You're entering a poker room with at least a few tables. There are some empty seats and some short waiting lists. How do you decide where to sit?
I am assuming your first consideration is about profit. There are other considerations. I sometimes want to sit at the same table as someone I know, or with a good view of a sporting event on TV, for example. But for the most part we need to think about which game is likely to be the most profitable.
How do you go about evaluating the quality of the game before you sit down?
In your home casino or poker room, this may seem like a fairly easy exercise. In fact, sometimes it is. If you play in a poker room with one table, there is no choice. If you play in a game with a couple of tables, you may be required to play in the only open seat in the place — at the "must move" table.
But if you're visiting a fairly large room — say, during the 2017 World Series of Poker when playing at the ARIA, Bellagio, Wynn, Orleans, Rio or elsewhere in Las Vegas — you have a few choices to make. How do you go about making them?
Some players don't care where they sit. They have their preferred stakes and game — e.g., $1/$2 or $2/$5 no-limit hold'em — they just take the first seat that's offered to them, and they stay there for their entire time.
And for some of them, this works out just fine. They may be skillful enough to dominate any game, no matter how tough. They may be among the very small percentage of players who are flexible enough and good enough to change their style to suit any situation and to take advantage of opponents no matter how skilled.
But for the rest of us — for the vast majority of us — failing to be selective about the game you play in is a huge error.
I say this both from experience and from conversations with many dozens of top flight professionals whom I've interviewed about their success. Nearly all agree that one of the most important ingredients to their profitable cash game career is game selection.
But again I ask, how do you go about it? All games are not created equal — so how do you find the ones that best suit your skill set?
Here are seven considerations to help you with your cash game selection.
1. Poker Player, Know Thyself
Step one, I suggest, is knowing yourself. What kind of a player are you? Yes, I know you like to think of yourself as a balanced, well-rounded player, capable of taking advantage of any game situation. Ideally, that's what we'd all like to be. But in reality you are almost surely more one type of player than another.
Do you like to gamble it up, playing loosely and aggressively most of the time while trying to dominate tables with your sometimes almost maniacal play — more a LAG (loose-aggressive) player than anything else? Or are you more sedate, entering relatively few pots, but playing them aggressively — in other words more of a TAG (tight-aggressive) player?
If you're a TAG, you may well want a relatively sedate, tightly-controlled game with few if any maniacs. You'll have to watch an orbit or two to be sure, but gray hair is often a welcome sign for you, as older players tend to play more sedately and predictably that younger players.
This is a generally appealing spot for you, as you don't enjoy having to ride the rollercoaster. You'd rather be able to patiently wait for your high quality hands, or other selective situations, before you commit a lot of money to the pot. Having very aggressive players at the table makes this more difficult.
If you're more LAG, on the other hand, you may prefer a game with a bunch of live ones you can seek to dominate in many hands. Or perhaps you also like the tighter and more timid opponents, dominating them with your regular aggression.
Whatever your style, it helps you to recognize what it is, and then think about what types of opponents you'd like to be up against.
2. Find a Game Where You Are Most Comfortable
There is no prize for doing your best in a bad situation. You must be willing to acknowledge when you are out of your comfort zone and leave for a better game.
Maybe you are bored with players who are passive and inactive and your attention strays away from the game. Maybe you are thrown off your game by players who are as aggressive, or even more aggressive than you. If you're not comfortable and can't play your A-game, you should find a game that better suits you.
Sometimes the key is to find the right stakes game to suit you. I've seen players who are winners in a $75/$150 stud game sitting in a $5/$10 game waiting for their regular game to open up. In the lower-stakes game they play terribly because they are completely bored and inattentive. Similarly, I've seen players who were highly successful $1/$2 no limit players get crushed in the more treacherous waters of $2/$5 where they shrink away from their typically aggressive style, afraid of the money at risk.
All games of the same stakes do not play the same way, either, especially when you compare a hometown game to a game during the WSOP. Even if you can regularly beat the $5/$10 game in your home casino — where you've learned how to take advantage of many of the regulars (and where your local reputation may have them staying out of your way when you are especially aggressive) — perhaps that's not the case at the $5/$10 game you're sitting in at the Bellagio where you've been trying to make your mark during the WSOP.
It could be the $2/$5 game a couple of tables over is more your speed. Or maybe you should try the less aggressive lower-stakes action in a game in another casino.
The key is recognizing how you're reacting to the game you're in. If you're bored, distracted and inattentive or feeling anxious, overwhelmed or otherwise stressed out, you should find another spot. Take advantage of the immense game selection in Las Vegas to find the game where you are most comfortable and thereby best able to play your best.
3. Find a Game With Money on the Table
Avoid games with short-stacked nitty players. If there's no money in the game, the rake and tips are going to eat up a huge percentage of your potential profit.
While it's true that players sometimes sit on huge stacks, protecting their wins and giving no action in the process, it's certain that a table filled with short-stacked rocks will not be nearly as profitable in the long run as a table with more money in play.
4. Consider the Time of Day When You're Playing
Players tend to play better when they are most alert and awake. Accordingly, games in the late morning until the late evening tend to be the toughest.
Of course this is not universally true. Some players tend to be more predictable and easier to read when they are playing their "best" game during the day — and you might be able to better take advantage of them because of it.
But for the most part, games are better late at night and in the wee hours of the morning when many have been drinking, have lost focus or are just very tired. If a loose game is what you're after, you would be well served coming to your favorite room late at night to take advantage of players who aren't necessarily at their highest level of concentration.
5. Drinking Players Are Generally Worse Players
I recommend that when you size up your game you look for signs that players have been drinking. All other things being equal, I'm willing to a bet that a table with all of the cup holders filled with Fiji water will be less profitable than one filled with beer and mixed drinks.
That being said, beware of completely drunk players. They can make horrible an otherwise good game. Drunk players can seriously delay a game, making it frustratingly slow. In addition to reducing the number of hands per hour, I've seen many players go on tilt as a result of the glacial pace.
Even so, given a choice, I'm often willing to take my chances in a game with players lubricated with alcohol.
6. Laughter is Good for the Game
Games with players having a good time are not only more fun, but generally more profitable than games with serious opponents. I want laughter, conversation and a generally friendly air. It means to me that players are enjoying themselves and not just concentrating on the poker.
And if I'm in a game that is otherwise good, but without the laughter and lightness of spirit that would make it better, I find that I can add a touch of levity myself.
7. Be Willing to Move and Find a Better Spot
There is no reward for longevity in a poker game. Too often poker players sit hour after hour in a bad game, either overwhelmed by inertia or perhaps failing to notice just how bad the game is.
Poor results tend to cloud our better poker judgment. I have frequently visited friends who were stuck and steaming, convinced that the awful game in which they played was somehow going to reward them for their loyalty to their seat and "their luck was bound to change."
For this reason, whether the game appears to be good, bad, or indifferent, I suggest making a habit of getting up every hour or two, walking away from the table for at least a few minutes, and thinking about the quality of the game. Take the time away from the table to scout out some of the other games to see if there might be more profitable spots elsewhere.
And if you find them, change your table!
Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 50 years and writing about it since 2000. He is the author of hundreds of articles and two books, Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and Winning No-Limit Hold'em (Lighthouse 2012). He is also the host of poker radio show House of Cards. See www.houseofcardsradio.com for broadcast times, stations, and podcasts.