Monday, March 29, 2010

Poker Drivel: Upward and Onward

I think the best way to rejuvenate this blog is to start by telling how and why it died and what has caused its resurgence... It's not exactly a discussion on tactics or methods, but I think it could be of use to the struggling, burn-out poker player to hear the path I have walked and why, after swearing I never would, I have returned to it.

I'm the type who's decent at almost everything I decide to pursue... I'm a reasonably bright individual and I learn quickly at first, but my interest almost always wanes once the learning curve gets steep, so I've established a pattern of dabbling but never dedicating, meddling but never mastering. I've left a dozen relatively serious pursuits in my wake from music to writing, poetry to game design; while all of them still cling in various states of disarray, none ever really stuck.

When I put many of these pursuits aside to take up poker, I made myself a promise: I would take this one seriously. I would wade through the hard parts, pay my dues, struggle, strive, and work until I was the best damned poker player anyone had ever met. (Problem #1: Setting goals too lofty and too subjective.)

I started by playing Stud and Limit Hold 'Em at card clubs and casinos in California and Colorado. When I decided to take it seriously, I also signed up online at Pokerstars. I was loving every minute of it, playing 5+ hours every single night and doing reasonably well for a beginner... In my first year, I ended up slightly behind in live play but way ahead online. It wasn't until halfway through my second year that I hit my first serious slide, giving back about three-quarters what I had won online (essentially breaking even overall) in a series of bad cards, bad beats, bad play, and bad attitude. (Problem #2: Allowing early success and general arrogance to set expectations far too high.)

I steamed for a couple of weeks, almost deciding to quit, before I remembered... I was here before. This was the point at which I was irritated and didn't want to go on, the point at which I had always quit, and I had promised myself to forge on this time. So I started searching online for poker guides and training software, stumbling across a package called Poker Academy Pro in the process. It was $129.99, far above its competition, but the reviews online were quite good. I did the math, realized I had lost more than that amount in a moment based on bad play and decided to pick up a copy as an investment, intending to play against AI bots in WSoP-type structures until I could consistently beat them. (Problem #3a: AI bots suck at No Limit, even those lovingly crafted by Poker Academy.) (Problem #3b: Overestimating the maximum extent of my patience with AI bots that suck.)

I saw right away that Poker Academy had an online mode, but I'd spent enough time on the free sites to know that was useless. (Problem #4: Assuming that playing against complete donks with no respect for the game or their "money" was useless or a waste of time.)

Eventually I broke down and decided to just mess around in the online mode and, entirely by accident, stumbled upon a community of people with the same basic objective as mine... They were all relatively serious about improving their poker skills and, though they were playing for fake money, they treated the game more seriously than most people playing $1/$2 NL in Las Vegas. I was instantly back to playing 5+ hours every night, only this time against the same basic group of people over and over again. My poker game made many leaps and bounds during this time, but in my competitive drive and desire to be the best and to win, I'd already started to lose my grip on why I picked up poker in the first place... I started to forget entirely that poker was a game and that I should be able to have fun playing it. (Problem #5: Letting ambition run away with my heart.)

I'll summarize much of the middle of my journey as it currently stands by saying that, during the next couple of years, I cycled further and further down a bored, jaded, disillusioned path, always pushing myself forward because I'd promised that I would become great at something for once in my life. I completely lost sight of anything that resembled enjoyment at the poker table and my game suffered for it. This only made matters worse... The more I pushed myself, the worse my results became until finally, after a mind-numbing series of bad beats and extreme tilt (though I denied it at the time), I came to a final conclusion that I wasn't cut out for poker. I officially gave up, publicly denounced it, and decided, while I would still play the occasional game with friends, I was done with it on any kind of serious level. (Problem #6: Deluding myself into thinking that any given decision is absolute.)

I continued to play in friendly and semi-friendly games when invited by various groups with which I was still in contact through the remainder of 2008 and all of 2009. I probably played a total of 6 - 9 poker tournaments during that time, essentially breaking even or lagging a little bit behind. I don't know exactly because I stopped keeping track. But I apparently did well enough to be invited a high-buyin, two-day invitational tournament with a private group here in Denver. Partly because it was invite-only and I felt honored to have been included, I agreed to play - instantly regretting that decision the moment I pulled the money out of the bank. (Problem #7: If you've resolved to stay away from something, continuing to dabble even on a friendly basis is a recipe for a full-blown return... Sounds something like an addiction, doesn't it? *coy grin*)

That tournament to any level that I cared about ended just over 16 hours of play later when the top 3 decided to split the pot, playing out the final hands just to determine who took home the trophy. I was chip leader when we decided to split, so I generally tell people that I won... The final tally said I came in third because I jammed every hand and was called by pocket tens, but that technicality doesn't change the way I feel about it. In my heart, mind, and soul, I won that day, and I went home feeling the best about myself than I *ever* remember feeling at any previous point in my life. I was hesitant to admit it, but I basically knew... poker was back.

For me, even better than the financial result, was all the feedback I got at the table. People who had also played well enough to earn a spot in this tourney (not donks) were routinely referring to me as dangerous and specifically staying out of pots with me. They were having a hard time getting a read on me and consistently either winning a little from me or losing a lot. They (not all, but many) were afraid and I was eating it up. All my time spent at the tables in the past wasn't wasted after all.

Shortly after this event, I started playing poker a lot on Facebook... Yeah. Facebook. Something I realized, once I was seeing clearly, is that I never really learned how to play successfully against complete donks with no respect. I always lost patience and ended up giving away my chips because the whole thing seemed pointless. I was, in essence, sinking to their level... Even worse because I knew better. But not this time. I played tight and patient, exercising proper bankroll management and walking away from the table when I got annoyed, and I (so far) turned a couple chips into 3.5 million, more than many of my friends who had played for a year or more. It was good timing, because the Ben Kramer Memorial / 2010 Poker Academy Meetup was in mid-March and I was just hitting the prime of my poker return...

As most of you already know, I continued a decent run during that Vegas trip. I was definitely aided by a few sessions where drunk clowns were "throwing money at me" (per Pokergirl), but I had my share of dry sessions also. The proudest moment, for me, was grinding out a profit of $19 over a 6-hour session at $1/$2 NL. The table was full of drunk idiots and arguing, enough to put me on definite tilt, and I was card dead and unable to capitalize on the mistakes they were making for the majority of the time, but I managed to pull off some key bluffs and leverage what meager cards I did have into a positive session when, in the past, I guarantee I would have self-destructed and given away my stack by loosening up and playing the donkey game right along with them.

So here I stand, ready and proud to declare my official return to serious poker... But not before I provide answers to the problems I've illustrated above, for my benefit and yours:


1. My goals are now defined against myself, not against others. I have no control over how good Daniel Negreanu or Joe Schmoe are at poker. I can only strive and aim for the best *I* can be at poker. At the very least, I have confidence that I can achieve a level worth achieving.

2. Pure humility and even temper. Don't gloat, don't beat myself up, truly work on treating every single hand as a new adventure and a new opportunity to learn. Shed the emotional inertia and just chill... No one moment is going to define me.

3. Using the top 2 points as my guide, continue to play against donks and loosey-gooseys. Stay comfortable with playing people who are very bad at the game. At worst, it's a good exercise in patience.

4. See 3. It's not a waste of time. Sometimes your best opportunities for making real money at the poker table are against complete morons and you have to log playing time against these people to learn how to get the absolute most you can out of them.

5. Once you measure your success against yourself, as in Point #1, treat any session in which you've learned something as a success. These tidbits have a habit of adding up.

6. Don't be silly. Poker and life are both fluid. No matter how accustomed you are to swimming upstream, you also have to learn to go with the flow sometimes.

7. All's well that ends well. The only difference between an addiction and a true passion is whether the user maintains control.

Friday, March 26, 2010

And the dead shall rise...

Many of you know this already via Facebook or hearing it from me personally in Las Vegas this week, but I took down a large invitational tourney recently... That, combined with an extremely successful and productive Vegas trip that completely covered all of my expenses plus a little to put aside for a rainy day, has catapulted me directly back into poker.

It's as exhausting and frustrating as it ever was, but there's something about it that keeps drawing me back into the fold... And I'm once again certain that I have a real talent for the game. I'm not the best in the world... or the country... or the state... or the city... but I feel I'm good enough to justify the time I've spent in the pursuit, which is all I've ever asked of myself.

I don't know how much I'll post, hopefully enough to make it worth coming back for the various people who have expressed an interest (far more than I imagined), but I'm comfortable in saying that my blog here is resurrected...