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STRATEGY TIPS

Top 10 Mistakes of the Small Stakes Superstar

The Official World Poker Tour Magazine

So you’ve won games, mastered some moves and think you’re ready to raise the stakes? Barry Carter’s guide to upgraders’ errors will help you avoid ending up with empty-pockets.

Just as the How to Lose Your Gut in Ten Days article is a staple of fitness magazines, the Top Ten Mistakes Made by Rookies is something we’ve all seen written in just about every book, magazine and online forum about poker.

These articles pick up on common traits of the uncultured player: playing too many hands, playing Ace-Rag, calling too much, not understanding position and so on. We’ll see plenty more of these features, too – and that’s a good thing, because they are valuable lessons not to be overlooked.

But what if you’re a player who doesn’t need to read another one of those? Maybe you’ve been playing for a while now; you’ve built your bankroll up to a nice-looking figure with plenty of zeroes, made a few final tables and have read some of the better-known poker bibles. So now you don’t need any more tuition, right?

And perhaps you’re already aware that some of the lower stakes tables often actually see a better grade of poker than their higher counterparts. This is because the $10 games are filled to the brim with new players who are keen to learn their trade and build their bankroll gradually, whereas $100 games have a lot of rich donkeys who fancy a flutter on this Hold ’Em game they’ve seen on TV.

So, moving up a level from the stakes you’ve been playing at and dominating shouldn’t be much of a problem, should it?

Well, as clever and calculated as many ‘low-stakes Phil Iveys’ may be, some will never be able to progress past their current level. Not being able to adapt to situations and an over-reliance on what they believe to be the ‘correct’ way of playing has been the downfall of many an up-and-coming player.

No matter how good you are, you don’t know it all, and there is always room for improvement, whether you’re a WPT champion or a $20 sit-and-go master. So if you’ve been dominating the small stakes for a while but you haven’t managed to make the next move up, let’s have a look at what you might be doing wrong…

1. LECTURING THE TABLE

As I write, someone has just been laying into another player at my table for not believing his bluff and calling with a winning pair of Kings. He ranted and raved about how he represented an Ace pre-flop and that he also could have had a flush, blah blah blah, on and on.

The response from his new best friend was a stunner: “When is the book coming out?” Brilliant, and a great example of how ridiculous some players can look when they decide to start telling everybody at the table how bad they are and how clever yours truly is.

Unless you really have written a best-selling poker manuscript, bite your lip when someone makes a ludicrous call and sucks out on you. Lecturing the table is bad karma, and more importantly, it makes a target of your back, and everyone will be gunning to bust you.

You may also fall into the trap of giving away too much about yourself if you start dissecting how you played a hand and why. Letting someone know they were wrong to call your re-raise when you had A-K may give out the information that if you do re-raise, you must have at least A-K, which will not maximize the value of a hand next time you make the same move. Keep it zipped and let them feel a quiet shame instead.

2. TREATING YOUR PLAYER NOTES AS GOSPEL

Observation is a key skill in poker, and your player notes will give you a strong advantage if you can be objective about them. No matter how thorough they are, you should always be prepared to reject them when all the other signs tell you something different.

Maybe this person has improved as a player since you last met. Or perhaps he was in a bad mood the last time you played. Or maybe he’s being a bit naughty and sharing his poker account with someone else.

If you’re convinced that a particular player limps under the gun with garbage hands, then you’ll only have yourself to blame when he shows you Aces. If you’re certain he’ll fold to a strong re-raise, then don’t go crying to your favorite internet forum when he commits to his hand and knocks you out at the bubble of a big tournament.

And don’t forget that even the biggest donks get dealt good hands, the same as anyone else. Use your player notes as a guide, but use all the information around you to form a full opinion about the hand.

3. PLAYING WITH ‘GUS HANDS’

Gus Hansen is a legend. Not only does he manage to regularly rob the cream of the poker world with what appear to be seemingly useless hands, he’s also managed to make many an avid poker fan part with their money, confusingly, by trying to emulate him.

You’ll see a lot of people re-raising players with 7-9 off suit, hitting the flop and busting out – they just can’t understand why it always works for the Great Dane and not for them.

Gus is not, in fact, the luckiest person in the world. There are many factors that make his playing style work for him – and they won’t work for the intermediate player. First of all, what we see on televised final tables is highly edited, Gus won’t play every 6-8 of diamonds he comes across, and actually only the big pots will make it on to the final edit of the show. Gus is also playing for millions of dollars, and much of his decision-making is based on the fact that, with the exception of a few megastars, most of his opponents will be under a lot of pressure financially and slightly out of their depth.

Top pair with an Ace kicker doesn’t look that amazing when Gus Hansen re-raises you all-in and the difference between winning the hand and losing it is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The same hand in a $30 SNG, and that level of pressure is not going to be on. It’s an instant call, and most of the time the best hand stands up.

4. OVER-VALUING YOUR POSITION

We all know that position is one of those things that the newbie completely overlooks. That, when it is used correctly, one can ascertain when to bluff, call or lay down based on the wealth of information the Button gives us. Also, the position of being able to act before someone, when used correctly, enables us to steal pots before someone else has a chance to.

But being in an advantageous position doesn’t mean that you have the best five-card hand, and there are times where you have to sacrifice position in order to preserve your chips.

Calling a limp-in position with a suited connector or small pocket pair is a great way to play that hand, but if there has already been a raise and re-raise before you, you have to be prepared for the fact that someone at some point is going to be committing all their chips to the hand. Once all the chips are in the middle of the table, position becomes a thing of the past, and we are brought back to an old but often forgotten concept called ‘best hand wins’.

Unless you have a very strong hand, you need to be able to control the size of the pot when you are playing position. When there have been raises and re-raises, and people are committed to their hands, position doesn’t quite have the same value.

5. OVER-VALUING THE POT ODDS

The books will always tell you that, mathematically, it is wrong to fold your hand, so you call with nothing and on a rare occasion suck out, but most of the time you’ll simply end up crippling yourself. If you’re getting a great price to call in the Big Blind and you have some humble attraction to your hand (maybe it’s got a King in it, or maybe it’s suited, or perhaps it at least has a joke name such as ‘Motown’ or ‘Dolly Parton’), then maybe you should take a stab with it… if you’re sure you can afford it.

Last night, I was the short stack in the final table of a big multi-table tournament. I had about 10,000 chips, three people before me had gone all-in, and I had K-7 off-suit. Had I called, I would have got more than 4-1 on my money, and would have been in a reasonable position chip-wise if I won. Great pot odds indeed, and King-high isn’t (mathematically) that bad to call with in this spot.

I didn’t, though, and in an amazing hand the chip leader caught quad Threes and busted two other players out.

Had I called I would have lost, but done so with the right odds for the pot. But what about the real money odds I was getting to not call? I knew that, with three people all-in, I was almost guaranteed to move up the final table money ladder by not calling. In this case I moved two places, the difference for which was about $1,000. Admittedly I busted out the next hand, but with a lot more money in my pocket than if I had made a ‘correct’ pot odds call.

When considering a pot odds call, don’t forget to take into account the implied effect on your tournament standing. Mathematically, calling may be correct, but tactically it could prove to be a real nightmare.

6. SLOW-PLAYING BEATABLE HANDS

Another trait of the player who is insistent on trying to ‘outplay’ the table is the excessive use of slow-playing. Sometimes the only way to play a hand is to act weak and induce bluffs. Flopping a full house or quads will usually result in a dangerous-looking board to others, so the only way to maximize the value of a hand is to act weak. Another reason to slow-play is if you are up against a particularly aggressive opponent who is bound to take a stab or two at the pot.

But just because a hand is strong, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be outdrawn, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t be aggressive with it. Two-pair is a hand that should never be slow-played because it is often outdrawn by straights or better two-pairs. Similarly, a straight can often lose out to a better straight, and slow-playing one will give your opponent the chance catch their card.

A flush should only be slow-played if you hold the Ace – if you don’t, and that fourth spade hits, you might have the losing hand. A set is a hand that potentially doesn’t need to be slow-played, because it is the best disguised hand, and if someone else hits the flop, you can try to get a lot of chips in the middle while they still like their hand.

Slow-playing needs to be reserved for the monster hands and the reckless opponents. Doing it against passive prey will only reduce your potential earnings and give one too many free cards to the flush-lover.

7. RAISING BY THE VERY MINIMUM

Don’t let anyone tell you that mini-raising is a clever way to get more money in the pot. A minimum raise is always a weak act. Either you are signaling that you are scared of your own hand and you want to leave yourself the option of getting away from it (usually small pocket pairs or hands like A-J). Or you have a huge hand and you’ve just given people the correct odds to outdraw you.

It is so easy to play against a mini-raise pre-flop. But make a decent bet on the flop and you will know by how they react to it whether you should fold your hand or push with it.

8. OVER-BETTING YOUR HAND

The other end of the spectrum is the player who, after one too many bad beats, gets a pair of Kings or Queens and bets about eight times the Big Blind to open the betting – making sure that someone pays a hefty price to hit their Ace. This is another tactic that indicates he is scared of his own hand.

Not only does over-betting mean that you will rarely maximize the value of a good starting hand, it also means that you are only likely to be called by a strong one, which therefore has a lot of potential to beat yours.

Making a standard, strong raise will disguise your hand a little, will maximize the value when you win by inviting others to play, and will give you flexibility to get away from the hand if you feel you’re beat.

9. SHOWING OFF YOUR BLUFFS

This is a bad move because, most of the time, nobody cares. If you are showing a bluff to make people see how clever you are, you are only giving them free information about yourself, which they can use against you. The only time you should show a bluff is when you want to elicit reckless behavior from someone, so the circumstances must be right.

Time after time we see the Small Stakes Superstar raise with 7-2 off-suit. Everyone folds and he shows, like he just won a million-dollar pot. When you show a bluff it must be in a pressure pot situation, which you’re aware really meant something to your opponent, like if they lost half their stack towards the end of a tournament or you have just re-raised an attempt to steal your blind.

Your opponent must be someone who will respond badly to it, so you need to have been chatting to get an idea of the mentality of the opponent. If he has been quiet most of the game, don’t bother. If he has been lecturing the table and acting like a baby, fair enough – show, show, show, and send him over the edge.

If you want to give that much information away about yourself, make sure it has an impact. In general, it never hurts to keep your bluffs to yourself and keep your opponents guessing.

10. KIDDING YOURSELF

The reason why the Small Stakes Superstar remains just that is because, after a short period of success, he believes he’s seen and done it all. He’s read a few books, won one tournament, owns a copy of Rounders on DVD and he thinks that there’s nothing left to do.

But you’ll still make mistakes. You’ll always play some hands badly, and ultimately you just don’t know everything. Until the very last time to throw your chips on the table, you should be striving to learn more about this game and be critical of your own performance. Thinking you have mastered a level will not open your mind enough to progress to the next one.

Too many players put their losses down to bad beats and dumb plays by their opponents. Taking a ‘victim’ mentality will only expose you to more of the same, but opening yourself to different ways of thinking about poker will keep your mind sharp and prepared for any situation.

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