Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Why live players should play online

I often hear the opinion expressed that live poker is so different from online, that they have little relevance to each other. While it’s true that population tendencies tend to be different, and there are undeniably some skills that online players hone (like the ability to quickly interpret statistical data and make rapid fire decisions) that don’t really transfer to live, and the same is true going the opposite way (like the area of live tells), I’m more in the “poker is poker” camp.

I also sometimes hear live players dismissing the prospects of some online beast in a live event because “they don’t have much live experience”. This is something I almost never get on board with unless the player in question is giving off some very obvious live tells. To make my point, I’m going to make a statement I expect almost nobody reading this to agree with, and then attempt to back it up.

In the WSOP main event, given the opportunity to buy a piece of either a decent midstakes online grinder playing his first live event ever, or to buy a piece of an experienced successful live pro with live results stretching back over 20 years, I’d take the online guy.

Why? Well to start to answer that question, let’s look at another question. What, exactly, is “experience”? I looked at the Hendon mob of one of the most successful live pros I know, a legend of the game, with results stretching back over twenty years. The player in question has cashed 114 times, final tabled 34, got headsup 9 times, and won 5. That’s basically a very successful career live spread out over two decades, averaging out as six cashes a year (six occasions he has to make major equity decisions), one final table every eight months, a headsup match every two and a half years, and a win once every four or five years.

Ok, next questions: where is the money in tournaments? It’s all in the cashes: the ability to navigate tricky bubbles and make the money more your fair share of the time is a much bigger part of long term profitability than most people think. But of course most of money is at and near the top. People sometimes hear this and think that means “playing for the win” is correct, and that means gambling at the death in the hope of winning all the chips. But while it’s always preferable to win a tournament, merely maximizing your chances of doing so in every single tournament you play or find yourself deep in isn’t just foolhardy, it’s wrong and burns money in the long term. A better way to look at it is your objective should always be to make the decision that wins you the most money in the long term, which may or may not be the one that gives you the best chance of winning the tournament. Some people can’t conceive that this could be so, believing that whatever gives you the best chance of winning the tournament must also make you the most money, so let’s look at a simple example to prove they can be different.

The good news: there are three people left in the main event, and you’re one of them.
The bad news: there are two hundred big blinds in play, and how have only two of them. The other 198 bigs are evenly distributed between your opponents (99 each).
The prize: you’ve already locked up four million for third, there’s an additional two million if you can somehow ladder to second, and there’s 10 million total for first.
The scenario: the button looks down at his cards, thinks for a while, then shoves all in. The small blind looks at his cards, and calls. You then look down at aces? Is this a call?

Well, if you’re “playing for the win”, it clearly is. You have the best hand (except in those rare occasions when one of the other guys has the other two aces), so calling maximizes your chances of winning all the chips eventually. However, in this case calling is burning money. Why? Well, you'll win the pot 70-75% of the time and find yourself headsup with 6 big blinds to your opponent's 194. Your chances of winning are about 30/1.

If you fold, you achieve the same result almost always (except in rare cases where the opponents chop). Now you're a 200/1 shot to actually win, but you've locked up the extra 2 million, which is much significant than your slightly better chances of winning if you call and triple.

This is a fairly clearcut example (albeit still one a lot of people will get wrong), but there are lots of other less clearcut examples of where the decision that maximizes Chip Ev (and therefore our chances of winning the tournament) is not the same as that which maximizes our Dollar Ev (and therefore our long term profits). Online tournament grinders devote much of their study and efforts away from the table into ensuring they get as many of these spots right as possible (this is the whole area of ICM).

Relatively major mistakes early in a tournament are minor compared to relatively minor mistakes late on. This might sound wrong but think of it like this: seriously misplaying a hand early on might be a ten big blind mistake, which would be massive in a cash game, but if starting stack was one hundred big blinds, that translates to only one tenth of a buyin. On the other hand, calling an all in with tens on a final table in a spot where you need jacks or better is minor in the sense that it’s only one pip below a correct call, but in dollar Ev might cost us 1% of the prize pool. And if this is a big tournament like the WSOP ME with 2000 buyins still in play in the prize pool, that’s a 20 buyin mistake (200k in the WSOP ME).

Tournament poker punishes all mistakes in the long term, but some much more than other. As I’ve just shown, even big mistakes early on don’t cost us all that much in the long run, while small mistakes at the death can be much more costly. Therefore, when you’re evaluating the likely profitability of a player in something like the main event, your main focus should be on how likely there are to make mistakes if they get deep, rather than how well they play in earlier days.

I submit that online players will tend to outperform live pros significantly in these situations just by virtue of having greater experience of being deep in tournaments and faced with the kind of decisions that are typical at this point.

Of course, objections might be raised along the lines of “That’s all well and good, but live is different and online players won’t have as much specific experience”. Point conceded, but how important is it really? Population tendencies and live reads are all well and good, and may very well confer significant edges to experienced live pros in the early stages in amateur heavy fields, but watch any major tournament from two tables out and you’ll quickly see that these skills shrivel up in situations where the big decisions are all allin pre ones, and the crucial skills are ICM and knowledge of preflop equities against different ranges.

There is another dimension to live poker: mental stamina. And even in this regard, I prefer the chances of an online player over those of a live pro. Online players put in long grinds online almost every day they play: there’s no equivalent to the live pro’s “I bust early and went home”. No, more a case of “I bust one of the twenty tournaments I regged early, so I regged another”. Live players, by contrast, don’t put in the same volume in terms of time, and take longer breaks away from the tables (while they wait for the next series to start). A live pro I know who went deep in the main event told me he made a massive error he would never normally make, and he ascribed it entirely to tiredness. For even an experienced player like my friend, the experience of having to make decisions while tired on a day 6 was something he’d had to deal with only a handful of times in a long career. Online players, by contrast, are drilled to keep having make rapid fire decisions for significant amounts of equity eight, nine, ten or twelve hours into their session every day, day after day. Even experienced live players tend to tire after three or four long days on the trot: during a major online series many online grinders will play long hours for fourteen days straight.

Performance experts like Jared Tendler also tell us that when we do get tired, what tends to happen is we autopilot more. As such, the skills that have been drilled into us the most are the ones that diminish the least. An online player is therefore much less likely to get shoving or calling ranges wrong than a live pro simply because they face those decisions more frequently on a daily, weekly, yearly and careerly basis.

So next time you have to assess the prospects of a player in a big tournament for whatever reason (such as buying or swapping a piece), remember that what matters most is how well that player is likely to perform if they are lucky enough to run deep. And that comes down to a combination of experience (of being deep in a big runner field), the key skills when most of the big decisions involve shoving or calling an allin (understanding preflop equities, ranges and ICM), and stamina.

More on dealers

Since my last blog went viral, a large number of dealers contacted me to air grievances. We covered some of these on the latest episode of the Chip Race, and it is clear that the mistreatment of dealers is not limited to Casino Malta. Most of the dealers expressed dismay at the sliding standards in the industry, a point also made by the dealer we interviewed on the Chip Race. As I said in my last blog, I feel the onus is on us as players to ask dealers how they are being treated at an event, to raise concerns with the organisers, and if necessary to vote with their feet if an event refuses to treat dealers with the respect they deserve.

As we said on the Chip Race, we don't want to get into individual events and naming and shaming, which unfortunately means some readers or listeners might take the view that dealers are badly treated everywhere. This is simply not the case. The blog and Chip Race piece focused on specific grievances and complaints, which are not universal to every event. In the course of talking to dealers, I received unsolicited positive feedback on some events and individual organisers. So while I don't want to name and shame I don't see any problem with revealing that several dealers nominated the Irish Open/Norwegian championships as their favourite event to work, and some dealers also praised PartyPoker Live and Unibet events.

Buy Poker Satellite Strategy and get a free €10 Unibet tournament token

If you are thinking of buying Poker Satellite Strategy for yourself or perhaps as a Christmas gift, my sponsor Unibet have kindly provided an extra bonus for satellites grinders. If you buy the book between October 4, 2019 and December 2, 2019 (we picked that time so any paperbacks will have arrived by Christmas) you will get a free €10 MTT token to use at Unibet to try out your satellite skills.

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This offer is currently not open to players from Sweden as per Unibet’s T&Cs.

This is a limited time offer, we only have 100 tournament tokens and may run out before December 2 (email ahead of time if you want to find out if we have tickets left).



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