Your profitability at the poker table begins and can end before you even take a seat in the game. One of the most profitable or disastrous decisions that you can make is which games you choose to play in. This is known as game selection. While most of this article will be dedicated to cash games, we are going to touch on game selection with tournaments as well to give you as complete of an education on the topic as possible.
The Importance of Game Selection
Let’s start off with an analogy. Let’s say you’re given the opportunity to play one-on-one basketball for money. You can go play on court one or court two; the choice is up to you. Regardless of which court you play on, if you win, you’ll get $100. On court one, your opponent would be Kobe Bryant. On court two, your opponent would be a four-foot-tall elementary school student who has never played basketball before. Which game are you going to play?
Unless you hate money, you’re going to play against the four-footer. You’re going to do this because it will be insanely easier for you to win and walk away profitable. This is an example of game selection. Correct game selection is when you opt to play in the game that’s going to give you the best opportunity to turn the biggest profit. We’ll cover in-depth how you go about game selecting properly, but we first want to cover why it’s important.
The only answer that’s important here is profit. You could say that game selection is important for enjoyment if you’re strictly a recreational player. If you’re someone who cares about your bottom line and making money with poker, then profit is the one and only reason you’re going to care about game selection.
If you’re constantly playing in less-favorable games, you’re going to be costing yourself money. Not only are the tougher games going to be harder to beat, but when you’re in a tougher game, you’re probably missing an easier game. Even if there is no better game, you still will have a decision to make. You may think that you don’t always have a choice, but you always do. Remember, NOT playing at all is always an option, and sometimes is the most profitable move.
Mastering game selection is not hard, but is crucial to your longevity in the poker industry.
Reasons People Don’t Game-Select
There are three main reasons why people choose not to game-select. The reason we bring these to your attention is that if you’re aware of the reasons, you can make sure that you don’t let them creep into your decision making. Hopefully, by this point, you’re already aware and convinced that you must game-select if you ever want to make it in the poker world.
The number one reason that people don’t game-select (or do anything in poker, for that matter) is laziness. People just want easy money and don’t want to put in the work. Here’s the problem: if you are constantly cutting corners, you’re going to be constantly cutting corners off your profit. You do that enough, and you’re going to end up broke and no longer able to play.
As you’ll learn in this guide, game selection does not take much effort. It comes down to doing a little bit of homework sometimes, or even just taking a quick peek at the different tables in the room. If you’re an online player, it might take you two or three minutes before you play to find the optimal games.
If you have to wait a few extra minutes to get into the best game, then do it.
Don’t take the easy road every time. We wish we could tell you the number of times that players we know personally have dropped a ton of money by sitting in a game they shouldn’t be because they were too lazy or impatient to wait a few minutes for the optimal game.
We don’t have any magical tips to teach you not to be lazy if it’s an issue. All we can say is that you need to be honest with yourself about whether or not you are being lazy. If you are being lazy, you need to refocus on what’s important and what you need to do to get what is important to you. If making money in poker or playing for a living is a goal of yours, you need to grow up and put in the work that’s necessary to achieve your goals.
Speaking of growing up, let’s talk about the most pointless reason that people refuse to game-select. When you let your ego get in the way of playing in the most profitable of games, you shoot your profit in the foot. What exactly are we talking about? We’re talking about players that feel the need to prove something. They feel the need to beat the best to prove to themselves and the rest of the world that they’re good at poker.
You have to decide before you go any further in your poker career what is important to you. If everyone thinking you’re cool is more important to you and is something that you’re willing to give up money for, then by all means, go for it. But if you’re someone who cares more about making a sustainable living at the game, focus on game selection.
Something that you may not realize is that when you do this, the best players in the world are going to respect you. They’ll understand that you’re smart enough to find your edges and push them to the max. If you’re constantly coming after them, they won’t respect you. They’ll be friendly to you at the table and then laugh at your foolishness away from the table as they spend your money.
Put your ego to rest. If you don’t, you won’t survive long enough in the industry to ever make it to the top ranks.
The last reason that people don’t game-select is ignorance. Now that you’ve read this far into this guide, you no longer have this excuse. There are some people that just aren’t aware that playing in every single poker game that comes around is not smart. In order to avoid this, read this guide. Pay attention to what we have to say and then apply it to your game moving forward. We’re not trying to sound like know-it-alls, but we can tell you that this information is extremely important.
Game Selecting Based on Buy-In Concerns
Now that we’ve talked about why game selection is important, let’s start talking about how you should go about making your selections. We’re going to start with selecting the games you’re going to play in based on buy-in concerns. Out of all the ways to game select, these are probably the most important, because a mistake here can crush your bankroll and make it so you’re unable to play anymore.
If you’re playing in games that you can’t afford to be in, you’re going to set yourself up for failure. What do we mean when we talk about games that you can’t afford to be in? If the buy-in for a game is $200 and you have $200, can you afford to be in that game? The answer is no. Poker is a game where skill will prevail in the long run, but you may encounter some variance in the short term.
This means that you need to have enough money to withstand the swings long enough for your skill to prevail. If you don’t, you run the risk of going broke and being out of the game for good. We highly recommend you spend some time studying proper bankroll management and how to apply it. Following some simple rules will ensure that your longevity in the game will be as long as you want it to be.
How Deep/Big Is the Game Playing?
Sometimes cash games are bigger than the sign on the door. For example, let’s say you’re interested in playing in a $2/$5 NLH game. The standard buy-in for this game is $500. But what if you’re at a poker room that has no buy-in cap and allows people to buy in for whatever they want? If everyone is sitting with several thousand dollars in front of them, this game is going to play a lot bigger than advertised.
Also, what if the players in that game decide that they want to put the straddle on for $10 every hand? This means that instead of it being $2/$5, it’s now $2/$5/$10. Technically, you’re still playing in a $2/$5 game, but it’s playing a lot more like a $5/$10 game. To be in this game, you need to have the bankroll for a $5/$10 game to be properly rolled.
How do you figure out this information? You take two seconds, and you go over to the table, and you take a look. If the game looks to be playing too big for you, find another game or come back a different night. If everything looks good and you sit in the game, and things change, be prepared to hop up and leave. There’s no reason to risk your entire poker career because you refuse to get up from a game that’s playing too big for you.
Game Selecting Based on Player Skill
When most people talk about game selection, they’re talking about doing so based on the skill of the players in the game. Often you won’t be able to gauge this off the bat, but you can make some educated guesses before you sit down. If you end up being wrong, you can always look to change games. For those of you that are playing online poker, there are a lot of different tools that you can utilize to help you get a read on the game before you jump in.
Who’s In the Game
While this is going to seem like a whole truckload of common sense, it can be detrimental to your game if you don’t take it seriously and apply it to your poker career. You should always be looking to play in games with the worst players and looking to avoid games with the best players. This is common sense, but thanks to laziness and ego, players constantly play in games that they shouldn’t.
Here’s the thing: even if you are better than the players in the game, it might not be the most profitable game there is. A lot of times when playing online poker or in the casino, you have the option between several different tables. If you’re only marginally better than everyone at one table, but light years better than everyone at a different table, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not going to the second table.
If you’ve ever played before, you know that you’re never going to have entire tables better than you or entire tables worse than you. It’s always going to be a mix somewhere in the middle. Ideally, you’re looking for the mix that fits your style best. Some people would prefer to be at a table with lots of mediocre players, while others would prefer to be at a table with a few huge fish but also some sharks.
Which is better? It all depends on your preferred style. If you have trouble with good players and staying out of their way, you may do better with the average table. If you do fine with good players and have no issues navigating pots with them, the mega fish might be what you’re looking for. Keep in mind as well that playing against clueless poker players is an entirely different game than playing against mediocre/bad players. Some people struggle to beat players that have zero clues what they are doing, because they are more challenging to predict.
If you’re playing live, how do you know how good people are before you sit down? You’re going to have to go off of any past history, knowledge from friends, and stereotyping. The first two strategies are straightforward. If you’ve played with them before or your friends have, you’re going to have an idea of their skill level and how they play. If you haven’t, though, you’re going to need to rely on stereotypes from your experience.
For example, if you look at a table and it’s all young kids in hoodies wearing sunglasses and headphones, it’s probably going to be a tough game. This is definitely not always the case, but it can be a safe assumption. On the flip side, if you walk by a game and you see that it’s a bunch of well-dressed rich men who are drunker than skunks, this could be an optimal game to sit in. It’s probably going to play a little wild, but the easy money will be flying.
Again, these are just assumptions. You can make a good assumption and be completely wrong. When that happens, you’ll need to be ready to adjust. You can sit in a game for a few rounds and have a pretty good idea of the skill levels of most of the players. If your assumption was incorrect and the game is tougher than you’d like it to be, look to move to a new game. If the game is significantly tougher than you thought, you need to be ready to rack up your chips and call it a day if there aren’t any more favorable games.
Don’t let your ego or desire to make money run the show.
Dropping Stakes to Make More
Something that is often overlooked is the practice of dropping down in stakes because you stand to make more money. Wait, that makes no sense…don’t you make more money the higher the stakes you play? This is definitely not always the case. When you play lower stakes against worse players, you stand to have a higher big blind per hour win rate. This is how many big blinds you win on average for every hour played at the table.
Let’s say for example that your win rate at a regular $2/$5 table is 6/BB per hour. Basically, you make about $30 on average for every hour you are playing. Let’s also say that your win rate at a regular $1/$2 table is 12/BB per hour. At this table, you’ll make $24 an hour on average. You should always play the $2/$5 game, correct? The answer is yes, if the game conditions are the same.
What happens if some huge fish sit in the $1/$2 game, making it much more favorable? Your regular win rate of 12/BB could be much higher. Obviously, you can’t configure this, but you can make assumptions that it will be higher. If you can win at a rate of 15 or 16/BB per hour with the bigger fish in the game, you’re going to make more money by playing in the lower-stakes game.
These BB per hour numbers are made up, so you’ll need to configure them for yourself by tracking your wins and losses over a large sample size. What you can do as well is keep track of how soft the game is and use that data to try and figure your BB per hour for good games and for great games. There’s no need for figuring it for bad games, because you’re going to be a good boy or girl and not play in bad games.
For those of you that play poker online, you’ve got technology to help you out. If you’re one of those that isn’t a big fan of the tech, you need to realize that it might be time to suck it up and join the 21st century. There are software applications out there that will allow you to track every detail of your opponents to know how good they are. There are also programs out there that you can use to search a database of opponents to find out who is good and who is not. Even more, there are now programs that will automatically sit players at a table when known bad players sit down.
It’s a scary world of technology out there. While we highly recommend you start looking into some of this technology, at the very least, we want you to know it exists. Your opponents are most likely going to have tons of information on you that they can use. Heck, there are even sites where you can purchase millions and millions of hand histories of opponents. If you refuse to acknowledge the tech, you’re not an activist or a fighter fighting the good fight. You’re just putting yourself at a disadvantage.
Game Conditions Can Change
We’ve touched on this in earlier sections, but we’d like to drive this point home. Just because a game starts out favorable does not mean that it’s going to continue to be favorable for the duration of the time you’re playing. Games can change fast. There’s a reason you’ll see tables online playing for hours, and then when one player leaves, the game breaks in 10 seconds.
You need to make sure that you’re always aware of the current game conditions and what you plan to do if certain things change. Is there only one fish you’re in the game for? Is the whole game juicy and it doesn’t matter if a few people leave? Would one more shark coming into the game make things unplayable?
The first step is recognizing that the conditions have changed for the worse. The second step is having the self-drive to pick up from the game or take a break. It might be tough, especially if you’re stuck, but you have to be willing to do it. Remember, poker is not so much about individual sessions. All your games could be considered one long lifetime session. Have a plan for if the game conditions change, and always be reevaluating that plan. If conditions change, put that plan in place, whether that is to stay, take a break, switch tables, or leave completely.
Tournament Game Selection
Game selection makes sense when you’re talking about cash games. You’re free to come and go from any cash game at any point in time. If you’re not happy with the players at the table or how the game is playing, you can pack up your ball and go home. Tournaments, on the other hand, are a different beast. Once you register for the tournament and it starts, you’re locked in until you bust or win the tournament.
Because of this, you might think that game selection is not important. You would be the opposite of correct. When game-selecting for tournaments, you’re not going to be looking at individual players at different tables. What you’ll be doing instead is looking at the tournament field as a whole. You’ll also be looking at the setup of the tournament to make sure that it’s ideal for what you’re looking for.
Overall Field Attracted
As we mentioned, you need to start by looking at the skill of the entire field as a whole. How can you do this before it starts? The first thing you can do is look at the size of the field in relation to the buy-in. For smaller buy-ins, this won’t do you much good. For bigger buy-in events, though, the more players they have, the more likely the field is going to have a lot of fish in it. For example, a $5k buy-in with 45 players is probably going to be a very tough field. A $5k buy-in with 2800 players is probably going to be a much softer field filled with quite a few bad players.
This has a lot to do with tournament marketing and the prize pool. Recreational players are not going to come out for a 45-person $5k event. They will, however, come out for one with almost 3k people in it, because the prize pool is going to be huge. It works like a domino effect. There are some players that won’t come out if a tournament is under 100 players. Once it hits 100 players, though, they come out. There may also be players that won’t play unless it’s 150 players. Once these players that were waiting for 100 join, it balloons the field, and these other holdouts show up. Once enough of these players show up, we start to get to the fish at the bottom of the barrel who are coming out to take their shot.
You can also look at past history of the tournament.
Ask friends who have played in prior years what the field was like. If you are at all plugged into the poker scene, you’ll know where the soft spots are going to be.
In fact, if you ask anyone who plays for a living on the tournament scene, they should be able to give you a good idea of favorable tournament stops for the entire year.
Again, you’re looking for tournaments that have fields full of recreational players. Could you still end up having to face off with some good players? Of course, that could and will happen. But if you’re playing in a tournament that has a high number of recreational or bad players, you’re going to have a much easier road to the final table than in a field full of only sharks
Favorable Blind Structures
If you haven’t read our strategy section on understanding blind structures, we recommend you take a few minutes and read through it. What you’re going to be looking for are favorable blind structures to both you and to the fish/recreational players. What does this mean? Well, the blind structure that will be favorable to you as the skilled player is the slowest structure there is. The slower the structure, the more chance you have to exercise your skill and prevail in the tournament.
The problem is that a lot of fish and recreational players don’t want a structure that is too slow. They want it slow enough that they get the chance to play and enjoy themselves, but they don’t want to be stuck there for days or weeks to finish the tournament. This means that tournaments with too good of structures might not be as favorable as you think. Look for events with a happy medium, and you’ll stumble on more easy pickings.
Depending on where you live or if you’re playing online, you may have options for multiple tournaments to choose from on the same day. Make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of only going to play the tournament with the highest buy-in or the most prestige attached to it. For example, if you are playing in Las Vegas during the summer and you have the choice between the $1k WSOP Super Turbo or a $600 tournament at the Venetian Deepstacks, where do you have more value?
The answer is in the $600 tournament. Not only is the WSOP event going to pull away all the sharks and bracelet chasers, but the $600s at Venetian have huge guarantees and are filled with fish. But many people that claim they care only about their bottom line would skip the $600 for the $1k Super Turbo. If you’re skipping a juicy tournament for one with prestige, filled with sharks, and a terrible structure, you’re not really that concerned with your bottom line.
Make sure you look at all of your options before you decide to play an event anywhere. It’s quite often that tournament series happen at the same time in the same city, which gives you options. Also, it’s common that one individual series will have multiple events going on on the same days. Choose wisely and decide what’s important to you. If it’s the prestige, that’s okay. If it’s the profit and the bottom line, that’s our advice.
Putting It All Together
The bottom line that you need to be taking away from this article is that game selection is a must. It’s not hard, it involves a lot of common sense, but when neglected, you’re shooting your poker career in the foot. Before you sit down in a cash game or a poker tournament, do a little bit of due diligence and find out if the game is the most optimal spot for you. If there is a better option, take it. If there are no good options, including the game you’re planning on playing in, pack up and head home.
Ego, laziness, and ignorance will try their best to hold you back. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, because you’re fully aware now that game selection is of the utmost importance. Your only excuses going forward will be ego and laziness, which are two ingredients NOT found in the recipe for a successful poker career.