How I Went from Losing $5 Home Games to Winning Online
During my junior year of college I started playing poker. This was during the peak of the popularity for the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and Texas Hold ‘Em. I had several friends who considered themselves to be poker aficionados. They invited me to their semi-weekly home game.
They all knew how to play and what they were doing to some degree. I did not. Maybe that is why I got the invite. There is a poker truism that if you do not know who The Mark is at the table, then you are The Mark. That was me.
$5 was a lot to me back then, and I struggled with if it was a good use of the money to sit down at the poker table. I decided it was a good use of the money because I could play poker for hours for just $5. But that was not always how it worked out.
Almost without exception, I would lose my initial $5 and then justify another $5 because I went out so quick and there was still a lot of the night left. Then, I would play conservatively and slowly lose the second $5 over the next several hours. I “played scared,” guaranteeing I would lose by not taking the necessary risks to win.
I was really bad at poker, but in my circle of friends, poker acumen was a desirable trait. The way I viewed it, I could sit out from the poker games, or I could double down and determine how to get better at it. I chose the latter. I think it is important to not back down from a challenge, especially when it is something you want to do.
Poker as an Academic Pursuit
I dedicated myself to learning poker. I read roughly a dozen books on poker while watching tons of WSOP and similar television shows. I figured that applying myself to learning the mechanics of poker would be helpful.
It wasn’t. I consistently lost at least the same amount, but I convinced myself it was due to “bad beats” (losing a hand when I put the money in as a statistical favorite). I also now knew fancy terms to use when I made poor poker decisions (e.g., I was pot committed to push that pair of sevens pre-flop against two re-raises early in the night). I adopted the super-aggressive strategy spoke about in Doyle Brunson’s Super System, I studied the dozens of physical manifestations from Mike Caro’s Book, but winning was consistently eluding me.
At the time, I did not have such an honest view of my poker ability. I thought I was a better than average player who couldn’t win against bad players because they were not professionals since the strategies I was learning were effective against professionals. Just let that sink in for a moment – I thought the bad players were too good for me, but I could beat better players! Ha!
I am not one to give up easily. I decided I wanted to be better at poker. Since I believed I couldn’t beat the home game I was a part of, I decided to take my poker playing online.
Online Poker Failure
Online poker was not illegal for Americans to play at the time, so I looked up a few websites and found one that offered a free $75 that I could withdraw if I played 75 hours. “What a deal!” I thought the opportunity for “free money” warranted me earning only $1/hour. Of course, I thought I would win and win big, meaning that $75 would be even higher after those 75 hours.
If you’ve read this far, you know that wasn’t the case. I lost the “free money” they gave me and considered putting more money into the website. This would have been a huge mistake. I think it was my frustration with losing that stopped me from putting my own money into the site. That was one of the first good decisions I had made through the whole poker process so far.
I was bad at poker. Really bad. I wanted to get better, but I didn’t have a good strategy for how to do it. I hated losing and feeling that I was defeated. If I were behaving in a fiscally responsible and wise way, I would have sold the poker library I accumulated and picked up a different hobby.
Fiscally responsible? Wise with money? Come on! I was trying to win at online poker. Those were traits I had in short supply.
Shift to Limit Poker
I bought another poker book that dramatically changed the way I viewed the game: Small Stakes Hold ’em (SSHE). I read this book and realized many of my errors. I failed at the home games because I tried to apply the same methodology to the table, no matter what the table characteristics were displaying (people playing close with their money or a lot of people joining a pot). In playing in such a consistent way, I was telegraphing to my friends exactly what type of hand I had. This helped them win and me lose.
SSHE is about limit Texas Hold ’em – not no-limit. None of my friends played limit, but I wanted to try it. I thought I had a good handle on the information presented. I also believed my academic pursuit of poker excellence lent itself to limit poker, where the focus is on mathematics and counting bets vs. bluffing strategically. It seemed like a good fit.
Funding My Poker Bankroll
The prior Christmas my family gave me a nice poker table and chip set. I sold it for $50 so I could have a bankroll to play online. I then played at the $0.05/$0.10 limit tables. That is a really low limit. I focused on making the best decision each time. After a few months, my $50 had become $150.
I then gradually increased the limits and number of games played at once until my bankroll was $500. That was the amount I needed to take advantage of the maximum bonuses available online (e.g., $20 bonus for every $100 put into their website up to $100 total). Each site had a different requirement for withdrawing the bonus funds. I could typically qualify for the amount of hours/hands played in a couple of days. This way, I was able to withdraw the money soon and increase the size of the bankroll quickly.
I used a program that tracked the players I played against. It even showed little icons next to each player so I could tell how they played. For example, a “rock” icon was someone who played conservatively until they had a great hand. A “jester” icon was someone who didn’t have a clue how to play the game. When you are playing four poker hands at once, you gather a large amount of information on the players you are playing. This assisted me in making even better decisions.
Poker Success and Friction
When you spend so much time playing poker for money, you start to consider a lot of the world through poker terms. I would banter about exceedingly uninteresting conversational topics such as expected value (and whether something was +/-eV). This probably made me even more of a thrill to be around.
After a few more months, my bankroll was about $2,500. I was playing at the $2/$4 tables and making about $13 an hour on average. This was marginally better than the part-time job I had at the time, but I was soon going to use the bankroll for something other than poker.
The Importance of Knowing What is Important
My wife (girlfriend at the time) didn’t like how much time I spent playing poker. Generally, she disagreed with the concept of taking money from people as a job, even if the other people agreed to play the game. I saw her point, but felt so invested in the game because of the amount of hours I spent learning to beat it.
I met with my wife one night and told her I would not play poker anymore if it caused her concern. She didn’t mind me playing with friends and spending time with them, but she took issue with me playing for money with strangers online.
We were considering building a life together. I don’t think she wanted her husband to be a poker player. It isn’t exactly a “steady job” or anything. I wanted her to know she was far more important to me than poker.
So I used much of the bankroll I had acquired to buy her an engagement ring and a wedding band. I thought it was a great symbol of not only our love, but how I was choosing her over poker.
She still thinks it is funny I bought her rings using poker winnings. She encouraged me to share the story.
Online poker is generally not legal anymore for Americans depending on what state you live in. This is because of the SAFE Port Act signed into law in October 2006. I haven’t played online poker since September 2005, well before the passage of the SAFE Port Act. If playing online poker is prohibited where you live, enjoy poker playing a few home games with friends. Win or lose, it is more about the time you spend with them and not the money made/lost.