Sunday, February 26, 2006

PocketFives.com

I don't have anything in particular to blog about this week, so I thought I'd give a shout out to my favorite online poker forum, Pocketfives.

If you are serious about online tournament play, then you have to check out P5. First, P5s developed the online rankings of the top tournament players. Every serious tourney player should familiarize themselves with these players and seek them out to ghost their tables. There is no better way to learn than to watch the really good players in action.

Second, the P5 forum is full of posts from these very same top tourney players. The forums have strategy insights, hand histories from top players, social commentary and a lot of light humor. Here is a link to a typical discussion on a particular tournament problem. I try to read every post by one of the top ranked players, Sheets, because they are so damned insightful. You can't help but improve reading these posts.

Third, you can meet (online) some of these really good tourney players and ask them questions about situations you encounter. Most of them are more than happy to help us lesser players improve. It really is a community.

Lastly, you have to check out the Contributing Writer articles. There are great articles on strategy, bankroll management, avoiding tilt, etc. These have been contributed by some of the top players online.

I hope you check it out.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Wanna go deep -- Build a big stack

Gee, nice advice Einstein. And I suppose if you want to bat .400 in baseball, the key is to hit the ball.

However, while it sounds like obvious advice the reality is one type of tournament is structured to help you build a big stack. I am talking about rebuy tournaments.

I have switched my focus of late to rebuy tournaments because they give me the best chance of going deep. I have been refining my strategy over the last month and have started to groove during the past week. In fact, during the past 3 days I have played 6 rebuy tournaments, made it to the money in 4 and made the final table in one of them finishing fourth (a $25 rebuy at Empire). And perhaps most exciting, one of those in the money tournaments had over 1,000 entrants (I usually suck at these large field tournaments). I finished 27th of 1,077, in the $30 rebuy on Paradise, which also carried a decent payday. In fact over the 6 tournaments, I returned 2.65x my buy-in --- which is far higher than my overall tournament returns.

I know this is a very small sample, but I am gaining confidence with the strategy for rebuys and thought I would share some highlights.

First of all, I must pass along all the credit for the strategy to other very good tournament players. In fact you will see many very good players using a similar strategy for rebuy tournaments. I first learned of the strategy from www.cardrunners.com. One of the videos available from jsup is a $5 rebuy tourney. This video provides a very good summary of the basis for this rebuy strategy. However, if you do not want to subscribe to cardrunners, you can also read an overview of his strategy at pocketfives.com, the exact link is here.

Since reading and studying jsup's strategy, I have noticed various posts by top players on strategy boards outlining similar strategies. I began working on it and trying to refine my use of the strategy using Wilson Software's Tournament Texas Hold'em and in several $5 rebuys over the past month and based on recent results I think I am getting the hang of it.

The best part about a rebuy tournament is that you can "buy a big stack". I usually go into the tournament willing to buy up to 7-12 buy-ins (including the add-on), depending upon the size of the entry. For instance, if I am playing a $5 rebuy I am comfortable with 12 buy-ins, while I usually do not want to go deeper than 7 buy-ins in a $30 rebuy tourney. You need to pick an appropriate rebuy tourney so that you are comfortable making several rebuys. This is critical!

By playing wild during the first fifteen minutes, you gain the potential to build a huge stack during the first hour. Usually, I sit down and rebuy immediately to double my stack. Then during the first 5-10 hands, I play almost any two cards. I will raise with anything 3-gapped or less to build the pot. If I hit the flop then I try to trap for a big pot win, but if I do not hit I still play aggressive to look wild. I do not mind showing down garbage during these first 10 hands, because I want the table to think I am wild and that I am going to rebuy repeatedly during the first hour.

This has two very big benefits, by playing loosely gapped cards and other garbage I am going to catch a flop that is completely hidden. Additionally, since everyone thinks I am a wildly aggressive gambler -- I get called for my value bets. So when I hit that big flop I usually get all in and often double up. If I get a big pair preflop, I am betting it big because everyone thinks I could be raising with any two cards -- again I get paid off.

After the first 10 hands, I tighten up a bit. I still play very loose aggressive but I now limit myself to hands with value -- pairs, 1-3 gapped cards, suited Ax, suited Kx, suited Qx. However I am often throwing away cards that other people often play in rebuys, like A8o. I want cards with straight and flush potential or that can turn into trips. Make no mistake this is still a very loose strategy and I am seeing probably 40% of the flops, but I am not playing with complete trash like T2, J4, A6, K7, etc.

While I have adjusted my style, my opponents still have me pegged in a "wild" box and often that perception lasts into the second hour.

During this first hour, usually I rebuy (double) during the first ten hands. Sometimes, I do not catch any cards and have to rebuy again, but often I catch a flop after this initial wild period and double up. Once I double, I continue to see a lot of flops but I am tighten up post-flop if I do not catch a made hand. I will not chase str8s and flushes for large value bets at this stage. I would like to double up at least one more time during the rebuy period, but I am a bit more normal about looking for those opportunities.

Usually by the end of the rebuy period, one of two things has happened -- I have built up a big (top 20) stack or I am about where I started.

Whether to add-on or not is still a work in progress for me, right now. Usually if I have a big stack I add on to give myself additional coverage over the rapidly increasing blinds. If I have about the opening buy-in or less, I often will not add on. The reality is that if you have only 3,000 chips after the rebuy period (with 1,500 as the starting initial buy) then you are going to need a rush of cards fairly quickly or you are not going to make it out of the second hour. Given that assessment, whether you add more chips or not is not going to help you.

In his article, jsup says that he needs to have about 5x the initial buyin after the add-on to feel like he has built a competitive stack. I think that is a good benchmark, but amazingly you will find with this strategy you often have a much bigger stack than that.

After the rebuy period, it is time to revert to good solid poker. You now have a good stack, often with an M between 15 and 30. This gives you lots of flexibiliy. It is time to tighten up dramatically. Play monster hands from anywhere, but play other hands in position only. To give you an idea, I generally will not play AT, AJ or KQ from early position at this point in the tourney. I am looking to chip up but not at the expense of risky plays that could lose a lot of the valuable chips I have gained.

I try to raise at least once per round to keep ahead of the blinds, but I will not make many moves without decent cards. I am not raising with T2 on the button. This is solid positional play; KQ, KJ, A9, etc. If you do raise with a less than powerful hand and someone plays back at you ---- lay it down. Stacks are too valuable at this point to waste them. There is usually ample time to get good cards to play with.

At this point, the tournament reverts to any other no limit tourney. You need to assess the table's playing style, read your opponents hands and monitor how your stack is growing. I like to maintain a notebook that details the number of times I have raised each blind round. This gives me a feel for the tables' perception of my style and also keeps me focused on moving the stack forward. Without this diary, I often find myself chipping away as I wait for hands. By keeping track I seem to increase the number of rounds in which my stack grows.

Finally, you need to continually assess your M (the cost of a round vs your chip stack). If it dwindles below 7, then I know it is time to move. I am looking to get all in with a good hand. Initially, I am looking for something like AK, and JJ-AA. However, when the M drops below 6 I add a few more hands and when it drops below 5 I add several more. Once your M drops below 4, there is a wide range of cards that you will move in with and you need to do it aggressively to keep from chipping away.

One of the truly valuable benefits of building a big stack in the first hour is that you can survive going card dead for a long stretch. This will happen but often you can outlast it because of the stack that you built.

I will continue to develop and refine my use of this strategy and continue to post the results.


RoundersBuzz

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Poker's Draw is its Web of Complexity

I was describing my obsession about poker the other day to a friend and they asked a question that I realized could not be answered in a quick off the cuff manner. "What is it about poker that is so alluring." I thought I would take a little time to describe my love for this game.

First let me say that my knowledge of the game, gained over the last three years, is a mere teardrop in the ocean of poker knowledge, but that is one of the most fascinating aspects of the game. The knowledge and learning seems to be limitless. My knowledge now is exponentially greater than it was last year, as was last year over the first year. At each step along the way we believe we are enlightened, but it is only after we increase to another exponentially higher level do we realize how little we knew at the previous point.

The subtleties and layers of the game are immense. Of course there is the beginning basics such as starting hand values and how to bet and play certain hands, however that simple knowledge is like the outer skin of an onion, merely a thin covering to what is happening in the real game down below.

On the next level is reading your opponents hands. Using betting patterns, starting hand knowledge, playing styles, position at the table, tells (either live or online), etc, we can increasingly improve our ability to accurately deduce the opponents hand. However, this skill set and knowledge base alone is so vast, that one could spend a lifetime just developing and perfecting this one mere element of a game of poker.

The next level is playing strategy, which is especially deep in tournament play. A full handed ring game of NL Hold em can be fairly boring as you sit and wait for big hands or trapping hands, but tournament strategy never slows. Because the blinds increase rapidly and any hand could be your last, tournament strategy is criticl to success. Should I start tight aggressive to develop a tight image or bust out of the gates loose aggressive to try to build a stack early? When should I switch gears and how dramatically? What is my table image and how should that affect my strategy? How aggressive should I be around the bubble, should I slow down as we near the final table? These are just some of the fascinating nuances of tournament play. Strategy alone could be a college thesis, but again this is just one more element of poker.

After the basics, hand reading and strategy, we start delving into the deeper underbelly of poker, getting inside your opponents' heads. The second, third and fourth levels of poker. What does my opponent think I have as a hand and how is that affecting his play? What does my opponent think I think he has as a hand and how is that affecting his play? Finally, what does my opponent think I think he thinks I have as a hand?

While I often think in the second and third levels during a tournament, I freely admit to never having thought in the fourth level of poker. Maybe next year. It frankly hurts my brain to think about. However, it is this fascinating manuevering and out-manuevering on the second and third levels of poker that truly mesmerizes me. Setting traps, representing starting hands, sending mixed signals or doubling back on previously sent signals can all be used as tools as we get inside our opponenet's head.

I realize that at the end of year four, I will look back at my current poker knowledge with a smug smile and sigh about my naivety. It is beyond comprehension to imagine reaching the depth of knowledge of a player like Doyle Brunson with over 50 years of poker experience. And yet at regular intervals, the game provides us with a new little "aha" moment that elevates us to new level of enlightment. It is this continual source of learning that is the most compelling draw of poker and leads to my love of the game.