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How “Good” A Player Are You?

Making sure that your strategies in poker are in sync with your goals

By Basil Nestor

What is a “good” player, anyway? Is it someone who always wins a lot? Should losing a lot sometimes, and bouncing back, also factor into the equation? What about losing everything? What standards should we apply to performance and results?

Once upon a time there was a guy named Archie. He was a wild man, the sort of player who would bet his whole bankroll on a long shot.

A few years back, Archie had a bad run of cards and lost $2 million playing poker in California. At the end of the night he had $50 left in his pocket. After a catastrophe like that, most people would curse the gambling gods and go home—but not Archie. Undaunted, he took a drive up I-15 to Las Vegas and boldly parlayed five humble Alexander Hamiltons into $40 million in less than two years. Archie did it mostly by playing craps, poker and billiards.

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Then he promptly lost the entire fortune, every penny of it, playing the same games—with baccarat thrown in for good measure. It took him a year or so to blow that whole stack. This happened back in the 90s. These days Archie (by the way, his last name is Karas) is still around, occasionally parlaying small amounts into huge stacks, or vice versa.

This begs a tricky question: is someone like Archie a good player, or a bad one?

What is a “good” player, anyway? Is it someone who always wins a lot? Should losing a lot sometimes, and bouncing back, also factor into the equation? What about losing everything? What standards should we apply to performance and results?

I can tell you that Archie is fearless—some would say reckless—but there’s no question that he’s a smart guy. He doesn’t make dumb bets, though he does make risky ones. Archie can fold a losing hand. The dude is a savant at poker and craps. Many players and casinos won’t take his action. In fact, that’s Archie’s biggest problem—finding a big enough game.

I can also tell you that Archie has spent millions of dollars along the way. He is a net winner on the basis of “profit consumed,” even if he happens to be broke at any given time.

Steady vs. Crazy

Consider another real-life character. He plays online poker for small stakes and goes by the screen name “Jerzy Jim.” You can find him on PokerStars.com just about any day punting the 2-4 games.

Jim plays multiple tables and he’s super-tight. When this dude raises, you know it ain’t a bluff. A lone 2-4 table is probably worth only about $6 to $8 per hour, but Jim plays four to eight tables simultaneously, which means he’s earning somewhere between $24 and $64 per hour. Let’s say it’s $50 per hour (just to make the arithmetic easy). Ten hours per day, twenty days per month, that’s about $120,000 per year not including comps and cash back.

Jim is never broke. He’s a grinder. He plays a dull, uncreative, one-note sort of game. It’s easy to bluff him off a weak hand with a check-raise. He sacrifices some profit for the sake of consistency.

Is Jim a good player?

Then there is Alan, the action punter. He plays roulette and Omaha hi-lo. This guy lives for the thrill of winning long-shot bets. Alan enjoys driving opponents and casinos crazy with volatility. He is happy to lose thousands of dollars every month, as long as he can push money around and make other people sweat. That is his bliss. He pays for the pleasure.

Finally, there is Paul. He mostly plays dollar slots and 3-6 live poker. Paul has been lucky. He has won a bunch of medium-sized jackpots over the past few years, so he’s a net winner even though his strategies are decidedly weak.

Gambler, Know Thyself

On any day of the week, any of these players can look really good—skilled, profitable, the kind of player we envy. Indeed, by various standards all of them are good, at least sometimes. But let’s be realistic. All of them have (as the gambler’s saying goes) “leaks in their game.” None are perfect. Three are long-term net winners. Jim is the most reliable.

But who would triumph in a four-way match? I would bet on Archie, though he is also the one who would probably bust out first.

Keep in mind that all of them play the way they do because their particular style of action suits their nature. It makes them happy. They define “winning” for themselves. And one can hardly wag a finger and call someone a “bad” player when he is raking your chips into his stack, or depositing a jackpot check.

So who is a good player? I say it’s any person who is satisfied with the conditions of the game, and the results of his play. In the end, goal selection and game selection define everything, most especially strategy.

Let’s say you’re the eighth-best gambler in the world. Sounds good, right? You’d win most games. But what if you choose to play against the seven better gamblers? Then you’d be a huge loser. You’d be the worst. And yet, in Alan’s world, that may not even be a problem!

Everything is relative. Do you want to win? There’s a strategy for that. Do you want to play a particular game and sacrifice some of your winnings for the pleasure of play? There is a strategy for that, too. Do you want to last a long time and build slowly, or do you want to hit the heights and the depths in blazes of glory? In the fickle world of gambling, you must fix your eye on a particular prize before you can choose an optimal strategy to get there.

A good player is someone who uses strategies that are in sync with their particular goals. A bad player is someone without sync; his efforts and results do not match his aims.

Every good player has a bad out-of-sync side that causes them problems on occasion, but handling those tendencies and adjusting to new information is all part of the game.

A couple years ago, Archie said in an interview, “I didn’t know the casinos would stop me dead (refuse my action). I thought they would be open forever. If I knew that, I would have managed my money way better.”

That’s the way a good player thinks. He evolves. You cannot win every hand, but you can study the game, and yourself, and then make good decisions. You can improve.

Enjoy the game!

Basil Nestor is author of The Smarter Bet Guide to Poker, The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack, and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit SmarterBet.com and drop him a line.

How “Good” A Player Are You in Poker.

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