A Portrait of the Artist as a Mid-Stakes Grinder

Today I’ve edited and cleaned up a post that I wrote many years ago. Back then, I was a solid 3/6 6-max grinder. I was the biggest winner on the PokerStars 6-max games and put in tons of volume, but I could never move up to 5/10. Every time I tried, I’d get smashed and would return to 3/6 to retool my coffers and try again. This was really disheartening, and caused me to take a long, hard look at my game and my journey as a poker player. For all you midstakes players out there, this is for you, and I think it’s quite appropriate for starting a new year. I hope you enjoy it.

*Play this song as you read.*

(Little Haseeb, circa 2007)

Okay, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my game and why I’m not making obscene amounts of money. I’ve come to realize something absolutely incredible about the way that I understand this game and my place in it. I realize that I have been utterly blind to this… and probably, you are too.

I have realized that there is a common attitude among MSNL players that’s utterly toxic to their development. It’s this: as MSNL players, we treat “being good” as a vague and ethereal property that we ascribe to someone’s game. But we don’t think about “being good” in terms of particular situations or discrete attributes. I admit, I am guilty of this as much as anyone else, and the more I think about it, the more I see what a painful tragedy it is.

What does it mean to be good at poker?

Good players tend to look like us. They play spots like us. We read their thought processes, and we can follow them quite clearly. They post in our threads and share our opinions a lot of the time. We feel like we are probably good players too. We just have a few leaks, they’re just “a little better.” We don’t wonder why, or how. We don’t look at our game and lament, “This guy is doing something right that I am doing wrong. He is making more money than I am by doing things that I am not doing. When I decide what play is the best play, he’s deciding that totally different plays are better.” No, not at all. He is just kind of better, I am just kind of worse. That’s how it is. Maybe, over time, I’ll become better like him.

In the mid-stakes poker world, there is a great deal of respect for “style.” There is a certain point of scrutiny past which we will refuse to analyze people. “That’s just his style,” we’ll say. “That play makes sense, but it doesn’t fit my style.” Well, guess what. Fuck you, and fuck your style. There’s a big, ugly misconception of “style” as something artistic or special, something that makes you individual and inherently interesting because you play a certain way. That is a bullshit excuse for the fact that you’re unwilling to take risks that you’re not sure will work out or don’t understand. Or, shit. How about it’s simple denial of the fact that you are in fact bad at poker, and there are people much better than you who are making completely different plays?

Don’t try to justify yourself with style, and don’t try to excuse yourself from learning from other people’s lines and creativity with the excuse of “style.” If you are not beating 200/400NL, then your “style” doesn’t mean shit; all it’s doing is holding you back from making better and more interesting plays than your bullshit midstakes grinder mind can be comfortable with.

Your game is not just the behaviors and actions that you enact, but the thought processes behind them, which formed those behaviors in the first place. When you battle against good players for your winrate, those thought processes will be what define you. Over time, we solidify those thought processes into habits, and those habits we continually reuse in later spots without rethinking them. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing! A vast majority of these habits, for players who can beat mid-stakes, are going to be perfectly fine at the lowest levels (i.e., at playing most basic hands correctly, at beating fish). But for every poker player, there is some level of complexity at which your habits can no longer dictate the action for you, and you are forced to rationalize a new decision that you have essentially never made before. That is, you are forced to face this moment as new and original. Your “poker logic” cannot solve the problem for you, and the ghost in the shell is called upon to make its executive decision.

Now, there are three things that separate a mediocre player from a great player in this respect. The first of these three things is that that the great player has habitualized many of the decisions that a mediocre player has to rationalize (that is, for a great player the ghost in the machine is called upon less often). That’s because the great player has much more experience and can use his poker logic to generate solutions to more situations. The second thing is that a great poker player’s poker logic will be finer attuned to making precise and optimal plays than the mediocre player’s. His habits will be closer to optimal, and he will have fewer sloppy habits. But the last and most important difference is that the great player is capable of subtly re-rationalizing many of the spots which deviate slightly from habitualized spots; that is, where a more mediocre player might be inclined to treat different variations on the same theme exactly the same, a great player will see a subtle difference in these spots, call upon his ghost in the shell, and let it decree a variation upon the habit already in place.

One of the biggest pitfalls to moving up is that people pay a great amount of attention to very salient spots, such as huge river decisions and bluffs, but they do not take the time or effort to re-rationalize lower level situations that contribute most significantly to their winrate. If you keep the fundamentals mostly the same as when you played 2/4 when you move up to 3/6 or 5/10, it may appear as if you’re playing not much differently than other people do in the large pots, but actually, you’re likely sacrificing lots of EV in the smaller or medium sized pots because you are not re-rationalizing many of the decisions which you treated as routine at lower limits.

The distinctions you have to make to be a great player are very fine and numerous. I think that’s probably one of the big reasons why very good players tend to shoot up the stakes much faster than most people. It’s a rarity that somebody shoots up the ranks from 5c/10c to $2/$4 extremely quickly, and then can’t move up any higher. The reason for this, I think, is that such a person will be very used to treating poker strategy as a constantly dynamic organism, which he will formulate and reformulate in many degrees and aspects in whatever game he is playing, whereas somebody who plays the same stakes for a long time will realize that he’ll simply be wasting his mental energy if he tries to think out every single routine spot he plays. The human brain does not and cannot work that way. It’s simply not economical. Over time those repeated patterns become imprinted on your subconscious mind, to such an extent that when someone points at a decision you’re about to make and asks you, “why are you doing this?”-you can’t tell them. Maybe you’ll say, “well, the variables X, Y, and Z of course,” but that’s not really why you did it. The truth is, the thought process NEVER consciously entered your mind; you were merely recalling a pre-formulated response to the situation.

Now, I don’t doubt that any intelligent player will be able to re-rationalize the situation and explain after the action what the original thought process “should have been,” had you had actually thought it out. However, mistaking the ability to recall a thought process afterward with having actually thought out in the moment is simply a fallacy, and in the long run if you don’t have the self-awareness to recognize it, this fallacy will be your undoing. That is not to say that rationalizing your thought processes has to be done verbally, but the point is that most of us don’t truly rationalize most of our important decisions. What this means, if you think about it closely, is that most of our leaks, most of where we’re making our biggest and most profound mistakes… we are passing over in silence. We don’t even give ourselves the chance to realize it. We are closing our eyes and riding the waves, without ever trying to learn how to perfect the ship we’re sailing on.

To bring this all back, I think again about myself. As I’ve been ruminating about poker over the last few days, it strikes me that I’ve been committing a terrible but subtle fallacy in thinking about the game. It seems almost like a form of denial when I put it into words now. I realize that I have been treating the game of poker as combat between competing pre-rationalized strategies. You see, for a long time while I was grinding out 3/6, I didn’t really make most of my decisions. What I mean by that is, it was very rare that I respected somebody enough to decide that I needed to re-rationalize my decisions for medium-large sized pots. I believed that I would be capable enough of winning just by completely relying on the intuitions that I’d acquired simply playing an enormous number of hands 12-tabling. But I did not realize this at all! In fact, I probably have vehemently denied it if you accused me of such a thing.

I was a winner, and that kept me complacent enough to know that I could beat everyone I was playing with. But it never really occurred to me that a good player, if he moved down to 3/6, would be making 6-7 ptbb/100. 6 to 7! That’s enormous! I could never sustain that. What would he be doing differently than what I’m doing to increase his winrate so much? What fundamental mistakes am I making that he wouldn’t?? He would be playing so much better than me, making such better reads and decisions than I would-he would be looking at the very same spots, and continually make completely different decisions. Why didn’t that occur to me?? Why didn’t it frighten me, terrify me, drive me? How could I simply rest, knowing how wrong I was, all the time? I must’ve been treating a higher-level player, somebody who’d be able to make 6-7ptbb/100 at my stakes, as merely a set of pre-rationalized strategies that were more “optimal” than mine. He wouldn’t be thinking these things out, he’d just have already thought them out a long time ago and routinized them, and so he’d be chugging along with the same absentness of mind as I had. But why do I let that excuse me from my own mediocrity? Why can I be okay with that?

Fuck. Fuck me. Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck.

God, I don’t know. This probably sounds like nonsense to a lot of you and maybe it is, I don’t know. Poker is fucking crazy, and I’m really bad at it, and I want to get better.

Well, let me leave you with just one thought.

There are only three moves in poker: calling, betting, and folding. How can somebody who’s only allowed to call, bet, or fold, be making so much more money than me?? It’s only call, bet, or fold, but his decisions are making him so much more money than mine!

Cliffnotes: Shit, I gotta start call, betting, or folding better.

Thanks for reading, Little Haseeb

And ditto from big me,

January 02 2014
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Managing Partner at Dragonfly Capital. Effective Altruist. Airbnb, Earn.com (acquired by Coinbase) alum. Instructor @ Bradfield. Writer. Former poker pro. Donate 33% of my income to charity.

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