Cash Poker: Goal Setting to Achieve Long Term Success

Your ultimate and continuous goal when playing any form of poker is to be a successful, winning poker player over a large sample of hands or tournaments. In a cash game, the best way to achieve this goal is to focus on 3 specific parts of the game. We must remember that profitability in a single session isn’t always guaranteed, and neither is long term success.  To become a profitable player overall, you must have specific hand, session, and off-table orientated goals that you must be mindful of when playing.

There are three main parts of the game when playing cash to consider that will help you achieve the ultimate poker goal. Each of these sections will overlap and influence one and other. When playing cash poker, we should be mindful of different poker aspects in the following situations: in a specific hand, in the overall session, and then how to act off of the table to achieve long term success.

Let us first talk about your hand specific goals:

Goals in a Specific Hand

To play cash poker profitably in a single hand, you must consider each new hand independently of the last. This means your goal in a specific hand is one of the easiest to focus on when playing. Your goal in a specific hand should be to focus on playing the situation objectively in the most profitable way by selecting the action with the biggest profitability in the long-term. You should always play the game to your strategy and treat each hand as though it were played in a vacuum when you have no further information on the player you are in a hand with. This is the fundamental concept behind a GTO strategy. How you can change what you do in a hand based on extra information available will be part of your session goals.

Cash and tournament strategies will differ from each other in each specific hand. We use poker solvers to help us understand what the most successful long-term strategy in a hand would be. Fortunately, in a cash game hand there are no other external factors to consider such as ICM, blind level progression and the huge variety of stack sizes on the table. These other factors may change the way we play a specific hand.

In a solver, different actions in a hand are assigned an Expected Value (EV). Expected value can be defined as how many Big Blinds (BB) you will make in a hand on average if you make a specific action (bet, check, raise, etc.) as part of the overall strategy if the hand was played out infinite times from that point. If we go back to our long-term cash goal, this means we need to always be making the plays that have the highest EV, as in cash there are no other factors that should influence our decision.

In a tournament when there is great importance in mitigating variance, understanding ICM requirements and preserving chips, you will have to play differently. This may mean using a smaller bet sizing or a lower betting frequency to maximise the potential for profit in a tournament by increasing the frequency that you make the final table, a pay jump etc. But you are sacrificing long-term gains in terms of BB acquired in a situation.  This cautious and variance-reducing strategy is great in a tournament but will cause your overall profitability in a cash game to suffer.

So, while it may sound obvious, it’s worth reiterating: In a cash game, we are playing each situation to make the highest possible EV decision. We are assuming that we will be in that situation an infinite number of times in the future, and we don’t care about variance. Hence why bankroll management is so important.

Goals in a Poker Session

Your goals in a poker session are identical to your goals in a specific hand, however there are some extra elements to take into consideration that will influence the profitability of each hand, the profitability of your session and therefore your long-term profitability.

The first important alteration to make to your strategy is how you adjust to players on the table, the second is to really focus on your mental game and understand when to leave the table. We’ll talk about adjusting to players first:

Adjusting to Players

In GTO poker, one of the best strategies to help you achieve the goal of long-term profitability, you must treat each hand independently from the last and not adjust to the way that any of your opponents play. When you start playing against solid opponents, you will find yourself being unable to exploit them as they are too balanced. However, one of the ways you can make some extra BB in a session, particularly in live cash or at the lower online stakes, is to look for exploits that you can make against the specific players on your table.

Therefore, one of the goals for a session is to stay alert and note down what different players are doing on the table. Are players being too aggressive or too passive? Are players calling you too light or not light enough?

By asking these questions at the poker table, you can start altering your game plan deviating from a GTO strategy and start playing your specific hands more profitably with a greater edge.

Mental Game

One of the most underrated areas of the game that will affect your winrate the most is your mental game. The two most important parts of the mental game to consider in your poker session are: Tilt and Focus/Confidence

Tilt in poker comes in many forms but objectively I would describe tilt as: “A state of mind and subsequent change in strategy that is significancy lower in expected value. It has occurred because of an outcome of a hand or actions that have occurred on the table.” The terrifying thing with tilt, is that you can be tilted, and you don’t even realise that you are playing differently. Therefore, it is vital you pay attention to yourself and remove yourself from the situation the second you notice you are on tilt- even pre-emptively removing yourself after losing a big hand. There is no cure for tilt except for time. One of the worst things you can do for your hand, session, and long-term winrate is to continue playing hands when you are on tilt.

Your Focus in a game is how I would describe the way that you are playing. Confidence is also a term I use to describe focus; it means how sure you are that you are making profitable decisions at the table. Are you second guessing your decisions frequently? Are you getting unhappy with the way you are playing certain hands? Confidence on the poker table can be affected for several reasons when you are at a poker table: bad luck, a lack of favourable post-flop outcomes, lack of study. It can also be affected by factors outside of the table: Sleep, nutrition, hydration, that meeting you have in half an hour. When playing poker, the best way to ensure long term success is by ensuring that you are playing each session with your brain working at full capacity.

Confidence can also swing the other way; you start to lose focus in a hand or make some significantly worse decisions because you have become over-confident. Now you have been winning several hands in a row or you have been running particularly well with some great variance. Now you have stopped playing each hand objectively based on the information available. This style of play is very difficult to control, it takes a great deal of self-discipline to stop yourself from getting carried away.

To achieve your long-term poker goals, your session specific goals are therefore to ensure you are collecting as much valid information on your opponents as you can, and then to control your emotional state to the best of your ability.

Off Table Goals and Long Term Goals

To keep you motivated when playing poker, you can set yourself some more easily attainable long to mid-term goals that you can start working towards for when you are on the table. Goals such as moving from the stake you play currently to a higher stake or noticing when you are playing poorly and leaving the table at the correct time in the session.

This goal setting keeps you motivated, and this motivation makes it more likely you will stick to your game-plan in a hand and focus on each session. Achieving these goals help you with your confidence and focus moving forward and are great for your mental game.  I would avoid setting specific financial goals, especially with a time limit.  These can have disastrous effects on your session or hand orientated goals if you fail to achieve them.

To see success in your cash poker career in the long run, you must be aiming towards the goals we set ourselves in each specific hand and your current session. You can make several steps when you are away from the table to make you achieve these goals more regularly. By getting better at the way you play your specific hands and improving your mental capability, you will increase the chance for success in these areas and therefore improve your long-term success.

Your goal when off the table is to improve playing specific hands and increase you confidence/focus while playing. This can be achieved by studying the game. Part of succeeding in your long-term goal is going to be achieved by studying away from the table. By studying a wide variety of poker situations, you will be more likely to make the positive EV actions in your specific poker hands. As a result of this, you will be less likely to become tilted and you will be more confident with the plays you are making at the table (as you will be sure you are making the right play!)

You can then do some work improving your mental game away from the table too, brushing up on some of your poker math, practicing calculating outs or even taking a break to come back refreshed can help you succeed in the long run.

Summary

To be a successful poker player you need to have specific hand, session, and long-term orientated goals. These goals all feed-into and support one another, the actions you take off the table to improve your long-term goals are the same ones that help you in specific situations and therefore also in your sessions. Things you do in a specific hand help you in the session and long run etc.

Your targets in for the different aspects of Texas hold’em should be as follows:

  • Individual Hand
    • Objective Decision
    • Plays that are the highest EV in the long run
    • Use good information collected over the session
  • Session Goals
    • Collect Information to help you in individual hands against opponents
    • Be mindful of your tilt levels
    • Monitor your focus/confidence
  • Long Term Goals
    • Set an achievable goal for yourself, such as moving up a stake
    • Become a profitable player by studying
    • Manage how you do in a session with mental exercises

 

Jacob Topley AKA Toppers1020


About The Author

Jacob Topley is a professional poker player, coach, and writer. He spends his time split evenly between playing live and online poker alongside his coaching. Jacob has been teaching students to play and beat since the end of 2020. You can find more information about Jacobs coaching and read some more of his articles on his website www.jacobtopley.com alternatively follow his Instagram @Jtoppers1020

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