September 9, 2004

Learning to Swim: The Beginnings of a Poker Player?

I am one of those people who has to get into everything full throttle. I can't just be a baseball fan, I had to become completely obsessed with the sport, read and think about it all day, watch as many games as humanly possible, and force people to read my thoughts on the subject.

When I was younger, I couldn't just collect baseball cards like every other kid I knew, I had to have the biggest collection, make it into a business, and travel across the country setting up shop at various "card shows" in malls, hotels and convention centers.

I can't just sit down and play one game of Madden 2005 on PlayStation 2, I have to set up a team from scratch, make a new playbook, and go through an entire season. Or, ever since they invented "franchise mode," a dozen seasons.

I can't just buy a DVD that I like, I have to convince myself that I am in need of a DVD collection, complete with movies I'll probably never even watch, all because they were half-off when I was going through my "MUST BUY DVDS!" phase and ... well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I could go on and on with examples, but basically all you need to know is that I have what I think is called an addictive personality, among other things. Now, luckily I haven't become addicted to drugs or alcohol or anything like that, choosing instead to go with baseball (and food).

However, there's a new addiction in my life and it's poker. At this point, poker is second on the list of things that take up my time, behind only baseball. Although, with school starting, that should change quickly (sorry, I had to put that in there because I know my mom reads this). I've noticed that I am now at the stage with poker that I was maybe 6-7 years ago with baseball.

I'm fascinated by it in every way and I desperately search for any new information I can find about it. I'm reading poker blogs and poker message boards, I'm watching it on TV and talking about it with friends, I'm buying books and playing online, and, of course, I'm madly in love with Shana Hiatt.

And while I'm fairly confident that I'm knowledgeable about the subject, I'm incredibly aware that whatever knowledge I do have has only scratched the surface. In other words, if poker were baseball, I'd just now be at the point where I discovered that batting average and RBIs weren't the best ways to judge a hitter.

Like a few million other people, I first got hooked on poker while watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN last year. I had always enjoyed playing cards before, but watching Chris Moneymaker and Sammy Farha brought it to a whole new level. For a while, I was content with simply watching other people play, and I quickly discovered that not only was the WSOP on ESPN, poker was also being shown on places like the Travel Channel and Bravo.

Then this summer, while waiting for new episodes of the WSOP to begin, I really started to immerse myself in the online poker scene, reading blogs and message boards. Soon I convinced myself that it was time to try playing a little bit online, so I signed up for an account, deposited a little cash (a "little" cash being the only kind of cash I have) and began playing.

I kept hearing about all of these "fish" that were playing poker online, basically handing out money to experienced players, but I couldn't quite figure out who they were talking about or how you could spot them. And to quote Mike McD: "If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker."

And I definitely was. If ever there was a fish, I was it. I was playing way too many hands, chasing inside straight draws, calling re-raises with bottom pair, playing every starting hand the same regardless of my position at the table, and going all-in immediately with any sort of high pocket-pair. I was exactly the sort of player experienced guys dream of -- new to the game, inexperienced, excited about playing, and completely overmatched.

Thankfully, the beauty of poker is that you can get better simply by playing. In fact, that's the only way to get better. Sure, you can learn by watching the pros on TV or by reading book after book, but you won't become anything more than a slightly smaller fish without playing tons of hands. So that's what I did. It hurt for a while, because I couldn't figure out why I kept losing. I figured I was just unlucky, but the fact was that I had no idea what I was doing.

Now it's a few months later and, while I still don't know what I'm doing compared to a lot of people, I think I can safely say I've advanced past the "fish" portion of my playing days. Not only am I winning, but I know why I'm winning, which is perhaps even more important. I no longer need to catch great cards to avoid losing all my money and I can actually see the weaknesses in other players. I'm playing suited connectors, figuring outs, check-raising, and slow-playing when I flop a set. In other words, I'm good enough now that I can do a pretty good job pretending to be a real poker player.

While most people thrive in limit games, grinding out wins as fish come and go at a ring-game table, I actually do far better in small, no-limit "Sit and Go" tournaments. I've found that I need to be able to put some force behind my bets in order to be effective, whereas even the biggest raise in a limit game is likely to be called by someone if they've got something they think they can win with. But if I put someone on a marginal hand and come out firing with a bet that would take a huge chunk out of their stack, they'll probably fold.

Like most players who sense improvement in their game, I moved way too fast. I began playing $5 S&G tourneys and did well, so I jumped all the way up to $20 S&Gs. While I didn't lose my shirt there, I struggled just to break even, so I eventually took a step back down to $10 S&Gs, where you can absolutely see a difference in the type of play and quality of player.

You won't get rich playing $10 S&Gs (the winner gets $50, second gets $30, third gets $20), but you won't go broke either. In the last two weeks, I've had stretches where I've finished in the money in five straight S&Gs and another stretch where I cashed in seven out of 10.

While I'll always have dreams of seeing myself on ESPN slow-playing the nut flush against Gus Hanson some day, I'm resigned to the fact that, while I may eventually become a good poker player, I'll probably never become that good a poker player. Instead, I've set a slightly smaller goal: I want to finish in the money in The Second Annual SABR Convention Poker Invitational. By the time I find myself in Toronto for the 2005 convention, I'll have had a year to stew about Joe Dimino pairing both his ace and his six to take down my pocket eights.

My favorite poker message boards:

- The 2+2 Forums

- Rec.Gambling.Poker

My favorite poker blogs:

- Iggy's Guinness and Poker Blog

- Chris Halverson's Basically a Poker Blog

- The Cards Speak

- Tao of Poker

- Poker Grub's Bad Beats and Bad Beets

- Stripper by Night

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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