First, the results. Since the World Series of Poker last year, I've played 174 hours of poker. I play limit hold'em, with almost all of my play at the $10/20 or $15/30 level. In that time I've made $7594, which is $43.70 per hour.
I say that I'm a semi-professional, because obviously 5 hours of "work" per week isn't really playing at a professional level. Statistically speaking, it's also somewhat possible that I've just gotten lucky over this time. Considering my level of understanding of the game, including knowing what I don't know, honest evaluation of the competition, and a general comfort level with the game, I can objectively say that I don't think luck plays a large part in my results.
Anyway, I say all that to let you judge for yourself my playing level, rather than having to take my word for it. Real professionals might disagree with some of my advice, but I'm offering it because I think that it's difficult to find the correct path towards becoming a winning poker player, and I've now discovered one such path.
Subjectively, it feels awesome to be good at poker. When I go to Vegas every month, I assume that I'm going to leave with a profit of some sort, and am playing to figure out exactly how much it will be. In the same way a programmer takes for granted that he can build a simple web app, I've come to take it for granted that if I need money for something, I can just play poker. That's part of why I don't play more, actually-- it feels like pulling money out of the ATM that I'm not immediately going to spend. Proficient poker playing actually feels like a low-grade superpower.
So today I want to share some parts of this journey. This post isn't about how to play poker, but rather how to learn to play poker. Despite tons of good resources and information out there, I found it difficult to know exactly how to tackle the problem of "getting good at poker".
Hold'Em is a beautifully complex and satisfying game. I'd play it even if money wasn't on the line. Playing for money makes it a pure game which ensures that everyone is playing at the best of their ability. The only real "move" you have is to add money to the pot. No hitting, standing, or swapping out cards. Yet behind this simplicity are layers of math, psychology, and logic, all woven together.
How hard is it to get good at poker? Not very. I started out playing $3/6. When I moved up to $6/12, I was terrified that everyone was going to be really good. They were horrible. I stuck around at $6/12 for a while, and then, hands trembling, moved up to $15/30. I was sure that everyone was amazing there. A few people were good, but most were pretty bad. After a few months of play, I was usually the best or second best player at the table. I recently took a shot at $20/40 and played two different games. At one game I figured I was fourth or fifth best out of ten, and at the other I thought I was one of the top two.
Unfortunately, you can't just be in the top half to make money at poker. Because of the house taking money, you have to be one of the top three or so to win overall. Because everyone else is playing casually and without discipline, it just doesn't take too much to get to the top three.
Before you ever start playing, you need to memorize starting hands. Start with Winning Low Limit Hold'Em by Lee Jones. It's not perfect, and you'll end up diverging from his recommendations eventually, but by simply following his chart, you'll have an enormous advantage over the other players at the lower limits.
Buy a copy of Turbo Texas Hold'Em from Wilson Software. The interface is hilarious and it only runs on PCs on 32bit operating systems (or in VMware), but it's the best poker simulation you can find. Go through meticulously and make all of the settings as hard as possible, including having the AI learn your style. Turn off the animations and sounds to speed up play.
Turbo Texas Hold'Em is amazing because it's fast. You can play fifteen hundred hands per hour. For reference, that's fifty hours of live poker. The AI isn't exactly like real life players, but it's close enough and the difficulty roughly matches to a $15/30 game.
Once you've memorized the starting hands, start playing a couple hours of TTH per day, just guessing what to do after following the starting hand chart. This gives you some context for the game that will increase your comprehension when you read.
After a couple thousand hands or so, read the rest of "Winning Low Limit Hold'Em". Keep playing Turbo Texas Hold'Em, but also start playing real life casino games. Start with a $3/6 or $4/8 game, which are low enough to be cheap, but not so low that it's a complete freakshow.
At these low limits, the rake is proportionally so high that the games are virtually unbeatable. Even a firehouse can't fill a bucket with a giant hole in the bottom of it. There's just too much money being pulled off the table. So you don't have to wait until you're beating $4/8 to move up in ranks-- just wait until you are choosing your starting hands with no thought, aren't playing hands you shouldn't play, and feel like your post-flop play is one of the best two or three at the table. Complete comprehension and implementation of Winning Low Limit Hold'Em should get you there.
It's important to be aggressive in moving up in limits, even if you're scared. The buy in for $6/12 is $200, which is a small price to pay for a test to see if you're ready to move up or not. Don't make your decision based on whether you win at the new level or not, but on how the game felt after a couple hours of play. If you felt like people were running circles around you, and you didn't understand what the better players were doing, don't move up. If you think you're in the top half of the players, do move up. You need better competition to progress, and sometimes you have to pay for it in the form of losing a small amount of money to the rake.
Once you start playing $6/12 or $8/16 or $10/20 (depending on which of these your local casino has), most players will still be horrible, but you'll run into a few people that actually have some understanding of the game. Now you can put into practice slightly more advanced tactics like hand-reading, free card plays, and certain bluffs. To learn these, read Small Stakes Hold'em by Sklansky.
The rake in these small/mid limit games is small enough that they are beatable. Keep at them until you feel like you're one of the best three players at the table, and are winning money. If you're diligent about reading the book and putting in some hours on TTH, it won't take long.
The big skill to work on in these mid stakes games is hand-reading, which isn't explicitly covered in any of the books I'm recommending. The idea is that as your opponent makes his moves, you narrow down the range of hands he could possibly have. The goal isn't to figure out the exact hand he has, but rather what his "range" is, and how you fare against it.
For example, if an opponent in late position raises a two-tone flop, but then checks the turn, it's extremely likely that he has a flush draw. If you have a pair, you can assume that you're going to win unless he he hits his flush card.
The second part of this equation is to figure out which play will net the most money based on these assumptions. To continue the previous example, if a non flush card comes on the river, you should actually check, even though you know you're probably winning. Why? Because he might try to bluff at it and bet. If he DOES bet, you should call, but not raise. A raise will only be called by hands that beat you (like if he made a set on the river).
Once you're becoming somewhat proficient at hand reading, move up to $15/30 or $20/40. Because these games are finally getting into the realm of stakes played by professionals, you have to tread with a bit of caution. The $15/30 game I play in San Francisco has a couple pros, but no one particularly intimidating. I played a $20/40 game in Seattle that was full of horrible players that I would expect to see at the $6/12. On the other hand, the one time I played $20/40 at Bellagio, it was a tough game.
While moving up to this new limit, or even just before, read Hold'Em For Advanced Players. This book is more complex than the first two, and many of the plays it prescribes will only work against decent players. You should continue to work on hand reading and thinking very critically about how each of your possible plays will work against that range.
Make sure to track your progress as you go. I like "Session Logger" for Android, and my friends like "Poker Journal" for iPhone. Once you settle in to your $15/30 game, you should be able to make about $45 an hour. It's not a huge amount of money, but it's not bad, and it's a fun way to do it.
The last thing I'll mention is the importance of discipline. If I were to point out the biggest error I see opponents making, it's that they lack discipline. They want to play crappy pocket pairs early. They want to call one more street to see if they make their miracle straight. It's only a bet here and there, which seems negligible, but it adds up in the end.
When I sit down at a poker table, my goal isn't to win. It's to play correct poker. I don't try to justify any call or fold-- I just try to do what I think is best. I don't always get it right, but that attitude has helped me avoid the emotional playing that would have easily turned me into a net loser.
As for going beyond these limits, I just don't know yet. I definitely haven't fully absorbed Hold'Em for Advanced Players, but I imagine that doing so would be the first step towards moving up limits. I'm currently beating the $15/30 in San Francisco and the $10/20 at Bellagio in Las Vegas. I'm a bit intimidated by the $20/40 at Bellagio, and I don't have enough data to know whether I can beat it or not. I suspect I can't yet.
I also don't know anything about online poker. For whatever reason, it just doesn't appeal to me, and I don't play it.
As my awareness of the game grew alongside my profits, I was shocked to see just how bad most players are. They've put in the time playing, but without any real study, they're mostly reinforcing bad habits. You can do differently. With just a few months of concentrated study and play, I'm convinced that anyone can become a winning player.
No pickup update because, honestly, this last week has been useless. my wing and I moved to Las Vegas for at least the next few weeks to remedy the situation. the full story will come out in the next update.
I think this post may not be the best edited, but it's 5:15am and I'm running out of batteries, so I've got to post it.