Wednesday, August 23, 2006

For The Beginner

Corky: Hey fellas. I was just wondering if you could sell me some heroin and then maybe we can go out and commit some hate crimes.
"Corky Romano: Special Agent"

Having run a few tournaments at the pubs earlier this year, you get to see a wide spectrum of the general poker playing community. There are the first timers, those that have seen it on TV, those that have played a bit online, and others that have played a bit more.

It is amazing that nearly everyone when starting out seems to think the cards don't mean anything until you've seen a flop. I know my brothers and I thought something similar when we first started playing – no doubt seconds after watching Rounders for the first time. We played with no pre-flop betting and would jump straight into it. Mind you, we were playing for matchsticks so it was pretty much No-Foldem.

And it is hard to explain to the new comers that while they are right – your hand is more or less defined after the flop – they are also wrong and sometimes they need to fold. It is even harder when you tell them to fold the 83o when the flop then comes 883. We've all done that and had a laugh over it, but for a new player this looks like they made a mistake.

Therein lies the biggest lesson in poker: You can do everything right and still loose. That is the first step in understanding playing poker. This isn't a crossword puzzle that has a definite solution. Sometimes all the right moves amount for zero, but that is the nature of the game. Sometimes you fold the best hand before the flop, sometimes your opponent doesn't when they probably should have.

I have been thinking about this point for a little while now, as at one of the home games I frequent I have seen a new player go through 2-3 buy ins without much luck. I was sitting next to him during one session, and when I had folded my cards I had a look (at his request) to see what he was playing. He was getting crappy cards pretty much all night. Some times he would fold his 83o, and the flop would come 883, as I said above.

The path of the new player like this could take two completely different paths. They could start winning some lucky hands and make some money – beginners luck being what it is – or they can take loss after loss and wonder why they play at all.

It is hard to say which path is better for which person. I think the well adjusted person will progress better if they sustain the losses first. It will teach them to be more selective in their starting hands as a beginner, and then when they start to understand the game a little better they can start thinking about re-raising with those suited connectors in late position. On the other path, there is a greater risk for the un-adjusted person (note, I said "person" and not "player". I am referring to the individual's personality and not their playing skill/style) to develop bad habits, or even addiction. Ok, so we all develop that addiction sooner or later – good chance if you are reading this you have (or you are the Distraction, in which case go back to Grey's Anatomy) developed a healthy addiction to poker. But when you are trying to feed that addiction with all-in bets chasing an open ended straight, at levels that are just to make up for yesterdays losses, you've got a problem. Eventually this type of person can progress along the line of poker experience like everyone else, you just hope that they stick with it to realise the end.

Conversely, the player that looses early on is also subject to giving up on the game, putting it in the "too hard" basket and letting their losses get the better of them. Here are some of my tips for the beginner who is at this stage – and none of these tips are revolutionary or haven't been said before, but they will be revolutionary to you if you have never heard them!

Firstly, you shouldn't be playing at a dollar level that can hurt you, so the losses in dollar terms shouldn't be a big deal. If they are, then stop now. Nobody wants to see you go broke off the table because of what happens on it.

Next, try to read up a bit if you are that way inclined. If you can stomach the dull readings of poker theory, it will increase your understanding of the game and accelerate your learning curve. At this stage, your are not trying to make a living playing the game, and you probably don't know enough to put the texts to proper use, but there is still something to be said for keeping the ideas moving in your head constantly. If that means thinking about the game more when you are not playing it, such as when reading books dedicated to the subject, then all the best!

But most poker texts are very dull, especially when you are just a learner. For my money, I think you can't beat free rolls for a learning curve. Play money tables will give you an idea of the structure of a game and how quickly it moves. If you are lucky, you might even get some decent hands out of them. At worse, it will show you that sometimes the idiots at a table win. But by getting a few thousand hands under your belt, you will start to see what works for you. Even though this is play money, don't be scared to fold. Open up two tables if one isn't giving you enough action.

Lastly, if you can't sit around a table with your mates and a few beers, toss card and chips around and walk out $50 down without still having a good time, then poker is not for you. Nobody said you have to play, and for some people maybe it is better they did not. If you can just not handle it then there is no shame in walking away. Believe me, the other players will find someone to fill your seat. You won't be offending them.

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