I recently asked my followers on Twitter (@JonathanLittle) and Facebook about the things they have the most trouble with in poker. I got a ton of replies. In this blog post, I am going to respond to five questions I hope will be interesting and beneficial to you.
Chad: I find that I tend to bust on the bubble. Do you have any advice to help me get in the money more often?
JL: There are two main reasons why players bust too often on the bubble. The first reason is because they play too tight during the early stages of the tournament, resulting in having a small stack near the bubble. If you have a much shorter stack than everyone else in the field, you should expect to be the next player out, especially if the average stack size is 25 big blinds or less. It is easy to go broke if you only have 10 big blinds or so. If you have this problem, you should loosen up and play more aggressively in the earlier stages of the tournament, allowing you to get to the bubble with a healthy stack. Don’t be afraid to play with non-premium cards!
The second reason players bust too often on the bubble is because they are trying to abuse the bubble too aggressively. While the bubble is a prime situation where you can steal a lot of chips, you have to be careful not to constantly commit your stack against players who are desperately trying to get in the money. If you know someone really wants to get in the money, you should aggressively steal their blinds but once it becomes clear they are trying to put a significant amount of their stack in the pot, you should get out of the way because they almost certainly have a premium hand.
Another concept worth mention is that your goal when playing a tournament should not be to get in the money. While getting a little cash is nice, your goal should be to give yourself a realistic chance to win. Some of the biggest losers in tournament poker are the players who cash the most often. If you play in a manner that will get you in the money a large percentage of the time, you are often sacrificing the opportunity to win. If you find that you usually have a short stack when you are on the bubble, you are probably playing too tight throughout the event.
Mike: I find that when I play tournaments, I tend to play too quickly. Do you have any advice to help me remember to slow down and think through each decision?
JL: This is a difficult problem to solve because the most obvious answer, which is to simply take your time, clearly doesn’t work for you. I suggest you make a check list of things you have to analyze before making each and every decision. Some things you should consider are: What are the effective stack sizes? How does my opponent’s action alter his range? What does my opponent think about my range? How strong is my hand compared to my opponent’s range? What betting line will lead to the greatest expectation for me? Of course, there are different questions you should ask yourself in each specific situation, but this is a good place to start.
I make a point to always ask myself why I am choosing a specific action before I make it. I then ask myself what the merits of the alternative actions are. Once I run through all of them, I make my play.
Once you get a lot of experience at the table, as well as studying away from the table, you will find that most decisions become fairly standard. While this may lead you to think you can play quickly, you should still take at least some time to analyze each situation. If you find that you are frequently playing on auto-pilot, you are certainly leaving money on the table.
Steve: I have problems controlling my emotions at the poker table. Do you have any advice to help me stay sane?
JL: It is important to quantify what triggers you lose control of your emotions and then take steps to either make that trigger become irrelevant to you or prevent that trigger altogether. Some players get upset when they get bad beat or when they are not dealt a playable hand over the course of a few orbits. Others get jittery near the end of a session or when they are tired. Figuring out what makes you lose control is the first step.
In the past, I used to get tilty whenever, in my opinion, a dealer treated me poorly. For example, if the dealer assumed I was the player who failed to put an ante in the pot whereas in reality, it was someone else, I would assume the dealer thought I was an idiot, resulting in me being offended. Of course, the opinion of someone I am not playing with should not alter my play. Other times, the dealer would simply be bad at their job, either dealing super slow or failing to pay attention at all. I eventually came to the realization that the service I get at a casino should not alter how I actually play poker at that casino. Of course, if the service is bad, I don’t have to come back, but once I am in the game, the service is completely irrelevant. Once I realized this, I stopped tilting in these situations.
For more information on how to control and prevent tilt, I strongly suggest you check out my book, Positive Poker.
David: How do you play from out of position?
JL: This is a difficult question to answer briefly because the topic of playing out of position is so broad. For a thorough treatment of this subject, I suggest you check out my books, Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker, Volume 1 for tournaments and Jonathan Little on Live No-Limit Cash Games for cash games.
In general, I tend to play a very tight strategy from out of position. I am more than happy to fold the vast majority of my hands from the first three seats at a ten-handed table. I also play quite tight from the small blind, even if I know the initial raiser likes to play a wide range of hands. Of course, when I have a decently strong hand, such as any pair or a decent suited connector, I will usually at least see a flop.
From the big blind, when facing a standard preflop raise, especially if the pot is heads up and you are facing a small raise, you can call with a reasonably wide range. After the flop, you should look to win the pots where you likely have the best hand and also when the flop should be good for your range and bad for your opponent’s range.
For example, suppose with 100 big blind stacks, a relatively straightforward player raises from middle position and you call in the big blind with Ks-Ts or 3c-3h. The flop comes 9c-7c-5d. You check and the initial raiser makes a standard continuation bet. This is an excellent spot to check-raise because unless your opponent has an overpair or better made hand, he will tend to fold. Since you know he is relatively tight, you should not expect him to connect too often with this board. If instead of continuation betting the flop, he checks behind, you should usually bet both the turn and river as long as an A doesn’t come, expecting to make your opponent fold most of his range by the river. As you can see, when defending your big blind in a heads-up pot, you goal should not be to simply play in a tight, straightforward manner after the flop.
Carlos: How should you play when you are playing with money you can’t really afford to lose?
JL: The most obvious answer is not to play with money that you cannot afford to lose. I think a lot of people play with a bankroll that is WAY too small for the games they regularly play. It is not uncommon for an amateur player to make $1,000 from their day job and buy in to a $1/$3 live game for $300. If they win, they will try to run it up, quickly moving to $2/$5 and then $5/$10 before inevitably going broke. If instead they saved up their money from their job, they could put away a nice bankroll of $6,000 or so before attacking the $1/$3 games. They could then play without the stress of losing all their money to a run of bad cards, which will almost certainly occur at some point.
If you happen to find yourself playing in a game that is way too big for you, such as when you win a satellite into an event you cannot reasonably afford, which happens to countless players each year during the WSOP Main Event, you should play as if you are playing your regular game. Of course, you should treat all of your games with a high amount of seriousness and strive to play your best. You have to understand that once you resolve to sit in a game that is too big for you, all you can do is play your absolute best. You have already failed miserably at bankroll management and must now live with the consequences. You have to understand that the result of any individual tournament or session is prone to a high amount of variance. Once you accept that, you will be able to play your best poker and not worry too much about the result because in reality, you can’t do much to control how the cards run once you decide to play.
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