The Online Poker Pro Mindset: They’re Just Boxes, But I Love Them

  • Some people have seemingly mundane jobs, but are passionate about them
  • Online poker pros focus on long-term edge and ROI, not single, big scores
  • Most online poker pros forget hands shortly after they are over
  • Lower buy-in games with a higher expected ROI are preferred
Striped cat sleeping in a box
To Dara O’Kearney, the life of an online poker pro is about loving the boxes you follow on the screen. [Image:]

Cardboard joy

Over 30 years ago, as we were getting used to the fact that we were somehow married to each other, myself and Mrs. Doke were watching the BBC one night. It must have been a pretty slow night, because we ended up watching a guy wax lyrical about his line of work. Human passion takes many shapes and forms, none more incongruous than a 50-year-old man with a strong Brummie accent talking at length about the box industry. He worked in a box factory somewhere in the English Midlands, something he had done for his entire adult life, something which not only made him inordinately proud but seemed to define him.

incredibly optimistic about its future

On the subject of boxes, it is difficult to imagine a more definitive expert. He could talk at great length about industry trends and regulation. He was at once aware of the threats the industry had to face, and incredibly optimistic about its future. It wasn’t clear if he had a wife or kids (if he had, it seemed they were not worthy of cutting into time he could spend talking about boxes), but if there were junior versions of him running around somewhere, he seemed confident they would grow up in a world as box friendly as the one he had enjoyed.

Other glamorous professions

Now, I have friends who have jobs and careers that when I say to other friends I know them, they get excited. A couple of novelists, a few models, an actor or two, a few poker players, some journalists, a politician or two, a variety of musicians and producers, a few artists, a couple of inventors, and even a rock star. Yet none of these friends has ever given me the impression they get anything like the same amount of satisfaction from their careers as the Brummie boxmaker.

Maybe it’s just that the sort of people who feel the need to become models or rock stars are harder to please and therefore will never be fully satisfied, but I felt there was still something to admire about someone who was able to dedicate their lives to something as mundane as boxes and actually love it.

Mrs. Doke had a more jaundiced attitude. With more than a soupcon of Gallic disdain, she offered the opinion that this guy pretty much reenforced the stereotype French people have of the English as dull and uninspired.

The highs of victory

I thought of this recently after a friend asked me how I was able to go back to grinding the small online games that are my staple after a big online score. He wondered how on Earth I was able to give games where the first prize was a fraction of my bigger live buy-ins my full effort. By way of response, I tried to explain how the way I (and most but not all other MTT pros) look at these things.

I don’t think of them as tournaments: they are just boxes on the screen.

Recreational players look at first prizes and big scores, but we focus on long term edges and ROIs. My screens are like real estate that I try to fill with 12 boxes at all times. I don’t think of them as tournaments: they are just boxes on the screen. I give each box the same amount of attention without being aware of whether it’s a $1k Sunday major box or a $10 rebuy. Each box presents me with 100 or so decisions per hour, and when it beeps to demand my attention, I look at my cards, my position, the relevant stacks including my own, and the stats of the players still in the hand. Then I decide which button to click.

Notice that I generally don’t bother to look at the title bar to see what the tournament is. I sometimes do, when the decision is close, and depends on how tight or loose I think I should be playing at this point in this game, or whether I want to increase or lower variance. But generally not: 99% plus of my decisions are going to be the same no matter what the game is.

How could you call?

Sometimes at live events, recreational players approach me to ask about a hand I played against them. It’s generally one where I either sucked out on them (which I do a lot) or one they think I butchered (a lot of that going on too). When I hear the phrase “Do you remember this hand….” I have to bite my tongue not to say “Not a hope” and listen on the off chance that this is one of the rare hands I do remember.

I don’t look at avatars or even screennames

But most of the time, it’s a hand where I made a standard (for me at least) decision, then looked away to the next box bleeping for my attention. If I shoved, I generally don’t know if I got called unless that box just disappears from my screen (in which case I know I was called and lost, and it’s time to click the lobby for a replacement box), or I happen to notice next time it bleeps that I have more chips. If you shove and I call, same thing, and I probably won’t even know who you were and what cards you turned over, because I don’t look at avatars or even screennames, I look at HUD stats and stack sizes. Yes folks, you are all just a bunch of HUD stats and stack sizes to me.

Which boxes are worth it?

When I am deciding which boxes to fill my screen with, first prize money doesn’t even come into it. What does is how soft I think the game will be, how long it will last (at the start of my session, I’m looking for games with good long structures. By the end, I just want a few hypers to fill my screen while I wait for my other boxes to disappear).

It’s a decision based primarily on perceived edge, believed ROI, and variance. If it’s a tossup between a $1k game where I think I only have a 2% edge and a $10 game where my long term ROI is 200%, which means my expectation in both games is about 20 bucks, then I will play the $10 game every time. It doesn’t matter if first prize in the $1k game is 100 grand and first in the $10 freezeout only pays $500. I know that in the long term I will average 20 bucks in profit every time I play either game, but my variance and risk of ruin is much lower if I stick to $10 games.

it’s much more important to focus on the long term

I won’t deny that it does feel good when you realize $85k of equity in one fell swoop in a Super Tuesday chop. It feels good to win a Major. It feels good to win a $50 rebuy or a $20 rebuy. In fact, it feels good to win any tournament, but it’s much more important to focus on the long term. Assuming I play enough volume, in the long term I will make the amount I am supposed to make, based on how many boxes I play, and how much my expectation per box is. So I concentrate on trying to choose the best (most profitable) boxes, and making the best decisions I can make in each box.

Spoiler alert: there’s no Santa Claus

Whenever I explain this outlook to people who play for fun (or the dream of the big score), I end up feeling like the kid telling the other kids there is no Santa Claus. There’s no doubt that the perspective that looks at poker as the chance to play big games, get big scores, pull big bluffs and make audacious plays is much more exciting than the one I just described. But like most jobs that appear glamorous from the outside, professional poker is considerably less glamorous when you start doing it. The people who last are the people who can adjust to this, take on and embrace “the grind,” and replace the Get Rich Quick mentality that draws so many to poker with a Get Rich Slow one (or a Make a Methodical Living one).

I love what I do, even if most people think we’d have to be mad to

In a sense, I have gradually become the Brummie boxmaker. My boxes are on screens and they require me to click buttons, but still, they are just boxes. Boxes I am looking to make me $10 an hour in the long run, not 85 grand once in a blue moon. Sometimes when I get through explaining this, friends express sympathy that my life is so small and my career so mundane. But there’s no need to feel sorry for me. Like the Brummie boxmaker, I love what I do, even if most people think we’d have to be mad to.

No, if you must dole out sympathy, spare it for Mrs. Doke. She thought she had married an exciting enigmatic Irishman who would travel the world with her, do mad things like run for 24 hours non-stop, spawn wonderfully unique individuals, and introduce her to exciting artistic people. We did all those things together, but at the end of the day the poor woman finds herself married to a guy who works with boxes on a screen.

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