If you've read my first blog entry, you know that I just started playing poker again in 2013 after more than five years away.  The PSO Open Skill League was entirely new to me, so I've spent some time trying to figure out how to master it.  (Of course, developing good NLHE poker skills is important, but hopefully anyone reading this already knows that there is a lot more than raw skill that goes into league performance!)

I finished January ranked 1245th on the Open League leaderboard.  This is actually almost exactly where I wanted to be for this month.  Since I didn't have my 20 VPPs (not having played any poker in December), I wouldn't have gained much financially from a higher placement, and I actually would have felt guilty if I had displaced somebody with 20 VPPs out of one of the higher payout tiers.  I also figured that since I was just getting started with this, January would be a great month for experiments and data analysis, so I didn't mind making a few mistakes and having a lower finish.  You have to break a few eggs to make good science!

During the course of January, I paid close attention to some of the details of the OSL tournaments.  I worked up a spreadsheet that, among other things, would calculate the field strength of each tournament I played.  From my observations, I hypothesized that there was a pattern in the field strength of the opponents in each tournament which varied based on the start time of the tournament.  For my first analysis, I set out to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

If you're not familiar with it already, now might be a good time for a refresher on the scoring system used in the league.

I gathered additional data from the January OSL tournaments that I did not play, and used the full set of data to calculate the field strength of each tournament.  (My dataset missed three of the 174 tournaments in the month, but that shouldn't have a significant impact on my results.)

Each symbol represents tournaments starting at a different time of day (e.g. 1:00 AM ET, 5:00 AM ET).  The solid lines are best-fit curves using a 2nd-order polynomial (which seems to give the best fit to the data as well as giving me nice simple coefficients to use for further calculations).

As you can see, the tourneys at the time of day represented by the X's consistently have a much higher field strength than those at the time of day represented by the orange circles.  On a given day, I found differences in field strength up to 38 points.

So what can we do with these data?  The most obvious thing is to pick the best tourneys to play in.  Unfortunately, there are two competing factors here: a tourney with high field strength is going to have less of a negative impact on our point gain for playing in that tourney, because the field strength is closer to our score; but a high field strength also means that the opposition is more skilled.

The direct impact of the field strength on our points earned for the tournament is clearly defined, but determining the impact of field strength on how well we fare in the tourney (due to opponent skill) is much more difficult.  I spent a little time thinking about this, and I think that the skill level of the opposition is relatively unimportant.  Firstly, the field strength is mainly a reflection of the strength of the league members who played in the tournament (assuming that non-league members are treated as 1500 points each, which fits with the data I've gathered), but it says nothing at all about the opponents who are not league members.  From everything I've seen, the majority of players in any given tournament are non-league players.  Secondly, I believe that random influences like who you see at the tables and what cards you get would probably drown out any pattern related to the skill of your opponents.  (In theory, with a dataset hundreds or thousands of times larger, I might be able to tease out some sort of relationship, but there are far too many other variables for this to be done on a relatively tiny dataset like the one I have here.)

Something else I did with these data was throw together a spreadsheet that would tell me, based on my current score, what finishing rank I would need to achieve in order to gain points by entering any given tournament.  For a given day, I never saw a difference in this rank of more than 100 places, but this was based on a nice clean trend of gaining points at a consistent rate every day throughout the month, so I don't know if the choice of tournaments to play might be more significant with real data.  I'll probably find out in February!

You might be asking yourself what use I could have for this information.  Well, the answer to that question brings me to the broader subject of league strategy.  Here are some things I've learned through the course of this month:

1) The most important criterion for entering a tournament is the likelihood that you will gain points by doing so.  There is no bonus or penalty based on the number of tournaments you play, so you should play every tourney where you have a reasonable expectation of gaining points, and skip every tourney where you have a reasonable expectation of losing points.  This does not mean that entering a tournament and losing points is a complete waste of time; sometimes you have to take a risk when you are a huge favorite to improve your chances of a deep run, and you get busted out by some lucky fool--I believe this would still be a +EV play overall.  (Example: you hold AK, flop comes QJT rainbow, and you bet then call a larger stack's shove, only to have him hit a runner-runner flush draw--I don't think anyone would call this a bad decision.)

2) Entering a tournament and folding every hand can be beneficial.  Even if you join a tournament and then log off and shut down your computer, you may still gain points if your leaderboard score before entering was low enough.  It may not be many points, but this could be a good way to eke out a few extra points from tournaments that you would never be able to seriously play because of work, sleep, or other commitments.  This is where my calculated finishing rank requirement comes in handy; with a good estimate of where I will place in a tourney I don't play, I can figure out whether it is worth entering a tournament.  I tried this out with one tourney late in January, earning a small increase in my leaderboard points, and you can bet that I'll be trying it again in February!

3) Even if you do have time to sit and play a tourney, the best strategy is often to run down the clock at every decision point, while players at other tables bust themselves out.  This doesn't necessarily mean that you will be folding every hand; you can run down the clock and then make a standard raise with pocket aces, then run down the clock again before pushing all-in on the miraculous AA3 flop, etc.

4) I made a few posts requesting hand analyses on the forums, and from those posts I learned one very critical concept: in skill league tourneys, you should almost never commit all of your chips (or even a significant chunk of your stack) without a made hand.  I got myself into trouble a few times in January with AK!

Following the logic from #4, I now find myself limping in a lot more often, sometimes even with strong pocket pairs.  I want to at least see the flop before committing myself to the hand, and I have found that a standard raise pre-flop can drive people crazy, leading to a shove-fest where your TT could be a significant underdog to the two guys with ace-rag and a pile more guys with random suited cards and random offsuit connectors.  Once you've seen the flop (and how your opponents play it) you have much better information on which to base those make-or-break decisions.  I'm still not sure that this is a good strategy--I'd be interested in your feedback.

I'm also still trying to figure out how best to play after the bubble.  Advice from the forums has been to keep going with the same strategy as pre-bubble--play cautiously, trying to earn a slightly higher finish to maximize leaderboard points.  At the same time, I can see a lot of appeal in the advice from the League Strategy page in the MTT course: after the bubble, play more like you would in a cash tourney, with the goal being to hit the final table.  I think I'll have to do some more research on this one, and maybe post some updated thoughts in my next blog entry.

Until next time, good luck at the tables!