Monday, October 02, 2006

The Long Road

So, it's time for a little check in.

Live play has been completely tuned in as of late for me. Recent results include three straight cashes (a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd) in one of the leagues I play in, and two satisfying wins in two straight days last week. Granted, I feel as if the cards have been running good for me... and perhaps this is one of those things that every poker player feels, but by "running good" I really just mean having the best hand hold up and occasionally winning a race or a 60/40.

Tournaments are one of those things... when you're winning, you love them and can't play enough... and when things are going bad... you hate them and swear them off forever. But there's more going on here than simple fate and luck... there really is a fine line that you can walk as a player... things you can actually control, even when it seems like just a matter of cards and luck.

Some points:

I believe the ipod has been a big aid in my case. It doesn't matter what I'm listening to... but having music in my ears at a low enough volume to still hear table talk, seems to dramatically increase my confidence and focus. It puts me in just enough of my own little world (some guys feel this way about hats and glasses) to stay on top of situations, make good reads, and carefully consider every single point of action.

Taking time on every action, even when your play is predetermined and clear (to you) has been something I've overlooked in the past. It throws off opponents and gives them a chance to make an incorrect read or overthink a situation (or talk themselves into or out of something). Maybe more importantly, I catch myself finding other angles or reasons for doing something else than what I might have done if I was forced to act immediately. It gives you a chance to catch a mistake before you make one. I was actually accused of slowrolling Kings against a guy two weeks ago, because I was contemplating the other players actions and what they might mean. UTG had limped, prompting two more limps, and in middle position with the Kings I raise of course... folded back around to UTG, who moved all in (very suspect) and folded to me. I hadn't played with this player before... and the limp re-raise all in could indeed have been aces. Fortunately, I had him covered nearly 2:1, so I could call with little fear, and his mid pair didn't improve. Bringing me to my next point:

I tread a lot more carefully (think "alligator blood") without adequate chips. Now this may seem like an obvious strategy... I mean, ok you don't have that many chips... of course you have to play carefully and have limited options compared to deep stack poker, but it has greater impications than that. For starters, although some of my circle of games have started taking on better and better structures (longer levels, etc), there's still pressure... and it becomes paramount to not dick around post flop in the early going.

The key here is to absolutely *not* lose any significant amount of chips early on (which simply means not putting much in without the nuts or near nuts), and nearly as important, gain some. For me, what this "gain some" means is actually doing a lot of observation which will help both immediately and later, but also getting involved in good spots with anything which can flop well, and doing so for raises when opening the pot. I pressure, and set a tone that I think may benefit me: "I'm not going to do anything stupid, and you're not going to outplay me... I'm not profitable for you to tangle with... move on."

Then later, in the determining middle stages of the tournament, with chips to burn, you can play your game with little fear. Example from last Monday: I'm the chip leader or close to it, although there are other similar stacks, final table, maybe 8 players left. UTG limps, and there's another limp when it gets to me, and holding A9s, I elect to call, some more folds and the SB limps, BB checks. The flop came 942, and it's checked to me. Clearly, with top pair, top kicker and this many players involved, I need to bet solid and see where I'm at. UTG concerns me with his limp (although less since his flop check) and the SB had made a strange look when looking at his cards before calling preflop. SB goes into the tank and I'm on him: no movement or action is going to go unnoticed by me. After a protracted think, he moves all in, everyone folds around to me.

He's a good player... smart, tricky... and very rarely out of line. I mull over the bottom set or two pair possibilities, and still feel like flipping a coin to decide whether to call or not. Eventually I do call, and he holds 43. (From him, this was essentially a bluff, and he must have believed either I held nothing, or more likely, that I would ultimately fold to that much pressure from him.) The point of this long long story is, without the chips to burn, I could not have made that call or put myself in the situation to knock him out and gain significant chips. With a smaller stack, I couldn't have called the bet from this player... and with an even smaller short stack, I would have been all in and he would have folded.

Really though, all of these things above come back to focus, concentration, and confidence. I've been guilty before of many of the silly little sins poker players have: marrying excellent starting cards that have probably been outflopped... and not being patient enough or thinking through a lot of situations where the action seems automatic, but there may be overlooked angles (both bad and good ones).

With the amount of time I've spent thinking about, watching, and indeed playing the game... I know I have more experience than most of the people I play against. Using that experience is the difficult part... it's far to easy to think that simply having it, or being more knowledgeable means you will win. And far more devastating when you don't, and you know you didn't play well.

I've definitely hit my zone lately, and even without the great results, I'd have to say this is the best I've ever played.