As a poker player, there is a rush inherent with stepping into a poker room for a tournament, regardless of its buy in. The chance to make that “big score” – perhaps even make your name in the tournament poker world – is something that gets the adrenaline going for pretty much anyone. With that said, there are only a handful of those opportunities.
More often than not, stepping into the poker room will be taking you to the cash games (most successful poker players are those cash players) to grind it out for a few hours on the felt. While it doesn’t give the same rush that maybe a tournament does, the successful poker player still wants to have success in the game (especially if that’s how you make a living). Whether you are a casual player or a hard-core grinder, there are some basic steps you should take before even stepping to the felt.
Know Your Hunting Ground
There is a correlation between being a cash game player and a hunter that is applicable here. A hunter normally knows his terrain, knows the best spots to find his quarry and will seek out those areas before he even shoulders his weapon. As a cash game player, you have to employ the same tactics that a hunter would before you even purchase your chips.
Most poker rooms have a board that lists all the games that are available at that exact moment. Take a moment to peruse that board, noting the limits, the games available and just how long you might have to wait to be able to get in the game. While that $1/$2 game may be your initial choice upon arrival, seeing there are a dozen players in front of you while a $2/$4 game has open seats may adjust your thinking towards what game to play.
While a poker room/casino may not allow you to walk through the playing floor, you can usually get a feel for what is going on in the poker room by observing some of the outer table play from the rail. By observing these tables, you also may get a line on which game might work best for you. If, by observation, you notice that a particular table (in your price range) is playing a bit tight and that your style would work well there, you might request that you be put on the list for that table. (Beware of this observation, however; once you arrive at the felt, your style may adjust the dynamic of the table and what you thought was a “good fit” may work against you.)
Finally – and this is something that may take a bit more time to notice – look for particular players that are drinking alcohol while they play. While having a drink at the table is no cardinal sin, those players that seem to be “living it up” while on the baize are a choice target for the knowledgeable hunter. It is a common reality that drinking loosens up most people; as such, those players may be an easy mark to take advantage of when stepping to the tables.
Go Full Bore Or Don’t Go At All
Many times I have been sitting at the tables and new players will come into the game. When I see these players sit down with the absolute minimum buy-in, I know I am going to look for an opportunity to separate them from their chips. The reason for this is simple: they don’t have the ammunition to make any type of play and they are an easy target.
For example, let’s say you’ve been at a table for a couple of hours, you have improved your stack by half of what you bought in for, and a newbie comes into the $1/$2 with $20 in chips. While not belittling the player for short-buying, most of the time that player is looking for a big hand to build up some chips to be able to play with. That player (once again, most of the time) is going to be looking for a premium hand (pocket pairs, big Aces) to try to score that double up. It is an opportunity for you to pick up chips without making a significant dent in your chip stack.
Whenever I head to the felt, I always ensure that I buy in for the maximum, if one is set (personally, I like these tables) and, if there isn’t a maximum, I take a quick look around the table to see just how much I need to be a viable player in the game. This way I know I have the ability to work with the entirety of my poker toolbox rather than just look for one big hand to try to make stick. To be honest, I try to show up with at least two buy ins for the level I am playing, just so I am prepared if my first bullet doesn’t go as planned.
Players who go the “short buy” route are more than likely going to be limited in what they are trying to do. When you are on the tables, you should not limit yourself from any of your skills that you can employ.
Ditch The Headphones, Toss The Sunglasses
Unless you are planning to play for longer than twelve hours (a normal tournament day span), headphones and sunglasses will hinder your game rather than help in a cash game setting. Yes, it can be a bit tedious to keep mucking rags to the dealer, but the information you get from simply listening to your opponents and taking in their nuances will work out for you in the long run.
I have found that players will talk more in a cash game setting – perhaps because of the intimacy of being at the same patch of felt for long periods of time – than they do in a constantly shifting tournament setting. As such, you can pick up a great deal of information from your opponents if you’re not sitting there shuffling your iPod to pick up your “poker power” song or dozing off behind your Oakley’s.
Did Seat Seven just get a phone call that seems to have distracted him? Seat Two is talking to Seat Three about how he’s here when he told his wife he was going to a baseball game; he might be playing at less than an optimum level because he wants to limit his losses. All of the conversation you find on the tables can be used to your advantage, it is simply a matter of being observant enough (sans headphones and sunglasses) to be able to pick up this information.
In my opinion, the true mark of an excellent poker player (besides being able to play a variety of the disciplines of the game) is one who can, over the long haul, make money at the cash game tables. To do this, you have to become the Hunter who stalks his prey through any conditions. As that Hunter, you have to employ every part of your person to be at the apex of your game. Through using some of these techniques, you might find yourself advancing closer to making it to that point.