Monday, January 13, 2020

The R word

Continuing my look back at 2019 and look forward to next year and decade.


For most of the time I’ve been coaching, I didn’t rate myself very highly as a coach. When I started staking I outsourced the coaching to Lappin, and when the Firm staking expanded to the point we all had to chip in on the coaching front, I rated myself a pretty distant third to Lappin and Daragh Davey. However, I think I’ve gotten a lot better over time, and when I was hired to coach another stable I had to up my game.

This year I did more private coaching than ever before. I only take on or keep students as long as I’m convinced I can help them enough to give them value for money, which means I turn away more than I take on. Until this year I’ve seen my specialisation as budding online pros, and that demographic continued to make up about half my students this year. My approach has always been the “teach a man to fish”: I see my job as teaching these students the methodology I use to look at and study poker situations with the tools that are available rather than (for example) “how to play Ace Queen”.

A growing part of my coaching which grew to the other half this year is what I would call highly motivated recreationals. Most of them have successful careers in other areas (business and trading being the most common) and approach me with some variation of “I don’t want to be a pro, I have no illusions about my potential but I just want to be as competitive as I can be”. The irony is their rate of improvement is often quite staggering and several of them have turned into significant online and live winning players. It took me a while to work out my approach had to be different for this group: typically they don’t have the time or inclination to spend hundreds of hours with the solvers, but can assimilate what someone who has (like me) very quickly if it’s properly explained.


In terms of volume, I put in as much work away from the tables as ever, but I still feel this is an area where I need to improve. Specifically my study tends to be too sporadic (I do it in bursts rather than consistent effort) and disorganised (no real method, I just study whatever I feel like that day). I realised that this is because of where I’ve tended to place study on my priority list: near the bottom. I’ve tended to see it as what I do when I’m not playing, coaching, writing or creating content, but more often than not when I have spare time from my other activities, I’m tired and not particularly motivated to study.

Therefore, this year I want to take a more disciplined approach to study that mirrors my physical training. I run an hour five days a week when I’m at home, with a further four hour long run once a week, and one rest day. My plan for 2020 is to study at least an hour day, with one longer session every week. I feel like this level of effort is needed as the pace at which the competition improves is getting faster and faster, and it’s never been easier to fall behind the curve.

Health and fitness

These have both been good this year. I trained all year with no injury or major illness. My only illnesses were a few minor colds which I was able to work and train through. It’s notable though that all these illnesses were picked up on live trips, which has been the pattern since I started playing poker.

The R word

My biggest regret this year is how my online year ended up: not just in terms of profitability but also volume. This was my lowest volume year online since I started playing. Part of that is the changes in the online landscape make it impossible or at least undesirable to play the same number of tables as I used to. My days of comfortably 24 tabling are in the past for now: these days I rarely go over 12, and with more sites switching over to banning HUDs, I will almost certainly have to decrease that even further.

My biggest fear right now is that the days of the online pro may be numbered. In the middle of this decade, my friends and I were told by a Stars employee that Stars and other major sites were looking to wipe out our profession, seeing us as direct competitors for whatever recreational money was about. In the last couple of years Stars seems to have doubled down on this strategy, looking not only to turn poker into what every other form of online gaming is (a game where the only long term winner is the site), but also to try to lure poker players over to bingo, slots and casino. Unibet are one of the few sites that aren’t treating poker as a gateway drug, as their recent aggressive marketing of Hexapros to casino players proves. Bit for the most part the sites seem to be something the sites want to use to lure new customers in the door,cans then try to get them to switch to other forms of gambling.

I wasn’t in Prague this year, but my friends who were said there was general gloom and doom among the online players there that sites like Stars were close to their objective of killing the online pro. Last year my ROI on Stars was a measly 8%, a pale shadow of my historical ROI there (in excess of 60%). You might think “So what? Anyone can have a bad year” but here’s the rub: that measly 8% profit margin puts me well inside the top 1% of players on Stars, roughly where I was relative to the field back when I won at ten times that rate. Lappin told me he looked at the ROI of the top 25 Irish players in the last year, and as a group we are making 6% on an ABI of $40. That’s no longer a living wage.

One area I’ve historically been very strong is game selection, but I’ve let that slip in recent years. It’s too easy to just click on the Stars lobby and register a few games to fill my screen, but my results have suffered since the days I used to put a lot of work into investigating what the most profitable games on each site were, and restricting myself to those. That’s one thing I need to get back to in 2020.

All of which has me thinking about the R word (retirement). Retirement for me doesn’t mean quitting poker completely: I don’t see myself doing that any time soon. But poker has been not just my full time occupation for the past decade, but also my primary hobby and something of an obsession. I’ve been handsomely rewarded for my dedication and time, but in recent years the returns have diminished. If the trend continues then I can no longer justify continuing at the same level of intensity. As I said, I’m not talking about quitting, but would move to playing what and when I feel like. There is a general drift of my generation of online pro away from the game. At our recent annual Christmas get together, Mireille noted that this was the first one she attended where we barely spoke about poker at all.

However, I’m not there yet: I want to give it all I have again in 2020 and see what happens. While most of my friends are experiencing similar diminishing returns, a few of the younger ones had great years online, so assuming they’re not just statistical outliers, it may be possible to reverse the trend by going harder than ever in 2020.


This is not just a new year but also a new decade, so it’s worth looking back at the last decade. At the start of the last decade I was hitting my stride online. I booked all of my biggest winning years online in the first half of the decade, fuelled mostly by satellites. Changes in the ecosystem and the hostility of Stars to their most loyal customers started to bite in the middle of the decade, and my online profits dipped sharply around then. If I remember correctly 2015 was my worst year ever online, and my best live (mostly down to chopping a WSOP event). Things picked up online again in the next few years as I moved most of my online volume away from Stars.

Content creation became a much bigger part of what I do in the last few years, and while it will continue to be a major part of what I do, I’m hoping to move the focus back a bit more towards my own play, particularly online.

This blog ended up a lot longer than I intended it to be, so thank you to those of you still reading this far. I wish you all a happy New Year, and hope you achieve all your goals in both poker and life in 2020!



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