I’d like to write a bit about the early days of my poker career. Everyone has to start somewhere, and there is no shame in playing small games or small tournaments – quite the contrary, actually. In the early ‘80s, I played the tournament circuit – but not the circuit you might be thinking of. It was the Las Vegas small-tourney circuit. I played all over town in the $55 buy-in tournaments. I did it for years, and it was a big factor in my becoming the player I am today. I used to play at some casinos that you may have never heard of, or at least probably never entered – like the Landmark and Silver City. A number of other players used to do the same thing. One of those players was Tom McEvoy. Tom and I spent years playing as many small tournaments as we could handle, and sure enough, both of us eventually became world champions.
The point I want to drive home is that playing in these small tournaments gave us the experience we needed to beat the larger ones. Poker is hard work, and just like any other profession, it takes experience to rise to the top. When you play poker long enough, you start to see the same situations come up again and again. Now, I don’t mean the exact same cards and people, but close enough. I don’t care how smart you are, if a situation is new to you, it is hard to make the correct decision consistently. But if you make the wrong decision a few times and the situation comes up again, you say to yourself, “Hey, I did this last time and it didn’t work too well; I’ll try this instead and maybe it’ll work better.” And lots of times it does, and you remember it. That’s just one of the things that experience does for you.
Another advantage of having experience is the peace of mind it brings you. After having been in a situation a number of times, you’ll be less likely to panic, and you’ll feel generally more comfortable in the surroundings. A good analogy is an athlete practicing and honing his skills. You don’t see the top players in any sport just winging it. They spend years doing drills and developing their muscles and minds to be able to perform when the time comes.
When I play enough with someone, I know how he plays and I know how he thinks, so when it comes down to getting involved in a pot with him, I almost know what he has. For instance, there are certain players who always play the nuts. I’d watch them time after time when they went all in and they’d almost always have the nuts, or close to it. By spending hours with them in the small tourneys, I learned what types of hands they played, and this helped me avoid getting involved with them at the wrong time in a larger tournament. This in turn translated into a lot of extra money for me, as I avoided getting knocked out on a number of occasions.
Here’s an example: uppose that a certain player opens the pot and I raise with a pair of queens. Now, this player comes back at me, and I’ve played a lot of times with him, so I’ve formed an opinion about how he plays. If it were someone I’d never played with, I might be forced to automatically call and see what happens. But if it’s a player I’ve watched a lot and I know that he’d never come back at me with anything but aces or kings, I can muck my hand with confidence. This is one of many examples of how putting in the hours in the small tourneys can pay big dividends. You’ll never know how someone plays until you’ve seen him in action for a while.
Now let’s flip that around a little. Suppose that I raise with a pair of jacks and another player comes over the top for all of his chips, and I have been watching this player over the course of many tournaments. Now, I’ve seen him make this play with aces, kings, and queens, of course, but I’ve also seen him do it lots of times with small pairs. As a matter of fact, let’s suppose that I know this player makes this play every time he has a small pair. Perhaps he thinks his small pair is a big favorite over any two big cards, like A-K or A-Q. He also may think that by doing this, he can get his opponent to lay down A-Q, A-J, K-Q, and a few other hands. I can obtain a read on this type of player by sitting with him in numerous tournaments over a couple of years or more. Now, my play is fairly clear. I’ve got to go ahead with the hand. If he was an ABC player, I’d be much more inclined to muck it. Had I not spent the time to play so many times with this player, I wouldn’t really know the correct play.
Sometimes you’ll learn that a player never calls a big bet unless he has the absolute nuts. He likes to open a pot with big hands and then has conviction only if he flops a huge hand. If he opens for a raise and flops a mediocre hand, he bets a small percentage of the pot. He feels obligated to bet, but has no conviction about his hand, so he makes a token bet. Let’s say that if he misses the flop completely, he always checks. Now, let’s say that you have position on this player. If he opens the pot, you could call him with almost any hand. What he does on the flop will tell you how to play.
Lots of poker online players have different moods at different times. By playing with them often, you can sense their moods and factor them into the decisions you make when playing hands against them. There is an endless list of skills that you can cultivate with experience. The bottom line is that the more you play, the better you should become.