack full of supplies for a day at the table. Recreational or casual players are not bringing backpacks with them to play poker. If you see a player ‘camping out’ with lunch they brought from home, a complete entertainment center and a change of clothes, they are probably a pro.
Large Denomination Chips – If a player sits down and starts to pull out large-denomination chips like they’re candy, they’re probably a pro. The more casual player will convert their money to chips, and then cash out all their chips. If you’re coming to the table and a huge chunk of your bankroll is already in chips, you’re approaching the game with much more of a pro mindset. Why cash the chips out when you can save yourself a trip to the cage for your next session? And if you see chips from multiple casinos in their bag, that’s an absolute tell they’re taking the game seriously.
Company They Keep – Ed brings lots of insight from his two years as a full-time player here. When you’re playing poker on a daily basis, it can become a grind, and certainly there are aspects that feel like work. You get to know the people in your ‘workplace’, and start to establish relationships off the table with these people. Then when you’re back at ‘work’, it’s easy to slip into a typical workplace mentality, where you’re casually talking about the workday with your buddies. At first, Miller says, these players might try to be discrete to hide the information they’re a regular, but by month three, almost everyone has let their guard down — whether out of ego or just for the sake of making the ‘workplace’ more bearable. Be on the lookout for these types of conversations between players.
Distractions at the Table – Pros are the ones watching movies or playing open-face Chinese poker on their iPads. They basically look like they’re relaxing at home. Recreational players do not come to grind, they come to socialize. You’re not going to see a casual player catching up on their favorite TV show — let alone playing another game on a mobile device — while they’re at the table.
Dealer Interaction – This is a simple but effective and fast way to ID pros. Players that are on a friendly, first-name basis with their dealers are at least regular players, if not outright pros. The better pros know this is an extremely obvious tell and will do their best to hide it, but again, many eventually stop caring about hiding their dealer interactions. It’s easy for pros to see dealers as co-workers.
Pro Player Action Plan
Hull looks at the math to demystify the role of the pro in your game. He imagines a 9-handed game at Caesar’s where $80 is raked per hour. He imagines a pro win rate of $20/hour, on the high end for $1/$2. If there’s a pro sitting at your table, they’re pulling out around $2.50 from each player, per hour. So, in comparison to the rake, pros are negligible. In a way, it’s the casino raking the $80 per hour that is the true professional! The moral of the story: Don’t fear the pro at your table. They’re not likely as big a threat as they seem.
Hull also points out that you can learn something from these pros. “It’s sort of like free coaching,” he says.
“I know that one of my most miserable poker experiences was at the World Series of Poker Red Chip [$1/$2] game, where [Red Chip coach & founder James “SplitSuit] Sweeney was in the game. And he was just a madman. You know his theory: Find the second best player at the table and make him miserable. Well, I was that guy. Sweeney just schooled me so hard. It sucked, it really did. But I learned a lot from that and upped the aggression in my game, and that’s who I am at the table again.”
Miller talks about knowing when to move up is not about win rate, but about how often you feel in total control of the game you’re playing. So, if there’s a pro in your area, sitting with them intentionally to observe and learn from their play can be a great barometer for whether you’re ready to move up. If you feel like you know what this person is doing at all times, you may have reached a ceiling at your current stake. The more you can reverse engineer the good players, that’s when you know you’ve mastered the game at your level. Until then, pros can help fill gaps in your knowledge.
Handling a Pro
Miller says that while most people try to avoid pros, there is really no way to do this. Pros will immediately notice you trying to avoid them, and ruthlessly exploit that weakness.
So how do you handle a pro? Well, first off, you’ve got to improve your game. Specifically, you need to learn the kinds of “bread and butter plays” pros use. Then, you can start to play back at the pros in a way that will level the playing field. If you know, for example, a pro is raising C-bets light of players he perceives as too tight, and you have a tight table image, then you know you can profitably call, raise or shove against their play on you. Emulating lines that bad players would take to induce bluffs is another way to exploit pros.
Ultimately, neither Hull or Miller think players at $1/$2 or $2/$5 who are pros should be much cause for concern. At these levels ‘pros’ are primarily players that have learned to play solid, tight poker, so there’s a much smaller chance of getting into trouble with these players than you might think. Furthermore, you can fairly quickly pick up on their methods and level them simply because they know so much about playing poker at your level.
Bottom line: Don’t fear the low-stakes live poker pro.