The Most Important Top Secret Strategy Article You’ll Ever Read (For Players of All Levels)
When I first graduated college, the first thing I did was light my diploma on fire and get a job for a poker magazine. It was 2005, poker was glamorous, and I was crushing the biggest online games that Party Poker play money had to offer.
One of my first assignments was covering a huge thousand-player plus WSOP tournament. I got to sweat the cards of some of the great ones, and I immediately went to go seek out my favorite player, Mike Matusow. I tried to understand some of his plays, but they were just too advanced for me. Raising in middle position with 92o? Shoving all-in on gutshots on the flop? What was the method behind this guy’s madness? He busted towards the end of day 1 and I asked him for a little insight into some of his decisions.
“Kid, I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Matusow told me. “You don’t gotta be a great player to beat the %#&(*@ idiot donks at this game. You just,” he paused, “You just plain can’t blow up.”
At the time, I thought Matusow was just trying to weasel his way out of giving away his secrets. I have been playing poker professionally in Las Vegas for a year and a half now and given up writing almost totally, but only now have I realized how powerful his advice truly is and bothered to write it down.
If you are a competent player at whatever form of poker you enjoy, you have the capacity to be a winning player. You do not have to be good, or even average. I see players who most local pros agree play slightly poorly but are bigger winners in the year than some of the best players at the Bellagio.
Poker is much more psychological than people give the game credit for, and reducing strategy articles to mathematical formulas or dictums only serves to distract from the real game at hand. Poker is an amorphous game, and the most important thing you need to know is to recognize when changes are taking place, notably when others are starting to steam and when you are beginning to steam.
Manipulating others’ steam:
When players focus on their sessions, they tend to only focus on big hands, and coolers on that note. Coolers are a silly part of the game, when both players play their hands perfectly but one wins a big pot and one loses a big one. This will most certainly effect if you win or lose a session, but truly it should be forgotten about. The other source of big pots is when a player loses a cooler and begins to steam.
When my friends tell me about their sessions, they tell me, “Yeah, I lost blah blah and a steamed off a little after that, but if I just hadn’t had that cooler, I would have walked away with a big profit.” Well, sorry to break it to you friends, but coolers will happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s what you do after it that you can control.
If a player starts audibly complaining, this is a gold mine. If you are sitting at a table in a poker room and a player’s friend comes from another table to tell him the bad beat he just took, change tables now and go to that man’s table! If you notice a player has just lost his significant profit, play more speculative hands against that player. He will get his stack in sometime in the next few orbits, I promise you.
If you are playing at a casino, chat it up and see who has a set deadline for leaving. If a player gets stuck and they only have a little bit longer to play, you can bet that they will be playing a lot faster trying to find any excuse get their money into the pot.
Keep an eye on people’s stacks and make an extra effort to play more hands against people who are losing, especially losing big. If you are playing hold’em and you see 9 7 offsuit in the cutoff and you normally fold, give it a go if a losing player is in the pot. Conversely, play less hands against people who are winning – they will make less mistakes.
If you are playing online, check how many tables your opponents are playing. If they are playing 10+ tables, they probably will not even notice a bad beat and won’t steam much. If they are playing 3 or 4, open up a few of them and check to see when they take beats on other tables. If you’re playing sit and gos, check their sharkscope graphs and see if they’re in the midst of a downswing. Players who have been losing will always play worse than if they were winning. These are the guys you want to target and play.
Manipulating Your Steam:
The second part of the equation is learning how to recognize when you are steaming and prevent it.
Even the best players all steam, and we all play universally terrible when we steam. The top players all know how to play almost flawlessly. However, the games are still profitable because occasionally, they will still steam and not bring their total A game to the table.
On a recent episode of Poker After Dark, for example, a bunch of players including Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu all put up $100,000 before play started and did a coinflip to see who would win all the money. While this seems like silly gambling at first, it is actually a great litmus test as to who the great players are. You better believe that the weaker players were playing faster to try to get that $100k back.
To learn how to control your tilt, you need to immediately recognize when it begins. My friend taught me a technique where every time you are under the gun, you ask yourself honestly how you are feeling. If you are frustrated, it is time to take a short break before the blind gets to you and sit out an orbit. Doing this every orbit will allow you to regulate and recognize your emotions.
Even if you are not feeling frustrated, you should be taking short breaks every few hours. It is a bad thing to become too invested in the game you are in, and if you feel like you cannot take a five minute break every few hours, this is when it is most important to do so. You have lost all sense of perspective and need to regain it immediately before you lose respect for your money and start playing recklessly.
The most important time to control steam is after you have lost a big cooler. If you even have the slightest doubt though that you may tilt off your money, go take a break.
Another strategy to control your own steam is to remember all the previous times you steamed, all the disastrous results that followed, and how terrible you felt afterwards. Do you really want to do that to yourself again? You must drill into your head how important it is not to steam! It is the most important, top-secret weapon you have to destroy your opponent. If you can control yourself at this moment, you cannot be beaten in the long run.
The most important thing, though, is confidence and lack of fear. New players have trouble not steaming because they are heartbroken. They have been losing and they feel dread at knowing that this is going to be another losing session. They lack the ability to control the weapon that you now have, and they start playing faster to get unstuck and try to eke out a small win or get buried in a huge loss.
If you have confidence that you will make back the money you lost through maintaining your mental control, you will make it back. Maybe not this session, but eventually. If you know you won’t steam, then you won’t steam. If you do not fear having a losing session, then it will make you stronger because you won’t bury yourself in a huge loss. There is nothing wrong with having a losing session – it happens to everyone. There is something very wrong with having a monster 5-buyin loss. If you can accept losses knowing that you played great and did not steam, then you cannot be beaten in the long run.