Texas Hold'em No Limit Beginner

Are You a Shark or a Fish? An Objective Analysis of Poker Aquatics

3,394 Views 1 Comment on 10/11/15

Are you a poker shark or a fish? Check out our objective analysis of these two commonly used poker terms to better help you decide your place.

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Fish or Shark

It’s not an uncommon sight to see one player berating another via the chat box, perhaps calling them a “fish”. Perhaps we’ve enjoyed the irony of the situation, seeing as we perceive the name-caller to be a huge fish himself.

So how is it that a player who is terrible can decide another player is terrible, but be blind to how bad they are themselves? It’s actually a pretty common phenomenon!

If you’ve ever watched X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, or similar TV shows, you will be aware that there are some singers who believe themselves to be the next big thing, seemingly deaf to the reasons why they are being laughed off the stage. To onlookers it’s pretty clear that they have no talent whatsoever.
The truth is, it’s easy to be blind regarding our own abilities. Our sense of pride can often prevent us from making a realistic appraisal of our own skills.
It can work in opposite ways too, have you ever noticed how some of the best singers seem surprised when the audience responds to them in a positive way?

There is actually a reason for this involving a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. The idea is that unskilled individuals have a tendency to overestimate their own abilities while highly skilled individuals have a tendency to underestimate their abilities. 

The important thing to take away from this is that we might not objectively know whether we ourselves are a fish or a shark. There are some fish who think they are sharks, and some sharks who think they are fish. There is no objective analysis that can be run to prove either, but the following are some telltale signs that we might be a fish – we just haven’t realised it yet!

Sign 1 – Your graph looks like Mount Everest……….On the way down.

Worst Graph Ever

You might even be surprised to know that there are guys out there who have been consistent losers over half a million hands yet still insist that they are simply getting “unlucky” and that things will turn around for them in the future.

DonkeyIt’s time to face reality. If we are consistently losing over a large sample then this is one of the most obvious signs that we might be a fish.

It’s important to keep in mind that variance is huge however. So when we say a large sample, we mean a large sample. There is a reasonable chance that a 100k hand sample might give a good indication the majority of the time, but in reality there is no guarantee. If you’ve ever played around with any variance simulators you will know that it is completely possible to break even over 100k hands even with a winrate of 6bb/100. So the truth is that we need an even larger sample if we are going to be able to use it in determining whether we are a fish or a shark.

Sign 2 - You are on your 3rd mouse this week

Smashed Up Mouse

One clear cut mark of a poker shark is clarity of thought process along with a calm mental state.

Just because we know all the poker theory there is to know, does not automatically make us a shark. If we have huge mental game problems then we are never going to be able to apply our knowledge consistently and in the right spots.

So if we have a tendency to get angry when playing poker, and we find that frustration often impedes our thought processes – or worse, causes destruction to nearby objects, then there is a very high chance that we are a fish.

I love (hate) to hear stories of a micro-stakes player who just smashed his $100 optical mouse after losing a $7 pot. I mean seriously, on what level does this make any sense? Just don’t smash your mouse, you’ve saved $100 right there with a +EV decision.

Sign 3 – You think “HUD” is a village in southern Iran

Village in Southern Iran

It's not a big secret. Fish typically either don’t know about poker software or they don’t fully see the benefit of it. They will often say something along the lines of -
“I find the HUD distracting, the numbers are more likely to cause mistakes than to help me” fish
If we’ve ever said this, and as such play poker without a HUD or decent tracking software then unfortunately…..we are probably a fish.

Sign 4 – You’ve blown your entire roll in 1 session

Gone Bankrupt

Piggy BankWe get it…..sometimes poker players run extremely bad. The thing is…..we never hear of seasoned professionals blowing their entire roll in a short space of time.

This is because they invest their money in sensible ways that minimise their risk of ruin. If we are doing things correctly it should take us a considerable amount of time to blow our entire bankroll, since we will be moving down limits as we continue to take a beating.

I remember in my earlier days I busted an Ipoker roll playing tournaments until 7am in the morning. The funny thing was, I was a winning cash game player at the time and didn’t even play tournaments. Why I would stay up all night to blow my roll on a format I didn’t even specialise in is beyond me when I look back. It just goes to show that being a winning player does not always guarantee that we are a shark. Some fish make money on average at the tables, but fail in other important areas.

Sign 5 – You think studying is just something that “those fish” need to do

Studying Books

It’s pretty easy for some to adopt the mentality that since they are already potentially winning players, there is no need to invest time in working on and improving their game.

If we ourselves find that we invest all of our poker time into playing and never into studying, there is a chance that we are actually fish without realising. Even if we are currently sharks, if we don’t keep our game sharp, we will become fish within a short space of time.

Fish – Evolution and Relative Definition

Tropical Fish

We have to remember that “fish” is not an especially objective term. It’s probably more derogatory than specific in the majority of cases. It’s actually considered politically correct to use the term “recreational player” as opposed to “fish” or “donkey”.
We have to understand that the term “fish” is relative to the context rather than a term possessing absolute meaning. In other words a crusher at 2nl cash games whom many at those limits might consider a “shark”, could end up being a huge “fish” if he were to sit down at high stakes online games.
So rather than specifically being able to say “I am a shark” or “I am a fish”, it might be more useful to include a relative clause. “I am shark at 200nl 888 cash games but a huge fish at the Pokerstars nosebleed games”.

Fish ChipThe other thing to keep in mind is that what constitutes a fish is constantly evolving. So a player who might have been considered a shark 10 years ago, might be a fish by today’s standards. Perhaps in the past the fish were all very noticeable from their stats, VPIP/PFR of 70/8 for example.

Those types of players still exist today, but there is a new breed of fish, who actually do know the first thing about the game. They might have a pretty reasonable preflop strategy and have analysed some starting ranges. But then the mistakes they go on to make postflop are utterly ridiculous. So it’s possible these days to get a 23/18 player with a 7% 3bet, but upon analysis find out that he is clearly a huge fish.

Ok, I’m a fish, now what?

Oops Im A Fish

So if we’ve reached the conclusion that we are a fish, now what should we do? The first step is to actually be pleased with ourselves rather than be worried. It is so much better to be a fish who thinks he is a fish rather than a fish who thinks he is a shark.

In other words, upon realising that there are potentially holes in our game that can be improved, we’ve already taken the first step towards becoming a shark.

The next step for us is to now begin actively plugging the holes in our game. The recommended starting point is to check out the article here on pokerVIP entitled “Guide For Improving Your Poker Game”.

Thanks, but I’m already a Shark


Firstly, great if we are currently crushing the games. Congratulations! Keep in mind though that it can be unhealthy to think too much of our own abilities. It can potentially blind us to ways that we can improve. It can often cause us to blame things such as variance or our opponent’s stupidity for our losses rather than actively looking for ways to improve our game.

In other words, a true shark knows that there is still so much for him to learn regardless of his current ability. He will work hard to improve his game, even harder than the fish will!

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Adam Jones

Adam Jones, Micro-Stakes Cash Game Coach at PokerVIP.com My online alias is "w34z3l", I'm 27 years old from the UK. I have been playing poker for 8 years and have worked my way up from the lowest stakes. I currently play at games at 200nl and higher. My game of cho ... Read More


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jongordon84on 11/11/15

"...there is a new breed of fish, who actually do know the first thing about the game. They might have a pretty reasonable preflop strategy and have analysed some starting ranges. But then the mistakes they go on to make postflop are utterly ridiculous. So it’s possible these days to get a 23/18 player with a 7% 3bet, but upon analysis find out that he is clearly a huge fish." Guilty.

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