James 'SplitSuit' Sweeney: 6 things I wish I knew when learning poker

SplitSuit Poker
16 May 2024
Holdem Coaching
16 May 2024

Today’s article is not only for beginner poker players, but also for more or less experienced ones who begin to ask various global questions and wonder whether they are studying correctly and whether they have chosen the right path in life.

James "SplitSuit" Sweeney is a renowned active midstakes player, coach and author of training videos and articles. He excels in both online and live poker, teaches others, and has extensive experience in choosing the right direction and focus for a poker career.

The following text is in his words.


If you want to play poker well and effectively, you will have to learn a lot and learn the right things. But when you are just starting out, or find yourself in prostration, not really understanding whether you are on the right path now, everything becomes much more difficult.

When I first started playing poker in the early 2000s, the game was as different from today as heaven and earth, and you wouldn’t recognize the poker of those times if you were at the same table with us. In those early years, we did not yet have such things as solvers, and even the first equalizers were just beginning to appear. All we had was an exchange of experience and reading those few books that were written on strategies that were already outdated at that time and did not even need to be read.

At the same time, the first poker sites began to appear. But no matter how the online poker world began to develop, it was still not clear:

  • Where should I even start?
  • What should I do after this and how will it affect me?
  • What should I pay attention to and what will be important for my career?
  • What should you immediately accept as an inevitable evil and try not to worry about it anymore?
  • And many other questions ...

If I had known at that time what I wanted to say today, many things would probably have been completely different.

I've been playing poker for half my life - 18 years - and today I want to give you the 6 most important tips that I wish I knew at the beginning of my career, and that helped me go through difficult periods of the journey.

Tip #1:
How often hands hit vs miss

Another way to call this is the hit and miss rates of different hands. This is especially useful in bluffs, because bluffs are the most common bets in poker, and when we talk about auto profit, we mean a bet whose actual fold equity is higher than that required for a given bet size. This is why it will be useful to understand how often your opponent's range hits a particular board or misses and, accordingly, folds.

You should better understand 2 main things:

  • How often do your bluffs have +EV. For example, if the actual opponent's range (who is only willing to continue with very strong hands) has few strong hits on the board, then he will fold extremely often, and thus you can print money on him without going to the point of comparing hands at showdown. Fold equity is huge, which means even small bets become very profitable. The same applies to pulling off bluffs in general.
  • How often do your own hands hit/miss the boards. Then you have a sober and objective view of what you can do postflop. You also clearly understand that most starting hands miss flops or hit them very poorly. And therefore, a weak range can be bluffed very easily. On the other hand, you gain an understanding of your own overfolds.

After all, if you keep folding postflop, putting money into the pot and then giving it up without a fight, then this is a sure way to a losing game.

To learn to understand how different ranges hit and miss flops/turns/rivers, you can use different tools. But I consider FlopzillaPro to be the best - the most advanced poker calculator to date, which has a very convenient and demonstrative interface, simple operation for the user, and is also able to connect to the GTO+ solver for simultaneous work in both of these programs.

Naturally, you need to use these poker programs between sessions: firstly, they simply will not calculate anything when a poker room process is detected, and secondly, sooner or later you will be banned from the poker room, because poker room client himself sees the running process of such software. This kind of software is prohibited.

But let's move on to how FlopzillaPro helps you understand the hit (and miss) frequencies of different hands and even entire ranges. For example, let's see how the strongest unpaired starting hand (AK) hits the flop.

How AKo hits the flop

Here we will consider the hits of only its 12 off-suit variations.

On the flop it will hit a pair (namely TPTK) 29% of the time. If we take into account hits in two pairs and stronger, then in total it comes out to 34.4% of cases, that is, a little more often than 1/3 of the time. - Still not often, right? - If you add here hits like gutshots, flush draws and OESD, then your favorite AK will still hit no more than 44% of the time, and strongly - still 1/3 of the time. The remaining 66% of the time, you will still have an A-high hand.

So when you think that AK and other unpaired hands don't make pairs all the time - yes, that's exactly how poker works.

How does KK hit the flop?

Who wouldn't be happy to get two kings preflop? - But it’s not so simple with them either, because it’s still not two Aces.

KK will only be 2nd pair overall 21% of the time - the Ace will come on board exactly 1/5 of the time, and you should be able to play your 2nd pair from KK when your opponent has a likely top pair. So the thought that the ace comes out with some unrealistic frequency is an illusion, and you just need to be prepared for its appearance on the flop.

Example: How a certain range of hands hits the flop

And now the task is more complex: look at how strongly and often a given range hits the flop, and how you can take advantage of it. We opened preflop and our opponent called. Here's his calling range and how he hits all flops on average.

If we assume (by placing color filters next to the hand categories) that our opponent continues (by both calling and raising) to our contbet with 2nd pair, pocket pairs and better, as well as with decent draws, then it becomes clear that his range will hit a random flop almost 50% of the time.

How does this help us with bluffs? - Here's how: since the required fold equity for a break-even bet, even for such a fairly large continuation bet as a bet of 2/3 of the pot, is only 40%, then the remaining 10% prints money for us. What can we say about standard range bets of 33% of the pot, which only require 25% fold equity?

In addition, you can filter the categories of hands in more detail, setting, for example, the frequency of calling with a weak 2nd pair at 30%, and with a strong second pair at 80%, or at 100% of calls with flush draws and only 20% with gutshots.

  • But that's not all!

Most of the weaker hands that your opponent drags after the first barrel will fold against the second. Or against the third. The same can be applied to hands of medium strength.

This way we can calculate our bluffs 2, or even all 3 streets ahead. Between sessions we study in FlopZillaPro, little by little we learn the calculations and answers, and during the game many of them come to mind, and then we play in an ideal way with our opponents:

  • Gracefully bluffing at them,
  • Effectively value betting those who don’t give up,
  • Or we check where it would be the best action,
  • Or we call according to the situation - many different things can be honed and even developed.

In general, having such a great tool like FlopZillaPro at your fingertips, great prospects open up for you. After a few hours of practicing in this or similar software, you will not recognize your previous game.

Tip #2:
Basic poker math is simple, so master it quickly

The poker math you actually need is a lot simpler than I once thought.

To tell the truth, I never had any mathematical inclinations. And all those concepts and numbers that we see in poker - EV, equity, pot odds and others - seemed to me something very complicated, as if not for me. But in reality it turned out that all this is quite trainable and digestible. I am personally convinced that even a complete humanist can cope with them.

A little effort - and now the new concept is fixed and successfully applied in the game

Almost all the mathematics that we talk about in poker is elementary, and to learn it, it is enough to learn a few simple formulas and concepts, and then practice a little with them, thus improving your hand and instinct. You can even hate math, but still grasp these poker concepts at least at the gut level, but you can even do it concretely.

And I wrote my book on preflop (it is sold on my website), which contains a bunch of examples of hands with mathematical calculations, precisely because I took this seriously. And I succeeded.

Here's the whole recipe.

Tip #3:
Exploitative Play Makes The Money

At the time when I started the game, they had not yet seriously talked about such a thing as a theoretically optimal game. Of course, there were already certain outlines, but all this was located exclusively at the level of an inapplicable theory. We had no databases, no solvers, no computing power.

  • And today you have all this in abundance.

One of the things that I'm increasingly convinced of as I study GTO is that it is the starting point, a kind of perfect poker where no one can make money off of anyone. If 2 players play perfect poker with each other, then they will play according to GTO, but none of them will see the profit as their own ears.

But we all play with real humans. And a human cannot play according to the ideal GTO. Some unique people with phenomenal memory can only come very remotely close to it, but they will still be infinitely far from the ideal. Therefore, every player that opposes you deviates from GTO to one degree or another: some a little, others very much.

And any deviation from the ideal GTO poker can be punished by an exploit - not only in theory, but in actual practice.

Here's a simple example: in spot X, the solver folds 40% of the time, and your real opponent folds 64%. Then, if he folds much more often than GTO dictates, then what should you do about it? - Bluff into it much more often! - Then you should flood your overfolding opponent with bluffs and make money from it. We are talking not only about elementary open raises, bluff-X-bet preflop and continuation bets on the flop, but also bluff bets instead of checks back. When EV of turning a hand into a bluff is higher than that of checking, you should lean toward the bluff.

  • Sooner or later he will get tired of such prospects, and then he will start calling you more often. - What should you do then? - Answer now yourself.

And in order not to overdo it and make as few expensive mistakes as possible, it is worth combining this approach with Tip #1 and pressing mainly when opponent's range is weak.

Tip #4:
You only control these 2 things in poker

  • These are your actions and reactions.

That's all. And the rest is out of your control.

I accepted it very early and it made my career a hell of a lot easier. Although it’s not obvious to me anymore, believe it or not, I used to tilt very strongly, constantly blow up, throw my computer out the window and break countless keyboards and mice. Even the walls sometimes suffered from my head.

I’m not saying this for bravado, but to be honest - I was not born as calm as you see me on the screens, and during the first 2 years of my poker career I had to work a lot to improve my psychological firmware.

I studied videos and books by Jared Tendler, studied a lot on them, and it was from them that I learned that I am only responsible for what I do and how I react to what is happening.

But much of what we would like to control, we should just let go / accept - depending on who. Here are some typical examples of events and things beyond our control in poker:

  • Other people's thoughts
  • Their actions
  • Their reactions
  • The way pocket cards are dealt
  • What comes out on the board
  • Implications of short- and medium-term variance

We recommend reading: How not to lose your mind during a downswing

And many other things besides your own actions and reactions.

Once I absorbed this, I soon stopped taking any bad beats and coolers, as well as bad runouts on turns and rivers, personally - even when it happens serially. Of course, I wasn’t just switched on like a tumbler, but the process was gradual, and quite fast.

In such unpleasant moments, I kept telling myself something like this: “This doesn’t depend on me, so I shouldn’t worry about it and drain energy here. I need to focus on what I can control - what I do and how I react.”

Subsequently, I pumped up the mental component much more strongly, which allowed me to seriously improve my win rate, but as a starting point, the setting written here fits very well.

Tip #5:
Stop projecting your thoughts process

Not every person thinks the same way as you.

This becomes extremely obvious, for example, when you discuss some hands with other poker players:

  • Starting with the fact that you perceive input data (statistics, etc.) differently,
  • Continuing with the fact that the very process of thinking and preferences in choosing game options differ,
  • And ending with the fact that you come to even more different conclusions than those that were at the end of the train of thought, because someone suddenly began to take into account (or drag in here) some previously unaccounted for data, or his conclusion was influenced by some other something infa (or even emotion).

They also often say that the opponent should supposedly play in such and such a way, “because all the regulars play that way,” or that it is customary and even obvious to play this way.

Although now you see for yourself that not everything is so simple. But why do people think that others will think like them?

There is a lot to talk about here, but this is a topic for several separate articles.

In poker, this is clearly seen in the fact that there are many styles of play. For example, a LAG and a nit will think in very different directions, which is why they have different manners with results. And an aggressive fish loses money in a completely different manner from a passive one. And hundreds of other examples.

Starting with the perception of information, continuing with values and inclinations, then with the course of thinking and, ultimately, with conclusions, which can also change.

Therefore, when you notice yourself thinking about how your opponent should act, just stop thinking for him. - No need. - Everyone plays poker for different reasons, for different purposes, in different styles, with different attitudes to risk, and so on. Consequently, it will be very difficult to guess how an opponent (even one of a similar class to yours) should think and, in fact, you are simply shotting in the dark.

Therefore, you should not assume how he should think, but build on his statistical indicators that you have in HUD (or on the tendencies of the average opponent, when there is no accurate information) - they will be a consequence of his thinking. I mean:

  • Bet sizes
  • Action frequencies,
  • Lines of play, etc.

Thinking can change due to tilt, new information or recalled strategy and/or mood, and the frequencies will be a reliable guide for playing against his average range.

It is advisable to think for your opponent if and only if he is very similar to you, both in general style and specific frequencies and lines of play. But, as you yourself understand, this will be extremely rare, and therefore you should not rely on such assumptions in any way (and even there will be some errors).

This is precisely why you see advice so often - not to look for logic in the actions of fish.

Tip #6:
The edges are here

I also learned this quite early. Although 18- or 19-year-old James did not really know how to formulate this thought, he clearly felt that he was getting better at poker the more he worked at it. And the lazier his opponents were, the greater the win rate he received from them.

While everyone else was only fixated on their 2 cards and how they hit a particular flop/turn/river, I already had a pretty good idea of the specific frequencies at which their likely ranges hit there (and by how much) or missed them. At the same time, my opponents almost didn't care about my ranges, and they just played their 2 cards.

I, seeing gaps in their ranges (or vice versa, strong hits), as well as their desire to continue the game, mercilessly crushed them with bluff 3-bets, barreling, floats, check-raises and other bluffing techniques where opponents most likely did not want to continue the hand, than hit strongly.

But when I realized that they hit well, I either immediately left the hand, or started betting on them for value.

In general, the fact that I trained well between sessions paid great dividends when playing against those who were not so interested

For example, when an overcard came out and my opponent's range sank even more, I only increased the pressure, knowing that my opponent would now most likely give up, both because he was now empty and because he was already afraid. Well, when I realized that he was already tired of this, and his range was now ready for payment, then I switched to another mode of winning money.

This is exactly how my edge over opponents was created - by investing effort, time and soul into training and training. This included (and continues to include) working on understanding mathematics such as general fold frequencies, specific situations for breaking opponents, double+ barreling and other things related to bluffs in poker.

Of course, money is not won by bluff alone. Value bets and calls with checks also required constant practice.

If at some point you feel disappointed that you can’t remember much during the actual game, then don’t worry. Everyone has a different ability to learn at the moment, and the more you practice, the sooner you will see how what you have learned pops up in the game by itself.

And if you understand that you are exactly applying what has been worked out, but the results do not please you, then remember that in addition to the thoughts of your opponents, the results are also greatly influenced by such a thing as dispersion. But, of course, make sure that you first work out what has the greatest impact on your win rate. As a rule, such situations should occur more often than others: preflop and flop.

Remember that no matter what your current results are, the more often and effectively you train, the better your results will be in the long term: be it a sharply increased overall win rate, or the destruction of your current rivals, or a move to a new stake where you can already stand up for yourself.

This article is made from 6 Things I Wish I Knew When LEARNING POKER video by Vladimir «ABIVPlus».

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