Cash Game Strategy – How to Beat Today’s Game
The best cash game strategy is a simple one.
It must be. Otherwise the execution fails.
These cash game strategy tips keep it simple, but success will still require hard work and dedication.
After these, proceed to the poker strategy guide.
#1 Quality Over Quantity
Does your game suffer from stagnation? Perhaps too much auto-piloting? If you look back to a month ago, can you honestly and confidently claim that you are now a FAR BETTER PLAYER?
The secret to any effective cash game strategy is to recognize that it is not about getting in as many hands as possible, but instead improving as EFFICIENTLY as possible. Think about what this means. Explore for yourself what it takes to grow your knowledge quickly and with lasting effect.
Here’s my process
- Carefully prepare for each session. Codify and follow a start-up routine.
- Facilitate deep thought. Play fewer tables. Eliminate distractions.
- Capture ALL potential mistakes. Mark them in your database.
- Thoroughly review your hands. Categorize and summarize.
- Feed these learnings into your next start-up routine.
Learning takes repetition. You have to keep these things at the front of your mind while you play to minimize the likelihood that you’ll repeat the mistake or with the same magnitude or frequency. Over time these learnings will become instilled and instinctual. Then more of your mental capacity will be freed for even deeper thought and/or greater awareness. You will eventually be able to play more tables again, but now with greater skill. Or you will be able to move up in stakes and take on tougher opponents.
Are you the type that gets easily bored with fewer tables? Then you aren’t going deep enough. Spend more time up front arriving at topics that you will concentrate on for the day. Take continuation betting for example. Are you using one strategy versus everyone? Or do you optimize versus each player type? How do you identify these player types? How do the various flop textures affect the strategy? What about bet size considerations? What are other good players doing? These are all things you can ponder while you play and observe even with hands you aren’t involved in. And this is just one tiny topic!
Always maintain an inquisitive mind. Question everything. Don’t settle for ABC or what is standard (unless you are brand new to the game). You just might stumble on the ultimate cash game strategy: one that exploits the entire field!
Assuming you’re playing more than one table, and especially if you’re playing over 6 (or playing speed or “fast fold” poker), I challenge you to consciously reduce your hands per hour. Yes, it may mean you make less in rake-back this month and possibly next, but wouldn’t you rather double your hourly rate every 6 months than be a struggling rake-back pro for the rest of your life?
#2 Self Discipline
We all spend so much time watching videos, reviewing our sessions, posting hands, sweating each other, getting coached, and trying to learn the best way to play. After a while, it starts to sink in. Eventually you learn what the right plays are in various spots, but then you still find yourself failing to execute those plays properly. You KNOW when the villain raises you on the river that you are beat, but you still can’t muster the inner strength to click the fold button. Does this sound familiar?
If you start to see this common theme when reviewing your games and especially if you feel like you’ve hit a wall or a plateau with your game, there’s a good chance that it’s no longer a question of lack of knowledge but instead one of self control or discipline. When you dedicate time away from the table towards improving your game, you obviously want that time to be spent as efficiently as possible. For some of you, that time might be better spent improving your will power, self control and discipline as opposed to studying poker itself. Personally, I spend a lot of time working on my own self discipline and thought it would be nice to share.
The most important steps: exercise, eat well, and get a good sleep. I guarantee if you are not cultivating a healthy lifestyle, then you are playing sub-optimal poker. Pay close attention to how you perform at the tables on days when you’ve slept well versus days when you haven’t. Keep a journal. The more you notice the improvements for yourself, the more it will motivate you to keep striving for a healthy body, mind, and spirit. I jog, I do yoga, I eat my veggies, and I try to maintain a regular sleep schedule with 7+ hours a night. I want to reach this uber-zen place where my emotions completely drop away when I play and every decision is optimal based on my knowledge and skill. I still have a ways to go.
In addition to the more obvious steps, you can more directly develop your self discipline through simple little exercises and small changes in your habits. There are a ton of “self-help” books (articles, youtubes, etc.) out there on this kind of thing. You don’t have to be obese or manic-depressive in order to benefit from them. Google “develop self discipline”. Here are a couple that I find useful:
#3 Competitive Analysis
One critical task you will find in every professional poker player’s study routine is performing a competitive analysis. The pros regularly run reports on the field and study the better regulars to keep tabs on what the competition is doing. This analysis can yield a number of benefits.
Profiling the Unknown Villain
The first thing I would suggest you do as part of a competitive analysis is to go to the “Opponents” tab in Holdem Manager 2, and click on the “Summaries” button near the top. [I don’t know how to do this in PokerTracker, but it must be possible. Please leave a comment below if you know how.] You can run these reports using different dates and filters (e.g. VPIP, # of players, stakes). The resulting report will give you a list of all players that match your criteria with average numbers for all the statistics in the bottom row: VPIP, PFR, 3b, WTSD, flop CB, fold to CB, and so on. Note that the larger your database is, the more effective this exercise will be.
Study these summary stats closely. Not only does this give you a benchmark of what the average players are doing, but it also gives you a starting point for dealing with a new villain that sits down at your table who you don’t have any stats on. When an unknown 3-bets you, what assumptions should you make about his range? You can start by assuming the average 3-bet for him. In fact, you could print out a little profile of the key profile stats and tape it to your monitor so that you can glance at it in game when these situations arise.
Boss Poker Strategy for Cash Games
After you’ve done this analysis on the entire field, you might narrow your filters to just report on regulars. You can do this by limiting the VPIP range and/or by requiring a minimum number of hands on each player. Running the report again you now have a clearer picture of what the other regs are doing. Look closely at the data and search for anything interesting. Are there any stats that surprise you? In your game, are players doing anything a little too much or too little: going to showdown, 4-betting, or folding to river bets perhaps?
The nice thing about this approach is that you are typically working with a large data set, so you can often use deeper stats like fold to river bet, that you otherwise don’t have enough hands on any one player to use.
Take your time with this exercise and be creative. Discovering a strategy that exploits the majority of your competition really is the holy grail. While it may not happen the first time, at least you can generate some ideas to try, and then repeat this exercise again and again over time, honing your strategies.
Study the Pros
If you’re lucky enough to have a gigantic database, where you have 20k+ hands on some players, then you can take this analysis one step further. You can sort your list of regulars by “net won” to see what the winning players are doing. If you don’t have that many hands, you could still attempt to tease out who the better players are by noticing who has strong high level stats or who you know from your own experience are strong players.
It should be noted that you can export this data set to an external spreadsheet program (like excel) which might make things easier. Using another program, you can limit your data set even further to players with over $X for their net won and then recalculate your averages.
What do these top pros have in common? What strategies do they seem to be using to defeat the field that you might not be doing? Don’t just consider each statistic in isolation, but also consider the interplay between statistics. For example, a very aggressive player should naturally go to showdown less, so seeing a higher aggression AND a higher went to showdown is noteworthy.
While this exercise will give you some high level ideas, to maximize the efficacy you should dig deeper. For example, perhaps you discover that the best pros all seem to have very high 3-bet percentages. To emulate this, you must discern how they’re achieving a higher frequency. Are they 3-betting with more polarized or less polarized ranges? Perhaps they’re doing each versus certain kinds of players. At this point you want to take these pros one by one and run filters on the hands they’ve played to answer these questions. It may be time consuming, but it is an excellent way to generate ideas and improve your game on your own.
#4 Reliable Poker Stats
Would you bet hundreds of dollars on a coin flip? If you’re purely the gambling type, maybe so. Anyone serious about winning over the long run however would likely say no. Yet, I see my students do this all the time: make plays where they have no idea whether or not they are ahead.
Unreliable Poker Stats
The problem usually stems from basing their plays on unreliable poker stats in their database.
A classic example is the “fold to continuation bet” statistic. This is by far one of the most abused stats. You usually need thousands of hands on your fellow regulars before this poker statistic is useful. If instead say you only have 200 hands on a reg, you may be looking at sample size on the individual fold-to-cbet stat of less than 10! Someone may have folded 7 out of 10 and seem like the type that folds a lot, but he could’ve easily just hit a streak of unlucky flops.
I recommend at least 50 samples for each individual statistic. If you dig into your pop-ups in Holdem Manager or Poker Tracker, it will give you this information. Don’t be lazy and just use what’s given to you on the main screen. Get to know your pop-ups!
If you want a detailed explanation of how to find this in Holdem Manager and typical tolerance levels for each major stat, then I suggest that you watch my free 3 part video series How to Setup your Poker HUD.
I know it can be tempting when you first start using poker databases to assume that all that data is going to help you read your opponent’s soul, but making decisions based on unreliable data will simply add more variance to your game. More variance means greater swings, and these can kill your motivation. Early on in your poker career, it’s important to do everything you can to protect that excitement and enthusiasm. Truly understanding variance takes time, so start by opting for a lower variance style.
One pro tip that might help, in Holdem Manager at least, is that you can configure each individual statistic to dim for smaller samples. Then you get a visual clue when you look at the number of how reliable it is. Let’s say you set a low value to red and a high value to green. Well if you have the dimming feature on, it will show dark red or dark green for small sample sizes and brighter colors for larger, more reliable numbers.
The Exception to the Rule: Outliers
The one exception to this advice is when you have a statistical value that is an outlier or far from the mean. Returning to our fold-to-cbet example, let’s say that a player has folded 0 out of 5 times to a c-bet. Well that sounds interesting! The reason is that the odds of having such a streak of good flops is low or rather it’s more likely this player just doesn’t like to fold.
Another example is the grand-daddy stat VPIP: the measure of how many hands someone chooses to play. In 6-max, someone playing 20% of their hands is likely a regular and someone playing 75% of their hands is likely a fish. Realize that the average for this stat is much closer to 20%, since there are so many more regulars than fish out there. Thus, if after 20 hands someone has a VPIP of 20%, we still have no idea whether they are a conservative rock (e.g. a 15% VPIP) or possibly a LAG (e.g. a 30% VPIP). However if they have played 15 of their first 20 hands (e.g. 75% VPIP), you can be very sure they are a fish, since we are far from the mean!
#5 How to Beat the Fish
By definition, the fish are the weakest players at the table, yet ironically many of my students claim to struggle the most versus them. I think this is in part due to the fact that they have such wide ranges that it is difficult to read their hands. It is also I’m sure due to their random and often absurd behaviour. Nonetheless fish should represent the largest amount of our profits if we are playing optimally. Here are 10 poker tips on how to beat the fish:
1) Find them
Before we can take their money, of course we have to find them. And they really are everywhere, even in the biggest games. Don’t buy into the misconception that the games are tough and the fish pools have all dried up. The games are still plenty juicy and beatable. Finding them starts with choosing the best sites, then picking a good table, and then sitting in the best seat (assuming there is more than one available). There are software tools out there to help with table selection. Also if your site or database software allows colour labels, use them. This can help you scan the lobby, and identify fish you’ve played against before.
2) Profile them
Not all fish are created equal. Some are passive. Some are aggressive. Some are scared and fold easily. Some (most) are calling stations and expect everyone to be bluffing. Once you’ve distinguished what kind of fish they are, add a note and/or colour label so that you don’t forget. And then use the appropriate counter-strategy.
3) Get involved
When I sit at a table with a big juicy fish (or whale), I take the attitude that his money will soon be mine. Not his. Not someone else at the table. I will do everything I can to win his money before anyone else does. This is the game. This is why we play: to win!
The key to taking his money first is to play more pots with him than anyone else. The best way to do this is to sit to his left, but also you can increase the number of hands you play with him. Or in other words you widen your range beyond your normal starting hands. For example, when a reg opens EP, I’m usually folding KJo from MP. But if it’s a fish, I might min-3bet to isolate him!
4) Don’t Over-adjust
Many players however go too far. They widen their range too much and start to play almost as many hands as the fish does. Don’t become a fish yourself! I think this is a big reason some players struggle so much. Remember while you do want to be more involved than the other regs at the table, you still want to have stronger ranges than the fish, so on average you are showing down better hands.
5) Fishy plays are ok
Don’t be afraid to make some seemingly silly plays versus the fish. They don’t know what the standard rules are, so don’t get stuck on your standard plays. Maybe you min-bet flop, turn and river to pot control some weak showdown. Maybe you over bet jam the flop with the nuts after you’ve created a wild dynamic.
This can be especially effective at anonymous tables, as it can have the side benefit that other regs start to think YOU are a fish. 🙂
6) Play with dynamics
Fish are far more sensitive and emotional than regs on average. They hang on every flip of a card and may not have been seasoned by hundreds of thousands of hands. Thus if you 3-bet them two hands in a row, they are immediately going to think you’re picking on them. Use this to your advantage and try to anticipate when they’re going to crack.
7) Less bluffing overall
As stated above, while some fish are weak and will fold easily (either to isolations pre flop or c-bets post flop), most like to call down. Thus our general strategy should be to keep the bluffing to a minimum and subsequently widen our value range.
8) When bluffing is ok
I clarify that while we don’t want to bluff too much, you can still do plenty of c-bet bluffing on dry flops. Remember: their ranges are super wide. Thus on dry boards, it will be very hard for them to connect. On wet boards however, they will not only have lots of draws but will chase you down with the weakest of them.
Another spot that is ok to bluff is when they lead or “donk” into you. This is frequently a “feeler” bet with a weak hand or draw. They will fold enough to your raise, that it is usually your best play.
9) Pay attention!
- EVERY hand they showdown – use the hand histories if you miss one.
- how many times they’ve limp/folded – keep attacking if they limp/fold a lot!
- how many flops they’ve folded. As soon as they fold a couple, you know they’re weak. If they’ve called 3 in a row, then they’re a calling station.
- if you’re at your max # of tables and you find a deep stacked whale to your right, consider dropping tables so you can pay more attention
10) Don’t tap the glass
Remember we’re dealing with recreational players. They’re here to have a good time. Give them one. Don’t talk about strategy or be mean or condescending. If they suck out on you, swallow your pride and offer a compliment: nice hand!