It's wise to specialize
When I'm facing a big life decision, I try to take a short break from my everyday routine. I find that the time away brings me a lot of clarity. After the PCA I needed to unplug for a while, so I took a ski holiday in France with my girlfriend and our three year-old son. It was the first time in years I went on a vacation that didn't involve playing a poker tournament. While I was up in the mountains I had an important decision to make about what I would focus on when I returned home and resumed playing online full-time. The more I considered the current state of the online poker, the more I realized how important it is to specialize.
Five years ago, if you were a talented player and put in the hours, you could master all the games. In the early days of my career I played mostly hold'em, but in several different formats. I was a good tournament player, but I could also play cash games. I was even pretty decent at sit-n-goes. Back then, the level of competition wasn't as tough and people could afford to experiment. Today, I see that successful players tend to specialize in one very particular area. Rather than jumping back and forth between cash games and tournaments, today's online pro is more likely to stick to one specific format--like 6-max cap tables or turbo sit-n-goes, or MTTs. Unless you're a super talent like Phil Ivey or Isildur, these days it's just too difficult and expensive to be an all-around player.
Even just looking at online cash games, so many formats are available and there are strategic adjustments to be made in each of them. When I was at the PCA this year, I stayed with a group of Russian players who specialize in playing cap tables--no-limit hold'em cash games with a maximum buy-in of 20 big blinds. We had several strategy discussions and I realized how different cap games are from the deep-stacked games that I'm used to. Even though it's the same rules, the same combinations, and some of the same concepts, it's really a whole other game.
For example, in a big-stacked NLHE cash game, most regulars will raise 35 to 40% of their hands when the action is folded to them in the small blind. In cap games, that figure is more like 75% and there are some players who will raise 100% of the time. When I found that out it totally baffled me. It completely changes the dynamic. If your opponent is raising 100% from the small blind, you will need to play differently from the big blind. And if you're raising 100% from the small blind, you're going to have to play differently on the flop. A player raising 30% of the time is usually going to have a good hand, but a player raising 100% of the time is mostly going to have air. It makes for a very different post-flop game.
Talking with these players and discovering how much time they put into mastering 20 big blind poker helped crystallize my thoughts. I realized how important it is now to pick one format and devote all your energy to become the very best at it instead of trying to succeed in a variety of different areas (deep-stacked cash, cap, 6-max, heads-up, SNGs, etc.) I believe it's the best way to make money in poker right now and it would be my biggest advice to anyone who is starting out or wants to try and play professionally. First of all, pick a game you like. That's the most important thing. Next, make sure there is enough action at the stakes you want to play. Once you've settled into a format and a limit you're comfortable with, your study hours away from the table will also be more streamlined because you'll be working within a strategic paradigm for one game, rather than jumping back and forth between different ones.
While I've been enjoying the mountains, I've thought a lot about what I'll specialize in myself. In my career I've played everything--tournaments and cash, 6-max no limit and mixed games. I was a winning player at most of those things, but as I prepare to return to a full-time grind, I plan on picking one and sticking to it. For me, it might be tournaments and it might be big-stacked NLHE cash games. And if I can't choose? I suppose I'll come home and flip a coin. However it falls, I'll let you know my decision in my next blog.
Ivan Demidov is a member of Team PokerStars Pro