High Rolling: Warhammer Lessons Learned From Playing Poker

Picture of Mike at table

We’re going to leave the safe confines of the Eye Of Terror today, and travel into new territory for Warphammer.

Astute Warphammer fans may have noticed that less content has come out over the past few months. This has largely come as a result of me personally focusing more on studying and grinding for my other main game, poker, over the last few months. People here know me as a 40K player, and maybeeee I’m even a good one when I’m playing regularly, but if I’m going to be honest I’m a much more experienced and studied poker player than 40K player.

But that doesn’t mean 40K hasn’t been on my mind. On the contrary–I think this is an amazing time to step back and reflect on how playing one competitive game enabled me to step into playing another competitive game, and share some lessons I’ve learned from both games along the way. While different games can seem like they have nothing in common, there is actually a ton that competitive players in one game can learn from competitive players of another.

And the best part? Nothing in this article requires much prior poker knowledge. If you’re here because you only play 40K and want to become a more competitive player in that game, you’re still in the right place. I will also try not to brag about any poker specific success, but the past year has been very rewarding both online and live in poker, so I feel this article is coming out at a good time.

Without further ado, here are some of the many lessons I’ve learned along the way from both poker and 40K.

Quick Note: Enjoy hearing me talk about 40K? You’re in luck! I’ll be doing commentary all weekend for the streaming table at the Great Game GT. Subscribe to the Warphammer Youtube channel now to make sure you catch us whenever we’re live! For better or worse, I’ll be watching the comments as I do commentary, so come hang out with us and say hi.

The Enjoyment Of Casual Players is the Responsibility of the Serious Players

This is a really important concept, and one where I think where 40K players especially have some room to improve.

The crux of the matter is that the good players are, by and large, getting something positive out of competitive events just by the very fact that those events are running. This “something” that good players are getting out of the event varies by the player and event, but it’s largely some combination of the following: Prize support, ego boosting, growing their competitive reputation, increased visibility for their brand and their content creation/coaching services.

The good players are heavily incentivized to attend events regardless of enjoyment, because of the intrinsic rewards that come from competing in events where you are a disproportionate favorite to win.

Bad players are mostly getting one thing out of the event: The fun of playing in the event. At most large 40K tournaments like LVO or LGT, 80-90% of the field knows they have practically no chance of podiuming, let alone win the event. They are spending their free time and money with the goal of having an enjoyable few rounds of Warhammer. And they will only come as long as their experience with competitive 40K events previously has been a fun few rounds of Warhammer.

There’s also one very important point which ties this all together: The good players benefit massively from bad players being at the event. Their buy-ins go partially towards supporting prizes that only the good players have a chance of taking home. Their numbers swell the ranks of the event and make the success of the good players that much more prestigious. They also, if we’re being honest, by and large provide a few easy wins for the pros to boost their records. Say there is an area with enough players to host a 100 person GT, with roughly 10 top tier players in the area who have a chance of winning the event. If the top tier players have worked towards building a positive community, then everyone who is available is likely to attend. All 10 of those top tier players get the prestige of finishing top 10 at a 100 person event. But let’s say competitive 40K has a poor reputation in that area, and no one besides top tier players want to spend their weekend playing against those top tier players. Then those 10 elite players just get to play a super sweaty RTT, and up to half of them will finish with a losing record despite being top tier players.

The idea is not to be cynical, and I don’t want anyone reading this section and coming away with a negative view of the game. Many of the game’s best players play for love of the game and hobby. Many casual players are still talented and can take a game off a top player with the right matchup (and a little luck from the dice). There always has to be some level of simplification when discussing players on a broad level, because everyone has a unique backstory that has lead to their participation in the hobby and level of current involvement.

But if you’re someone who is largely getting more out of tournaments in payouts than they are putting in from buy-ins, understand this: The casual players are just as important to the tournament ecosystem, if not more so, than you. Even if you don’t do anything besides out of self-interest, it’s in your best interest to treat them as the key part of the tournament ecosystem that they are. Make sure they’re having fun. And who knows… maybe that karma you earn from treating a player kindly will come back and give you a boost when rolling off for first turn in a key game some day. I can’t prove karma works like this, but I also can’t disprove that karma works like this. Can’t hurt to give it a shot.

How nice of the good players in the Colorado Poker Championship to let me take home a little bit of prize money a couple weeks ago.

Oh, and I’ve spent so much time talking directly about 40K in this section that I forgot to tie it back to poker. As a winning poker player, the most selfishly beneficial thing I can do is make the bad players enjoy giving their money to me. You’ll never catch me at the table berating the fish for making a bad play and getting lucky. If I shove the nuts into a donkey, and then they hit running cards to beat my hand, I’m not going to call them an idiot and ask them if they know how lucky they got. I’ll just say “nice hand, I was worried that was coming”, or “Always fun gambling with you” if they’re a regular. I’ll also quietly reach into my wallet and put enough money on the table to make sure I have them covered if they go all-in with another bad hand again.

You Will Be On Tilt At Some Point. Acknowledge It Instead of Suppressing It.

Let’s talk about being tilted. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn. My hope is that by sharing it, I can save you a lot of the frustrations I dealt with along the way.

Early on in my poker career, I read some random article or watched some short video about being mentally resilient in gaming. This was a relief to younger me, as it meant all mental game problems were instantly solved. I thought that because I was aware of tilt, I would be immune to it. I would simply choose not to tilt.

This was followed by months of really bad tilt on the felt that I was in complete denial about, and probably thousands of dollars lost as a result. Here’s what would happen after I lost a big pot to a player I considered beneath me: I would sit there internally steaming and playing increasingly poorly, but refusing to step away from the table and clear my head or call the session quits. I wasn’t tilted; tilt is something that happens to the other (worse) players. I had chosen not to tilt, and thus was not tilting… even though anyone who looked at me probably saw steam shooting out of my ears and some baffling plays made by me.

Part of the issue was that I knew being tilted happened much more to bad players than good players. I thought of myself as a good player. And because I was a good player, I was incapable of doing the bad player thing of tilting.

I don’t remember the exact moment things changed. I do remember texting a poker buddy, “I think I have tilt issues” at one point and being genuinely shocked to have said that, but also feeling a sense of relief. I have no idea why I put the pressure on myself to have a perfect mental game a few months after I started playing, when there are lifelong pros that still have mental slip-ups to this day.

Rather than think you never get tilted, acknowledge that it can happen (and has happened to you before, whether you knew it or not) and work on identifying it when it happens and develop methods to re-focus.

If you don’t think this phenomenon I’m talking about is true, flip it around. We’ve all played 40K with someone who has gotten very frustrated with how the game is going, and is clearly tilted and upset. They start getting very short with you and difficult to interact with. You ask them if they want to take a break, and they insist everything is fine and want to keep going. It’s obvious to you watching them that they are not in a mental state to make good 40K decisions or be fun to play with, but they insist on pushing through instead of trying to clear their head or take a beer break.

Control What You Can Control. Ignore the Rest.

The dice will do what the dice will do. The cards will do what the cards will do. You can’t control that.

The only thing you can control is your decisions, so that’s where you should be spending your effort and mental focus.

Almost everyone is familiar with the famous Star Trek quote, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.” That’s mostly true for any competitive game with an edge of variance. Sometimes you just fail a 4″ charge with a reroll and you lose.

But that’s not entirely true in 40K. It’s true that you can’t control the outcomes, but you can control how much you relied on those outcomes in the first place.

Maybe you needed to make a 4″ charge because you didn’t use that unit’s full potential for fight phase movement on the previous turn, consolidating 1″ instead of 3″ towards the enemy line and effectively subtracting 2″ to your later charge roll. Or maybe you missed an opportunity to move-block a key enemy scoring unit on the previous turn and win the game regardless of what happened later.

This is something I had to learn in poker first.

Warning: A tiny bit of technical poker talk, which I had previously promised to avoid. My bad.

Say my opponent raised pre-flop and I call from the big blind. I flop a strong hand on a flop favorable for my hand, and always check to them, which is generally the advice given when you’re first to act and your opponent raised. Because I was never leading with my strong hands (or appropriate bluffs) on the flop, my opponents were always allowed to safely check back hands like gutshots or random overcards if they wish and see another card for free. That meant that they were getting more chances than they should have had to get lucky against my strong hands on the flop. There are so many times when I let my opponent over-realize their equity, because I was never leading into the aggressor on the flop, or overbetting the pot when I c-bet with a hand like 66 on AK2. I hadn’t studied those spots enough. Thus, I was playing them like an average player. By making my opponent fold more often these days, I can more reliably win the pot without giving opponents the opportunity to get bailed out on later streets.

None of that was really the right poker terms, but I think it was a fair compromise to get the points across. You will be safe from any poker specific talk for the remainder of this article, my 40K friends.

And on the flipside, sometimes a bad decision can have a good outcome if you get an appropriate helping of luck. You don’t want to rely on a 9″ charge without any modifiers. You don’t want to call an all-in with J4o and blockers to their bluffs. Sometimes, bad plays get rewarded. Don’t think that you played perfectly because you won, and always reflect after the game and talk with your opponent about any mistakes you made.

You’re Not Entitled to Wins Against Worse Players

This is a really important topic for players of any competitive game to understand. It’s also one of the biggest causes of cheating in competitive 40K, but that’s a discussion we will get to in a bit.

This is something that’s true across many games, but feels disproportionately true in both 40K and poker. Medium-tier or top-tier players can forget that it’s a game with a lot of variance, and feel entitled to a win when facing a player that they view is beneath them. When the win they expected doesn’t happen, they can get angry… or even start cheating to get the result they feel they deserve. If you should beat this player who has made several big mistakes but is rolling super hot, is it really that bad if you fudge the results of some of your dice rolls to even out the luck and let your superior skill determine the game?

The answer is of course yes, lying about your dice is always a terrible thing to do. But that kind of logic can seep into the minds of a great player who feel he or she is entitled to wins against worse players, and leads to some of the cheating we have heard about. There is a reason almost every cheating scandal in competitive 40K isn’t a top tier player vs a top tier player, or an 0-4 player vs an 0-4 player. It’s almost always a top tier player facing a low tier player, and trying to force through the outcome that they feel they deserve.

40K and poker have two big things in common: Luck from cards/dice after you have committed to a decision can have an outcome on the result, and even the best players can make occasional mistakes. These aren’t games like chess where with enough of a skill gap, the better player will beat a player in a tier below them with complete certainty. I, as a chess beginner, could play a million games vs Magnus Carlsen and never win a single one. In fact, if I somehow ever play Magnus Carlsen and manage to beat him, your reaction should be to assume something very fishy happened. You could also assume that my play was so unbelievably bad that he assumed it was some sort of Make-A-Wish situation and let me win the game out of pity… but let’s not be too mean to me.

A beginner NLHE poker player could easily beat the best poker player in the world (Linus Loeliger, probably) in a heads-up match by just going all-in without looking at their cards in any given match. 40K’s luck expression isn’t quite as pronounced, but a competent competitive 40K player can beat a top tier competitive 40K player at some frequency with the right matchup and some luck. Never disrespect your opponent or the game by feeling entitled to a win, even if you think you have a big edge on your opponent.

Final Thoughts

One last crucial piece of advice for anyone seeking to improve their 40K or poker game:

Roll better, and run good. It really, really, really helps.


Mike Pestilens (magnustheread)

Mike Pestilens (magnustheread)

Mike, the founder of Warphammer, probably talking about which Warlord Traits he will include in his list. Not pictured is his date texting her friends to come pick her up early.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Max Dubois

    I love every article you post Mike, but this one is simply amazing. I hope you attend Adepticon next week, so I can find you and buy you many a beverage.

    1. Mike Pestilens

      Thanks so much for the kind words Max! Would love to attend Adepticon and enjoy some beers together with you, but wasn’t able to make it out there this year.

      Rooting for you (especially if you’re bringing a Chaos army)!

  2. Simon Ash

    Very interesting indeed; as someone who dabbles in poker – NOT to pay the bills luckily! and both 40k and AOS this is something I would agree with and the ‘rolling x% below ev’ drives me far too nuts at tines.

  3. James Cooper-Hackett

    Good notes for everyone. If the 40K community took this advice to heart the Tournament scene would be healthier for everyone.

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