Returning from a Break; Avoiding Losses; Consider the Intangibles

falling off bike
Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: Gearing Up After A Layoff

Returning To Poker After A Break Is Nothing Like Riding A Bike
by Ed Miller

One of my Facebook friends recently returned to playing poker after a many month layoff. “Hope I remember how to play,” she said. “Don’t worry,” came the replies, “you’ll be fine. Playing poker is like riding a bike.”

In my opinion, these helpful supporters are totally wrong. Returning to poker after a layoff is nothing like riding a bike. It’s a lot more like going to the gym. Your first day back, you will be sucking wind.

I should know. I frequently take layoffs from poker. When I’m writing a book, I tend not to play regularly. I have a young son, and I’ve taken time off for parenting. I’ve also taken a few nice, long vacations.

In my opinion, there is no question that taking these layoffs sets your game back. If you look at most of the top several hundred players in the world, you will find that most of them play poker nearly every day and take few extended breaks. And when these players do take long breaks, they frequently return to find that they’ve lost some ground in the pecking order.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t become a poker player because I wanted to be slave to a rigorous schedule. For me, it was quite the opposite. If, for any reason, I want to take a day, a week, a month, or even six months off from playing, I can do that. Sure, I’ll pay a price for it at the tables when I return, but it makes living my life so much happier.

Here are my observations and tips for returning to poker after not playing for a while.

Betting Fashions Change

Ever since poker exploded in popularity over a decade ago, the game has evolved at an epic pace. The betting patterns that are popular one year are modified or changed completely the next. Bet sizings change. Aggression standards change. “Bread and butter” situations morph. In February, you might see the same plays coming up over and over again. By October, this fashion may have passed, and a different play may be more popular.

Let’s say you open raise and a player calls from the big blind. The flop is Q (h) 10 (d) 6 (h). Your opponent checks, you bet, and he calls. The turn is the 2 (c). Your opponent bets out. What does his hand range look like?

This situation is subject to the whims of poker fashion. In February, it could be that most players have a hand like Q (h)-9(h) when they make this play. But in October, it could be that players have stopped playing top pair this way, and now they tend to have hands like K 8.

Poker is a social game, and humans, consciously or unconsciously, mimic one another in social situations. It’s very common for the regular players in a particular game to adopt a tacit consensus on how to play certain situations. Players that buck the trend at first usually end up adopting it eventually. So if a few regulars start donk betting the turn with flush draws, over time you’ll tend to see more and more regulars also adopt this play.

When you take a layoff, you aren’t in tune with the fashion changes, and you will, therefore, misread certain situations. You’ll treat bets as bluffs that now tend to be for value. And vice versa. This will cost you until you have regained enough experience to learn what’s changed.

You can speed this process. Watch hands you aren’t in and look specifically for these fashion-sensitive situations: preflop reraises, donk bets, flop raises, turn raises, and so forth. When you see one of these plays, follow the hand to the end. Does the action surprise you, or is it in accordance with how people played months ago? If you follow these hands closely, you will minimize the mistakes you make when you are forced to make a read.

Your Brain Gets Dull

Here’s where the gym analogy applies. When you take a few months off from poker, your brain gets soft. You don’t think as quickly or as clearly. I know it’s true for me, and I’d bet it’s true for everyone.

To get back what you’ve lost, there’s no substitute for putting in hours at the table playing and hours away from it working on your game. But you can be on the lookout for specific weaknesses that your layoff may have created.

I find that when I return after a layoff, my turn and river play suffers the most. After all, it’s not like I’ve forgotten that I open-raise K-T suited from three off the button or that I resteal against button openers in the big blind with 3-3. The more rote the situation, the more it is, indeed, like riding a bike.

It’s the decisions that require hand range analysis that suffer. My first day back after a three month layoff, I am unlikely to find accurate turn and river bluff-raise opportunities. More times than I’d care to share, I have meekly folded to a river bet from what post-mortem analysis revealed to be a weak hand range.

When I’ve been playing regularly for a long time, these bluff-raising opportunities almost jump out at me. But after a long layoff, I tend to miss them. My poker brain is out of shape, and the sharp edge to my game is gone.

So what to do about it? Well, the long-term answer is to restart a regular playing and study schedule and stick to it. But what do you do in the meantime, when you know you aren’t as sharp as you could be?

If you’re playing live, I suggest you take extra time for your turn and river decisions. Don’t make any quick folds, especially not in big pots. Force yourself to take time to think everything through.

If a bad river card hits and it looks like you’re toast, don’t just fold. At least ask yourself why your opponent is betting. If it’s a bad river card, might it also be a scare card for your opponent? One that he’d prefer to check through rather than to bet? And if so, then might he be bluffing? Or might he be willing to lay down to a raise?

These are the sorts of thoughts any poker player should have, but when your brain is soft from a long layoff, it pays to take extra time and force yourself to think of them explicitly. If it might help, you can even write questions like these down and reread them periodically to remind yourself.

Final Thoughts

If you are playing again for the first time in a while, don’t kid yourself. You won’t be at your peak performance right away. First, develop a playing and study schedule to get you back into gear. Next, watch out for changes in betting pattern fashion. And finally, remember to take extra time on the turn and river to make sure you’re thinking things through. ?

Ed’s newest book, Playing The Player: Moving Beyond ABC Poker To Dominate Your Opponents, is on sale at Find Ed on Facebook at and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.


loser 2013

Avoid losses at the poker table with these tips

by George Epstein

There are two ways to win money playing Texas hold’em – win pots by holding the best hand at the showdown and bluffing out your opponents.

Of course, your skill at building big pots when holding the best hand certainly is a factor. But you could lose all those winnings and more, if not careful. It happens so often: Start off a winner but go home a loser! Can you avoid it and go home a winner more often?

Evaluating opponents: First of all, it’s important to know what kind of players your opponents are – tight or loose, passive or aggressive, calling station, timid, a maniac? Make note so you won’t forget later. Use that information in making your decisions.

For example, if a tight player raises from an early position believe him so you can avoid investing in a hand that is almost certain to be a loser. It’s best to be seated to the left of a maniac. See how he is betting/raising before you must declare. Then, you can easily fold after his raise when you hold a marginal drawing hand, thereby avoiding a costly loss.

All tables not alike: Aggressive tables – lots of raising preflop – are not for me. I’m bound to lose playing at such a table. I prefer loose-passive games, where lots of players stay to see the flop but there is little raising, so drawing hands are more viable. Then, when I do the raising, it is to my advantage to build the pot (as in value betting) or to bluff my opponents.

Your raises will be more effective in a loose-passive game. Often, I’ll raise on an early street to get a free card on the more expensive next round of betting – saving chips if my cards don’t come. The raise might gain me betting position over my remaining opponents, so I can better judge whether to fold my hand to avoid a loss.

Starting hands: Starting with the best hand preflop is a no-brainer. Everyone gets his share of good and poor hands. Muck the poor ones; concentrate on the better. Those are your best sources of winning chips. I use the Hold’em Algorithm to make it easier.

Chasing: This is a sure-fire way to lose your chips. For every hand that you catch a winner, dozens of others will be lost. It just doesn’t add up. My criteria for “chasing” – calling a bet with a drawing hand having five or fewer outs. Chasers are losers!

Positive expectation: Use this concept and it will save you chips. When the pot odds (or the implied pot odds) are higher than your card odds (those against making your hand), you will win chips in the long run. But the reverse also holds. A negative expectation spells “lose.” If you do not have a positive expectation, fold and avoid losing a bunch of chips.

Hold’em caveat: This simple concept can save you lots of chips. With a marginal starting hand, call to see the flop only if there is no raise – nor likely to be after you bet and it’s a multi-way pot with three or more opponents staying in. Otherwise, fold to save your chips.

Variance: Recognize this is inherent in the game. You cannot control luck, so there are bound to be ups and downs in your fortune at the poker table. If you have been winning, and then start losing it all back, there may be a reason other than bad luck. Perhaps your opponents have found a tell you are not aware of.

Before losing back all your winnings, there are several things you might do – change tables; take a break (players come and go); or call it a day and go home while you are still ahead.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at

poker girl 2013

The Poker Hand Critic: Considering The Intangibles

High-Volume Online Grinder ‘Gutter23’ Breaks Down Interesting Poker Hands
by gutter23

The Poker Hand Critic is a brand new series by online pro “gutter23,” one of the top mid-stakes players in the game today, who is featured in an upcoming issue of Card Player Magazine. The Poker Hand Critic will break down a hand, street by street, offering up his analysis on all of the action.

The following hand comes from a 10-handed, uncapped, $5-$5 home game at a very upscale and chic location in downtown Toronto. The atmosphere is friendly but the action is fierce.

The Players

Villain no. 1 (middle position, $3,000): Loose and aggressive recreational player who loves to gamble and throw chips around. He is a long-term net loser in the game.

Villain no. 2 (button, $2,300): Relatively solid and aggressive regular who is a marginal winner.

The Action

Mississippi straddle on the button to $20, action begins with the SB
Preflop: $30
Series of folds
Villain no. 1 opens to $65.
Series of folds
Villain no. 2 calls.

Flop ($140): K (cl) Q (di) J (di)

Villain 1 checks. Villain 2 checks

It is a bit unusual to see V1, a loose-aggressive player, check a flop as draw heavy as this one. Usually this check either represents a trap where he’s planning on check-raising the flop or he’s decided to give up on the hand and check-fold.

Turn ($140): 10 (di)

Villain 1 bets $50. Villain 2 raises to $250. Villain 1 shoves for $1,985 effective stacks. Villain 2 calls.

The 10 (di) is an interesting card as it puts two flush draws on board along with four to a straight. When Villain 1 bets $50, his range is very wide and will include all aces, some nines, a turned set of tens, diamond flush draws, bluffs, etc. When Villain raises to $250, he nearly always has an ace and is protecting his hand.

Villain goes all-in. It is clear that Villain has an ace in his hand as it would be maniacal to shove this turn without one. The real question is whether he has a flush draw to go along with his ace. Villain 2 goes into the tank and it becomes obvious to the table that he has a naked ace and is attempting to calculate the math of either calling or folding.

Since this article is about considering poker intangibles, I won’t bore you with the computations I used to calculate the expected value (EV) of the decision. According to my numbers, calling has an EV of approximately $20. This $20 represents the profit that will result in calling versus folding.

Villain 2 calls and turns over A-5 off suit for the straight and Villain shows A (di) 6 (di) for the straight and flush draw and he is on a freeroll. The river is a brick and the pot is chopped. The table explodes in discussion about the math and the numbers and they are divided on whether it is a call or a fold. When there is a tough decision in poker and opinions are split, the EV of the two options is almost always very close. The EV is virtually indifferent between the two choices but the disparity in variance and volatility is enormous. This is where the intangibles come into play.

Bankroll considerations: Imagine this is a juicy game where you are expected to have a high winrate and the only cash you have immediate access to is on the table. If you bust then the night is over. Are you willing to give up your seat in a profitable game for $20 in EV?

Capped rebuy amount: Hypothetically, if the game has a capped rebuy amount of $500 and you call and lose, your opportunity to play $2,000 effective with an action player has vanished for the time being. Rebuying for $500 will drastically decrease your future earnings potential for the remainder of the session.

Table image: Image plays a huge role at the poker table. Having a winning or losing image during a session is extremely important and will dictate how your opponents perceive and react to you. A winning table image will allow you to successfully make moves and your opponents will be reluctant to play back at you. If you call and lose the hand your image will suffer. If you fold and give up the $20 in EV you can maintain a strong image.

Tilt factors: If you are prone to tilting and losing a $5,000 pot will cloud your judgment for the rest of the session then folding is a good option.

The opponent: If your opponent is a weak, losing player, perhaps calling is the right decision as the chips he may acquire will be in play for the rest of the session. If your opponent is a strong, winning regular, folding is probably correct since those chips won’t be readily available.

These are just a few of the intangibles that need to be considered when making a close decision in poker. The intangibles may differ from player to player and a seemingly correct decision for one player may be incorrect for another. While I advocate playing fundamentally sound mathematical poker, the value of the intangibles can often trump the math.

The key concept that I would like everyone to take away from this hand is simple. When faced with a close decision, always consider the intangibles.

Gutter23 plays mid-stakes full ring cash games and has had a great deal of success over the past five years. He was named the low-stakes online player of the year by PokerTableRatings in 2011 and is one of the few cash game grinders who truly understands the nuances of both live and online poker.

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