Game selection is a critical poker skill. While many new talented poker players strive to increase their playing skills in order to win more money, often the route to increased profits lays simply in choosing a better game to play.
When I refer to 'game selection,' I am not really referring to the type of poker game one plays (e.g. limit hold'em vs. no-limit hold'em). Rather, I am referring to the table and limit the player chooses to play at. You want to play in a poker game where you have an advantage over your opponents. No matter how good you are, if you play in a game filled with sharks, it is virtually impossible to make any money. The luck factor and the rake would make profits slim in the long run.
In order to win money, you need to play at a game that you can beat, but how do you determine which game that is? There are several ways to quickly analyze your opponents to figure out if you should play in the game:
First, you may just know the opponents. If you play at your local casino or an online poker room for awhile, you will get to know the players. Either by keeping notes or just through memory, you will know who is strong and weak and who you understand the best.
Second, determine how loose-passive the game is. A game that is loose is good. This means the flop percentage is high and that people will call you down with hands that really only can beat bluffs. A game that is passive is also good. This is determined by how much raising occurs. If people won't bet hard when they have very good hands, they will let you draw out on them and let you get away with only small losses on your losing hands. Fundamentally, the two work well together because the loose game lets you win big pots with made hands, and the passive game lets you draw cheaply and have small losses on losing hands.
Finally, take notice of the number of fundamental mistakes people make. After reading this site, you will hopefully have a good idea of poker fundamentals: preflop hand selection, pot odds, etc. If you notice people calling with K 4 and drawing to inside straights without pot odds, the game is good. People who make fundamental mistakes such as these are doomed to lose a lot of money in the long run. Be at their table when they are losing this money.
It takes various abilities to succeed at poker. In general, these abilities fall into three areas.
The first area is tactics. These are the essentials of poker strategy, such as pot odds and value betting. This is the area that most beginners must learn first, and it is an area that even advanced players have much to discover. For limit hold'em, these concepts are very important since so much of limit is robotic, straightforward play.
The second area is psychological skills. This includes the ability to "read people" and spot tells. People who excel in this area are good at putting other players on tilt and varying their play based on their opponents. These skills are important for no-limit games, especially live games. This is also the skill that the media enjoys promoting because it makes poker professionals look like they have some special, God-given talents.
However, unless you play very high-stakes no-limit games, this is by far the least important ability in my opinion. For lower-stakes games, tactical skills are much more important at beating the games. Straightforward play is generally the most rewarding. Also, for online poker, it is very difficult to keep track of the tens of thousands of possible opponents, not to mention the fact that there aren't exactly that many online poker tells. In short, chuck the image that poker is a game of tells and crooked psychology. Psychological skills are really only a minor part of the game.
The third area is the most neglected, yet possibly most important area: game selection skills. In short, game selection is choosing what game to play. No matter what your cardplaying ability, your hourly rate is often more dependent on your competition than your own abilities.
As the stakes increase, the importance of game selection increases. At lower stakes, almost all the games are soft. A solid player will likely win at any game, so he or she does not need solid game selection to excel. Choosing the softer games will certainly earn this player more money, but this player's tactical skills are likely sufficient enough to win at almost any game.
However, as you tread into higher limits, game selection becomes much more important. Many players who earn their money at lower limits end up busting out as they move up limits because they fail to understand this concept.
As you increase limits, it is highly likely that you will no longer be able to beat 99% of all the games out there. By beating a game, I do not mean that you will win every session. I simply mean that in the long run, you will show a profit at that game.
For example, suppose you see ten games of $5-$10 fixed-limit at casino. This casino has a funny rule that makes all players play at least five thousand hours straight before they can leave a game. This rule ensures that all players will end up hitting their long-run win/loss for that specific game. If you can beat 90% of those games at the casino, it means that there will be nine tables at which you will show a profit if you played at those specific tables for those thousands of hours, while there will be one table where you will break even or lose if you played at that table for thousands of hours.
Even players who are successful at limits like $5-$10 no-limit or $30-$60 limit cannot beat a high percentage of the games at these stakes. There will be certain tables filled with certain players at certain locations that are simply too tough. In these situations, a player would not win in the long run at that specific game.
For example, suppose there are two budding professional poker players, Tom and Jerry. Both are solid players, though Tom is slightly more skilled. Both have similar bankrolls, and both can play up to $15-$30. Since we are all-knowing observers, we have been able to figure out what percentage of games these guys can win in the long run at any given limit.
|Limit||Tom's Win %||Jerry's Win %|
Now, like many poker players, Tom and Jerry are greedy. They are only interested in playing at the highest limit they can bankroll, which is $15-$30. So what's going to happen?
Suppose both had no game selection skills whatsoever. They both just randomly chose games to play. In this case, Tom would expect to win 6 out of 10 times and Jerry would expect to only win 4 out of 10. Assuming their winning and losing sessions were about equal, Tom would end up being a slight winner overall and Jerry would slowly go bust.
But suppose Jerry is really good at selecting games. He knows he can only beat 40% of games out there, but even 40% of the possible $15-$30 games out there is still a fair amount of games!
If Jerry is able to always choose games that he can beat, then he would expect to win 100% of the time. Of course, the reality of the situation is that he will win sometimes and lose sometimes (poker is gambling after all). But if Jerry has magical game-selection skills that allow him to only choose games he can beat in the long run, he will end up a net winner. In contrast, Tom still has no game selection skills whatsoever. He just randomly chooses games to play.
In this scenario, Jerry would end up being a much larger long-run winner than Tom. Jerry would be playing in profitable games 100% of the time and Tom only 60%. Of course, no one has game selection skills this good. However, it is certainly possible that situations occur where a player who has less "cardplaying skills" than another player ends up winning a lot more money at a given limit.
Poker is a game where skill is relative. You want to maximize the amount of skill you have compared to your opponents. One way is to improve your own skills. The other way, which becomes more important at higher limits, is to find players who are much less skilled than you.
There are many players who progress to higher limits who simply do not comprehend this concept. Their egos are often too large, and they think they are able to beat any game that is available to them. Some of these players have game selection skills that are worse than just random game selection. They adamantly want to prove to themselves that they can beat any game they sit in. They end up playing in tables full of sharks. Even if these players are equal in skill to these other sharks, they will still end up losing in the long run because of the rake.
Another critical mistake some players make as they move up limits is they think that they actually do better against better-skilled players. People often get upset at the bad beats laid by poorer players and would prefer to play against players who do not raise with J 2.
Except in extremely rare cases, this is one of the biggest myths of poker. This myth is even more pronounced than the "cashout curse" boogeyman that some people babble about. Virtually never is it better to play against skilled players instead of inexperienced players.
Think about it logically. Are the skilled players losing a lot of money overall or are the unskilled players? It takes a weird logical leap to think that a lot of players can feed off of the winning players but lose a lot of money to the losing players.
In brief, here are the fundamental reasons you need to identify and play against less-skilled players:
1. Only less-skilled players make the most basic mistakes in poker. Concepts like pot odds and starting hand selection are not going to get you any advantage in a game with better skilled players because they all know these concepts, too. These basic mistakes cost players a lot of money, much more than any mistake good players make.
2. Less-skilled players hardly ever value bet effectively. They are almost always too passive or are maniacs. Good players more effectively maximize the value of their hand when they win a hand.
3. At no-limit, only unskilled players will throw away tons of money on hands that have no hope. Some players will call away their whole stack with middle pair. Calling huge bets with a fragile hand with almost no draws is one of the worst mistakes a player can make in poker.
4. The mistakes better players make simply do not matter that much. The most typical mistake good players make is being predictable. This really does not matter that much in limit hold'em since straightforward play is very rewarding. At no-limit, there is only so much a skilled player can take advantage of a predictable player. A predictable player will not make the largest mistakes in poker like calling with dead hands. Furthermore, no matter what people say, it is impossible to always know what an opponent has, especially at online poker.
5. People sometimes mistake "good" players with overly tight players. If someone is folding hands when they have odds to draw or make a crying call, then that player is not actually a good player. That player is overly tight and should still be considered a fish. It just so happens that these sorts of players are fairly rare. Folding excessively is simply not fun, and many poker players want to at least enjoy the game. Gambling it up and calling too much is much more enjoyable (even though it's unprofitable), so that type of fish is much more common.
The art of game selection is difficult to master. But here is the most important tip: analyze the game from top to bottom. If you consider the major variables that affect a game's profitability, you will hopefully end up selecting the easier games at a given limit.
1. First, consider the limit. How often do you win at this limit? You shouldn't play at limits that you are struggling or barely can beat. Focus on staying within limits that you have consistently shown a profit.
2. Second consider the location. Is it a poker room that has a reputation for tougher games like Poker Stars? Or is it a poker room that is known for fish like Party Poker? Sometimes, there are reasons poker rooms are fishier than others. Some poker rooms enact certain measures that ensure the games will stay soft, such as limiting players to playing one table, limiting the number of high stakes tables, or directing advertising towards casual players. More details about this subject are covered in the Poker Ecosystems article.
3. Third, consider the time. This is not really important for online poker since there are so many games going on all the time. However, for live poker, there will certainly be times that games tend to be fishier than others.
4. Consider the texture of the game. Watch it for a bit. Is it a fairly loose game or are the players generally rocks?
5. Finally, consider specific players. Are you fairly sure that some of the players are very poor players or that quite a few may be pros? Do you know the playing styles of a couple of players in the game very well? Are you able to formulate winning strategies against these players?
As you can see, game selection is much easier for online poker games than brick-and-mortar games. For online games, you can analyze and choose which game to play, whereas you generally must just sit where the casino places you for brick-and-mortar games.
Game selection is also more difficult to do for tournaments. For sit-n-go tournaments, you can sometimes choose to play in games against players that you know for a fact are fish. Nevertheless, except for choosing a location that tends to be soft, it is more difficult to use game selection to your advantage for tournaments.
If you plan on playing online poker, especially for higher limits, appreciate how important game selection is. There are thousands of online ring games from which to choose. Refine your game selection skills and attack the profitable ones.
If they want to maximize their winnings, advanced players should figure out which poker game they play best and why. Since winning at poker means having a higher level of skill in certain areas, a true winner should know why he is winning in order to maximize his advantage over his opponents. Different games and different betting structures require different skills.
I cannot tell you at which game you will most excel. The only way for you to know for sure is if you keep track of your poker statistics over time.
However, there are certain ingredients that are necessary for success at certain poker games. Poker players need to have an advantage with the technical and personal aspects of poker. The technical aspects are poker math, such as mastering pot odds and playing tight. The personal aspects are skills such as bluffing and varying your style of play. Here are the qualities that I believe certain games reward:
Limit hold'em rewards technicial skills, especially patience and an understanding of hand value. Since many hands go to a showdown, reading one's opponent only helps so much because it is harder to bluff and pot odds will often make a river fold highly risky.
Shorthand requires a mix of people and technical skills. People skills are important for analyzing a shorthanded game. Since there can be more bluffing at a shorthanded game, you will need to know when to increase or decrease your aggression. In general, more fancy moves can be made in a shorthand limit game than a longhand game, making people skills all the more valuable. Nevertheless, it is still limit hold'em, so technical skills are still very much important.
No-limit hold'em also requires both technical proficiency and people skills. Technical skills will help you understand how much you should bet and how much you can afford to call. People skills will help you in a hand (by putting an opponent on his cards) and determine your general strategy.
No-limit hold'em fundamentally comes down to how people utilize aggressive betting. Steal a lot of pots if people are meek, but fold if stern resistance comes to your bluffing. If people are being very loose, be patient and trap them. You should often be able to wipe them out in one hand.
Pot-limit Omaha is gaining in popularity among players, especially no-limit hold'em players. The skills required to excel at pot-limit Omaha are similar to those of no-limit Hold'em. However, the variance at pot-limit Omaha is so high that players need to have more "gamble" in them than typical no-limit hold'em players. Being able to tolerate huge swings and avoid tilt is more important in pot-limit Omaha than any other poker game.
If you are very good at remaining patient, playing quality hands, and playing pot odds, stick to limit hold'em. If you excel at poker because you know how to deal with opponents, you want to be in a shorthand, pot-limit or no-limit game.
One of the many advantages to playing poker on the internet is the ability to play multiple tables at once. Some sites allow you to play up to ten tables at once! Players who have proven themselves to be winners should consider playing multiple tables at once on the Internet in order to maximize their win rate (though playing an exorbitant amount such as eight tables is almost always inadvisable).
When playing two tables at once, most players' abilities will suffer. This is because you can't pay as much attention to each game. You will not be able to adopt as many player-specific strategies as you would if you were only playing one table. Thus, if you are used to making $10 an hour playing one game at once, do not automatically assume you will earn $20 an hour by playing two games at once. Chances are, you will earn less than $20 an hour. Thus, the key decision in this case is whether you think you would make between $10-$20 an hour playing two tables or less than $10 an hour.
Since playing two tables lowers your profit rate per table, you must have already established that you can beat the game consistently in order for it to be profitable to play two games at once. If you are breaking even at a limit and decide to play two games at once at that limit, you will probably begin to lose money since your profit rate will go from 0 to say -$5 an hour per table, which amounts to -$10 an hour.
Another critical factor when deciding whether or not to play multiple tables at once is the type of game you are playing. If you are playing a no-limit game, you may be highly dependent on player reads. Therefore, playing multiple tables might be a bad idea if it will significantly affect your ability to win. However, if you play fixed-limit games at low stakes, chances are your advantages are derived from basic, tactical skills. These types of skills, such as patience and discipline, will not be affected by multiple tables. Therefore, multiple tables tends to be a better option for limit players than no-limit players.
Furthermore, playing more than one game can be stressful. You will be constantly checking each game, making snap decisions every 15 seconds, etc. This may decrease the joy factor of the game, which may be more important to you than any extra money you could make by playing two games at once. After all, poker is not just about winning money; it is also about having fun.
Poker is not about the best players in the world competing to see who the true champion is. After all, there's no money to be made for good players if they are only competing against other good players. Instead, poker mimics the animal kingdom. The predators (good players) seek out their prey (weaker players). If the weaker players don't flee their table in time, their chips will eventually be eaten by the stronger players.
The poker ecosystem is fairly stable, though it is sometimes imbalanced. Some places have too many sharks, while there is an abundance of fish at other poker rooms. A lot of the time this is the result of geography. In some areas, there are not too many poker games, and most of the people playing are really good or really bad. In other areas, such as Vegas, there is a constant infusion of fish to keep the games fairly stable.
What is unique about the internet is that geographic barriers do not exist. If there are plenty of fish at a certain poker room, then the sharks should be able to quickly swim over and play there. However, the reality of the situation is that many people stay loyal to a select few online poker rooms, and some poker rooms have much softer games than others.
Obviously, there is a lot to be said about playing at places that you enjoy. However, some people unnecessarily play games that are shark-infested when there are much easier games elsewhere. This is particularly the case with ring games for both limit hold'em and no-limit hold'em. These games are popular at almost all internet card rooms, especially the low and mid-limits. Unless someone wants to play high limits (higher than $15-$30 or $2-$4 no-limit), there is generally a wide variety of places from which to choose.
Nevertheless, some internet card rooms are much fishier than others. There are several reasons for this. First, some internet card rooms 'protect' the fish more. For example, a poker room can limit the number of tables a person plays. Inexperienced players tend to only play one game at once anyway, but sharks tend to play multiple games at once in order to maximize their win rate. Thus, limiting the amount of tables a person can play has the effect of increasing the presence of inexperienced players.
For example, suppose there are 40 players at a card room. Ten are sharks and thirty are inexperienced players. If players are restricted to one table, then there will be a 3:1 fish to shark ratio. If players can play a maximum of three tables, it is very likely that the sharks will play three tables at once while the fish will still play at only one. So under the three-table scenario, there are effectively 30 sharks playing (ten times three tables), while there are still only 30 fish. So the ratio becomes 1:1.
Another situation that can imbalance the ecosystem is if a card room is owned by an online casino. For example, 888 Poker is owned by 888 PLC. This company also owns Casino-on-Net, which is the most popular online casino. Pacific receives a lot of crossover traffic from Casino-on-Net. These casino players do not tend to play as well as people only interested in poker, so these rooms have an added stream of fish.
Advertising is another factor. Some internet card rooms, like Party Poker, advertise much more than others. However, advertising alone does not guarantee the fish will sign up at a poker room in droves. The style of a poker room's advertisements are important. Sites that advertise poker as "fun and easy" are more likely to attract casual players than sites that challenge players to "test their skills against the pros." More about this subject can be found in this Weekly Shuffle article.
Finally, poker rooms sometimes offer incentives that attract sharks. For example, if a poker room offers a nice VIP program, the games will likely get tougher. Casual players do not play much poker, so a VIP program isn't very important to them. However, a VIP program is very attractive to sharks who play a significant amount of poker. People who play 30+ hours of poker a week will take the time to analyze which VIP program offers the most rewards for them. So while a nice VIP program is an added plus for playing at a poker room, it also has the negative affect of making the games significantly tougher at that site.
A nice signup bonus also has the affect of making games softer. This is because most new players to a poker room are generally casual players and are still learning the game. However, sites with nice VIP programs and reload bonuses tend to have tougher games. This is because players who have been playing there for years are probably pretty good, so keeping these sharks loyal has the affect of making the games tougher.
Understanding the poker ecosystem is important for good game selection. Finding soft games is as important to winning as solid poker skills. If you plan on seriously becoming a strong poker player, then I suggest that you scope out the various poker rooms available to you. Also, monitor the poker rooms you play at to see if you believe the competition is becoming harder or softer. Our site reviews page lists over a dozen internet card rooms, and they include our perceptions on the ease of competition at those poker rooms.