The Death of Professional Poker Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Steve Ruddock : September 27th, 2016

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A central theme in a lot of poker chatter on the forums and on social media centers around the idea that the dream of becoming a professional poker player is dying.

The reasons are many and varied, but among the chief complaints players have been lodging are the reduced rewards and rake increases sites are currently instituting, and the introduction of less skillful forms of poker, like Spin & Go’s.

A lot of people see this as poker becoming less skillful, which while technically correct, it doesn’t necessarily mean win rates have to go down or poker as we know it is dying. What’s really occurring is the way they were taught to beat the game is no longer the GTO way to approach the game if you’re looking to turn poker into a career.

A lot has changed since I first started playing poker some 15 years ago, but one thing hasn’t changed: Good players are able to find good games.

The key to find beatable poker games is two-fold:

  1. Be adaptable
  2. Be a contrarian

Adaptability

Basically, when one structure becomes difficult to beat, whether it’s because of a rake change, a loss of VIP rewards, or players improving and edges drying up, you need to:

  1. be aware of the zeitgeist; and
  2. be willing to adapt to the changes or move on.

The sooner you adapt to the changing environment the better. This will give you an important head start on the people who stick it out with the old game until the bitter end.

Contrarian

In 2004 the poker world “knew” skill presented itself in slow structures not all-in fests where all you need to know is the proper push/fold strategies. Just like in 2001 the poker world “knew” that tight was right and a four-bet always meant Aces. To borrow a line from Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black, I wonder what the poker world will “know” tomorrow.

It’s foolish to dismiss others who are doing things that don’t make sense to you as inferior (although this can certainly be the case), when it could be your understanding that is lacking.

Basically, you need to be willing to test the conventional wisdom.

An example of being an adaptable contrarian

When I was heavy into online poker back in the early poker boom days, I stuck to Party Poker’s Sit & Go tournaments. All of my poker-playing peers laughed at my choice, since Party’s S&G’s were deemed less skillful.

“You play Party S&G’s! I play at PokerStars where you win by being skillful not by getting lucky in an all-in-fest.”

Truth be told, Party’s S&G’s were ahead of their time, they were pretty much turbos bordering on hypers, but at the time the prevailing wisdom was winning players won with slow structures. The idea that there was skill to push/fold situations was scoffed at.

This was good for me, since most of the better Sit & Go players were over at PokerStars and other sites where S&G structure resembles today’s. Even better, the people I was facing were pretty much clueless when it came to proper push/fold strategies – most people were much too tight.

I made a lot of money, and had an ungodly ROI and hourly rate playing the most absurdly basic style you can imagine – this was effective up to the $30 level, and the $50 level for a spell.

Here’s the structure of Party’s old S&G’s 2003-2005/2006ish:

  • Standard 50%/30%/20% payout structure.
  • Each player started with 800 chips and the blinds increased every 10 hands.
  • The blind levels were: 10/15, 10/20, 15/30, 25/50, 50/100, 75/150, 100/200 and so on.

My basic strategy was to fold every single hand except AA and KK (which I shoved) during the first four levels. This left you with about 500-600 chips depending on how many people were eliminated. At the 50/100 level you switch to a standard push/fold strategy, which was extremely effective considering your table image.

Everything I was doing was counterintuitive:

“If you’re a good player you should be able to outplay your opponents.”

Folding QQ and AK cannot be +EV.”

Both of these are true, but there were several other truths I learned about poker implementing this strategy:

Image

As Andre Agassi used to say, “It’s all about the image.”

The image I cultivated, coupled with people’s ignorance about push/fold situations offset any small edges I was giving up by not playing 88 and AQs.

Furthermore, at a short-handed table, with the right table image, and a stack that has just entered the push/fold stages, I figured out UTG steals are (or at least they were, I assume people have figured this out in modern poker) extremely effective.

Push/fold strategies

I learned push/fold strategies way ahead of most players.

And since I was much better than virtually all of my opponents at this, even if I squeaked into the money (which typically happened at around the 100/200 blind level) I won my fair share of these tournaments.

Rationalizing skill

People misunderstood what skill means, and just because a format utilized a skill they thought basic or were not used to utilizing, the games that highlighted these “lesser” skills weren’t considered real poker.

The ability to adjust to a structure is a very important skill, as is the ability to recognize when you have a huge edge in a game, and since the vast majority of players were unwilling (wittingly or unwittingly) ┬áto adjust to the structure of Party’s S&G’s, there was a lot of profit to be made.

Many of the people poo-pooing Party’s structure did so out of what I always considered to be an elitist attitude. They would say things like, “I didn’t spend all this time working on my game to play push/fold.”

Hourly rate vs. ROI

Back in 2004 and 2005 people focused on ROI and not hourly rate. Coming from live poker, I always looked at what I was making per hour, not BB/100 or ROI.

What was great about Party’s S&G’s was, not only could you play two Party S&G’s in the time it took to play one at one of the other major sites, but because you did relatively nothing for the first 20 minutes, you could play a lot more of them.

I probably would have had a better ROI and played higher if I was playing the better structured PokerStars games, but it’s not better to ┬ábeat $100 S&G’s on Stars for a 20% ROI, when I could play four-times as many $30 Party S&G’s and beat them for that same 20% ROI, or more – yes, ROI’s were quite high at the beginning of the poker boom.

And because of the boring style I played, I almost always had a cash game table up while I was playing S&G’s too.

When to move on

As people started catching on, and more people were imitating the tight early strategy, the Party S&G’s got tougher, and by 2005 my earlier strategy wasn’t as effective – instead of five or six players left at the 50/100 level, there were now seven or eight.

I tweaked my strategies a little (loosening up earlier to try to grow my stack), but since I kept a careful eye on the lobby I noticed a new format, the three-table S&G, and quickly jumped into these games. When these were first introduced I would wager that I was among the biggest winners at the $30 level for several months.

Final thoughts

Certain games may be getting tougher to beat, but this doesn’t mean poker is unbeatable. There are other formats, tournaments, or even playing live to consider. And even where you are matters. A Stud game in Atlantic City or at Foxwoods is likely going to be much tougher to beat than a Stud Game in other casinos.

One of the things that kept me profitable in poker was a willingness to change and adapt.

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