Winchy was an Elvis impersonator. He was a lovely bloke.
It didn’t happen often – the horses took care of that – but now and then he would buff up his collar, slide those blue suede shoes underneath the poker table and let us take him to Heartbreak Hotel.
Winchy was one of those lads who thought poker and alcohol was a good combination. So here is my first trick for any budding amateur looking to get started in a local home game.
1. Don’t Drink Alcohol When You Play
The money will flow in your direction either because you got lucky, someone else got unlucky, or through your opponent’s mistakes.
Drinking alcohol reduces your ability to make rational, logical decisions. That’s a giant spanner in the works if you want to make some money.
Some people drink to be sociable. Others believe it gives them confidence. While that belief may be true, is it a good thing?
How many people have you seen playing uber-aggressive because they have had a drink?
It works for a while. They always seem to be the victor in those crazy spots, but over time the money flows back the most rational and logical route.
So don’t drink and look out for the people that do, which brings me to my next trick …
2. Identify Your Target
The great thing about competing in a home game is there are less of you. They will slowly become your friends.
You will grow to care for them more than the people you used to spend time with before you flopped your first four of a kind.
Each player will have a particular skill set. Recognizing this over time is important.
While it’s critical to play each hand optimally, I strongly suggest that you avoid playing pots with the strong players and instead focus on the weaker players.
There’s this guy who plays in my home game called Alan the Bookie. He is like a rock; very predictable, and painful to extract money from him.
Then you have Winchy; very often drunk and a fish in most of the games.
There was a time I would get involved with Alan the Bookie just as much as Winchy. That was a mistake. The Bookie was winning all the money so I started watching his game.
I noticed that he only played big hands against the fish. And that brings me to my next point.
3. Copy the Benchmark
Who is the benchmark in the game? Who is winning all the money?
Scrutinize their play. What do they do well? What aren’t they doing that you are?
4. Empathy Maps
I enrol in a lot of online training courses to advance my business acumen. One of the things I have learned over time is to understand who my customer is by creating an empathy map.
What are they thinking? What do they see? What do people think of them? What do they hear?
You should do the same in poker; especially in a home game with fewer players. You should have a file on every player in your home game. What are their strengths, what are their weaknesses?
Then you can create a plan to exploit them. I guarantee you will be the only person in the game doing this. But how do you gather all of this information?
5. Take Notes
Around a decade ago I made my first trip to Las Vegas. My mates and I were playing in a $1/$2 cash game downtown and there was this bloke with a notepad scribbling away each time he played a hand with us.
“What are you writing about me?” I asked.
“How bad you are,” he replied.
I couldn’t believe the gall of the man. He had balls the size of King Kong. Today, it’s more evident that people are taking notes on their digital devices.
You don’t need to get your balls out. However, in a home game this will be a rarity because, for most people, the game is a bit of fun.
Not for you. You want to make money.
So take notes after each hand. What were the stack sizes before the start of the hand? What was the action pre-flop, flop, turn, and river? How did people in the hand react? Were there any other points worth noting?
And then after each game you do two things …
6. Get a Second Opinion
Find someone who is a better poker player than you. Show them your notes. Talk through the hand. Be as specific as you can. Don’t leave any details out.
After interviewing the best poker players in the world, I can reliably inform you that this is the most common way of improving your game.
You seek out someone who is great at poker, you become their best mate and then you ask them to review your hands and give you feedback.
7. Create a Strategy
Secondly, take your notes, and the feedback from the player who is much better than you, and cross reference the information accumulated on your empathy map and then strategize.
These plans will become the primary foundation of your game. Then you experiment. You see what works and what doesn’t, and you rinse, repeat.
You play, you pay attention, take notes, ask for feedback, and adjust your strategy accordingly.
One of the most valuable things I learned in my home game was to identify the marks.
Who were the weakest players at the table, and what were my plans to leverage my knowledge on this opponent to make the most money?
8. Don’t Bluff
I used to suffer from Fancy Play Syndrome. I would watch online training videos and talk strategy with professional poker players, sit down in my home game and completely level myself.
Don’t bluff. They always call.
Over the long run it makes much more sense just to bet it when you have it, and when you don’t, just….
One of the biggest mistakes I made for years in my home game was competing for every pot. My hand ranking didn’t matter to me. I was in a home game, and it was almost customary to play every hand.
Once I dropped the ego and started to reduce my starting hand range, removing trash, my win-rate increased.
Sure, I was viewed as an annoying, solid player. But it didn’t stop me from getting action, because up until my change people thought I was nuts and so the image somewhat stuck.
Learning to fold, often, was a major moment for me. As was…
10. Learn a New Game
Learn a new poker game and then introduce it to the lads. Everyone likes variety in poker, especially in home games.
No-Limit Hold’em (NLHE) is a great game but it gets boring over time.
If you’re playing Dealer’s Choice in your home game (and I strongly suggest you do), then depending on the rules you could end up choosing your game when on the button.
I have seen so many of my friends mix it up when it’s their choice. I’ve had so many friends complain that I choose the same game.
I not only pick my strongest game because I’m in the superior position, but I also remember the time I introduced Razz into my home game.
Nobody knew how to play Razz except me. I taught them. It gave me an edge that I exploited for several months until players started to catch on to what I was doing.
Then it was back to the drawing board to introduce a new game. And finally…
11. Don’t Play Games You Don’t Understand
It’s far more cost-effective to learn the games in your own time rather than try to learn them during your home game.
I have seen players losing thousands as they get to grips with certain games. I have been guilty of this myself. Once again this is ego.
I remember the lads returning from a trip to Blackpool where they competed at the Grosvenor United Kingdom Poker Tour (GUKPT). They brought a game back called Maltese Cross – a derivative of double flop.
They loved it. I hated it. I lost a ton of money playing that game.
Then after a while, when people chose to play it, I would fold unless I had the nuts. It seems exploitable but this is a home game. People don’t adjust.
Just fold in games that you are weakest in and play the ones that you have an edge.
So there are my 11 tricks for amateurs to get a leg up in a home game. What are yours?