The Importance of Table Selection
by Jason Kirk  

Lots of players pick up the basics of poker within a relatively short amount of time. After all, there really aren't too many variables to consider when trying to figure out the mechanics of the game. A relatively intelligent person can pick memorize starting hand strategy and learn how to manipulate position pretty quickly. If that was all it took to become a successful poker player, the world would be full of unbeatable games where the only winner was the card room that took the rake as players shuffled chips back and forth among themselves. If you've mastered the basics but still aren't winning as much as you think you should, you probably haven't honed your table selection skills. Good table selection can be the biggest difference between a break-even player and a winning player. That's a pretty simple statement that encompasses a lot of factors, so let's take a closer look at what makes for good table selection.

In the absence of information about any of the players at a particular table, the information that most online card rooms provide about the tables is the best place to start. First you'll want to take note of the number of hands dealt per hour. This is a great measure of how fast the action is; the faster the game, the more money you can potentially make per hour. The next number of importance is the percentage of players seeing the flop. When this number gets close or surpasses 40%, you're probably looking at a game that's just too loose to guarantee that you can make money consistently. Anything less than 30%, and the game is probably too tight. Finally, you'll want to see what the average pot at the table has been lately. The best way to measure this is to break the dollar amount down into the number of big bets (BB), e.g. in a 5-10 limit hold'em game, an average pot of $40 is equal to 4 BB. The more BB per pot, the more you'll end up making every time you hold the winning hand.

It's important to note that a higher average pot doesn't always mean a better table. The key here is the relationship between the average pot and the number of players seeing the flop. Imagine, for instance, that you have two 1-2 tables available to you at your favorite online card room that look like this:

Table 1: 10 players, 38% seeing the flop, average pot is $20
Table 2: 10 players, 33% seeing the flop, average pot is $13

At first glance, Table 1 appears to be the best because of the $20 average pot. In reality, Table 2 is probably the better table to play at. To understand why, consider how the pot gets built in the first place.

At Table 1, there are usually 4 players seeing every flop. If they all limp in, that's a $4 preflop pot. Assume that two players connect with the flop, and one bets out only to be raised by the second player. The first player calls, making the pot $8 total. On the turn the price of poker goes up, so when the first player bets out and the second calls the total of the pot is now $12. Finally, on the river the first player bets out and the second player raises him. If the second player calls and shows his hand down, your total pot is $20.

At Table 2, there are usually only three players seeing the flop. Again assuming that all limp in, we've got a $3 preflop pot. If two of the three connect with the flop and neither raises, we've now got $5 in the pot. On the turn, when the bigger bets come around, the first player bets and the second player calls to make the pot $9 total. On the river they both do the same, making the pot $13 at showdown.

Notice how much more passive Table 2 is - there's little, if any, raising, and players are willing to call down. When someone raises at this table, you know they mean business. If you want to make easy money, this is the table where you want to play the majority of your poker. Aggressive games build bigger pots, but they also draw more people into every flop, especially at the lower levels where people will play any two cards. Passive games are easier to milk money from with even mildly aggressive play, and the opponents there tend to be much easier to read.

It's worth a little extra time studying the tables available to you before sitting down to play. After all, it's your own money you're putting at risk every time you play a hand. Investors always study the companies they buy stock in, and you should always study the tables you play. Your bottom line will thank you for it.

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