There’s a famous story about the great poker player and poker Hall of Fame member Eric Drache. At one time he was ranked the eighth-best poker player in the world. But he was often broke because he always played with the seven players who were better than him.  

The story may be apocryphal. But even if it is, it’s a powerful testament to the importance of game selection.

Unlike all other casino games, poker is played against other players, not against the house. The profit of a winning player comes from the difference between his skill and the average skill level of those whom he is playing..

In that sense, the skill of finding bad players is at least as important as the technical skills of being a good player.

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Just How Important is Game Selection?

Most players give little if any consideration to the quality of the game they are entering. They arrive at a poker room; they go to the brush; they are assigned a seat in their chosen game. There they remain for the entirety of their session. What a wasted opportunity!

To be fair, some players have little if any opportunity to practice game selection. For those of you who play in a regular home game or in a public poker room with only one table going of your game, you really have very little choice in what table you sit at (unless you are open to the idea of going to a different place for your poker game). But many of us do have a choice.

We arrive at a poker room with many tables in action. We sometimes have a choice of tables. And while we may be directed into our first game, we retain the right to change games as the night proceeds.

We must view our ability to choose a table or move to a table as an invitation to make money.

Five principles should guide us in our search for the best table for making money.   

Here’s a list of with a brief explanation of how to apply them.

1. There Must Be Money on the Table 

Willie Sutton was a famous 20th Century bank robber. Considering his dubious profession, he was quite articulate, but the press loved him because of his quick wit and candour. When asked, why he robbed banks? “Because that’s where the money is” he quickly answered.

The same is true with playing poker. We want to go where the money is. If we’re seated with six short-stacked nits, all playing with $1 chips, we’re not going to make any money even if we’re the best player in the world – because there’s relatively no money to be won. So, we must avoid games filled with short stacks.

2. Money Flows From the Less to More Skilled

This scenario doesn’t happen every hand, of course. Luck plays a significant role in short term poker results. Even so, overtime, weak players are going to lose money to good players.  

Accordingly, you must seek out games with mediocre poor players. Your first task will be recognizing who they are.

3. Looseness Is a Good Player’s Favorite Opponent Trait 

Many players think that you can’t win money in a game where everyone is loose or otherwise unskilled. If your opponents call everything, then the game becomes just a question of who is dealt the best cards. This thinking could not be more wrong! The exact opposite is true.

Loose opponents are your favorite opponents – and represent your best opportunity for making money. So, you must seek them out., which is easy to do. Watch a table for even a few hands, and you will see how many players typically stay for each round of betting.   

As a rule of thumb, working backwards, you want to sit in games that have at least three players on the turn and river, and four or more seeing the flop and the turn. If you watch a game and players typically concede before the flop – or at best is a heads-up contest from the flop onward – you want to wait for a better game.  

If you must take a seat in that game, do so but with an immediate eye to transferring elsewhere.

4. Opponent Passivity Is Better Than Aggression 

A great player will win money from players of every type. He will know precisely how to exploit whatever styles of play he encounters. But few of us are experts. For the rest of us, we want a game where we can be the most aggressive and active player.   

We don’t want to be continuously forced to make difficult decisions based on our opponent’s aggression. As with looseness, a brief observation of a game will show us how generally aggressive or passive it is.   

Do players tend to call pre-flop? Are 3-bets unusual? Is it common for players to check the flop and turn? If so, the game will probably be a much better place to play than one where everyone generally raises or folds.

5. Drinking And Gambling Equals Losing Opponents

Players who drink when they play are sometimes competent poker players. The same can be said for those who bet on other things – like keno, horse racing, sports, or table games. But generally, if they are either drinking or betting games or making wagers in games stacked against the player, they then are not the type of serious poker player who will be our toughest opponent.   

You can spot gamblers and drinkers fairly easily. Drinkers will have alcoholic beverages in front of them; gamblers will be actively gambling while they are playing poker. Look for them and tend to go where they are playing.

On the other hand, if you see a table where everyone has either bottled water or coffee, and no one is watching the simulcast racing feeds or sending off keno slips, or slipping away every hour or so to shoot some craps, then avoid that game.

One Final Note On Game Selection

The quality of a game tends to change over time. Good games can get worse, as the bad players lose their money and are replaced by good players who noticed how profitable the game was and want to move over.   

Similarly, bad games tend to get better, as the good players leave to seek out greener pastures and are replaced by bad players who don’t pay attention to the quality of the game they enter.   

Be mindful of this as well – lest you leave a game that was bad for a long time but is now actually getting to be pretty good.

Ashley Adams has been playing profitable casino poker since 1993 and writing about it since 2000. He is the author of over 1,000 poker articles and three poker strategy books Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003), Winning No Limit Hold'em (Lighthouse 2012), and most recently Winning Poker in 30 Minutes a Day (D&B Poker, 2020).  He is also the host of poker radio show House of Cards.