At its heart, poker is about winning. Sure, there are social elements, but the scorecard of poker is money (or play money), plain and simple. If you want to know if you are successful at poker, check your bankroll. If it is consistently going up, you are doing something right; if it is consistently going down, you are doing something wrong.
But being successful at poker and being skilled at poker may not be the same thing. There are elements of poker that can affect your wins and losses that have nothing to do with how you play the game or even how you handle tilt and other emotional factors. Probably one of the most overlooked ways that players leak money is through poor table selection. The fourth most skilled player in the world will consistently lose over time, if he only plays against the first, second and third most skilled players in the world. Choosing your competition is very important. Today, we will be discussing table selection. It may be the best way to improve your results without improving your skills.
What is Table Selection and Why Does It Matter?
In poker rooms across the world and online at places like Pokerist, most players have access to a selection of poker tables sharing the same stakes and games. In live play, the most popular game (at least in the US) is ½ No Limit Hold’em, and a decent size room may have more than a dozen ½ NLHE games going at a time. At Pokerist, you may have even more options. But despite sharing the same stakes and games, not all tables are the same. At one table, a new game could be starting up with players still playing tight while they learn each other’s tendencies. At another table, a loudmouth drunk may be splashing the pot with large bets, causing a lot of action. The games and stakes may be the same, but the tables are entirely different, and depending on how you play, one may be more profitable than the other.
Table selection involves analyzing your various options and choosing a table based on finding conditions that are favorable to you. It is important because it can often dictate whether you will have a winning session or a losing one. Most amateur players, however, are unaware or lose sight of this important aspect of the game, costing them money and stress. For that reason, we will discuss some of the things to consider when choosing a table.
What to Look for in a Table?
First and foremost, let’s cover the areas where table selection does not matter. If there is only one table running, then table selection does not apply (unless you can go elsewhere). Similarly, if you are in a situation where you cannot control where you sit, like in a tournament, then once again, table selection is no longer a factor.
When playing on Pokerist, if you click the Play Now button, you will be sent to a table without the option of selecting it. If you use the Lobby button, however, you can see the different tables in play, along with the names of your opponents and their stack sizes.
It is important to note that, as with most things in poker, everything we discuss is under the broad category of «It Depends.» In this case, the largest factor is your own poker style. Our example above, with a new table of tight players and a loose table headlined by a drunk gambler, will help explain this further.
If you are a nitty player, i. e., a player who is tight and wants to reduce the risks associated with large bets, then the drunk table is not the place for you. The large bets will make you uncomfortable and potentially put you on tilt, and when you are ready to play a hand, the variance will be high, since players at that type of table may not respect your bets, leaving you with an increased chance of suckouts. On the other hand, if you are tight, then the new table may be the perfect place for you. New tables tend to start off slow, giving you time to watch the action without much risk. Once the table starts loosening up, you will have a lot of information at your disposal, which can aid you as you remain tight to take advantage of your loosening competition.
In contrast, a loose player who likes action could thrive at the drunk table. Large bets and wild action can fuel a player, who sees those conditions as increasing his chance for a large payout. The same player, though, may earn less profit or even get himself in trouble at the new table. For instance, the loose player may like to raise with KJo. At the drunk table, he will get action from other weak hands, like KTo or QJo, for instance, whereas at the new table, those hands will likely fold, earning him only the blinds. When the loose player’s KJo is called at the new table, its usually because his opponent has something better. So at the drunk table, when the loose player sees the flop, he may be ahead; whereas at the new table, when he sees a flop, he is likely trailing his opponent. You can see how this difference can be very costly.
After you consider whether table selection is even an option and how your play style mixes with different tables, it is time to look at things that will indicate what you can expect from a table. I mentioned a few already. New tables tend to start off slow. I, personally, love this because (a) no one knows each other yet so I am coming to the table with the same information as everyone else, and (b) I get to see everything develop. Others, though, may get annoyed by the smaller bets and general caution. Likewise, we already discussed drinking players. Drunks play looser, generally. Frankly, that’s fine with me, too, but I’m not particularly risk averse. It all depends on whether you can handle the annoyance of a drunk guy who raises too much. If you can, drunks can be very profitable.
At live games held in poker rooms, if possible try to determine if a table has a lot of regulars. If you can, strike up a conversation with the floor person or a dealer at an empty table to learn more about who the regulars are. Regulars tend to play tighter, depending on the room. This is especially if they are retirees, who use poker as a time killer or light hobby. Also, oftentimes, regulars are more interested in the promotions, like Aces Cracked or bad beat jackpots than in playing pure poker. Finally, they can usually be pretty grumpy. So, tight, grumpy, and focused on promotions… not a good mix. I avoid these tables like the plague. On the other hand, younger players tend to give more action. If given the choice between a bunch of old men and a bunch of young kids, I’d go with the kids… but I’d still be cautious. Some of those kids are very skilled.
Another factor to consider is stack sizes. This is one of the few pieces of information you can get when looking at Pokerist tables via the Lobby button. Players who are on the shortstack are more likely to play push-or-fold poker.
If you are okay with gambling, then you can have a lot of fun taking coin flips against short stacks. Larger stacked players can often be more aggressive or even act as the table bully, emboldened by the wins that earned them their large stack. Personally, I do not like playing against these players because their confidence is usually well earned and, as I have said more than once, «winning begets winning.»
Table Selection Does Not End at Selection
I cannot stress this enough. You might choose a table based on all of the above and still find out that it is the wrong table for you. Perhaps the young kids are all super geniuses, or the drunk is getting very lucky and has put you on tilt. Maybe you even discover that his drunkedness is just an act to fool players into playing weak hands against him. Whatever the case, if your session is going poorly or table conditions turn unfavorable, you can change your seat in most poker rooms (and always on Pokerist).
I will leave you with a line made famous in the movie, «Rounders»: «If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.» Only, now you can add, «So move to a table where you can spot the sucker. That’s what table selection is all about.»