I often sit at empty tables in an attempt to start new games to increase the total number of tables I am playing. When regulars that I do not match up well against sit down to play, I will often decline to play them. Lately, several regulars have berated me for not wanting to play them 1 on 1, “heads up” in poker terms, called me a bumhunter, and said they were going to sit at all my heads up tables so that I couldn’t play anyone else. Most have said to me, “I will play anyone” and in the online poker world, it seems to be a badge of honor to be willing to play whomever sits with you. I wonder how they would they feel if Phil Ivey (the best poker player in the world) came down and said, “I play anyone, so you should play me now.”
My reply lately has been to ask why these players aren’t in Ivey’s Room in the Aria Las Vegas where the buyins are hundreds of thousands of dollars. Clearly these players exercise some choice in who they play, and their willingness to play anyone extends only to playing people they believe they have an edge over. In fact, many of these players do not play every available game online in New Jersey, but are using criteria for game selection that is not primarily concerned with profitability. Though I find it irritating to be berated, especially by people with whom I have been friendly, I believe that they are less skilled in achieving the end goal of playing poker professionally: making money.
I believe there are 2 sets of essential poker skills, hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills encompass everything related to playing a poker hand like whether or not to bet, how much to bet or whether you think your opponent is bluffing. Soft skills are everything else involved in playing poker, like being in the correct mindset, where to sit at the table and how not to tilt. You need both sets of skills to be a successful professional. For example, someone who is great at betting, but who tilts off their whole bankroll when they take a bad beat, has soft skills that counteract their hard skills to the point that it is going to be tough for them to be a long term winner.
There are many, many situations that occur at the poker table, and as a professional, it is my job to know which ones are profitable and to try to put myself in those situations. I have spent thousands of hours doing analysis in order to figure out where the money is made and how best to make it. For example, there are many players who I would not like sitting on my left (acting after me) but who I am happy to have on my right (acting before me). Does that mean that I will never sit with them on my left? Of course not, but there needs to be a something positive that counteracts the money I lose (or cannot make) because of the tough player on my left. If you are not consistently not discerning about these small edges that frequently occur, they quickly add up and really eat into the bottom line.
Before I play a hand, I try to determine whether or not it is profitable for me to play in a game. Into that calculation goes some of the following: am I a favorite in this game?, will it distract from my other games?, do I have enough games going now?, will I learn something from playing here?, will the game start if I play heads up?, in addition to many other things. I do the mental calculation to figure out if I think it is profitable, and if it is, then I play, if not, then I don’t.
Often when I do start a game and the weaker player sits, I find myself in a poor position and not able to make money, while someone else who sat later will get one of the more profitable seats and therefore reap the benefits of my playing heads up to start games. I don’t generally play in a game with 5 other tough regulars, not because I don’t think I can win in the game, but because its not worth my time and mental energy to win at a small rate (and endure a lot of variance), when I could be focusing my attention on more profitable scenarios. If my opponent does x, and I have trouble reacting to x, I am not going to go out of my way to play them heads up, a.k.a. giving them money. Once I figure out a good way to counteract what they are doing, I might play them heads up to challenge myself and see if my solution works.
I play poker to make money, not for ego or to show the world who the better player is. In fact, if one of the people who berated me had asked me nicely, I probably would have talked poker with them and we could have discussed how I think we match up against each other. If other good players want to battle each other by “playing anyone” and distract themselves from the games I am in, go for it! If I sit out against you heads up, please don’t be mad at me, take it as a compliment that I thought you were good enough to not be worth my time and energy to play.