Strategy in Action is a monthly feature written by a ‘recreational grinder’ who’s studying our training material in order to consistently beat $1/$2 and build a bankroll. You can read the introduction here, or check out what happened in the last episode, Never Limp & Don’t Pay People Off.

Worse Ways to Go

“Did I just kill someone at the poker table?”, I asked myself.

The elderly man in the six seat, bearing a slight resemblance to Ernest Hemingway with white hair, beard and dress shirt, was not OK. He was nodding out in the middle of hands, rocking back and forth, grunting, grumbling, and generally appeared to be suffering from serious health issues.

After a preflop raise that was called by 5 players including me in the big blind, it came to pass that he shoved his short stack on a J♣ 8♥ 6♥ flop with QQ and I called with A♥ J♠. When the J♦ came on the river he was beside himself, slamming the table and grumbling unintelligibly. He bought in for another $160 and then almost immediately disappeared.

He was gone about 45 minutes when we started wondering if he was coming back at all. The table talk started being all about whether he’d make it back, what rough shape the guy had been in, and whether or not he was in fact trying to die at the poker table. I mean, I could think of worse ways to go out, right?

When he did return, he seemed much more alert. He asked for a seat change button and within a couple orbits I found him sitting directly to my left with a big chip on his shoulder. It wasn’t long before this hand came up:

Three players limp to me (including Hemingway) and I’m in the hijack with A♠7♠. I could certainly fold the hand, that would be my default play. But I’ve been taking down a lot of bread and butter pots lately, regardless of my holding. If I raise, I’ll likely get called by Hemingway in the big blind, maybe one other player, they’ll check the flop and will fold to my c-bet, unless they caught a piece of the flop, and I can bail cheaply.

Everything goes according to plan when the flop comes 6♠ 8♠ 9♣ and Hemingway bets over half his stack, roughly $60. The other player folds. What does he do this with? I had seen him do it with an overpair. Did he call my raise to trap me in the exact same situation I bad beat him on earlier in the night? It’s possible he’s on some kind of draw like me, but this feels like an overpair, or top pair at worst. I think he’d try to trap me with two pair or a set. It’s also very possible he’s just spazzing out here with an aggro move. These kinds of thought processes were foreign to me before Red Chip Poker, now they’re racing through my head at the table a mile a minute.

The SPR was such that he should have shoved the flop, so I decide to put him all in.

He screams, “Are you kidding me?” and starts to hyperventilate. He bangs his hand on the table a few times like he’s trying to knock his cards unconscious, before throwing them into the muck. I guess he was just getting aggro with a draw, maybe a weak kicker with top or middle pair, or a lite stab.

He disappears for another 45 minutes, after which time a casino employee arrives at our table and asks if the coat draped over the seat next to me belonged to “the gentleman who was sitting here”. He took it away with the old man’s chips. Needing a bathroom break anyway, I got up and followed the casino employee out of the poker room and across the floor of the casino. Over by the security desk, there sat Hemingway in a wheelchair, surrounded by medical personnel. He was breathing heavily but chatting away with a security guard, just as casually as he had faded in and out of consciousness while the action was on him.

“This is why I love poker”, I thought to myself. “People who love poker love it so much, they’re literally dying to play it.”

Stacking with Strategy

That’s it for story hour, now on to the strategy. How did I do during this session? Let’s take a look:

average net result in big blinds

I’m just going to leave this here.

$1/$2 NL at Sands

(with a $275 bullet in reserve)

Cashed Out:

Session Length:
3 hours 17 minutes

Net Win Rate:

Yeah, the strategy study is working. I can feel it working in my game. And the crazy thing about it is, I can feel all the things I’m doing right more clearly, but I can also feel the things I’m doing wrong more clearly. And I’m doing a lot of things wrong! But I’m doing enough things right to make a profit and minimize variance. Well, I had a real close call on that first hand with Hemingway before I pulled out the bad beat river card, but that was more of a slip-up than a debacle. I was ready to take my lumps on that hand. And rather than kick myself for the mistake all session, the mental game move was to proceed as if nothing happened and focus on the task at hand. No doubt I had won the hand, which made it even easier to move past!

Study Session

Now that I had publicly committed to a SMART goal, I felt a lot of pressure — but also a lot of motivation — to get better. This was by design. It’s something any poker player can do without having to write a blog. Why not publicly state your goal in our forum? By stating your intentions in public, and opening up your journey for the world to see and criticize, there is no faster way of getting the feedback you need to improve.

So with the pressure of a thousand eyes, I absolutely crammed for my monthly session. I had planned a 5-6 hour session, and I set a mini-SMART goal of studying at least 6 hours before my session. The optimal ratio of study to play is often debated, and I’m sure 1-for-1 is pretty high. But I think the right answer is to study as much as you think you need to. I was progressing quickly in my game, and shining light on weaknesses I didn’t realize I had. SPR was not yet an intuition, my overall aggression was stuck in ABC TAG mode, and I was a 3-bet pre rookie. I dutifully set about righting those aspects of my game.

Pre-Session Notes

Last session I made notes to study SPR and aggression. During every study session, I take notes — not fastidious ones by any means, but if a concept jumps out as something I can use at the table, I’ll jot it down. There is just so much training material at my disposal, the art of studying strategy and then executing profitably is about focusing on a few key things. I’m trying to integrate roughly 2-3 key concepts into each new session. The techniques now firmly under my belt are: “never limp”, “raise big in limped pots”, “don’t pay them off”, that sort of thing. Here’s what I’m focusing on this time around:

Greater Positional Awareness of Other Players – I’m very positionally aware now in the sense that I’m always looking for “Bread and Butter” spots where I can make the last aggressive act and be last to act on the flop. But in order to steal and do other aggressive things like put in a few lite 3-bets (as Doug suggests in Poker Plays You Can Use), I need to better plan the spots I’m going to do this in. While I’m not playing a hand (which is a lot, because I never limp), I will observe the other players and figure out which positions are best for me to make aggressive moves pre- and post-flop. That’s where I will dial my aggression up.

Ask Myself Why I’m Making Specific Actions & Plan Ahead – This is one thing that I’ve been working on, and one thing I can tell is going to take a lot of practice to get right. At first I viewed justifying my actions and planning ahead as two separate disciplines, now I see they are intertwined. The act of planning ahead often answers the question of why you’re making a specific action. I am really starting to focus on building a preflop thought process for every hand, and will keep working on it until the process becomes instinctual.

Play More Aggressively – This was the big overall thrust of my study, and where I felt like I had a lot of progress to make. I was playing fairly close to the ABC TAG playbook, and sure I was missing value all over the place. I resolved to pick spots to play a few more hands preflop (even — gasp — limping a couple hands), and spots to raise or 3-bet when I might normally take the most passive line. In coach Doug Hull’s book Poker Plays You Can Use, the suggestion is often to pick one or two spots in your session to try out a new move. The way to play aggressively is not to all of the sudden play 50% more hands. The way the play more aggressively seems to be: play a single hand that you normally wouldn’t, in a particular spot where you have a plan and an edge. Then play another one, then another, until the move becomes a tool you have at your disposal, ready to apply any time you see a spot come up. That’s calculated aggression.

Hands at Sands

I arrived at the Sands to a 50-person waiting list for $1/$2. The casino was packed. I had waited 25 minutes last time I was here, but this time the wait was at least 45 minutes. The word is, they’re building a bigger poker room due to the massive demand for more tables, and they ain’t kidding. This is the longest I’ve ever waited to take a seat. I make a note next time to plan for this and kill some time.

Shortly before cashing out. Best Strategy in Action session yet!

Shortly before cashing out. Best Strategy in Action session yet!

The Hemingway episode happened early in the session, and after that it was a steady chip up experience. The three areas I chose to focus on proved to be a good idea:

1. I immediately set to choosing weaker players to exploit, and planning ahead the ways that I could exploit them. In particular, I observed them when they were involved in hands to pick up on weak tendencies I could exploit. I’m starting to see into the souls of the weakest poker players a little bit, the ones who telegraph their hand strength, pay you off, and fold to aggression. I took big chunks of stacks from weaker players by noticing when they were in pots, raising pre with good hands to exploit their tendency to call with worse, and C-betting nearly 100% unless the flop smashes their range with broadway cards. That move right there was easily good for $200 over the course of the game. Sure, everyone once an a while a player will wake up with a hand, but that small percentage is no reason to be less aggressive.

2. By planning ahead more, I felt like I was able to make tricky postflop decisions with more clarity. I didn’t feel like I was reacting to the flop, I felt like I was executing part of my plan. Most of the time I would simplify my decisions to whether I ‘liked’ or ‘didn’t like’ the flop texture. I make a note below in my upcoming study material to study board textures more so I can get more nuanced with my flop decision making. I really tried to focus on not c-betting flops that potentially smash my opponents, because my normal mode was c-bet 100% and I can see that’s going to be a leak in the long run. Again, this wasn’t something I specifically set out to change in my game, but an organic positive change brought on by planning hands out more clearly.

3. Playing more aggressively paid off, too. I didn’t go too crazy — I don’t even think I 3-bet lite once preflop like I had set out to do. I did play a few more hands preflop, with solid postflop plans, and reaped the rewards. I also tried a few delayed c-bets as suggested in Hull’s Poker Plays You Can Use, that was a great move to pick up some pots on flops where I was the preflop raiser playing out of position and missed the flop. Some of the more observant players were noticing my near-100% c-bet range, and the delayed c-bet was a great way to mix it up.

I must say there were very few interesting hands that came up in this session (besides the Hemingway situation). There was one where I flopped trips 3’s and called my opponents’ bets on the flop and turn in position, but chickened out on a value bet when he checked on the river. Still that nagging feeling he had a better 3 crept in, when odds-wise it was remote, but obviously not, because he mucked when he saw my hand. In retrospect I realized how wrong this was — he obviously had top pair or an overpair on the flop when he continued betting on the turn. In the same way these weaker plays are never completely bluffing when they call 3 streets, they are not betting flop and turn without a hand they like. I really lost some value there. There were a few more situations like this where I felt I was not being aggressive enough in betting for value. It was almost as if I had become hyper-aware of SPR, and was trying to play super-small ball so I didn’t put big chunks of my stack at risk. I made a mental note to continue studying postflop aggression.

At the end of the session I got a text from coach Doug Hull, whom I mention non-stop in this article series, and whom I have the pleasure of working with at Red Chip. He had read my Strategy in Action article and wanted to know if I wanted to do some coaching sessions with him for the feature! Of course I said yes, and immiedately realized I had not taken any notes and there was no input for him to analyze (especially because I’m not playing online right now). Well, I had another topic for my study list — taking notes.

Study Material

Just like last time, I’m going to end with a list of the study material I’ve selected from Red Chip’s free and PRO archives, to address the specific areas of my game I’m looking to improve. I feel like I’ve been taking on a lot of new material very quickly, and probably need a little more time to focus on calculated aggression, and making up for lost value at these soft, passive $1/$2 games. So I’m not going to overload on the new study material this study cycle. I have, however, identified two very important areas that need to be addressed:

Board Textures (Postflop Play & Planning)

Taking Notes

This plan should set me up for a great coaching session with Hull, and with my Vegas trip fast approaching, the coaching can’t happen soon enough. It’s even got me thinking about getting back set up with online poker, simply to keep my skills sharp and get fodder for coaching and analysis. It’s the trouble hands we learn the most from. Once we figure out what you did wrong, having that scar from losing a big pot is usually enough to motivate us to plug the leak. I think taking notes is going to be a game changer, and the more I can have a premeditated thought process and planning procedure, the more I can dominate these $1/$2 live games.

Thanks as always for joining me on the journey, and stay tuned for the next episode in March…

Showing 2 comments
  • Jerry Monaco

    Thank you again Zac. I find these very helpful. Especially your study notes at the end.

    In the cardrooms in NYC. (Underground, marginally legal) I think we get better players than at the casinos. This is probably because there is an extra hurdle to get to the cardrooms and you have to be committed to the danger of the very rare police raid. But basically on Friday and Saturday nights you still have the 3 to 5 limpers in a a 10 handed game. You still have the weak players making bad moves out of position. But then again you seem to have the players who are better than us.

    I’m wondering, have you ever been to any of these cardrooms? I am rarely able to get to a casino. The Sands is closest to me but there is also Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, and Bovada. I was wondering if anyone could make a comparison between the cardrooms and the casinos.

    What I love most about your pieces is that I can tell that you used to think the way I think now and that your poker study has allowed you to learn and grow. I like your study plans and I hope to imitate them.

    Maybe I will write about my peculiar experiences at some other time. I will do it if I can talk myself into believing that my experiences will be as helpful to others at my level as yours are to me.

    • Zac

      Thanks Jerry — I think I replied to you somewhere else, but not about these topics, and forgot to comment here. Didn’t want you to think I was ignoring you, as you bring up some interesting stuff.

      To your point on underground casinos — that is what keeps me away from pursuing them. It takes some serious networking to find those games. The more organized underground games seem shark-laden, but I guess I’ll give anything a try once. Still haven’t found one that reliably spreads $1/$2. Fishy home games can be fun, but there is usually this awkward aspect of infiltrating someone’s social network and taking all of their money.

      I have been to every poker room in the Northeast between Montreal and NYC. Lately I’ve been playing at the Sands because it’s closer to me than any other casino by an hour. The games also seem to have enough bad players to be profitable. I can tell you that Mohegan Sun, Foxwoods, Turning Stone, Sands, Parx, and the one in Montreal are all fantastic places to play poker. The players are a mix of reg fish and reg pros, you don’t get too many tourists as in AC and LV. The staff is great, the rooms are nice, there are lots of amenities. You basically can’t go wrong with any one you pick, so try them all on for size.