It’s common knowledge that the games of 2010 are much different than the pre-legislation games back in 2006. When the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was passed nearly four years ago the games online were booming. Full of fish and with plenty of money to be made, one has to wonder what things might be like were that midnight legislation not passed. Since 2006 big sites such as Titan Poker, Party Poker, and other European based card rooms have backed out of the US market which has left PokerStars and FullTilt, among others, with a huge share of American-based players.
The games on these sites have become much tougher because of a lack of looser foreign players who used to donate a lot of money into the games. Perhaps it was a cultural personality, or maybe Americans grew up playing card games, but whatever it was, the games have never been the same. The games to take the biggest hit were NL Hold’em short-handed tables which have now become much more difficult to beat at the mid/high-stakes level. Contrary to some beliefs, the games are still beatable but winrates we saw just a few years ago are just that, things of the past. Analyzing how the games have changed and what we can do to profit from these differences can go a long way in making the best out of a tough situation.
Poker Players Have Become Smarter
Without a doubt, the biggest difference over the past few years is the overall education of the poker playing public. As training sites and poker forums like FlopTurnRiver have become more popular, there has been a lot of great information about the game available at your fingertips. Anyone with time on their hands, the will to get better, and an open-mind should have gotten a lot better. Training videos, blogs, books, articles, strategy posts, etc. are published every day in different languages around the world. Back in 2006 people just did not understand Texas Hold’em and now the game has been broken down, analyzed, and to a degree, solved.
This "poker education" was not just limited to the game itself. Ideas such as bankroll management, tilt control, multi-tabling, and many other concepts have been explored and also perfected. Players no longer bust their roll in one day, tilt away their livelihood, or play just a few tables. This has led to a lot more good poker players staying around for longer than they might have in the past. Also, it goes even further to divide the fish from the regular. It seems no matter what your leaks may be, there is more than likely some source of information that can help you improve.
While these smaller issues have affected the game in a small way, it is the poker world’s education in Texas Hold’em that has proved the most damaging to winrates. There are many ideas, strategies, and formulas that have been introduced to players over the past years. These fundamentals used to be only known by a small percentage of players, but now have become so commonplace it seems those not understanding basic concepts such as aggression, stack sizes, and abusing position are in the minority. A lot of those who complain about the games being tougher are the ones to blame for their increased difficulty. Many of the best players in the world used forums and training sites to discuss and explore new ideas. These revelations were all arrived at in public, which allowed just about anyone to get better at the game. Even those who don’t fully understand some of the more advanced topics still benefit from employing them. While they may not get as much out of them as players who apply them correctly, they are certainly better off than they would be without them completely. Let’s take a deeper look into some of these changes.
Poker, and to a larger degree online poker, has become much more aggressive over the past few years. Gone are "small ball" and "pot control" poker and here to stay is an aggressive approach to the game that forces our opponents to make much tougher decisions in much bigger pots. Players have evaluated certain situations, in both cash games and tournaments, and realized that their passive approaches in the past were costing them money. The easiest place to see these changes are in tournament poker. In the past players would allow their stacks to dwindle down with the idea that getting their money in "good" was the end-all to winning poker. As players were able to play more tournaments online, achieve a more reliable sample size, and then break down what winning players do best, they realized that these successful tournament players were all aggressive and willing to "gamble it up" with shorter stacks.
You can still see a bit of a divide with this style when you tune into WSOP broadcasts throughout the year. The old guard, pros like Mike Matusow, Phil Hellmuth, and Daniel Negreanu all seem to be stuck in the past, while a new breed of professionals such as Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, and Tom Dwan has taken over the poker world. Their fearless styles have endeared them to the poker world and made them millions of dollars in both tournaments and cash games. Being aggressive in late-game situations has allowed players to win pots they weren’t supposed to win, build their stacks, and ultimately raise their variance. This variance, as players have realized with larger sample sizes, is a necessary evil as it allows greater winrates. This might be one of the biggest revelations of the past few years. Players who have higher winrates also tend to have higher short-term variance but much less long-term variance. This is due to aggressive play that pushes every small advantage. Aggressive play such as this can lead to some hellacious short term swings, but players have learned how to use their rolls, control tilt, and ride out the bad times for the good of the overall picture.
In cash games, aggression has come in the form of pre-flop "wars" and more semi-bluffing after the flop. It is not uncommon to see players 4bet/5bet bluff in today’s games and as you move up in levels it becomes more of a necessity. The same can be said for post-flop semi-bluffing. In the past players might raise with very strong combo draws. As players have learned about fold equity and used tools such as pokerstove to analyze certain spots, they have come to the conclusion that you don’t need as much real equity as was once thought to stack off after the flop. This comes down to the amount of money in the pot, the percentage of times your opponent will fold, and your equity when called. Players used to have trouble stacking off in these spots, finding themselves playing draws passively.
Overall the games play much faster than in previous years and players will have to adjust to this aggression. The old school player might want to slow-play and try to bluff-catch, but the new breed of poker player is all about balancing their ranges, getting their money in lighter and inducing bluffs with bets not checks. The term check-call has been replaced by bet-fold as better players have realized that being the aggressor has many more benefits than being passive. A final note on aggression in general: the idea that folding is a passive move is a common misconception. Database tracking software has proven exactly the opposite; people who fold more tend to be the most aggressive players in the games. This is because they are typically taking bet/fold lines as opposed to check/calling in tougher spots. Bet/folding allows players to get value from worse hands that tend would have liked to take a show down.
Multi-Tabling and Rakeback
As the games became tougher and a lot of players could no longer achieve a large profit playing midstakes or higher, they turned to rakeback and VIP programs to supplement their income. Sites like PokerStars (24 tables) or FullTilt (16) where you can play a large amount of cash games tables have allowed players to accumulate a massive amount of rake and frequent player points over the course of a year. The PokerStars VIP Program has a level that can only be reached by their members paying an excess of $200,000 in rake throughout the year. These "Supernova Elite" members receive a large amount of bonuses, tournament entries, and other prizes for remaining loyal to PokerStars.
Being able to play 24 tables is not an easy task. In fact, it takes as much effort to learn how to multi-table as it does to improve one’s winrate. There are many factors that go into playing that many tables including table lay-out, heads-up displays, and the use of hot keys and scripts. A lot of these tools were around in 2006 but the general public had very little idea how to use them effectively. Being able to play this many tables has allowed those even at smaller stakes to accumulate a lot of rakeback or VIP bonuses.
There are more than a handful of members at each stakes that play in excess of 3,000,000 hands a year, or more than 8,000 daily. This may seem like a lot,. Ffor those who can 24-table fast 6max games, it is merely 4 hours of work a day or less than 30 hours a week. Supernova Elite translates into more than $120,000 in bonuses/prizes a year. The biggest rakeback earners are those playing turbo SNGs all the way up to the $5000+$100 heads-up tournaments. There is no cap on the number of SNG tables players can have running at once which gives it a big advantage over grinding cash games. Rakeback on sites like FullTilt will run anywhere between 25-40% and is delivered to your account every week or month.
These multi-tabling rakeback professionals have made the games much tighter and have filled the tables with solid players who never get out of line. These players are exploitable, but not for huge amounts of money. They play very strong hands before the flop and stack-off with even stronger hands after the flop. You can take advantage of these players by raising their blinds from later position and using their style against them. While it might seem there are more tables running in today’s games than in the past, that is a bit of a misnomer as this happens because of all of these players.
In general, yes, the games are tougher than they were before the legislation was passed. However, they are not unbeatable. Players need to continue to try to find ways to improve their game and make sure they are table selecting well. There is no shame in hopping around tables looking for fish. Table selection is the biggest key to maintaining a solid winrate.