One of my Facebook friends recently returned to playing poker after a many month layoff. “Hope I remember how to play,” she said. “Don’t worry,” came the replies, “you’ll be fine. Playing poker is like riding a bike.”
In my opinion, these helpful supporters are totally wrong. Returning to poker after a layoff is nothing like riding a bike. It’s a lot more like going to the gym. Your first day back, you will be sucking wind.
I should know. I frequently take layoffs from poker. When I’m writing a book, I tend not to play regularly. I have a young son, and I’ve taken time off for parenting. I’ve also taken a few nice, long vacations.
In my opinion, there is no question that taking these layoffs sets your game back. If you look at most of the top several hundred players in the world, you will find that most of them play poker nearly every day and take few extended breaks. And when these players do take long breaks, they frequently return to find that they’ve lost some ground in the pecking order.
But here’s the thing. I didn’t become a poker player because I wanted to be slave to a rigorous schedule. For me, it was quite the opposite. If, for any reason, I want to take a day, a week, a month, or even six months off from playing, I can do that. Sure, I’ll pay a price for it at the tables when I return, but it makes living my life so much happier.
Here are my observations and tips for returning to poker after not playing for a while.
Betting Fashions Change
Ever since poker exploded in popularity over a decade ago, the game has evolved at an epic pace. The betting patterns that are popular one year are modified or changed completely the next. Bet sizings change. Aggression standards change. “Bread and butter” situations morph. In February you might see the same plays coming up over and over again. By October, this fashion may have passed, and a different play may be more popular.
Let’s say you open raise and a player calls from the big blind. The flop is . Your opponent checks, you bet, and he calls. The turn is the . Your opponent bets out. What does his hand range look like?
This situation is subject to the whims of poker fashion. In February, it could be that most players have a hand like Q-9 when they make this play. But in October, it could be that players have stopped playing top pair this way, and now they tend to have hands like .
Poker is a social game, and humans, consciously or unconsciously, mimic one another in social situations. It’s very common for the regular players in a particular game to adopt a tacit consensus on how to play certain situations. Players that buck the trend at first usually end up adopting it eventually. So if a few regulars start donk betting the turn with flush draws, over time you’ll tend to see more and more regulars also adopt this play.
When you take a layoff, you aren’t in tune with the fashion changes, and you will, therefore, misread certain situations. You’ll treat bets as bluffs that now tend to be for value. And vice versa. This will cost you until you have regained enough experience to learn what’s changed.
You can speed this process. Watch hands you aren’t in and look specifically for these fashion-sensitive situations: preflop reraises, donk bets, flop raises, turn raises, and so forth. When you see one of these plays, follow the hand to the end. Does the action surprise you, or is it in accordance with how people played months ago? If you follow these hands closely, you will minimize the mistakes you make when you are forced to make a read.
Your Brain Gets Dull
Here’s where the gym analogy applies. When you take a few months off from poker, your brain gets soft. You don’t think as quickly or as clearly. I know it’s true for me, and I’d bet it’s true for everyone.
To get back what you’ve lost, there’s no substitute for putting in hours at the table playing and hours away from it working on your game. But you can be on the lookout for specific weaknesses that your layoff may have created.
I find that when I return after a layoff, my turn and river play suffers the most. After all, it’s not like I’ve forgotten that I open-raise K-T suited from three off the button or that I resteal against button openers in the big blind with 3-3. The more rote the situation, the more it is, indeed, like riding a bike.
It’s the decisions that require hand range analysis that suffer. My first day back after a three month layoff, I am unlikely to find accurate turn and river bluff-raise opportunities. More times than I’d care to share, I have meekly folded to a river bet from what post-mortem analysis revealed to be a weak hand range.
When I’ve been playing regularly for a long time, these bluff-raising opportunities almost jump out at me. But after a long layoff, I tend to miss them. My poker brain is out of shape, and the sharp edge to my game is gone.
So what to do about it? Well, the long-term answer is to restart a regular playing and study schedule and stick to it. But what do you do in the meantime, when you know you aren’t as sharp as you could be?
If you’re playing live, I suggest you take extra time for your turn and river decisions. Don’t make any quick folds, especially not in big pots. Force yourself to take time to think everything through.
If a bad river card hits and it looks like you’re toast, don’t just fold. At least ask yourself why your opponent is betting. If it’s a bad river card, might it also be a scare card for your opponent? One that he’d prefer to check through rather than to bet? And if so, then might he be bluffing? Or might he be willing to lay down to a raise?
These are the sorts of thoughts any poker player should have, but when your brain is soft from a long layoff, it pays to take extra time and force yourself to think of them explicitly. If it might help, you can even write questions like these down and reread them periodically to remind yourself.
If you are playing again for the first time in a while, don’t kid yourself. You won’t be at your peak performance right away. First, develop a playing and study schedule to get you back into gear. Next, watch out for changes in betting pattern fashion. And finally, remember to take extra time on the turn and river to make sure you’re thinking things through.
[This article appeared originally in Card Player, Vol. 25, No. 21]