Suggestions for a Notational System for Describing Poker Hands
For many years I have kept detailed records of the poker hands that I play.   Since I keep track of the hands at the table, as they occur, many people assume that I am recording which cards come on the flop--in the same way that you will find some roulette players standing at the wheel listing each winning number.  I suppose it might be helpful to let the other players think I am doing something as useless as that, but, in fact, I am simply recording the results of the hands that I elect to play.

Some friends have asked about the protocol or format that I have hit upon for keeping these records, and it is with the thought that others might find such a system of interest and value, that I am reproducing it here.

The first thing I record in my pocket-size notebook is the date, the casino, the game and the limit that I am playing.  For example, a typical entry might read," Sat. 9-17-05, Silver Star-Philadelphia, $4-8 HEM." 

As I actually begin play, I remove a chip from my tray and put a coin in its place.  The coin which faces me is actually a casino token that has a mark on it that resembles the hour hand on a watch.  As each hand concludes, I simply turn the coin as I would a dial.  This permits me to easily count the hands I am dealt.  Naturally, any method that permits you to keep track of the number of hands you receive will work as well.

Assuming I am playing HEM, I record the following information for each hand that I play:  the number of the hand, the cards I am playing, whether or not the pot has been raised, what position I am in, the number of players seeing the flop, how many betting rounds I stay in for, and whether I win or lose the pot.  This seems like a lot of data--and it is--but it can all be recorded quickly and displayed easily. 

For example, a single line in my book might read:  18 CR  A+K  MP5  4+    While this line may at first appear cryptic it can be easily translated as:  "On the 18th hand of this session, I called a raise with an Ace-King suited.  I was in middle position and there were five players who called and saw the flop.  The betting went the full four rounds, (i.e., to the river), and I won the pot."

I follow certain conventions in using this notational system.  First, when recording the pre-flop betting, I use R to designate that I raised the pot, CR to indicate I called someone else's raise, RR to show that I re-raised, and CRR to show that I called someone else's re-raise.

Next, I list my two cards, showing the largest card first.  If the cards are unsuited, I list them as, for example, A-K.  But if they are suited, I list them as A+K.  That is, the cards are separated by a dash when they are unsuited and a plus sign when they are suited.

The designation of my position at a full table is determined in this way:  if I am in the first two positions following the big blind, I use EP to mean early position, for the next three positions I use MP to show middle position, the last two positions before the button are designated LP for late position, D means dealer, and LB and BB are used to show I was in the blind positions.  The number after the position refers to the number of players seeing this particular flop.  When playing short-handed, the definitions for EP, MP, and LP will, of necessity, change, but a rough approximation can still be made.

The final figure on my line of data is a means of showing how far I played the hand.  If I do not play after the flop, I simply omit a reference to the number of betting rounds.  If I make or call a bet after the flop but not a bet on the turn, the number would be two.  If I make or call a bet on the turn, but not the river, it is shown as a three.  If I put any money in the pot on the river, it is shown with a four, and will be followed with a plus sign if I win the pot and a dash (or minus sign) if I lose the pot.  Note that there will be times when you make or call a bet in an earlier round, but then the hands are checked to a showdown on the river.  In such a case, if you win the hand, you will show 4+, but if you lose this showdown, you record only a two or a three to show on which round you made your final bet.  Note, too, that  your bet after the flop or turn might not be called, and, in such cases you would record a 2+ or a 3+. 

Note that I do not record a hand unless I voluntarily put money in the pot. Thus a big blind hand is not listed unless I elect to play it after the flop.

At the end of the session, a quick look at my notes will show me the following:  how many hands I was dealt, how many hands I played, how many hands I played after the flop, how many times I paid to see the river, and how many hands I won.  For example, looking at my actual results for today, I find them summarized as:  124-19-15-11-8   +$90  This tells me that I was dealt 124 hands.  Of these, I voluntarily put money in the pot 19 times.  15 times I continued on after the flop.  I was involved in 11 hands that went to the river and won eight of them.  I finished the day with a profit of $90. 

If I wish, I can also look at my results and analyze them in more detail.  For example, I can determine how many hands I won while in various positions at the table.  I can see what percent I won of the hands that I raised, and so on.  While the data from any one session may be too limited to permit accurate generalizations, with numerous entries, over time, patterns do emerge.

My favorite game is Omaha/8 and the notational system I use for it is very similar to the HEM system just described.  A typical Omaha entry might read:  18  A+2  T-J  MP5  4+  (2).  This indicates that on the 18th hand of this session, I played an Ace-deuce suited and an unsuited Ten and Jack.  I was in middle position and was one of five players seeing the flop.  I bet or called as far as the river and won half the pot.  (Note that because Omaha/8 often involves split pots, I have modified this system to show the number of quarter pots won.  Instead of just using 4+ to show that I won a pot on the fourth (river) round of betting, I also put a number from one to four in parenthesis to show how many quarter pots I won.  In the unhappy event that I get quartered, the number will be one.  If I should scoop the pot the number will be four.)   

Those readers familiar with my point systems for starting hands will see how the format for this notational system makes it easy to calculate the point values of various hands.  One assumption implicit in my starting hand systems is that most players--especially those new to a game--play too many hands.  A virtue of keeping notes on your hands is that you will be able to see exactly how many hands you are playing.  From time-to-time, and without calling attention to the fact, I have kept a record of how many hands others at my table play.  In talking later with a player, I casually ask them what percent of hands they usually play.  Would it surprise you to know that they almost inevitably greatly underestimate the number played?  Naturally, I don't argue the point, and we quickly go on to discuss other pressing matters--like the terrible bad beat they recently received. 

It is a fact of life, I suppose, that most players have the prejudice that they are tight, selective players.  And, as a former psych professor, I know that there are many studies which show we tend to remember things that are consistent with our prejudices and to conveniently forget those things that tend to be at odds with our assumptions.  This very human tendency certainly carries over to the world of poker.

Finally, to state the obvious, this notational system is not perfect.  It will not suggest an answer to every problem that confronts a player, but if it is followed it will enable the player to make deductions and inferences that may prove helpful in improving his or her game.  Good luck!

Edward Hutchison
   Madison, MS

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