You know what feels good? Felting a player, watching them stand up, hearing their buddy ask, “Are you going to buy back in?”

The felted player answers, “Yeah, but I’m going to a different table.”

And you know 100% it’s because of you.

In $300. Out $791. Six hours of live $1/$2 NLHE. $80/hr. Now that’s a session.

If this windfall had come from nut-over-second-nutting someone, it would have been empty. If it had come from getting my nut flush called down by a total donkey who thought top pair top kicker was good, it would have meant nothing. Had it come from inflicting a bad beat, it would have meant even worse.

But this victory — not to be too results-oriented about it — meant a lot to me.

First, there was a reason for the results. I had everything going for me. Seat after seat filled with unstudied players. Table captain status and a feared table image. Running not exactly hot, but definitely warm.

That would have all been good for a small profit had I continued playing the way I’ve played throughout this Strategy in Action series. But instead, I took control of the table dynamic with aggressive play, exploited players in specific spots, planned my actions several steps ahead, and stayed focused on and aware of everything going on at the table for the duration.

It wasn’t just my A game, there was a plus at the end. And that plus came from studying my butt off this past month, and spending long hours thinking about the game.

The takeaway lesson was unexpected but pure gold, and obvious in retrospect. It’s something that the Red Chip Coaches (particularly Christian Soto) harp on explicitly and implicitly. And every low stakes player that wants to improve will need it to get above-average results consistently.

The lesson was: Think for yourself.

Connecting the Dots

To be a little less vague about it, thinking for yourself in poker is all about coming up with your own proprietary way of studying, thinking about and playing the game.

If you want to break even playing poker, “playing by the book” is a great way to do it. Only open the hands the poker strategy author tells you to, follow the optimal ABC concepts at all times, don’t put your chips at risk… these are break-even strategies.

Big winners in poker take frequent risks (different than big risks) backed up by superior skill and knowledge vs. their opponents.

I’ve struggled for over a decade with trying to introduce more aggression into my game. Now I realize that aggression is not something you can pour into your game like an additive. You have to play a fundamentally different game.

The difficulty that I faced, which is the difficulty I think a lot of us face, is that we are not loose, aggressive players by nature.

This was hammered home when I interviewed Fausto Valdez for a recent Red Chip Poker podcast. He came from the opposite end of the spectrum, being very loose and aggressive by nature. His study was focused around tightening up his game to prevent exposing himself to big, unnecessary risks through wanton aggression that often wins low stakes games via brute force.

Fausto didn’t learn to introduce tightness into his game. He changed his entire approach to the game, to play a new, better way.

When I realized that I needed to play a totally different game instead of augmenting the TAG/ABC style I had been playing, it was liberating. There was really nothing holding me back. I could go to the casino and play a new way, and see how it goes.

This was step one of thinking for myself. No one had taught me explicitly that I need to throw away my old game and play a new one. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t expect that to be a common recommendation. Many players would be better off retooling what they’ve got. But I had been playing this way for so long, trying to retune and retune, I had to think for myself to realize that approach wasn’t working. And I encourage you to think outside the box about whether your game can be repaired, or it’s time to buy a new one by putting a few buy-ins at risk.

Now, I’m sure that would have been a disaster if I just capriciously decided to play a different style because I knew I had to. There was a reason I was feeling very confident. I had spent eight hours studying, and as much time thinking about the game.

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Frequent Study, Deep Thought

Step two of thinking for myself was building my own custom lesson plan. Luckily, I had been tasked with organizing new playlists for Red Chip Poker, so I began by hunting down the best PRO video curriculum for $1/$2 NLHE (more info on that project coming soon). After watching 8 hours of PRO videos while taking detailed notes, I went back and reviewed relevant podcasts and strategy articles to bolster that learning.

I’ve also been thinking deeply on poker and poker process for a different upcoming Red Chip Poker project, and this invariably turned me into a different player. Without giving too much away, I’ve really been focused on determining just what my thought process should be during a hand, particularly pre-flop. What information should I prioritize in gathering and processing at the table? How do I organize it and update it on the fly, in my head? In my very limited time to assess the meanings and ranges behind actions, how do I structure my thought process for optimal efficiency and accuracy?

I knew that finding answers to the questions above would provide a palpable improvement to my game. I didn’t expect finding them to change the entire way I approached the game. I was unsure whether teasing out fundamental processes would be useful to all players, but it turns out these fundamentals do exist. What’s equally stunning is that these processes are mind-bogglingly simple, and mind-boggingly unrecognized in poker strategy literature.

However, just as much as certain fundamental thought processes apply to winning at poker, knowing them is not enough. You have to light the match and play with fire, knowing the limits of your own skill and knowledge so as to avoid getting burned.

results

The New Game

After throwing out the strategy of adjusting my game, I distilled all the thinking and study into some new ways to play:

– Through studying c-betting and flop textures, as well as ‘auto-profit’ spots both in- and out-of-position, I started selectively limping, widened up my open raise range, made the biggest open raises at the table, and c-bet more strategically, including near-100% c-bets in position with any trace of equity on the flop, more calls of open raises in position with the intent of betting flop if checked to, increased delayed c-betting and turn re-raising in position with equity. I fired off turn probe bets, barreled two or three streets, and even bluffed a river scare card with air.

– Through working out my pre-flop processes, I began profiling players for exploitation in more numerous and detailed ways. In particular, I focused intently on when they capped their ranges (which was often), and I knew when they would fold to pressure if a scare card came, or their hand was marginally strong. Bet sizes were scrutinized for weakness and raised if it made sense given the board texture.

– Through understanding range building, I was able to slow down on flops where I would have otherwise missed value by betting into an opponent who was always folding. By waiting until the turn or river to make the bet, it appeared more like a steal, and I was more likely to get called for value.

Throughout this new approach, the more rudimentary skills of never limping or don’t pay people off felt like bumpers on the outskirts of my game, keeping me safe from going broke but not to be followed by the letter. Not every hand I played needed to be raised, and not every aggressive move by an opponent telegraphed they had a nutted range.

And really, I can’t even begin to summarize the immense changes that have occurred in my game. The above is just a taste of a level of skill and confidence that feels like it was always below the surface, requiring just a little more study and thought to unlock.

Have I solved $1/$2? Is volume the only thing standing in the way of building my bankroll?

I am still hundreds, probably thousands of hands away from answering that question. But I can see the answer on the horizon in the way I played this last session.

The Soto Effect

One thing that coach Christian Soto illustrates in his PRO video series revealing his overall approach to the game is that becoming table captain is what it takes to post consistently high win rates. When you’re table captain, opponent actions hinge on your actions, whether defensive or offensive. You set the tone for bet sizing and for pre-flop calling ranges, in both loose and tight directions. You are in control.


Want that aggressive poker instinct? Listen now.

Soto talks a lot about how betting big pre-flop and keeping the aggression dialed way up will goad other players into making mistakes that you can exploit. They will call too wide pre-flop to avoid being bullied. Passive players who used to fold anything but the nuts will get sticky with draws. Opponents thing you are just screwing with them — and you are — but you also know how to dial it back in response.

I knew I was table captain when I was on the button with AdKc and 3-bet a $6 raise into two limpers on my right up to $21. I got 3 callers, and the original raiser folded!

Let’s just say ranges were capped.

The flop came T44 with two diamonds, giving me two overcards and a backdoor nut and straight flush draws in position. When it checked around to me, I bet just over half pot. But I wasn’t just thinking of taking it down. I was also trying to get value from paired tens, that I would barrel into ruthlessly on the turn and river, as well as flush draws that would get similarly put to the test by my aggression. I was planning on repping whatever I needed to in order to win that hand, confident I could suss out a set or a player who drew out to their flush and blocking half the overcards I was wary of. All three players who called $21 out of position pre-flop all folded and I scooped $65 with ace high.

Other than the strangest live poker hand I ever witnessed, (too good not to post directly into the forums), my hand notes are sparse and short. I was too busy picking spots and crushing it!

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Mindset Advantage

I’m trying very hard not to get ahead of myself or get too cocky here. I’m not counting my stacks before they hatch into a real bankroll. At about $3,000, I still have about half the roll I’d like for playing $1/$2 with any regularity.

Still, I haven’t felt this good about my game since I first started Strategy in Action and plugged the gaping fundamental leaks that were causing me to pay back my profits.

If those first few episodes were about establishing the fundamental concepts it took to beat $1/$2, this episode marks a milestone in establishing the fundamental mindset I’ll need to add that next $3,000 to the bankroll and hit my original goal.

I feel more confident that ever that this goal is attainable, but I can’t let up on the gas now. I’ve already surprised myself with how comfortable this ex-ABC/TAG is playing loose and aggressive. What other surprises lie in store?

Planning Ahead

As I’ve mentioned in previous videos, I’m working on getting my home game back up and running (ironically, I have the players now, but not the location — the exact opposite of what killed the game late last year after a 10-year run). I’ve also discovered a couple of home/underground games right in my home city that I’m planning on checking out. I’ve been staying off online poker but I plan on returning a bit more to put together some sessions around this new way of playing, and have a coach take a look for some refinement.

This might be a month where I play more than study. And with all the projects I’m working on with Red Chip Poker, I get ample opportunity for informal study as I do research. In fact, this research is probably even more powerful that just studying and taking notes, because I’m met with the additional challenge of being able to explained what I’ve learned to readers like you.

And that’s kind of the crucible of poker: You study for yourself, you think for yourself, and then you play for yourself. When the results are in, you discuss them to others, producing a feedback loop that guides you back to what you need to study.

Study Plan

Even though the whole point of this article is to encourage you to come up with your own study plan, I’d be remiss to not share mine, which I wrote out ahead of time, along with a brief explanation of why I chose each video (PRO membership required.)

Post-Flop Planning by Adam Jones – To develop a framework within which to plan my strategies ahead of time.

Live Multi-Way Pots by James ‘SplitSuit’ Sweeney – Many of my common spots are multiway.

Pocket Queens by Christian Soto – I’ll be playing QQ and similar-strength hands frequently (well, as frequently as I’m dealt them.)

Optimizing TAG: Ax by James ‘SplitSuit’ Sweeney – These Ax hands — particularly suited — are often included in my open ranges in my common spots.

$1/$2 Session Review Part 1 and Part 2 by James ‘SplitSuit’ Sweeney – Figure it couldn’t hurt to sweat one of the best at the stakes I’m playing.

Flop Texture: XYZ by Doug Hull – I need to really be solid on how to react to the flop as I go heads-up and multi-way.

All Flop Textures by Doug Hull – More flop knowledge with obvious value in my chosen spots.

Range Reading: Live TAGs by James ‘SplitSuit’ Sweeney – Most of my opponents are TAGs.

C-Betting 101 by Adam Jones – Absolutely critical to have a solid c-betting strategy.

Delayed C-Bets by Mike Gano – Another tool in the box to get value as I feel one problem I have is leaving money on the table by C-betting 100% with strong hands on the flop.

Bread & Butter vs. Capped Ranges by Andrew Brokos – When players call my open raise and respect it as being strong, they are often capping themselves below the most premium hands. So I better know how to handle that.

Defending Flop Checks by Adam Jones – My intuition is that I’ll be checking the flop a lot in these spots, and I should know how to avoid letting other players take advantage of that.

Auto-Profit in Position and Auto-Profit OOP by Adam “w343l” Jones – Auto-profit? Sounds good to me. I’m often in position in these spots — and when I’m not, well, I’m out of position!

Conclusion

As always, thank you so much for following me on this poker journey. Please let me know what you think or if you have any questions in the forum. Hope to see you at the tables soon. — Sincerely, Your Captain

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Showing 4 comments
  • Mr. Don't
    Reply

    Was looking for a little bit of underground experience, but great job. Nothing better than winning session, feeling confident,and still know room to improve. You must be splitsuit’s assistant, with study areas, like boom heres recommended pro vidios. One thing Im worrying is Team Sands is all turning a Beast…

    • Zac Shaw
      Reply

      I can’t wait to play in these underground games. Life has just been too crazy to play more than once per month. As things settle down over the coming months, I’m going to be playing a lot more poker, including home games.

      Luckily there are still plenty of fish in the sea at the Sands. I really had the perfect table this last time. Team Red Chip is definitely beating the rake over there, I can tell you that for sure!

  • Robert
    Reply

    Zac,
    Fantastic article! I can’t even begin to tell you how valuable I’m finding your writings. Not only informative but inspiring. Your work ethic and desire to improve is making me want to up my study game. So thank you and keep up the good work!

    • Zac Shaw
      Reply

      Robert,
      Thanks, that means the world and motivates me to keep going.

      The training material out there now is so good that a little study and practice really goes a long way, especially if you know what parts of your game need the most improvement. As a rule of thumb, anytime I’m confused, I note down every detail of the hand I was confused about. Eventually you start to see patterns or specific spots that you need to work on.

      For example, I continued to feel lost as to when I *shouldn’t* c-bet, so I really studied up on c-betting. In this session, I probably made $200+ off what I learned with c-betting alone. Maybe more importantly, I saved a lot of money by dialing down my c-betting and exploiting players that were so frequently capped and drawing weak. They would either fold to almost all double-barrels, or call twice with the near-nuts. When you can start looking at the game being able to see that dynamic, you can make the exploitative moves that it takes to get your win rate out of the break-even zone.

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