Why You Struggle at Low Stakes Poker

In “celebration” of two years of playing for a living, if not exactly “professionally,” I am going to offer a reflection on the game. I’ve been thinking on the subject of those struggling to win, getting stuck (both ways) at 1/2 and feeling frustrated in general by poker. We’ve all been there, but some of us are in a holding pattern where we won’t quit but can’t seem to improve.

Low stakes purgatory.

How does one come to this state? What is this really about?  It’s probably not because you didn’t read the hot new book or didn’t latch on to the latest trend. Nor is it lack of inherent talent: no one was born to sit around trading plastic rectangles and disks with people they don’t like for hours, days, and years on end. Yes, it could be you have some glaring technical flaw holding you back, some giant pimple you’ve been ignoring, but if you know to read this boutique blog in the poker netherlands, it’s doubtful. Your poker mechanics are probably better than mine. You’re probably on a first name basis with Mr. Flopzilla. (Is it Chet? I can’t remember.)

Yet you can’t shake the bottom stakes. You’re even beginning to fear you never will. Your confidence is shot.

What’s going on? What exactly is your problem? Why does there seem to be no real help?

coin struggles

I have a few ideas. Now, I haven’t decided on the relative importance of the items in my list, but I might by the time I am done, or add on later. Some of them, in fact, will overlap. I do, however have something of a fun premise:

The Struggling Player Manages to be Wrong About Strategy in a Game Without a Right Strategy.

Let me explain. Poker is 99% unsolved. There are situations which can be demonstrated to have answers, and they are suggestive about how we should best play almost every other situation. That is basically it and the foundation of a great deal of very interesting, very complex thinking being done throughout the poker world. However, the Struggling (or even Failing) Player is stuck in his own ideas. He is in a hall of mirrors he has been building his whole life and now continues to do so in poker. He is a tail chaser and biter at heart. His strategy is stuck on itself. They say, wisely, that every man thinks he’s great at poker and sex. The cure is now to consider the likelihood of this, admit the truth, and then see the following items for which camp of misthinkers you may belong to:

  • You Think, Deep Down, Poker is Group Solitaire

There are many, many very frustrated players who have put a lot of time into the game. They may have even given a fair percentage of their life to it. These guys and gals know a lot of poker math, read a lot of poker books (Look at the wall of paperbacks! Mason should buy some better shirts.), watch a lot of poker programming, and even dream about cards. However, until Poker Armageddon comes, when the other 99% of poker is solved, and likely, few can execute a perfect equilibrium strategy, these players will never stand a chance because they are never really playing their opponents. Poker does not have a set of principles that if you skip you will always lose and if you follow you will sometimes win; it’s not a puzzle. At least these guys will always have a consolation: the thoughtful oasis of NVG. Here are some signs you, perhaps unknowingly, treat poker like Solitaire:

  1. You are constantly flabbergasted by what other players do.
  2. You think certain hands “deserve” to win.
  3. You think everyone is a fish.
  4. You feel the need to explain to people that you know what you are doing.
  5. You are careful to let us know that people “respect” your game. (In fact, you use the word “respect” quite a bit.)
  • You Never Got Over Playing Your Own Cards

column disapSeems so obvious, doesn’t it? That can’t be me! Nevertheless, this is a basic problem for just about every break even player I know- up to 5/10, so don’t feel ashamed. The underlying issue is that these guys don’t know it or have deliberately forgotten it out of bitterness or laziness or fear. They think because they’ve heard some folk advice or know the word “range” or bluffed out their brother in law at the family’s 1989 reunion, that they are dangerous and unpredictable. Here’s some clues that you are stuck on your own holdings, even if you can’t admit it; these are individually problems on their own, mind, but their root cause is a strategic misunderstanding and level one thinking:

  1. You worry a lot about action games, not getting action, or finding action.
  2. You worry a lot about getting big hands cracked.
  3. You wonder quite a bit about how to play certain repeated spots.
  4. You talk about “trouble hands.”
  5. You regularly feel lost by the turn and secretly wish everyone would fold to you- even with your best holdings.
  6. You talk about open shoving the flop, inexplicably and repeatedly.
  • You aren’t growing as a player

There is an adage that if you are not improving, you are getting worse. It’s true, but how do you necessarily know if you are improving or not? There are no grades in poker, no USTA rating, compliments at the table mean nothing, and the flow of money is not always correlative to excellence. After all, there was probably a time where you were killing it, and now you can’t figure out why history isn’t repeating itself. I can help you there, because those who study and participate and play but aren’t evolving often have, and are suffering from, Settled Ideas. This is a red flag for being stuck. Unless you are an established End Boss, in which case you can get away with the argument from authority, bad grammar, bad politics, bad facial hair, lame Tweets, and God knows what else, your side in poker conversations and in forums is marked by the following telltales of Settled Ideas:

  1. Your preferred lead in a comment is “I don’t mind…” No one cares what you find tolerable, pruneshoe. I can usually stop reading right there. (“I like” is another flag.) We care about reasoning or in a pinch, direct advice to a direct question.
  2. You use words like always and never. In a relational game, this can never be true. (Ha.)
  3. You tell people what to do, even nicely, as in “Please don’t…” When you have settled ideas, you want to affirm them by passing them on. You are a Poker Proselytizer, not a Poker Thinker.
  4. You always have an excuse for what you did.
  5. You ask for advice, take up everyone’s time, get some feedback… then you fight it.
  6. You post switcheroo hand histories to show commenters up and confirm your opinion.
  7. You post anything resembling a bad beat.
  8. You constantly write up anecdotal hands as part of arguments that prove nothing.
  9. You look desperately for help with your three buy-in swing.
  • You Let Others Do the Thinking For You

There is always a bit of a push and pull on poker books over in the forums. However, it’s quite the tempest in a teapot. Whether he read books, went to special poker summer camps, trolled the forums, or tried to buy his way through poker by seeing a coach, aka, poker therapist, the mark of the breakeven player is that when push really came to shove, there was some bit of advice, some formula, or some graph somewhere that told him what to do. Again, poker is not solved, it’s not solitaire, and you are a performer on the brightly lit stage. Know your lines – study and knowledge are important, naturally- but remember that the director doesn’t show up for opening night. Here are some signs this is a weakness for you:

  1. You have an adversarial yet obsessive relationship with poker writers and thinkers.
  2. You are very concerned that someone show you a winning graph before taking their advice or reading their book.
  3. You are a fanboy or fangirl of some poker dude or dudette but can’t really explain why.
  4. You find yourself jumping to conclusions extremely quickly and even completely changing your mind just as quickly.
  • The Mystery of Variance Befuddles You

I’ll end on a slightly more sober note. It is very difficult to quantify the potential swings of poker. Far better mathematical minds than mine exist, and even so, all that can be offered by them is models. What you don’t understand, and must, is that this is a good thing and necessary to the game. Moreover, here’s what we do know about people: the swings, or as we poker players have adopted incorrectly, albeit beautifully, the variance, of poker can be far more daunting than the brain is ready to handle. Poker is an immense challenge, and the gambling aspect of it may be just as difficult for you to wrestle with as the X’s and O’s. The break even player, in other words, may have a poor relationship with the Goddess. Here are some signs you are in this camp:

  1. disapYou are very concerned with win rates and less with edge. One is the past, the other, the future.
  2. You think about Bankroll but not Cash Flow. You have expectation problems.
  3. You’re obsessed with the “A” game, while blaming your problems on your “C” game, and so on, not seeing yourself as an organic poker playing whole, one with strengths and flaws that will tend to reveal themselves over and over again- until, perhaps, the day you embrace or confront them.

Best wishes to those who struggle.



  1. I am guilty of some of these, yet not as much anymore for some as well. So I guess that’s a sign of growth???

    At any rate, glad you’re back to writing.

    1. Cheers. And I have your next possible interview: JCW. True grinder, humble expert, “The Poker Eeyore,” and pound for pound forum posting champ. He will likely be in LV and then may be in LA when you are there again for LATB commentary, so you can make it happen.

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The OOP Lexicon is a user-developed poker glossary.

Absolute Position
Being last to act (e.g. closest to the button) postflop.

Advancing Leverage
Aggressive actions intended to shift the leverage point closer to the current street.

A bluff or value hand which is a natural candidate for balancing another hand because of their shared qualities, such as AA and AK; usually helps planning range splitting and line construction.

Auto profit threshold (APT)
A bluff made with positive expectation resulting from the opponent under defending vis-a-vis bet sizing. The inverse of MDF.

Choosing to support either value bets or bluffs with their converse.

A bet is a proposition.  It’s the first offer on the pot with regard to the outcome of the game. Each player, in turn, has the opportunity to lay or change the price on the pot to the rest of the players. “The language of poker.” The bet, as opposed to the raise, is most often and most easily allied to the merged pricing construction.

To remove combinations of hands from a range based on cards in your hand or on the board.

Cards which influence our combinatorial assumptions. Ex: We face resistance on T76ss while we hold As7d. Both our cards act as blockers. Our ace of spades blocks (limits) a number of flush draws our opponent could hold, while our seven blocks a number of two pair and sets our opponent could hold. *See also Block and Unblock

Blocker Bet
A small bet made by an out-of-position player.

Board Texture
The available community cards and the set of conditions which inform its relationship to a logical range.

The worst hands in a betting range.  Depending on context this could be the worst hand in a value bet range or the bluffing section of polarized range.

A range descriptor indicating a range shape with a specific high or low boundary.  A range bounded high won't contain some number of the best linear hands ranked from the top down.  This is equivalent to a "capped" range.  A range bounded low won't contain some number of the worst linear hands ranked from the bottom up.  This is often useful to describe a range that doesn't include any air or very weak hands.

A strategic mode in which a player is attempting to deny their opponent(s) equity share of the pot through aggression. Often referred to as “denying equity” or “buying up equity”.

A range is capped when it represents little to no nutted combinations as confirmed by prior action.

A continuation bet. A bet made by the player with initiative as a continuation of their initiative on a prior street.

The ability to accurately range an opponent based on all available information at a decision point.  An understanding of your hands exact equity.

Closing Action
Acting last where no subsequent action is possible behind you.  For example calling a UTG raise in the BB or calling in position postflop with no players behind.

Cold Call/Cold Bet
An action is considered “cold” when it comes from a player entering into the pot has not previously put chips voluntarily in the pot. Ex: the UTG opens, the BTN 3bets. If the SB were to call or raise, it would be a cold-call or a cold-4bet.

The branch of mathematics the deals with finite number sets. Used in poker in determining the amount of combinations of certain hands in a range.

When a blind that is not the biggest blind calls the amount of the biggest blind. Ex: At $2/$5, action folds around to the SB and the SB completes. Meaning they just call. The BB can complete when there is a straddle.

A capped range that contains only middling value hands. A range without the polarized portion.

Logical advancement of combinations across streets.

Dark Side of the Deck
The large swath of hands, often off-suit, that fall outside of conventional playable recommendations. Counter-equity hands.

Dead Money
Money in the pot that is not being fought for.  A passive player creates dead money when they call a bet preflop and looking to play fit-or-fold postflop. Dead Money is often confused with the money in the pot.

Delayed Cbet
A cbet made on the turn by the preflop raiser when the flop checked through.

Delaying Leverage
Passive actions intended to maintain a likely late street leverage point, or possibly to avoid a leverage point entirely.

A strategic break from one’s standard construction as an exploit of a particular player’s profile or construction.

Diminishing Medium Value Category
A Seidman concept in which when one’s middling value hand range is too small and transparent to our opponent and thus either that range should be shifted into the top of a polarized range or the nutted portion should be shifted into the medium value range. Ex: AQo or TT being 3bet preflop.

A cbet that is less than the preflop raise. Ex: BTN opens to $25, we 3bet to $90 from the SB, BTN calls. On the flop we cbet $70.

Dry Board
A board texture that yields relatively few logical hands value. Often containing one medium or high card and disconnected low cards. Ex: Q53r, T622r.

Dual Mentalities
A Seidman concept in which when we decide to go postflop with a weak hand against a nutted range, we should either be looking to out flop it or steal the pot away. We base our decision against the player type we are up against and never go post with both mentalities at once.

Dynamic Board
A flop texture in which the runout is very likely to change the order of top ranking hands. Ex: 954tt, 742r.

Effective Stack
The smallest stack to VPIP in a given hand. Their stack decides the amount of money that can be played for or threatened before an all-in.

Effective nuts
A value hand that can be played for stacks as if it were the actual nuts.  This is a relative hand ranking based on range assumptions and opponent type.

A measure of how well the equity of a hand is deployed. Efficiency can also be used as a measure of what is risked vs what is gained for a given bet size.

Either/Or Philosophy
A Seidman concept in which a particular street can be a very good spot for value, meaning our opponent is never folding, or a very good spot to bluff, meaning our opponent is never calling, but that those spots cannot be concurrent.

Borrowed from economics, a measure of the sensitivity of a range or hand relative to the price offered.  Ranges (or hands) described as elastic will narrow, sometimes quickly, in response to increases in price.  Those described as inelastic will not.

The percent pot share of a holding or range on any given street if the hand were to go to showdown with no further betting action.

Equity Pusher
A analytic approach to the game in which a player views the correct actions only through the lens of their hands equity vs. their opponent’s range. Often this player type has a lack of understanding of overall strategy and plays their range face up with few bluffs.

Expected Value
The mathematical formula for how much a player’s action is expected to make with their hand vs. their opponent’s range. EV = ($towin * %ofwin) - ($tolose * %ofloss)

Face Up
A player is playing their range “face up” when their actions directly correspond with their desired outcome. Ex: A player bets half-pot three streets with a range that has no bluffs. A player 3bets to 7x with JJ.

False Polarization
Otherwise known as Faux-Po; a polarizing action taken with a merged range.

The result of losing your entire table stakes. All the way down to the felt.

A call of a cbet with a weak holding with the likely intention of taking the pot away when the opponent shuts down. Often done by an in position preflop caller.

The convergence of positions, stack depths, and preceding actions at a given decision point.

A mathematical formula developed by Phil Galfond for calculating the expected value of one’s range construction vs. an opponent’s holding.

A computer programming term that means "garbage in, garbage out" which also applies to poker forums when a poster seeks an in-depth conversation about a hand, but fail to provide pertinent information such as stack sizes, bets sizes, table dynamics and player tendencies.

Game Theory
The applied science of combining mathematical models with logic to craft winning poker strategies.

Game Theory Optimal
A set of strategies is GTO if no player can unilaterally deviate and increase his average profit. ~ Will Tipton.  GTO does not mean best possible response, highest EV, or maximally exploitative play.

Implied Odds
Additional value likely to be accrued if you make your hand on a later street.

Sometimes referred to as the betting lead, a common situation in which the passive player yields to the aggressive player postflop, or the last aggressor continues betting on subsequent streets.

A bet or raise intended to force out the rest of the field in order to play heads up against a weaker opponent who has entered the pot through limping, raising, or posting the blinds.

Loose aggressive player type. Generally overused and inaccurate.

A bet made from out of position after a passive action. Often referred to as a donk bet on the flop.

He knows that I know that he knows I know.

A bet or raise that signals the hand will be played for stacks.  Within reason, it is accomplished by betting with a sizing that will create RSP equal to 1 on the following street.

Limp First In

A consecutive range of hands decreasing in strength from top to bottom; generally meaning value hands. Equivalent to "merged."

Lockdown Board
A board on which the nuts have often already been made.  More prevalent in PLO but sometimes useful in no-limit, for example on monotone flops and boards with available common straights e.g. JT9, T98, 987, etc.

1) A range of hands that includes both strong and medium value; 2) in reference to medium value; 3) the merged construction describes the natural representation of a wide range through a bet.

Mini Stop-N-Go
A Seidman concept, a line taken by a OOP PFR where flop is check/called and turn is lead.

Minimum Defense Frequency (MDF)
The necessary defending (calling/raising) frequency to prevent an opponent from auto-profiting.  The inverse of APT.

Natural Action
A check, bet, or raise which is exactly suited to a player's range and situation (e.g. a pfr's continuation bet on AK2r).

A player who will not put chips into the pot without a very strong and sometimes only nutted hand.

The best possible hand.

Nuts-To-Air Ratio (NAR)
In a polarized betting line, the ratio of value to bluff.  As used by Seidman, not limited to polarization but sometimes used to label general opponent tendency of value to bluff.

Old Man Coffee. Typically an older, retired player that likes to play bingo with ATC, but will only continue with the nuts.

The first voluntary action. The first action or bet to voluntarily enter the pot.

A bet that is more than the size of the pot.

Perceived Range
Refers to the range of hands that your opponent thinks you could have in a certain playing situation. This can be interpreted and thus misinterpreted from your playing style and position at the table.

A range consisting of very strong and very weak hands.

Post Oak Bluff
A small bluff on a late street that has little chance of winning the pot.  Generally interpreted as “gutless” in the past but now fulfilling certain functions as betting efficiencies are understood.

Positional Protection
When the strength of a range is perceived to be capped or uncapped based on which position an action is taken from.

When an action or player is perceived to have strong hands in its range.

Protection Bet
A wager which denies equity to hands which will only give action if they significantly improve; "a value bet which does not want a call."

The rejection of the offered price and the laying of a new higher price.  Raises represent a more narrow range of hands and trend towards polarization.

Range Advantage
Implementation or study tool that refers to 1) most basically, equity measurement of one range against another; 2) or also including a combination of further factors including availability of nutted hands, the nuances of the runout, and positional protection.

Range Manipulation
Deliberate line work/bet sizing made to narrow a range or keep a range wide.

Range Switch
A deliberate change in range composition made to thwart a player who is reading our range too accurately in any spot.  Reduces transparency, fights assumptions, and wins the leveling war if implemented correctly.

Ratio of Stack To Pot
RSP. The stack to pot ratio at any point in a hand, generally used post-flop as opposed to Stack to Pot Ratio.

Taking a hand to showdown and realizing its full equity.  Generally used with regard to passive actions.

The mutual exchange of chips resulting from similar play and ideas.  Reciprocity is a common bi-product of group-think.  A true edge by definition cannot be reciprocal.

Relative Position
A player’s position measured against the aggressor's position.  Generally this is used going to the flop.  For example, if UTG raises and several players call behind, calling in the big blind would give you the best relative position.  You will act after seeing how the field responds to a likely continuation from the preflop aggressor.  In the same scenario calling immediately after the preflop aggressor results in the worst relative position.  You will have to act immediately after a continuation without seeing how the remaining players will respond.  Strong relative position confers an information edge.

The ability of hand to maintain equity across streets against a betting range or as part of a betting range.

Reverse Implied Odds (RIO)
Hands that often win small pots or lose large pots suffer from reverse implied odds.

Popularized by Mathew Janda, a descriptor for how well a hand retains equity over streets of play.  Hands described as robust have equity that does not suffer as an opponent's range becomes stronger.  Often these hands are currently both strong and invulnerable, or have the ability to become very strong by the river, relative to the opponent's range.

Fourth and Fifth Street cards following a given flop texture.

Scale of Protection
Poker theorem which states that the more protected or strong an opponent's range is, the higher the degree of denial or retention a counter will require.

Sklansky Bucks
Dollars won (or lost) in expected value regardless of actual hand result.

Any one of many possible poker archetypes found at low stakes games.

A reraise made after a player has raised and one or more players has called in-between.

Static Board
A flop texture in which the runout is unlikely to change the order of top ranking hands. Ex: AK7r, KK4r.

A passive action followed by an aggressive action, out of position.  For example, a call followed by a lead on the next street.

Streets of Value
A crude shorthand measurement for how much betting a hand can tolerate and still be best at showdown more often than not.

Tight aggressive opponent type. Generally overused and misapplied.

TAG's Dilemma
The paradox created by having a top-heavy range played so aggressively that it misuses equity vis-à-vis position and holding.

The Great Range Fantasy
The common idea that we know our opponent’s range and frequencies precisely; most commonly seen in post-hoc analysis to justify microedge decisions.

Thin Value
A bet that is only slightly more likely to be called by worse than by better. Associated with the merged pricing construction and bet-fold lines.

Three Fundamentals
The most fundamental variables for decision making: position, stack size, and community cards.

The best hands in a given range.

Two-Way Bet
A bet that expects calls from worse hands and incorrect folds at the same time, a simultaneous value bet and bluff line.

The psychological effect of feeling like you’re losing because your stack size isn’t as large as it once was during a session, even though it’s more than what you’re in the game for.

(e.g. You bought in for $100, ran it up $450, but now only have $175 in front of you.)

A hand that has no negative card removal effects on the target range.  Bottom set, for example, unblocks top pair top kicker.

A range that is perceived to contain the nuts in any given line.  Capped ranges may become uncapped during transitions for example from preflop to flop, or flop to turn.

A turned nut straight after raising flop with a gutter.

Value Owning
Making value bets with a hand that has less than 50% equity when called.

Voluntarily Put Money In Pot (VPIP)
The frequency at which a player limps, calls, or raises preflop.

Volatile Board
A flop texture where equities will often shift on the turn and river.  See “dynamic”.

An illusory cooler where one player makes a massive mistake equity mistake and loses his stack with a strong but second best hand; also known as a Jam Basket.

Wet Board
A board texture that allows for a lot of logical hands to continue. Often made up of medium rank connected cards. Ex: KT9tt, Tc8c6s-7c-Ac.

“Walk In, Fuck Shit Up, Walk Out” a hashtag used by instagram poker players.

Winning Player
A forum poster who offers reciprocal advice under the guise of questionable positive low stakes results. A weak player or fish, in general.

Young Man Coffee. Is very much an OMC, but younger.  They usually only continue with the nuts, often under the illusion of playing a GTO style.