Incite -- (v) 1: give an incentive; 2: provoke or stir up; "incite a riot"; 3: urge on; cause to act
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Game selection
Written by: Beck

Poker blogging time!

One subject all the poker strategy guides tend to agree on is game/table/seat selection. Most of the advice is pretty obvious, and I've never paid it much attention. For instance, it's advised that you only play limits that are within your "comfort zone." This makes perfect sense--if you're playing higher stakes than you feel comfortable with, you may make bad decisions--you'll tend to play more passively, not calling, betting out, or raising as often as you should because the dollar signs in your head are just too intimidating.

What sometimes surprises people is that you also shouldn't play at lower stakes than what you're comfortable with. The reason is that at lower stakes, good players tend to care less about the amount involved in any bet/call/raise, so they play a lot more loose-aggressive than they should. Many professional players, I've read, regularly lose money playing low stakes games to kill time before tournaments.

Once you've settled on the game you want to play, you then have to pick your table. There might be three or more tables spread for the limits you want. Ideally, you want a table that's weak-passive. In other words, you want a table where people play too many hands and take them too far, but don't bet/raise enough when they have a good hand.

Once you've picked your table, you have to pick your seat. The general advice here is that you want to be to the left of the best players, and to the right of the worst players. Also, you want to be to the left of any maniacs--people who play any hand, and bet/raise with it all the way.

The problem with all that--and the reason I've tended to ignore this advice--is that in a casino, while you can pick the stakes you want to play, you can't pick your table or your seat. You just put your name on a list, and when they call you, you take whatever seat is offered. The alternative is to drop back down to the end of the list, which could well result in you spending the entire day waiting for a game.

But there was something to this general advice which I never thought of or realized until a recent trip to visit family in Houston. Picking your game is more than just deciding whether to play $2-$4 or $20-$40, it involves picking the casino to play it at as well.

You see, on that trip to Houston, one day a couple friends and I took a side trip out to Lake Charles where we played some poker at Harrah's. Before this trip, the only casino I had played at was the Borgata in Atlantic City. For those unfamiliar with casinos in AC, the Borgata is by far the nicest casino in that town. It's Atlantic City's analogue to the Belagio in Las Vegas (in fact, the Borgata is 50% owned by the same company that owns the Belagio).

The Belagio is widely acknowledged to lay the toughest poker games in Vegas--which, by implication, makes them some of the toughest poker games in the world. It's where the top pros in the world go to play their "money game" between big tournaments.

The Borgata doesn't even compare--the highest stakes game they usually lay is a $80-$160 game. The Belagio lays a $1000-$2000 game (the famed "White Chip" game), and if there are players for it, they'll jack the limits up even higher. Nonetheless, Borgata attracts the best players in the area.

I've been somewhat frustrated in my poker playing there, as even playing perfect by-the-book poker, I'm still just breaking even (although considering tips to waitresses & dealers, plus the $4 that the casino rakes out of every pot, I'm still playing above the level of the "average" competition).

That's why playing a day at Harrah's was so eye opening. I was still kicking out just as much money in tips, and the house was raking a whopping $6 out of every pot. But I couldn't lose. It was the ideal table. Everyone would just call my bets down to the turn, and then throw their hands away for a $12 bet on the end. I was able to play far more hands than I usually would, bet them more aggressively, and win far more pots--with less risk no less.

So while I love the challenge of playing poker, I'm spending all that time playing because I want to make money, not so I can sit for 16 hours spinning my wheels in a fruitless back-and-forth contest between people I'm evenly matched with, battling for the occasional weak player's buy-in.

I won't be going to Borgata again, except perhaps for tournaments. I'll be going to Tropicana or Bally's or the Taj Mahal. Game selection ain't just about picking the best seat, it's a holistic consideration of the entire playing environment, and that's what I was failing to realize until my big eye-opener in Louisiana.

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