I play a lot of low-stakes No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments. I’m a gambler and an emotional masochist, throw those two beauties together and NLTexasHE quickly becomes the drug of choice.
If I had to explain No-Limit to a gambling alien who understood cards but had never played the NLTexas format, I’d say that it was a sweaty melee of aggression, brutality and heartbreaking variance. If I described it accurately enough, I’d expect the alien to cry plasma tears out of his scaly emoto-gills, due to being so overwhelmed by the stark image of what a punting battlefield NLTexas can be.
Once I’d skinted him and sent him back to his homeworld, I might try to calm myself by thinking about where NLTexasHE started.
Don’t say it.
It probably was Texas, but that’s not what I meant.
Hold ‘Em games spawned from 7CardStud. The name is confusing, because in draw games, one literally ‘holds’ the cards (ie unexposed), whereas in stud games, most of your cards are exposed. The exposed, shared community cards show Hold ‘Em’s roots more closely, as well as that at no point in Hold ‘Em do you get to re-draw the cards you’ve been dealt.
It’s hard to pin down when the NL format started appearing, but with the multiple betting rounds in fixed limit 7CardStud, it was only a matter of time before someone said “if we can’t bet more often, why don’t we just bet bigger? Yee-Haw!” Whichever leather-chap wearing, Rodeo Cowboy said that changed the nature of poker forever*, in my opinion, for the better.
If you want to be emotionally at the mercy of absolute maniacs, play NL format tournaments. If you want to be mentally exhausted from never being able to miss one tiny eek of value, play FL tournaments. There is no in between.
Or is there?
When NL was born, I think it left too much behind from its beginnings. Limit 7CardStud players know how important every single big bet is, they understand that losing fewer/smaller pots is as vital as winning more/larger pots. In the NL format, it’s much easier to remember only the pots you win and forget the all-important pots where you didn’t lose.
Sometimes NL is so brutal; when your first chance of action pre-flop is facing a 6-bet already, some pretty tickets end up in the muck, and some NL players can become down-heartened.
I mean me, I become down-heartened.
I think feeling like a loser is one of the worst ways to be at a poker table, psychology is so vital to a sharp game, that believing you are a loser can become a self-fulfilling poker prophecy. I want to try and cheat the system a bit here. I’ve decided to employ some emotional damage limitation, and start celebrating pots I don’t lose in the same way that I celebrate pots I directly win.
I want to tell you about a pot I played last night. I wasn’t in the mood for a proper session, I’d had a long day, and wanted something easy. I was playing a bit of online chess as well, and loaded up a $3 donkfest, 500 runners, 9-handed, super-turbo, two mins before reg closed. 10k starting stack and blinds were 500/1000/100 on my 1st hand. I doubled and dodged, with surprisingly little movement of players from my table, given the tournament structure.
One guy was passively destroying everybody. If he liked his hand pre-flop, he was going to call to the river. I saw him make a bet once, when he’d flopped the nut straight with AK and he got paid, as he’d limped with AK pre and the other poor sod had 89. He was a dim-nit, but today he couldn’t miss.
At 800/1600/200 with 29k, I decided to get jiggy with AhQh, opening for 4k from UTG+2 with DimNit on the BB with 62k, it passes to him and he limps. I can’t remember the flop, some dry turd-box, and he checks. This is a C-Bet a lot of the time for me, nearly all the time in fact, but on this occasion I was playing a guy who would have already passed his hand if he was ever going to. We both checked until the river and he won the pot with AKhigh.
For a moment, I was annoyed. Here’s a soundbyte of my inner commentary:
“Of course. Of course he’s got Ace-Fucking-King there, if I’d had Ace-King there, he’d have had Ace-Super-King and still smoked my loser ass. This guy’s running like a god. I hate this guy. I hope he gets anal warts on his FACE.” Grumble, grumble, grumble as the chips slide towards him.
Then, because I have an ego roughly the size of the Milky-Way, I managed to see the pot from this angle: From the second he’d called my pre-flop raise onward, I’d actually played the pot like I could see his cards. I am sure he would not have passed to any bet, even a flop-donk-smash all-in from me. Against this guy, in this spot, I think I dodged a bullet.
I don’t think I was ever going to lose my life on this pot, but I could have taken a far more painful fleshwound. I decided to see that “less lost” pot as a win, because that is what it is. Money saved, is money earned.
When I win a big pot, or actually, even a little pot sometimes, I like how that feels. Smugness induced serotonin buzz is a top quality drug-high. At the moment, I only get it when I win pots, because I’m a NLTexas tournament player who’s conditioned to constantly shoot for the direct win; NLTexas is the original smash-and-grab format.
I am on the path of reconditioning, I will be smug about the pots where I quietly slink out of the way, hide behind a rock and avoid mortal fleshwounds to my stack; these are my new greatest wins.
I’m not suggesting that losing less means checking, limping and passing at every opportunity; there’s a lot of game (not just poker) strategy around the idea of betting more now to lose less later. If you understand the format of 7CardStud, I promise you that reading beginner strategy advice for that game will help your Texas/Omaha Hold ‘Em games.
I’m not going to ‘do’ technical strategy here, but I guess I’m laying out a psychological strategy. I am going to celebrate the not-losing, as well as the winning. Frustration and boredom are detrimental to my poker game, and I know that I get frustrated and bored when I haven’t won a pot in a while, especially at a live game. If I can re-train my brain to be pleased when I recognise that I’ve held onto some of my own chips as when I take some of yours, then I will feel like I am winning at least twice as often as I am now.
To be clear, I don’t expect my profits to magically double overnight, I might ‘feel’ like I’m winning twice as much, but I know I won’t be; I am not a drooling fool. What I expect to achieve from this psychological effort is that when I am dealt a hand that I do have to play for my life, at a deep and crucial stage in a large field tournament, my state of mind will be better focussed as a result of the serene experience of more regular celebration.
Sometimes I am woken out of a prolonged, grumpy mood holding KK with 20bb and I play it like a twit because I’m not alert and feeling like a winner.
These moments are the vital turns in the story for large field players, and I know I have made bad decisions in many pivotal spots like this, let down by my psychology as much as my technical skill or that of my opponents.
I think I may have found a rocky middle ground in the mental space between the mania of NL variance and the tedium of FL value-hunting, and I need every handle I can get on this game, in any format.
From now on, when I play NLTexas, I will be thinking like a saloon dwelling 7CardStud Shark from the late 19thC; every big bet counts, but thankfully, I can also bet big when it counts. Yeeeeee-Haw.
*That this exact moment took place is in no way historically accurate or even slightly researched. I wanted to write a cowboy and there’s not much call for that these days. I’m currently writing a screenplay, Aliens and Cowboys On A Plane.