We're updating the site for a better experience. Thanks for your patience! ♥️

Advanced Game Selection

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.

Game Selection: the Key to High-Stakes Poker
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 %
$.50-$1 99% 99%
$1-$2 98% 97%
$2-$4 96% 85%
$3-$6 83% 73%
$5-$10 77% 64%
$10-$20 68% 53%
$15-$30 60% 40%

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.

Play Against Unskilled Players
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 [[cards Js 2h]].

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.

Finding the Right Game
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.

Next Article: Expected Utility

Poker Games

Special Offers

See the Special Offers

Live Poker

Find out about Live Events