Vigilance is a topic often discussed in the poker community, but only as it relates the psychology sections. Exercising, eating right, and playing only when you're mentally focused are important things that will maximize your earning potential. While vigilance in these areas will help your winrate and probably improve your quality of life, in this article I would like instead to talk about vigilance at the table.
Too many mediocre and even good players sit down in a game and try to play “good” poker, or worse yet, go on a form of “ABC auto-pilot” which they think is appropriate for their stakes. There is of course merit to trying to play good poker, and there is merit to auto-piloting a working strategy while 16-tabling and collecting rakeback. However, if you really want to make big money and move up in stakes, you need to practice getting good at the art of “swapping mistakes.” In No Limit Hold 'em Theory and Practice, Sklansky and Miller talk a lot about the value of swapping mistakes, and there is a section called “Be Vigilant” which is what I would like to expand upon.
My friends and I talk a lot about the best ways to play a hand and what will maximally exploit our opponents. But whenever I watch them play, I am continually surprised by their lack of perseverance in finding or creating exploits. They play “good” poker and take an exploit if it comes, but they don't seek out exploits or try to create them, nor do they take full advantage of the ones they have found. This kind of take-it-as-it-comes poker is not good poker. Good poker is about exploitation. To quote Miller and Sklansky:
The goal isn't to play mistake-free poker. [...] Winning the battle of mistakes means making sure that your opponents make more frequent and more costly mistakes than you do.
Most players know this. “It's obvious!” they say. Well let's just see how obvious it really is.
Example: $0.50/$1 (100NL) 6-handed Seat (Stack) – VPIP / PFR / AF - (hands) UTG ($180) – 25/21/2.3 - (450) Hero ($155) – 17/14/2.0 for the session CO ($72) – 10/7/0.5 - (60) BU ($100) – 11/8/2.8 - (130) SB ($100) – 22/12/1.5 - (60) BB ($270) – 65/6/0.3 - (60)
The UTG player has been isolating the fish of the table, the big blind, with some regularity since you sat down sixty hands ago. Although you have a few hundred hands on him and he's normally a somewhat loose regular, he has been particularly loose trying to get involved with the fish during this session. It’s worked well so far. You have seen him turn over
75s, K9o, Q8s, and
55 at showdown against the fish during this session. You have stayed out of his way but have been fortunate in picking up a few small pots and a not insignificant pot from the fish after you isolated him with
KJo on the cutoff, spiked a Jack, and got three streets from his
J6s. The fish had a $400 stack when you first sat down, and one of the tighter players was ranting in the chat box about how lucky the fish was to crack his aces with a runner-runner boat.
What's wrong with this picture?
On the face of it, it doesn't look like the worst scenario. You've got position on a bad player, and you have a few tight players behind you, so you can isolate him reasonably often whenever the UTG player doesn't come in. It's certainly not an outright bad situation, and many players accept it. They fold their
QT to the UTG player's isolating raise, lamenting that these hands play well against the fish but aren't good enough to see a multi-way flop. In short, they wait for “their turn” to get at the fish's money.
This is a disaster.
There's a giant fish at the table who is clearly going to give his money away to somebody. Letting that somebody be anybody else is just terrible. You should not be sitting there “waiting your turn.” The proper play when you are in this situation is to ask yourself “How can I make this situation the best for me?” And the clear answer would be to get rid of the UTG player. The other players at the table are letting you and the UTG player run over the fish without fighting back. They are waiting their turn. The only obstacle between you and massive profits is the UTG player.
So how do you get rid of a regular? You make it unprofitable for him to stay. If he can't isolate the fish, his profit is gone, so we must prevent him from isolating the fish. He acts before us, so we can't isolate the fish first. Folding doesn't help our cause. Calling still lets the fish in, and while that may often be profitable, it is not our immediate goal.
What about three-betting? That would knock the fish out. And the UTG player's range is fairly wide, so it will work often. So, let's three-bet as much as possible. We have position on the regular we are trying to frustrate, and we are somewhat deep, so it's going to be murky waters at best if he wants to play back at us. His only half way decent options if we start three-betting him are to tighten up or to start four-betting. If he tightens up, his profit from playing more often against the fish goes away. If he four-bets us, the fish is again going to be out of the pot, and now he's in a neutral EV re-raising war preflop, which once more leaves him little or no profit. (I am assuming we're both competent at preflop wars, which would mean, among other things, that you cannot three-bet him quite as much.) By three-betting, no matter how he responds, we completely take away his profit. It doesn't even matter that we don't get most of the profit. All that matters is that he doesn't get it. And with no profit to be had, and an annoying player on his left, his mostly likely action will be to get up and leave the table.
Jackpot! Now we can get at the fish.
When I say three-bet him, please understand what I mean. I don't mean merely to stop flatting
AQ to let the fish in. I mean really three-bet the guy relentlessly with a wide range until you have beaten his will down to a pulp and there's no other option but to leave the table.
You can use the few hands you've seen to extrapolate his approximate range to be
(22+,54s-AKs,64s-AQs,A7+,K9+,QT+,Q8s+,J9s+,JT) which is about 30% of hands. This is a reasonable range which includes primarily high cards, even some weak ones, which will often dominate a poor player who stays in with lots of junk like
J4s. It also has lower pairs and suited connectors which add balance against always having high cards as well as make monsters that can stack a fish.
Since you've been fairly tight, we can assume he and the rest of the table, even the fish, will be very scared of a three-bet. A range of
(JJ+,AK) is 3% of hands, and is a good estimate of what they'll fight back with, except the fish, who will fight back with about 6% of hands. Thus when the regular opens UTG and you three-bet for the first time in the UTG+1 position, the entire table will fold to your three-bet about 77% of the time. For this hand in a vacuum, because you've been tight, three-betting any two cards shows immediate profit.
Still, you don't want to just dump money to the regular (since he will catch on if you three-bet every hand), but three-betting his opens as high as 25% of the time will accomplish our goal. He cannot just arbitrarily fight back. While 25% of hands is loose
(66+,A2s+,K6s+,Q8s+,J8s+,T8s+,A7o+,K9o+,QTo+,JTo), a range with each hand having at least 50% equity against that range is fairly tight
In short, this means that even if he decides to fight back, he must be careful about just how much he fights back, because fighting back too much, even against such a wide three-betting range, is incorrect. If he can't four-bet wide to stop you, he must either float a three-bet out of position (ugh!), or tighten up his opening range, which means he can't isolate the fish. Well if he can't four-bet often in order to stop you, and if he can't profitably isolate the fish any more, that only leaves one option: leave the table.
Don't get me wrong... Occasionally a plan like this will backfire because the regular will defend his right to the fish. He will four-bet and call your shoves relentlessly with
AJo in a battle of wills over who gets the fish, but this is rare. Most of the time he will just call you an idiot in the chat box for not letting the fish in, and then leave the table. And even better, the fish, having seen how nuts you are, will be more apt to pay you off. This is how you create a good situation. This is vigilance.
I know this was just an example, but I hope you get the general theme. Just sitting down and playing “good” poker is not enough. Just putting in the hands is not enough. There is an enormous amount of profit that regulars and mediocre players just leave sitting on the table for the experts to pick up. This untapped gold comes in two forms: The exploits you find that nobody else finds, and the exploits you create that few others would think to create. It's okay to make weird plays like three-betting
K6s versus an under-the-gun open. This kind of “bad” play is only bad because most players will respond reasonably well to it and make it unprofitable. But if this weird play makes a profit, then it is a good play.
You must be vigilant in trying to seek out and/or create situations for profit that others will miss. Sure you might be a good regular with an acceptable winrate beating other regulars, but there's so much more money to be had. Vigilance is about not accepting mediocre returns. It is about punishing your opponents in ways you never imagined. It is about making money that few others would have made. That's where profit in poker comes from. If you just “wait your turn” or play “good” poker, you're relying on the cards to win for you and for your game selection skills to carry you through lazy play. You might make a little bit of money, but if you aspire to become world class, you must learn to create money instead of just taking what the poker gods give you.
You must be vigilant.
Editor's Note: The following scenario was originally submitted as a second example to go in the article but was omitted from final publication, due to space constraints and Mason Malmuth disagreeing about getting in with ace-ten. I provide it here because I believe it is useful and demonstrates the value of paying attention.
Example 2: $1/$3 Uncapped NL game at the Wynn in Las Vegas
You are vacationing in Las Vegas! Being mostly an online player, you bought in for 100 big blinds. You have managed to stack some donks and run your stack from $300 up to $850 and are feeling pretty good. One player in particular is a terrible player who is loose and aggressive, bluffing way too much and making hero calls in all the wrong spots. He has gone from $1500 to $500 while you've been there, and he's gotten lucky a few times to still have that much money in front of him.
Now something happens, and I'd like to show it to you from the lens of two different people: the player who is not paying attention, and the player who is paying attention.
The terrible player gets a phone call and answers it at the table (which is allowed). You briefly overhear him making dinner plans with his girlfriend. The next hand, he goes all in preflop—just open shoves preflop.
You look down at
ATo, emit a sigh of annoyance at having to fold a moderately playable hand, and look behind you to see the other players as shocked and annoyed as you are. You wish this idiot would play “real” poker.
The terrible player gets a phone call at the table. He tells his wife that he won $8000 at craps earlier and got their room comped. In addition, they can eat for free anywhere in the place. She clearly likes this, because he tells her he'll meet her in their room in five or ten minutes, as soon as he doubles up or loses his stack at poker.
This peaks your interest and you watch him intently as the cards are being dealt during the next hand. You watch him get dealt his hand. You watch him get his cards and put a chip on them without looking at them. You watch him put his chips in the middle, going all in, blind.
You look to your left and see all but one player already holding their cards in a folding motion, and the one who has not already mentally folded is looking away from the table, oblivious to what is happening. You look down at
ATo, and push your stack in the middle as well, knowing that it's a solid favorite against a random hand, and that the players behind you are exceedingly unlikely to call. The terrible player tables
T6s, hits a flush, and leaves to meet his girlfriend. Your stack goes to $350, but you remain vigilant and stay for a few more hours, getting a little extra action from having gone all in preflop with
ATo. You end the night at $550, for a $250 net win.
(End of scenarios)
Notice what just happened in that second scenario. You just got in $500 as more than a 2:1 favorite. That's about $165 in expectation... just from listening to a phone call! You were vigilant in paying attention to what your opponents were doing, not just in the hands, but in-between hands as well. And after you got unlucky, you remained level-headed and took advantage of a looser image that you would not have otherwise gotten. Your vigilance in paying attention found you $165 that nobody else at the table would have found, and your vigilance in continuing to take advantage of a good situation despite some bad luck allowed you to win even more money. You ended up winning almost a buy-in after having lost $500, and all in less than 300 hands. That is vigilance.