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Smokin' Poker - The ABC of 2NL

Helping newbies to bubble up from the bottom of the fishtank
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Making money from poker in the long run boils down to two things: making as few mistakes as possible, while exploiting the mistakes of your opponents. This article will detail thirteen common mistakes (often called “leaks”) that I've seen (and indeed made) in nanostakes games. To improve your results, you need to minimise these mistakes, if not eliminate them completely. I'll give you tips on how to limit your mistakes, and also explain, where appropriate, how to exploit opponents that make the listed mistakes. Think of it like this: Cash flows along a pipe, so if your cash pipe has leaks, you need to fix them. If your opponent has leaks in his pipe, you should take a hammer to that pipe, in order to destroy his cash-flow. So without further ado, let's look at the most common and expensive leaks, which include both “off-table” and “on-table” mistakes.

1. Lack of bankroll management

If you don't keep track of how much you are depositing, winning or losing, or if you play at levels you cannot beat, you risk going bust repeatedly. Start at the lowest stakes possible and use a spreadsheet (or better still a tracker like HEM or PT) to keep track of your results. If you are beating your current level, you can move to a higher one when you are sufficiently rolled. This might be 20 or 30 buy-ins or more. Even the best players have losing weeks, months and – at high stakes – even whole years. If you don't have the bankroll to cope with the downswings that are inevitable due to random variance, your risk of ruin is high. Playing under-rolled can also cause you to play “scared”, or be prone to tilt, which won't help your winrate. For more help on bankroll management, see HERE.

2. Poor table selection

A good table is one where you have position on loose players and there are few (or no) decent regs, as described in full in my earlier article. If you can get a seat where there are two ATMs to your immediate right, then you can win their money by playing profitably in position. If you have nits on your left, you can steal their blinds. If you're on a waiting list for a while and are given a bad seat, with a LAG/TAG or a maniac on your direct left, and/or several short-stacks or nits on your right, consider leaving immediately, as there just won't be enough profitable situations. It's better to wait for a good table than play on one where you have a negative expectation. Similarly, you need the discipline to quit when a table goes “bad”. If you're too lazy to find another table when your current one is no longer +EV, you are doomed to lose money. If you can't make money on a particular table, don't sit on it!

3. Playing too many tables and for too long without a break

When you're first playing nanostakes, you're not doing it for the money. You're doing it to learn and practice fundamental poker skills. You should also be using this time to observe the other players and to take notes. If you play more than 4 tables when you first start, you simply won't be able to keep up with all the action. You won't spot that one guy that always raises his flush draws, or that villain that limp re-raised aces, or open-shoved pocket sevens. With fewer tables on the go, you can study bet sizes, see which hands go to showdown, and find out which players are passive or aggressive. Noting that a player always check-raises all in when he flops a set will save you a buy-in when he does it against your TPTK, so pay attention to the action.
Like a muscle, the human brain needs time to rest and recuperate in order for it to work at maximum efficiency. To prevent lapses in concentration, try and take a five minute break at least once an hour. Stretch your legs, make a coffee, go for a pee. Your bankroll will thank you for it.

4. Playing when you're not 100% focused

This follows on from the above advice. Quite simply, if you're not playing your A-game, free from distractions, you won't maximise your profits, and may end up losing. If you feel tired, tilted, or unwell, either quit the game and take a decent break, or just don't start one up. Poker is a game. It's supposed to be fun! If you're not enjoying yourself, why are you playing? Do something else instead. There's no law that says you have to play 2000 hands every day. If you set yourself a goal like that, you're setting yourself up to fail, or at least to become disillusioned. An unmotivated and unhappy player is not a winning player. Why turn this beautiful game into a grind? Play for fun when you're 100% focused, quit when the bad beats get you down, and the money will look after itself.

5. Over-complicating your HUD

Getting a HUD is pretty much mandatory, even for 2NL, if you plan on playing more than 20,000 hands in the next six months. But adding a ton of stats you neither understand nor know how to utilize could cause more harm than good. At a basic level, it's useful to know if your opponents are loose or tight, passive or aggressive. You don't immediately need to know how often they fold to 3-bets, check-raise the turn, or donkbet the flop. Use a very basic HUD when you start. Once you've got a large sample of hands against particular villains, you can use specific stats in order to exploit them. In the short term, though, a complex HUD will distract and confuse you, and could lead to you making plays that are not +EV. Focus on the basic stats, and use them to colour-code villains. Table selection becomes much easier when you've flagged who is loose, who is tight etc.

6. Fancy play syndrome

You've watched 'HSP' and seen Tom Dwan open-raise 73s UTG or fire three barrels with 9-high on a board containing three Broadway cards. Doing this in the micros is burning money. You really don't need to bluff much or balance your ranges in the micros. You should also steer clear of slow-playing (except in particular circumstances) and check-raising. As Doyle Brunson wrote in 'Super System', "Just bet your hand!"
Making money in the micros is about betting your strong hands and folding your weak ones. FAT value comes from playing strong starting hands and betting when you hit the board. There's no need to be "deceptive" or "tricky", and it could lose you a ton of value. If you make TPTK+, then bet it. There are enough calling stations out there that will give you at least two streets of value as they chase their gutshots and flush draws.

7. Calling or completing in the blinds

The blinds are the hardest positions to play. Often you'll find yourself in the SB with a hand like A5o or 97s and a couple of limpers. You think to yourself "I'm getting a good price, so I call". Then you see a flop and you have to act first. If you flop a monster, it's hard to get paid off, so you rarely win a big pot. If you start with a weak/speculative hand, you're likely to flop a weak hand/draw. Do you really want to check-call two streets with a gutshot, middle pair, or top pair no kicker? With mediocre hands, it's best to fold your blinds, even though you are "getting a good price".
If you have a stronger starting hand in the blinds, then raising pre-flop is preferable to calling. You can win the pot without seeing a flop, or you can see the flop with the initiative. On most flops, you can c-bet and take it down. So the advice for playing the blinds is simple: Raise or fold. Calling is rarely a good choice.

8. Calling out of curiosity

We've all had these situations like this: You flop TPTK in position and make your c-bet when it's checked to you. A passive villain calls and you think "I'm taking him to Valuetown". The turn comes and looks like a complete blank. And villain suddenly overbet shoves. You have no idea what villain is up to. Did he hit a set or two pair (and played it weirdly), go mental with a bluff, or did he mis-click? You're tempted to call to find out what on earth villain has that made him take this weird line. So you call. And you lose your stack.
There's a simple rule I try and follow here. If villain does something completely unexpected, and it's going to cost you a buy-in to find out what he's up to... just fold. Don't call out of curiosity. Don't make "puke calls". The same applies with regard to raises on the turn or river. Unless you have a good read on villain (you know he min-raises OESDs, for example) just dump your TP or overpair. Fold and save your stack for a spot where you know you have the best hand. Money saved is as good as money won. Curiosity killed the cat, so don't be that cat.

9. Playing draws too passively or too aggressively

At higher stakes than 2NL, raising with flush draws on the flop is fairly common. With an open-ended straight draw, you also have a fair bit of equity with two cards to come. Raising is theoretically a great play, because you can win a big pot if villain calls and you hit your draw, but also you win if villain folds. The problem at nanostakes is that players don't fold when they like their hand. If the flop is A89 and you have JT, good luck in trying to get villain to fold an ace. By raising, all you are doing is bloating the pot with a hand that is an underdog. There isn't much fold equity in the micros, so raising with draws can be -EV. If you have a very strong draw, such as the NFD with 2 overs (AKs on J73tt) or a combo straight/flush draw, then you have more than enough equity to raise/shove (you're often a favourite over TP). But if you have a naked flush draw (no overcards) or an open-ender, you're often better off calling on the flop and hoping you hit the turn. The low variance method of playing draws won't get your pulse racing, but it seems to be profitable at the lowest stakes. Just don't make a habit of stationing to the river all the time. Villains often won't pay you off when obvious draws complete, so it is -EV to play draws very passively. Mix up your play by raising with draws when you know villain possesses a FOLD button and you think he missed the flop, but call when villain gives you a good price and you think he'll pay you off when you hit.

10. Playing small suited connectors too often

Hands like 78s might look pretty, and you love them because they have the potential to make straights and flushes, but how much money do you actually make with suited connectors? You can load the “Hand Groupings” report in HEM to see your results for various holecard combinations. In my experience, suited connectors are only marginally profitable at nanostakes, and they put you in tricky spots frequently. What tends to happen with small SCs is that you rarely flop combo straight/flush draws. Instead, you hit middle pair or a gutshot. Calling a flop bet to see what develops on the turn is a losing proposition. SCs occasionally make trips and flushes, but rarely win the big pots you might expect, because the hands they make are often obvious. Even the dumbest of droolers can see 3 cards of the same suit on the board. Then there are the times you make trips and the set-mining villain makes a boat. Say goodbye to your stack when that happens.
These days, I tend to use SCs strictly for blind steals from the button. If I see a flop, I at least have position and can make a c-bet, or get away from the hand if I whiffed completely.

11. Limping into pots

Limping in, by which I mean just calling the big blind, does not have a positive expectation. It does not give you an immediate chance to win the pot like a raise does. The idea of trying to see a cheap flop with a speculative hand might initially appeal, but you'll often find that a villain raises behind you, and then you're faced with either folding (so you gave away 2c for nothing) or calling and playing a bloated pot - often out of position - without any initiative. That's not a profitable way to play poker.
This leak is both common and easy to exploit. If a villain limps, he's usually calling about 70% of the time, and then check-folding on the flop about 50% of the time. Facing a limp, you can make an isolation raise with a very high frequency (almost any two cards), knowing that if the villain doesn't give you his 2c immediately, he'll give you 8c most of the time when he calls pre and then folds to your c-bet on the flop.
I think it was Dusty “Leatherass” Schmidt that said limpers are like people walking down the street with holes in their pockets, dropping money on the pavement. It is your job to pick up that money. Isolate the limpers with a pre-flop raise, and follow it up with a c-bet.

12. Calling raises when out of position

This follows on from the previous point, but it also applies to playing in the blinds and 3-bet pots, when you make a raise and someone with position on you re-raises. Playing bloated pots out of position without the betting lead is a good way to lose money. I've mentioned it before, but calling 3-bets OOP is a HUGE leak. When you get 3-bet, you should often be folding, as described in part 9 of this ABC guide.
You can exploit players that frequently call raises OOP by widening your value range in position and by c-betting with a high frequency. In 3-bet pots when I am the re-raiser, I'm c-betting about 90% of flops, because there is so much dead money waiting to be collected and because villains will fold so often.

13. Auto-piloting without a plan for your hand

We all make this mistake to some degree, especially when multi-tabling. For example, a villain opens the pot, we look down at AK and we 3-bet because we have a premium hand and 3-betting is standard, right? Villain 4-bets. Now what? Suddenly the clock is ticking and we have to think about villain's range and his tendencies. Is he loose or tight? Are stacks deep enough for us to call? Are we in or out of position? You shouldn't be running through these questions while the action is on you. You should have thought about how you'd react to a 4-bet before you raised in the first place! Hurried decisions are often incorrect decisions. By “have a plan for your hand”, I mean you should think about your opponent's possible responses before you take your first action. You can say to yourself something like “I'm ahead of this guy's range and I think he will call with worse, so 3-betting looks good. If he comes back with a 4-bet, I will give him credit for a monster and fold this time.” Then when villain does 4-bet, there's no panic. You calmly click the FOLD button, because that was your plan all along. No more thinking is required. You move on to the next hand and make a new plan. Winning at poker is all about making a series of plans and executing them correctly.
Planning also works for post-flop. If you were the pre-flop raiser, you should start visualising the kind of flops you will c-bet. When you see the flop - but before you make the bet - you should consider how you will deal with a raise or a call. Don't wait until the turn card comes before thinking “Is this a good card to barrel?” Plan ahead. Before you make the c-bet, say to yourself something like “If he calls, his range is XX, so scare cards for that range are YY. I will barrel if one of those scare cards comes on the turn. If the turn doesn't fit with this plan, I will check-fold”. By planning a hand, you will feel under much less time-pressure. You won't panic and make mistakes. You'll calmly click the right button and won't still be wondering if you made the right play a few hands later when you have another decision to make. Planning for all eventualities is actually very liberating. Just remember that, once you've made your plan, you have to stick to it!

Speaking of plans, for my next ABC article, I plan to go through some popular poker theorems and sayings that should help you make or save some money. Prior to that will be a review of the most recent Big Bang tournament.

As usual, I welcome your comments and suggestions in my blog thread. Till the next time, I wish you great success in playing mistake-free poker!

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