05/02/2006 11:00PM

Know your skill and financial level

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Newcomers to poker may be baffled that professional players and commentators frequently advise them that "table selection" is one of the most crucial factors in successfully playing the game. What could be so important about that? All you do is find a game you can afford, right?

It's not quite that simple. Table selection is an important concept because poker is a rare gambling game where you get to choose what level you want to play at - and in poker, the "level" itself has two levels of meaning.

The obvious one is the stakes of the game. In both online and card room games of hold 'em, table stakes are described by two numbers, which have different meanings depending on whether the game is limit or no-limit. In a $1-$2 limit game, the blinds are 50 cents and $1, and the bet levels are $1 on the first two rounds of betting before and after the flop and $2 on the final two rounds. In a $1-$2 no-limit game, the blinds are $1 and $2 and bets can range anywhere from $2 to as much money as a player has in front of him.

In this first limited sense, poker is like blackjack, which has both $1 minimum tables and $1,000 minimum tables, or horse racing, where you can bet as little as $1 to win or as much money as you can carry. Your choice so far is based solely on affordability, the size of your bankroll, and your comfort level with risk.

Where poker becomes different, however, is that your choice of financial level is also a choice of a skill level. In that sense, it is like playing in a chess or Scrabble tournament, where beginners play beginners and experts play experts.

This is very different from most forms of gambling, where it either doesn't matter who the other players are or where beginners must play experts. In blackjack, it doesn't matter whether the other players at the table are card-counting strategy masters or drunken tourists. All that counts are your cards and the dealer's cards. In horse racing, it's exactly the opposite: Whether you bet $1 or $10,000, you are competing in the same pool against players of all skill levels, and your success is measured entirely by how well you stack up against all the other players.

In poker, however, you only have to play against the nine other people at the table you choose. Imagine if in horse racing, you could choose to play against only people betting 10 cents a race or against only people betting $10,000. That would present a dilemma that is at the heart of the table-selection issue in poker. If you aimed low, the game would be easier, but how much money could you really make? This is why expert or professional poker players do not play in $1-$2 games. They didn't quit their jobs and move to Las Vegas in order to make $4 an hour.

Most would also say that they would play poorly in a such a low-level game. They would throw chips around recklessly just to stay interested, and play more hands and call more bets than they know they should. You not only need to play in a game you can afford and at which you can succeed, but one in which the money is sufficiently meaningful to you that you will play your best poker.

Many experts recommend that to withstand unlucky streaks and inevitable swings of randomness, a properly capitalized professional needs a bankroll of 300 to 500 times the big blind - $3,000 to $5,000 for the $10-$20 level, for example. This may seem unduly high to a casual player merely planning to spend an enjoyable evening or weekend of gambling, but is sound advice for someone trying to make a living from the game.

The biggest mistake that recreational players make is choosing too high a level for both their bankroll and skill. In any form of gambling, it is extremely difficult to play well with scared money. This is especially true in poker, which generally rewards aggression and punishes timidity. A conservative horseplayer can wait and pick his spots but a conservative poker player's very demeanor limits his opportunities. Someone who bets infrequently and cautiously will get little action because everyone will quickly figure out he only bets when he has strong cards.

Professionals need to move up as high as they can in order to maximize their effective salaries, but casual players can stop when they find a sweet spot - a game where they feel confident and comfortable. There's something to be said for trying to improve your game and your skills by playing in a challenging game, but there's even more to be said for finding the level where you're one of the three best players at the table instead of one of the three worst.