Category Archives: Wisdom

Playing Poker Drunk

Conventional poker wisdom dictates that you shouldn’t drink alcohol whilst playing poker. There’s a good reason for not drinking alcohol and playing poker at the same time – alcohol effects your judgement and makes you do silly things, and at the poker table this can obviously have heavy financial consequences.

But I don’t agree with the idea of having to stay sober at the poker table. Over the years I’ve found that drinking can actually help me play better. I can relax and loosen up my game, which can sometimes be too tight. There does have to be a balance, and getting too drunk is not a wise move. In such cases I start thinking I’m invincible and become too aggressive – though let me stress; aggressive with the chips not with words or actions.

Scotty Nguyen won the $50k WSOP Player’s Championship in 2008 – and he was steaming drunk. He showed a complete lack of class (and has since apologized for his actions), although it did make good TV:

It’s clear that Scotty had a few too many beers. I believe it’s about striking the right balance. Some people don’t ever drink alcohol at the poker table. Good for them! I’m not saying I need to drink in order to relax – and I don’t drink every time I play, especially those times when I have to drive home (on such occasions I remain tee-total). But poker should be a fun game, and I find it more fun when I’ve had a few drinks – just not too many.

The best live poker games are when everyone is having a drink or two, whether it’s at home games or at the casino. The added bonus of drinking is to project the right table image – i.e. you’re there to have fun, not to try and take everyone’s money. Of course the goal is to win, but if by drinking a few beers you project an image of someone who doesn’t take poker too seriously, then you just might win a few extra dollars.

However, drinking alcohol and playing online poker is a different matter entirely. A few years ago I had a really bad habit of coming home late at night, under the influence, and I’d play online poker before going to bed. I nearly always lost, which isn’t surprising. These days I never consume alcohol and play online poker. It helps that I’m a social drinker and I don’t ever drink in the house. Online poker is much tougher than live poker, and although the results still sometimes make me want to turn to drink – it’s best avoided.

Why Poker Students Master the Game

Anyone who has watched the WPT will be familiar with Mike Sexton’s line “poker takes moments to learn, but a lifetime to master”. There are many new poker players who fail to grasp the last part of this great quote.

I was reminded of this recently when playing poker with a friend, who has been playing poker for less than 2 years. We played heads-up at PokerStars, and I beat him up pretty badly. He didn’t say “well done, you outplayed me”, rather “you got lucky!” This friend says the same thing on anything I beat him at. You could say he’s a bad loser!

I know the result of one heads-up session doesn’t mean I’m necessarily the better poker player. It’s the long game that counts, right? But I know for a fact I’m a better poker player than my friend. I’ve been playing poker much longer, have considerably more playing experience, and have a firmer grasp on poker strategy. This was apparent in some of the things he said during our heads-up battle, questioning my calls, and generally failing to recognize the beginner mistakes he was continually making.

It got to the point where I told him “you’ll never be a really good poker player – because you already think you are”. I think he was quite insulted by my comment, but it’s the truth. The reason – he is a poker fan, not a poker student. He watches poker on TV, talks about poker, and shares his bad beat stories with me. But he never ever questions his ability or asks what I think he could do to improve his game. Because he thinks he’s really good already (he isn’t), he’ll never improve without critical self-analysis. Put simply, he’ll reach a plateau – and his progress will be slow.

I’m not a great poker player, and know people who are far better than I’ll ever be. I also know of people who have overtaken me in terms of ability. I’ve played poker with the some of the same people for a number of years now. I can see great progress in some of them, and others have stagnated. The poker players who have improved are those who have recognized that they are not yet the greatest poker player to walk the earth, and have actively sought to improve their poker game.

Speaking of the world’s greatest poker players; let’s use Phil Hellmuth as an example. Everyone in the poker world knows about Phil and his huge ego. He is undoubtedly a great poker player, but is his uncontrollable ego damaging his current poker game, and his future success? Well, Daniel Negreanu of Team PokerStars, one of the biggest poker sites, seems to think so:

“Ivey, Durr [sic], and Patrik just play at another level. In order to compete with them you have to work very hard, play lots of hours, and study your weaknesses. I’m willing to admit they are far better than I am at no limit cash games, but I think Hellmuth actually believes he is the “best no limit hold’em player in the world by far. He’s either lying to the public when he makes those statements, or, he genuinely believes that. Either way, he’s either lying or completely delusional”.

This reminds me of my friend, who doesn’t study the game, yet thinks he’s great already. If you’re like my friend of share traits similar to Hellmuth (may god help you!), then let this be a lesson to you.

Playing Poker Live for the First Time

A couple of months ago I took my cousin to play in his first ever live game. He’s 21 years old and I promised him a few years ago that’s once he reached 21 I’d take him to a casino/cardroom to play poker. So, I took him to a local cardroom for a $50 tournament. And no, my cousin isn’t Joe Cada!

We met for beers and a bite to eat beforehand, and I offered him some advice. He asked “how many is it for a straight – four or five cards?” which had me slightly worried. I told him to play tight and observe the other players at the table, and to not play any hands other than premium cards until he was comfortable. I said the other players would be understanding since you’re a beginner.

As it happens we were sat next to each other. He’s a confident kid but was very nervous. I’ve never seen someones hand shake so much when placing a bet. The other players at the table were laughing. I was a bit worried I’d thrown him in too deep. He also folded instead of checking, and other beginner mistakes – and was playing far too many hands.

Anyway, we reached the first break, and he was fairly short stacked. I told him – “just wait for a big hands and then shove it in”. The first hand after the break there’s an UTG raise from the shortest stack at the table. It’s folded around to my cousin who thinks for a few moments, then folds. The button calls and flips over AA. My cousin told me (and the table) that he folded QQ. I couldn’t believe it, and neither could anyone else. I told him later; “never tell people what you had when you fold a major hand – they’ll run over you”. It was a great fold on the surface, but the truth is it had nothing to do with getting a read on Mr. AA – so it was really an insane fold after my advice of “wait for a premium hand and then shove it”. Not that it matters, but he’d have actually hit a set and got the much needed double up.

As it happens he lasted a little while longer and even outlasted me by a few hands, which he was very happy about. “Wait till I tell everyone in the family that I outlasted you” he said. I then proceeded to give him another poker lesson, mentioning the variables at play in tournaments and how anyone can outlast anyone on any given tournament. It’s the long run that counts. I’m not sure he understood, but he sure had fun – which is the main thing.

Poker is a Game of Skill

Yes, poker is a game of skill. Of course, it’s not a 100% skill game and involves a fair amount of luck. Poker players know that the long game is what counts, and the more skilled you are at poker, the more you’ll win in the long run. Anyone can win in the short term with a good slice of luck. You know that already though, right?

You might know this, but I was speaking to a friend of mine the other day who doesn’t know the first thing about poker. I explained that if they played in the tournament I was playing later that day, they could win it – even without knowing how to play poker. Of course they’d need to be extremely lucky, and it would be unlikely, but still possible. Compare that with 100% skill games, such as chess. I don’t play chess, and I could never beat the current chess world champion. It just wouldn’t happen. But my friend could beat Phil Ivey, if he got luck (my friend that is, not Ivey).

I think it was Phil Hellmuth who said “if there was no luck in poker, I’d win everytime”. When I play poker and lose to someone who I think is a poor player because of sheer bad luck, I often wish poker was a game with more skill and less about the luck. “Why can’t this game involve more skill” I say to myself, though not in the same way that Hellmuth would. That’s because if poker were a game of 100% skill then I’m certain I wouldn’t win everytime. There are better poker players out there, and I wouldn’t win everytime.  

The rare moments when I suck out and crack someones hand with a piece of cheese, I love the fact that poker involves luck. The fact that poker involves large elements of luck is what also attracts some really bad players – those who like to gamble. These poker players add huge value to the game, and if poker were a game of pure skill then I think I’d probably stop playing. After all, it’s what makes the game of poker so exciting.

Characteristics of a Winning Poker Player

What are the characteristics of a winning poker player? Well, here’s some random thoughts I came up with:

Determined, Intuitive, Objective, Fearless, Studious, Patient, Analytical, Agressive, Competitive, Intelligent, Perceptive, Adaptable, Flamboyuant, Sneaky, Deceptive, Greedy, Obsessive, Compulsive, Addictive, Creative, Honest (to oneself, not opponents), and last but not least – High Boredom Threshold.

“Poker is not a card game – it’s a skilled wagering game that uses cards”. I don’t know who first said this quote, but it’s a good one – and so very true.  There’s not a single poker player who holds all the above characteristics / skillsets, but I bet the most successful have quite a few on this list! Which do you have?