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I've had a few requests to write an article on multi-tabling and decided that might be fun so here it is. I'm certainly no expert on the topic but I'll share what I've tried and what works for me. This article is going to be fairly long because I think a lot of people underestimate just how drastic this issue is with regards to the advancement of their poker career (I should know). There's a link to download this as PDF at the top if you'd like to print or view offline.
Know why you're multi-tabling and why you shouldn't be. There are a few factors that go into deciding how many tables you should play. A lot of them are connected and seem to contradict each other in some cases. They also generally boil down to 2 main issues:
Skill and Hourly.
The first thing most people think about when multi-tabling is increasing their hourly rate, which isn't a terrible thing because it is the primary reason to multi-table. Simply factoring winrate on a given number of tables at a certain stake vs another combination of winrate and tables and stakes is one way of deciding.
Your skill level is going to be the first indicator of whether or not you can add more tables. Skill comes from experience and experience in a wide range of situations against a wide range of opponents is going to tell you what the "standard" play is in almost any given situation. This allows you to free up thought process resources for the non-standard situations.
For example: If you are a new player where you know the standard play in 60% of situations and you play 10 tables, you need to think about 4 decisions and autopilot 6 decisions at any given time. Now if you add another 10 tables, you need to think about 8 decisions and autopilot 12 decisions in the same amount of time.
If you are an experienced player (who I'll call the pro) with a million quality hands under your belt and you know the standard in 95% of situations, on 10 tables you need to think about 0.5 decisions at any moment, while 20 tabling you need to think about 1 decision.
At 60 hands/hour the new player will have to think about 240 vs 480 hands when picking between 10 and 20 tables while the pro looks at a range of 30 vs 60 hands. You can clearly see that the increase in tables does not affect the pro nearly as much in regards to decisions per hour compared to the new player. It's still a 100% increase, but in terms of decisions/hour it's a huge difference. In order for the new player to attain the same level of focus as the 10 tabling pro (30 hands requiring thought process per hour), he should be playing no more than 1 table for 24 hands requiring thought process per hour. 2 tables would be about the equivalent of a 20 tabling pro.
Improve and Move Up vs Mass Table Autopilot
But playing a couple million hands and adding tables in the process once you've seen everything there is to see is not all there is to it. There is a point in mass tabling where focus levels drop to the point that it is hard to work on improving and you simply end up autopiloting.
There are 2 types of autopiloting:
a) clicking buttons based on 1st level absolute hand strength
b) making automatic decisions based on experience and a solid grasp of ranges and hand reading.
Option b is obviously the better option. In order to do that however, we need to again work on experience and improving, which means playing less tables to free up thought process.
We also have to consider our poker endgame and opportunity cost. The ultimate goal of the game for any serious player is simply to make money in the most profitable and efficient manner possible. So figure out how much you want to ultimately make per hour and then figure out what kind of winrate, number of tables and stakes will get you there. Everything in between where you are now and that ultimate goal is just a journey and an effort towards the end goal. A lot of players - myself included - fall into the trap of mass tabling now for short term benefit. This is simply an unecessary detour on the path to your ultimate goal.
Lets take two identical players who have the same winrates (4 ptBB/100 on 8 full ring tables for $9.60/hour) and play the same stakes (25NL) and same amount of time (20 hours/week) and send them down different paths.
Player A instantly jumps to 24 tables of 25NL for a 2.5 ptBB/100 winrate and doubles his hourly to $18/hour. He progresses very slowly and finally moves up to 50NL and continues to 24 table there 6 months later and for the rest of the year at 1.5 ptBB/100 and $21.60/hour. After a year he's won $20,592.
Player B continues down the 8 table ($9.60) path and progresses faster, being able to analyze situations and learn. In 3 months he moves up to 50NL and wins at 3 ptBB/100 ($14.40). After another 4 months he moves up to 100NL and wins at 2 ptBB/100 ($19.20). After a year he's won $16,128.
This obviously looks like an argument for mass tabling. But lets take a closer look at Player B's situation. He's still only playing 8 tables at higher stakes and making less per hour. But he's primed to play higher stakes on more tables now. What happens if he decides to increase to 12 tables at 1.8 ptBB/100 ($25.92) or 18 tables at 1.5 ptBB/100 ($32.40) or 24 tables at 1.3 ptBB/100 ($37.44)? Maybe he continues to improve to the point where he can 24 table at 2 ptBB/100 ($57.60)
Or continues to move up and then add tables? Or a combination of both? He has a lot of options as to how he wants to increase his hourly rate, whereas Player A has artificially capped his hourly rate because he hasn't developed the skillset to play higher stakes and he's maxed out on tables.
Player A has also played more hands, which one would think means more experience. But the value in that experience is going to be drastically diminished due to less focus. Experience therefore is defined as a qualitative term rather than quantitative.
Player B now wants to start adding tables. The best way I've found to do this is to add 25% to your table load. If you play 4 tables, add 1. If you play 8 tables, add 2. 12 tables, add 3. A good indicator of too many tables is timing out. If you start timing out, scale it back a table or two.
I strongly suggest that this is fluid (just as I believe many things in poker should be) because your focus is going to be better for some sessions than others and if you normally play 12 but are feeling rushed or taking longer for decisions there's nothing wrong with cutting it back to 8 for today.
Belok has already done a great post on 24 tabling like a pro so I won't go much into this.
Here's the 6x2 layout I generally use. I can have up to 4 layers stacked on top of this for 24 tables. I have a 25" widescreen at 1920x1080 that I play on, and I use a second 21" widescreen for the lobby and HEM, which helps for table selection while playing so your lobby doesn't constantly have tables popping over top. A 30" would be ideal for less overlap.
I also use a stacked layout with an AHK table mover if I'm mass tabling. Typically, tiled tables are better for note taking but I find if you have a way of moving tables out of the stack to focus on them, this method is better for notes because the note should never get covered by another table popping up.
So don't be Player A - aka me. Play fewer tables, work on your game and move up. Once you've reached a stake where your ultimate hourly rate is possible, start thinking about mass tabling. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to cut this short... my 24 tables keep stealing keyboard focus from this post and that annoying timer alarm is going again.