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Cash Game Selection

By Tony Guerrera

If you want to be a winning poker player, you need to focus on strategy related to the playing of hands. But that’s not the only thing worth your attention. One aspect of poker playing that goes largely ignored is table selection. Sure, occasional articles talk about it (hey…you’re reading one such article now). But how many players actually engage actively in the process of intelligent table selection?

Many players believe that table selection is simply about choosing beatable tables. Therefore, many players view table selection as an implicitly self-deprecating act. And poker players could never engage in self-deprecating acts, right? After all, we poker players tend to be an ego-filled lot. Pretty much every poker player thinks that he is the world’s greatest player. Pretty much every poker player thinks that he can sit down and beat any game that he’ll encounter.

So yeah, self-deprecation and ego don’t exactly mix. But the disciplined few who are quite successful at making money from poker take the following mantra to heart: “leave your ego at the door.” If you can’t look at yourself honestly, then you can’t be a good poker player. (Okay, fine, some very well known poker “pros” don’t seem to be very honest with themselves, so I’ll edit to say that looking at yourself honestly will substantially increase your chances of being a profitable player.)

Focusing on table selection goes way beyond the basics of whether you can beat a table. Even the world’s best poker player can benefit substantially from table selection. I believe there’s a saying that goes something like “it doesn’t matter if you’re the ninth best player in the world if you’re sitting at the table with the top eight players in the world.” You’ll need to face tougher competition occasionally to get better; however, a vast majority of your sessions should be spent at tables playing opponents against whom your hourly win rate is the highest.

I don’t know about you, but I have the most fun when I’m making as much money as possible. Since table selection is a big part of making as much money as possible, it can actually be an extremely fun game within the game.

Table Expectation Value

Expectation value (EV) is the amount of money you expect to win or lose in the long run. In poker, many types of EV exist. There’s the EV of a particular call. There’s the EV of a line of play. There’s the EV associated with your table image. There’s an EV associated with relative chip stacks in a tournament. In the end, everything culminates in the average amount of money you expect to make (or lose) per hour – your hourly EV. And it’s to your hourly EV that I’d like to turn.

Some players take their [insert favorite hand-tracking software here] data and feel as though they’re entitled to whatever their overall hourly win rate is. However, this overall hourly win rate is an aggregate average across all the hands a player has ever played. Some of those hands were played against easy opponents; others were played against tough opponents.

If you were to stratify your results, and look at your hourly win rate as a function of your opponent quality, you would find, generally, that your hourly win rate is higher against bad competition than it is against good competition. The bottom line: your hourly win rate at a particular table is primarily a function of the players you’re facing.

“Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)”

(Wow! In the 100,000s words I’ve written about poker, I never thought I’d quote a MÖtley Crüe song title!)

I’ve studied a lot of physics and chemistry, and during those studies, I’ve analyzed all types of forces: friction, gravitational, weak, strong, electromagnetic, and intermolecular just to name a few. Of all the forces I’ve encountered, I’ve never found one as strong as the one that keeps poker players glued to their seats. A poker player takes a seat at a table, and pretty much the only things capable of moving him are natural disasters, utter exhaustion, or a nagging significant other. Leaving suboptimal games is an important part of table selection, so with that in mind, here’s a list of some good reasons to leave a table:

#1) You lose a few hands, resulting in you having poor table image

You sit down at a table. Within the first 20 hands, the following situation unfolds twice: you raise preflop, get heads-up, continuation bet the flop, get check-raised, and fold. Then, soon after these those two hands, you make a costly call on the river with an overpair against a player with a set. And not so long after that, a big bluff of yours is picked off.

Even if all these plays were made against regulars that you routinely beat, the current state of affairs is that your table image stinks. The regulars might think you’re off your game, and the fresh faces probably think that you’re a big fish. As a result, your opponents will play back at you with lots of confidence, and it’ll be tough to know where you are in future hands. You could sit at your table and piece your way through your dilemma. Or…you could make your life easy by leaving immediately. Don’t get upset; just acknowledge that things didn’t start off well and that you’re better off getting a fresh start somewhere else.

#2) You won a lot from the players at your table, but they’ve made adjustments

It doesn’t matter how much money your opponents have donated to you. Forget about the past. The present state of the game is what’s most important. If you’re opponents have caught onto your tricks, and have made adjustments that’ll make them much tougher to beat, then what’s the point in staying?

#3) You’re getting outplayed

Your good hands are always getting shown down against better hands, your opponents aren’t paying you off when you have great hands, and your opponents are constantly putting you to tough decisions, forcing you to lay down hands that may have been good. Some days, your opponents simply have your number. If that’s the case, it’s better to leave before they have both your number and your cash.

Greener Pastures

If you’re thinking of leaving a table, it’s with the idea that you can do better elsewhere. If you’re playing in a physical card room, look for tables where people seem to chatting and having fun. If you’re at a bad table, take an orbit off and take a stroll. And once you find a fun-loving table, don’t be a party-pooper…take part in the festivities! Learning how to be social while simultaneously paying attention to everything at the table is a very important skill if you’re looking to preserve optimal playing conditions.

If you’re playing online, keep on opening tables and observing hands until you find a table with predictable players. Look for tables filled with poor players you’ve faced before (use a site’s note-taking feature to help you out on this front). On sites with player search features, keep a list of players by your computer; the first thing you should do when signing on to your poker site of choice is to seek out tables featuring players that you habitually derive substantial profits from. Also, if you’re playing no-limit hold’em, look for tables filled with players who have less than the maximum buy-in. Players with shorter stacks aren’t always bad, but they are more likely to be bad than their deeply stacked counterparts.

In the end, it’s up to you to be disciplined and intelligent regarding your table selection. All this stuff about walking around casinos and searching for players seems like time-consuming hard work, and who wants to miss out on being dealt hands? But the additional profit you’ll pick up from the 5-10 minutes you spend on table selection activities will more than make up for the hands you don’t get dealt. Treat table selection as a challenging part of the game because recognizing profitable playing conditions is just as much of a skill as the actual playing of hands.

And if, alas, you can’t find any profitable games, just take a break and do something else. If you mostly play online poker, rest your eyes completely. Listen to some books on tape, exercise, meditate, volunteer, or whatever. If you mostly play live poker, and you aren’t starting at a computer screen an absurd number of hours per day, then you can also do stuff like watching salacious TV (go Nip Tuck and Footballer’s Wives!) and playing video games. Quite simply: when you can’t find good games, just do something that’s not related to poker, so you can return to the tables later to find weaker competition that you can annihilate with a refreshed mind.

Tony Guerrera is the author of Killer Poker By The Numbers and co-author of Killer Poker Shorthanded (with John Vorhaus)


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