Where Is the Edge in Poker?
Poker has gotten a lot harder than it used to be. In the early days of online poker, even just a very basic understanding of tight-aggressive no-limit hold'em play was sufficient for winning money hand over fist in the low- to medium-stakes games at Party Poker. Today, if you want to get an edge you've got to be a lot sharper about game selection. Some games are virtually impossible to beat in the long-haul but there are still some good spots out there worth grinding. Here is our breakdown of where and where not to expect to find an edge in the poker world these days.
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Edge: Live Cash Games
The last real gold rush opportunity in the poker world exists in live cash games, particularly those of modest stakes (or ultra nosebleed stakes that attract whales, all of the stuff in between can be rather sharp). It might not be much of a thrill, but grinding just about any live $1/$2 no-limit hold'em game can yield a return for a competent player that beats flipping burgers.
The imperative element of a good live cash game is the rake structure. The rake structure in some jurisdictions and casinos can render even the softest games unbeatable. At lower stakes games, you can't afford to have $20 raked out of a pot. It's too high of a percentage of the pot size. Look for games that cap the rake at $4-$5 and avoid playing in games with rake structures that go senselessly beyond this threshold.
No Edge: Small Stakes Online PLO
There was a thread on TwoPlusTwo recently that showed the win-rates of the 25 highest volume players in the $0.50-$1 pot-limit Omaha games at PokerStars. The results were astonishing. Nearly all of the highest volume players were losing versus the rake. And most of the winners were squeaking out a winrate that wouldn't come close to feeding the kids. How is it that all of the $0.50-$1 PLO grinders on PokerStars are failing to beat the game? Well the answer is simple: rake.
PLO features a lot of coinflip situations. So when you are regularly getting involved in large pots without much of an advantage, both players come out behind. Who wants to pay a fee to flip coins? Absent a few braindead players at the table spewing value, PLO is virtually impossible to beat at lower stakes. The only way regulars are able to justify their high-volume play is through bonuses and rakeback incentives.
No Edge: Most Live Tournaments
Juicy live tournaments are few and far between. There are a few different factors that commonly prevent live tournaments from being beatable.
First is that the game is slow and so one's edge is muted due to the reduced hands-per-hour. Secondly, most live tournaments have pretty huge fee structures relative to the buy-in. It is not uncommon to see a $200 buy-in daily live tournament allocate $50 or more to the pockets of the organizers.
This leaves mostly only higher stakes buy-in live tournaments beatable. These can be broken down into two categories: shark-fests and donk-fests. Some contests, like a typical $10,000 buy-in WPT event, are shark-fests; anyone familiar with the poker world can probably name at least 7 of the players at any random table. The tour features a roaming group of the same degens most of whom are no better than break-even in the events.
The real opportunity in live tournaments exists when a festival of donkeys has been assembled. This happens annually in Las Vegas at the World Series of Poker. The $10,000 WSOP Main Event has gotten tougher over the years but remains an absurdly good value for sharp players. This particular event has the two things every poker grinder should look for in a tournament: a great structure and bad competition.
Edge: Heads-Up Games
The real savvy online poker grinders are the guys (and gals) who a few years ago decided to get really serious about figuring out how to beat heads-up no-limit hold'em games. Whether played for cash or sit-'n'-go fashion, heads-up matches offer the best opportunity in poker for exploiting opposition. There is nowhere to run or hide in a heads-up game. A competent player can swiftly and reliably crush weaker competition. If one were determined to become a professional poker player their best course of action would probably be learning how to get really, really good at heads-up matches.
No Edge: Online Sit-'N'-Go Tournaments
Online sit-'n'-gos (not of the heads-up variety) dried up years ago. It used to be possible beat the $215 buy-in games at Party Poker and elsewhere for a reliable 10-20% ROI. Today, the average sit-'n'-go grinder is operating on an ROI of under 5% and relying on rakeback and bonuses to sustain their grind. This is because sit-'n'-gos are essentially solved; ICM calculators and other tools have allowed players to determine the optimal move in nearly every situation towards the later stages of sit-'n'-go tournaments. When no one is making mistakes, no one is making money.