Live and learn
Team PKR Pro Simon Hemsworth reveals key lessons from his live poker journey
Simon 'Rhymenoceros' Hemsworth
on Thursday 18 Apr 2013 15:15
Since moving to London at the end of last year I have tried to play more live poker. Although in Brighton, where I used to live, there are a couple of largish casinos which spread some games, there were rarely any decent-sized buy-in tournaments. In London there is a very active live poker scene with juicy action going on all the time. I find tournaments a lot more interesting than live cash games so have focused on those where possible.
With my lack of a major tournament results so far in my career I am trying to take a sensible approach and build up from the lower buy-in tournaments and only move up to higher buy-ins when my results justify this. Playing live poker is still a big learning experience for me, and I think I am improving and feeling more comfortable with each tournament I play. I feel like each tournament is a lesson for someone like me who has played 99% of their poker online. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt so far:
Gathering information from appearance
Unlike online poker you can see exactly what your opponents look like in a real casino (unless you are playing Phil Laak dressed up as an old man, of course). Making judgments based on how people look and act is important in the early stages when you haven’t seen how they play certain hands in certain situations. If an opponent is over 70 or locked into an episode of The Wire on their iPad they are very unlikely to play many hands. If they start throwing chips into a pot they probably have it. Younger players intently watching over the action on the table are more likely to be aggressive. An opponent sinking multiple beers is more likely to play loose and splashy and not want to fold much. An online player would naturally tend to play all opponents the same unless they see a hand go to showdown that would give them information on how to strategically play them in the future. Of course not all first judgments are going to be correct. You will occasionally get the 80 year-old maniac or the 19 year-old super nit so be prepared to alter your initial perceptions where necessary.
This is generally something that online players underrate and live players overrate. Live poker is not a case of constantly analysing how people act all the time so you can look for patterns or changes in their behaviour. The focus this would require throughout 12-hour sessions would be too much and would distract you from more important ways of gathering information, such as the lines people take in hands. Instead I feel body language is best analysed in key situations, such as when your opponent goes all-in on the river and you have a bluff-catcher. Although good live players tend to keep their body language consistent (typically by keeping movement to a minimum and not talking), other players will give away too much information. In the case of a river all-in they will very likely either have a monster hand or a bluff. In these cases their internal emotion will be one of either ‘I have a great hand, I’m excited, please call me’ or ‘I have nothing, I’m nervous, please don’t call me’. Sometimes people cannot help but externalise these internal emotions such as by talking too confidently, being too relaxed or by appearing nervous when you haven’t folded after 30 seconds. Big decisions such as whether to call a river all-in with a bluff-catcher are huge for your success or failure in a tournament so analysing all available information, including body language, is imperative.
Live players do random stuff
This is a lesson I still do not seem to have fully grasped. When I play live poker I am often flummoxed by the lines some people take in hands and the only conclusion I can come to is that they are doing the live version of ‘clicking buttons’. Sometimes someone with call your raise from the BB with K-7o and then lead three streets on 4-7-Q-Q-J. I’ll call down with ace high (oops) and lose the hand with a confused look on my face. The lesson to be learned here is that you have to rely on the absolute value of your hand more in live poker. There is no point in trying to work out your opponent’s thought process here (assuming they are a player you do not have any previous information on). There isn't a logical thought process so sometimes you have to look at your Ace-high, realise it isn't even a pair and then fold.
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